IN JULY 1802, Dorothy Wordsworth and her brother, the poet William, visited Rievaulx Abbey during their travels around northern England. Dorothy left an unforgettable description in her journal.

“I went down to look at the ruins: thrushes singing, cattle feeding among the ruins of the abbey; green hilloes about the ruins; these hilloes scattered over with grovelets of wild roses and covered with wild flowers,” she wrote.

“I could have stayed in this solemn quiet spot till evening without a thought of moving but W. was waiting for me!’”

The abbey was the perfect Romantic ruin, in short. For 300 years, since the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the 1530s and 1540s, it had gradually been reclaimed by nature.

The ancient stone tumbled and was covered by grass; the crumbling walls themselves were covered by ivy and other vegetation; sheep grazed among the ruins.

The Victorians loved their romantic ruins. So after Helmsley railway station opened in 1871, Rievaulx Abbey became a popular tourist destination, says Kevin Booth, English Heritage’s senior curator for the north of England.

William Duncombe, the First Earl Feversham, on whose land the abbey stood, began charging for access to the ruins. Victorian entrepreneurs even took advantage of new photographic technology to produce stereoscopic photographs which, when seen through a special viewer, enabled the ruins to be seen as though in 3D.

But despite the popularity of the ruins, nature continued to have its way. The stone continued to tumble, the grass to grow.

Concerned about the future of the ruins, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) wrote to Earl Feversham, saying “you must do something”.

The Ancient Monuments Act of 1913 - an Act of the Parliament that aimed to “improve the protection afforded to ancient monuments in Britain”, gave those concerned about the future of the ruins their chance.

One hundred years ago, in 1917, the Ancient Monuments Branch of the Office of Works (the precursor of today’s English Heritage) stepped in and took over the management of the site.

And it pioneered at Rievaulx an entirely new approach to the protection and preservation of ancient monuments.

Crumbling walls were repaired, reinforced and re-pointed, vegetation was trimmed back, information panels were installed.

The abbey today is everyone’s idea of a classic ruin, with its carefully manicured lawns, re-pointed walls and discreet information panels.

Yet this is a way of presenting ruins that dates back just 100 years - and which began with Rievaulx itself.

Last week, a new exhibition opened at the abbey to mark the centenary of its management as an official, state-run ancient monument.

It brings together a host of archive documents, and more importantly photographs. They include a series of stereoscopic photographs of the abbey ruins taken in Victorian times, and loaned to English Heritage by none other than Brian May, the legendary Queen guitarist.

English Heritage will even be able to loan visitors stereoscopes to view the slides through - so that you’ll be able to see the romantic ruin of Victorian times in glorious 3D for yourself.

It was, as Brian May points out, a Victorian version of “virtual reality”. They’re so good, he says, that he once wondered why people didn’t photograph everything in 3D all the time. “I still haven’t figured that one out.”

Other, 2D photographs show the ruins hidden under blankets of ivy and scrub - and workmen coming in to repair and restore them for the Office of Works.

Many of these men, Mr Booth says, were former Feversham workers who, having returned from the trenches, were now employed by the state. Another sign of how things had changed in the aftermath of the Great War...

l The exhibition Rievaulx Reviewed: The Creation of a National Treasure runs in the new temporary exhibitions gallery at Rievaulx Abbey until October 31. The exhibition is open from 10am to 6pm each day