NORTH YORKSHIRE has lots of abbeys which nestle in various stages of romantic ruin in its folding countryside. Many are open to the public, and are among the county’s biggest attractions – Fountains, Whitby, Rievaulx, Jervaulx, to name but a few.

But some are private, hiding their histories behind their stone walls.

Next Sunday, one of those hidden abbeys is opening for a rare plant fair – and even if you don’t especially care for plants, there is plenty of historical interest in its neighbourhood which is classified as an Ancient Monument.

It is Coverham Abbey, a mile or so from Middleham, in the heart of racehorse country. Consequently, the nearby churchyard is chocker with headstones dedicated to breeders, trainers and riders – there’s even one to a 15-year-old jockey who was out riding one of the most famous horses of the day when both were struck by lightning and killed. Plus there’s an unlikely link to Boney M.

Let’s uncover Coverham and Coverdale…

River Cover

THE river runs 14 miles from the top of the moors into the Ure near Middleham, dropping 1,300ft (400 metres) as it goes. Its glacial dale often has steep sides, and the ancient British word “cover” means “ravine” or “deep valley”.

Coverham Abbey

THE abbey was founded in 1190 by Helewise, the wife of Robert of Middleham, lord of the manor, at Swainby, near Stokesley. Helewise was buried there in 1195.

Her son, Ranulph Fitz-Robert, moved the abbey to the banks of the River Cover in 1212 and reinterred her body in the new chapter house.

It was a Premonstratensian abbey, run by an order of monks which was founded at the northern French town of Premontre by St Norbert. They were simply known as “White Canons”, because of the colour of their habits, and more than a dozen of them lived at Coverham.

The biggest upheaval in their quiet, agricultural lifestyle came in 1318 when the abbey was badly attacked by rampaging Scots.

Henry VIII formerly dissolved the abbey on August 14, 1536, as he imposed his new Protestant religion on the country, although the Pilgrimage of Grace – the uprising that wanted to go back to the old religion – used Coverham as a rallying point. The rebels reinstated the abbot and the monks in an act of defiance, although whether the abbot and the monks were really up for it is doubtful. Henry won through, and the abbey was sold to private hands for £160.

It began to tumble down, and around 1670, George Wray used the stones to build himself a comfortable home amid the falling arches. It is this private property, Coverham Abbey, that is hosting Sunday’s plant fair in its gardens in the ruins.

Miles Coverdale

THE dale was clearly a holy place, and it is believed from his surname, that Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) was brought up there. He was definitely from Yorkshire and, influenced by his pastoral childhood which would have been permeated by the monks’ singing from the abbey, in 1535, he produced the first translation of the Bible in the English language. Known as the Great Bible, or Cranmer’s Bible after the Archbishop of Canterbury who wrote the prologue, it was very influential during Henry VIII’s Reformation.

Miles wrote words that we all know today. His psalms are regarded as successful translations, including his words to Psalm 137: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.”

Which, of course, was a hit for Boney M in 1978.

Miles Coverdale is the most famous person to come from Coverdale, but there is no known connection between Coverdale and David Coverdale, the rock singer with Deep Purple and Whitesnake – he was born in Saltburn in 1951.

Coverham Bridge

A SINGLE, 14th Century arch over the river is part of the Ancient Monument, as it gave the monks access to their farms and granges.

Coverham church

HOLY TRINITY is a field away from Coverham Abbey. It was probably built by the monks in the 13th Century at the edge of their secluded zone for the ordinary dalespeople to worship in. Its prize possession, though, is a carved Anglo-Saxon stone that now acts as a lintel above the main door. It hints at an earlier beginning.

The heyday of Coverdale was in the 19th Century when it was full of quarrymen and leadminers, as well as agricultural workers. The church was twice restored to accommodate them all, and so much of its interior is now Victorian, including the unusual tiling and the colourful windows.

As the population decreased in the 20th Century, the church fell derelict in the 1970s. In 1985, it was taken over by the Churches Conservation Trust, which has restored it and kept it open.

The horsemen

THE other great industry of the dale was horseracing, which became extremely fashionable during Georgian times. Isaac Cape is the first known racehorse trainer at Middleham, starting up in 1765, and the farms around began breeding the raw materials for his successors.

For instance, in 1838, Thomas Dawson came from a famous family of Newmarket trainers to establish himself at Brecongill, a farm on the north side of the dale. One of his biggest winners was Ellington, the 20-1 outsider which won the 1856 Epsom Derby in what is still the slowest time.

Thomas wasn’t worried about the time, as he had backed the horse handsomely. However, one his way home, possibly in an advanced state of merriment, he left his winnings – all £25,000 of them which equates to £2.4m in today’s values – in an old hat-box on a luggage rack as he changed trains at Northallerton station. He advertised for the box’s return in the lost and found columns, saying the box contained “nothing of interest to anyone except the owner”, and got it back.

In 1861, he moved up in the world to Tupgill Park – now the home of the fabulous Forbidden Corner attraction – and Brecongill was taken over by John Howe Osborne, who had been known as the “Bank of England Jockey” because your money was always safe riding on him.

Osborne became hugely regarded in the racing industry and when he died in 1922, aged 89 a plaque was placed in Coverham church in his memory. It also records that his friends had paid for a bed in his name to be placed in “Darlington General Hospital” for the use of Coverham and Middleham residents.

This would have been the Greenbank hospital, the forerunner of the Memorial Hospital. In the days before the NHS, it was funded by donations, and another Coverdale resident, the fabulously-named Lupton Topham Topham, had a bed endowed in his honour.

There are plenty of Tophams buried in Coverdale churchyard, but the headstone which most catches the eye has a lovely equine carving and is dedicated to a 19-year-old jockey, Benjamin Thompson, who died in 1876.

Beside it, is another remarkable stone, which someone has recently gone over with a black felt-tip. It tells of James Fieldhouse, 15, who “was killed by lightning” on June 20, 1868. Not only was James killed, but so was his mount, Rococo, the horse trained by Thomas Dawson at Tupgill which had won the 1866 Northumberland Plate – “the Pitmen’s Derby” – at Newcastle.

Churchyard fact

IT is said that the churchyard drops so steeply down to the River Cover that it is impossible to see the church and, because of the rippling of the waters, impossible to hear the bells.

The plant fair

COVERHAM ABBEY is open from 11am to 4pm on Sunday, July 30, for the Flower Power Plant Fair, where the dealers specialise in unusual plants. Admission is £3.50, children are free. Homemade refreshments will be served in the old barn. Satnav users try DL8 4RN.