FROM time to time, I am asked why two of this region's most beautiful ruined abbeys have very foreign-sounding names. Those abbeys are Jervaulx and Rievaulx whose titles reveal their Norman-French Catholic origins, and I was reminded of this during a recent and very pleasant visit to Jervaulx.

Both are called after the rivers near which they are located. In medieval French, the word vaulx meant a valley or vale, but the word no longer appears in my modern French-English dictionary. In Jervaulx's case, the river in question is the Ure, formerly known as the Yore; jer is a version of that name and so we get Jervaulx, although this name has had about 20 variations of spelling over the years, including examples like Joreval and Yorevale. Indeed, the abbey was also once known as Caritate for reasons which are not clear, and it has also been called Wensleydale Abbey.

Rievaulx is close to the River Rye near Helmsley, thus we get a version of Rye in that name.

In both cases, local pronunciation of these names has included words like Jervis or Gervayes for Jervaulx, and Rivis for Rievaulx, with the name Rivis still appearing among Ryedale family surnames. Indeed, many people living near Rievaulx continue to call it Rivis Abbey. In similar vein, a ruined abbey at Meaux in the East Riding of Yorkshire was always locally known as Mace - but that's another story.

One fascinating aspect of Jervaulx Abbey - which lies between Masham and Middleham - is that it is privately owned. Instead of having a shed at the bottom of the garden, the Burdon family have a ruined abbey, but they allow members of the public access. There is an honesty box near the entrance, with another in the car park near the tea room, and this modest income helps to defray the cost of maintaining this fascinating reminder of our turbulent religious past.

The first thing that impressed me was the completely natural appearance of the ruins. They had not been dressed-up or manicured for the benefit of visitors and so portions of the stonework were covered with shrubs and flowers; wild plants grew from the stones, arches were adorned with a variety of climbing plants and the floors of places such as the chapter house and even the abbey church were more like meadows.

It is not surprising to learn that a former owner of the ruins laid them out as a massive garden, although today's appearance is rather more wild than cultivated - and infinitely more interesting and charming because of that.

One important reason for allowing these plants to proliferate is that they provide protection for the stonework. In many instances, they prevent rain and wind from damaging what would otherwise be exposed stonework and this means that marks in the stone, such as those made by masons, can still be seen.

In some ruined abbeys, such marks have been obliterated within 20 years or so of removal of this kind of natural protection.

Among the marks still visible at Jervaulx are those made by crowbars when pillars supporting the lay brothers' upper quarters were demolished by Henry VIII's band of national vandals. When the pillars fell, the room collapsed.

This is a reminder that this abbey, along with some 800 others, was demolished on orders of the king when he started the process which established the Church of England. All those religious houses did not merely fade away to become ruins - they were viciously destroyed between 1536 and 1540 and their remains serve as evidence of terrible religious turmoil.

Jervaulx's history is similar to other abbeys. Originally, it was a dependent of Byland Abbey and was established in 1158 at Fors, 15 miles to the west of Jervaulx. The land was so poor that it was unable to support the small band of monks and so they moved to a more fertile site at Jervaulx.

The abbey flourished and expanded until it owned about half the land in Wensleydale.

Then came the question of the divorce of King Henry VIII, divorce not being permitted by the Roman Catholic Church, and so Henry declared himself head of the Church in England and later set about destroying the power of the Catholic Church in this country.

What began as a genuine reform later developed into persecution and one of those who objected to Henry's activities at a very early stage was the Abbot of Jervaulx, Adam Sedburgh. He was one of the leaders of the ill-fated Pilgrimage of Grace and as a consequence suffered death as a traitor.

Because a traitor's property was forfeited to the Crown, Sedburgh's property was interpreted as including Jervaulx Abbey and so, in 1537, there began a swift and ruthless destruction of the abbey with its riches going to Henry VIII. Lots of art treasures were destroyed, its tradition of hospitality and spirituality ended, and its farming skills abandoned. Weeds flourish where people once worshipped.

I can hardly claim that the birds in our garden include a heron, although one flew over our small patch of England earlier this week. I have noticed it around the village recently, on one occasion standing motionless in a stream and on another flying over some small local lakes.

There is no doubt that the attraction is those lakes, along with some nearby ponds and streams, so when it flew over our house, I guessed it was heading for a nearby garden pond which probably contains goldfish.

Fish are not the heron's sole source of food, however; the season's new crop of frogs might also be considered an attraction and herons eat a range of other creatures, including small birds. Quite clearly, they can be very unwelcome visitors.

The heron is among the most easily identified of our birds, although on occasions it might be confused with a stork or a crane. Standing about 3ft tall (90cm), it is a long-legged, long-necked bird with huge wings. Dramatically coloured in black, white and grey with a long yellow beak, it is instantly recognisable either when standing motionless in a river or flying overhead with its neck tucked in and its legs trailing behind.

In spite of its huge size, the heron often nests in trees, although it may sometimes use a cliff ledge or even beds of dense reeds. It constructs a massive saucer-shaped platform of twigs and branches, and on many occasions these birds nest in large colonies which are known as heronries.

They use the same nest year after year, adding to its size during each breeding season until the nest is massive and untidy. It is usually the job of the female to build the nest, and she will then produce four or five pale greenish-blue eggs.

From time to time, one hears of frustrated gardeners who have created a charming pond in the hope of attracting wild life, only to find that their efforts have drawn a visiting heron to the site. And a visiting heron can quickly remove every fish from the pond, not to mention other kinds of wild life.

I don't really know how to make a garden pond totally heron-proof, apart from covering it with strong and probably unsightly netting.

My recent Rhea rants included some comments about caravans and some about the awful increase in litter dumping. Yesterday, motoring along a lane on the southern edge of the North York Moors, I came across a dreadful example of the modern practice of dumping litter. The object in question was a caravan.

It had been dumped and abandoned in the gateway of a farmer's field and when I examined it, I realised the draw-bar had collapsed. It seems that, instead of having the caravan removed for repair, the owner had pushed it into the gateway and abandoned it.

All evidence of ownership had been removed, and the contents cleared so that the remains consisted of an ugly decaying relic on the side of a pretty country lane.

The council had clearly been notified because a notice had been attached to the van, advising the owner that if it was not removed within seven days, the council would dispose of it. Which, I suggest, is exactly what the owner wanted.

Further comment, as they say, would be superfluous