Visiting Fountains Abbey is like peeling away layers of history. Are we exploring the 12th century Cistercian Abbey that became the wealthiest foundation in Europe, or the monastery that was plundered by Henry VIII, or the ruin that became part of an 18th century estate? Or are we just enjoying a walk in a 21st century park in the rolling North Yorkshire countryside?
In reality, of course, it is all of these, and more. We visited on a sunny August morning when the park was full of visitors: families making the most of the school holidays, holiday makers and people enjoying a day off work. The park is huge – 800 acres in total – and it manages to remain peaceful while accommodating the crowds. Many visitors have stopped off at first base – piling into the adventure playground and the children’s exhibition area.
A Wealthy Cistercian Monastery
We pass the sign advertising forthcoming events at Fountains – craft workshops, open air theatre and family activities – then head towards the abbey. It is an impressive sight, a great stone skeleton nestling in a valley. It can only hint at past glories, but I try to flesh it out in my imagination as we walk through the vast cellarium, where the lay brothers (whose labour brought wealth to the abbey while the monks studied and prayed) lived, ate and slept. It was a mostly silent order, so any sounds must have echoed eerily from the high vaulted ceiling.
The ruins are a paradise for children, with steps and passageways everywhere, and the silence is punctuated by their shrieks as they run around and explore. We walk round the cloisters, used by the monks for exercise and meditation, as well as to store the annual harvest of wool that made the abbey so rich. The fleeces were sold to visiting merchants from Italy: even in the Middle Ages Fountains was a magnet for overseas visitors.
Outside the abbey, people are sunbathing or picnicking on the grass. These are the gardens of Studley Royal, landscaped in the 18th century with the ruined abbey as a focal point. We walk alongside the river, past woodland and towards the Georgian water gardens. It would have been a very different landscape in the Middle Ages: not just covered with sheep, but also used for mining and quarrying.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
The whole park is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because the natural beauty of the Yorkshire countryside and the ruins of the abbey have been blended with the landscaped gardens to create a ‘harmonious whole.’ It is also a recognition that the grounds influenced later garden design across the whole of England.
The crescent shaped pools of the water gardens are surrounded by the remains of temples and statues. Restoration work is taking place: a notice board tells us that a lot of ‘detective work’ is being done, to find out what the gardens were really like in the 18th century.
On to the mediaeval deer park, where the deer are keeping a low profile as this is the breeding season. Beyond is the High Gothic Victorian St Mary’s Church and the Jacobean Fountains Hall, which are both part of the UNESCO inscription. We spend some time inside the church, where we amuse ourselves by searching for carved and painted animals.
Finally, we take a long last look at the gardens and the abbey in the distance before heading off home.
- Fountains Abbey is around 4 miles from Ripon in North Yorkshire.
- Buses run regularly from Ripon between April and October, and there is a large car park if you prefer to drive. For the energetic, there is footpath access from Ripon.
- Guided tours are available in the summer.
- The property includes shops, restaurant and a tearoom.