Fountains Abbey was built by Cistercians in an isolated spot where the River Skell meanders through a steep sided valley. It’s part of the varied and extensive Studley Royal Estate, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular pay-to-enter of the National Trust’s sites.
In 1132, thirteen unhappy Benedictine monks left (or were ejected from) a nearby Abbey. The site they had chosen for their new home didn’t appear very propitious:
a place uninhabited for all the centuries back, thick set with thorns, lying between the slopes of mountains and among rocks jutting out on both sides; fit, rather, it seemed, to be the lair of wild beasts than the home of human beings. Its name was Skelldale.
Foundation history of Fountains (Narratio)
During the first winter the monks lived with only the shelter of elm trees. The elms, known as the Seven Sisters, have a fascinating history which is explained in this article on the ancient yew website. The site includes pictures, drawings, contemporary descriptions and measurements of their girth in different centuries and seeks to reassure kindly, troubled souls that if you have to shelter under trees, the broad canopies of mature elms are an excellent choice. I hope to be able to take their word for it!
A year later the founding monks joined the Cistercians in search of a simpler, more austere way of life. Their first building, a wooden one, was burned down while the magnificent stone abbey was still being built.
Today Fountains Abbey lies in ruins but, thanks to dedicated conservation work, we can still experience the peaceful beauty of this ecclesiastical treasure in its deep sheltered gorge. It seems that those tasked by King Henry VIII to make the site uninhabitable in 1539 took little pleasure in carrying out their duty. Enough of the abbey remains for its air of contemplation and majesty to powerfully strike visitors today.
The architectural style is pure without much embellishment but the simple, repeated lines of the arches readily claim the eye of the visitor. I found the varied colours in the stonework fascinating and did a little research: local magnesian limestone and carboniferous sandstone are the main materials.
Cistercians were early conservationists themselves, interested in self-sustainability. They stored food in a wonderfully preserved cellarium, with flying arches. (My sweetheart noticed how these people were standing almost in a cross shape as they approached the cross in the far end of the picture.)
The site’s corn mill was in continuous operation until the last century and its water wheel still turns, 800 years on. Other parts of the site have survived less well so it’s fortunate The National Trust and English Heritage now have stewardship. They appear to be great guardians for the site: I took a glance at some of their draft plans for future work and was impressed how thoughtful and wide-ranging they are.
I’m sure on a balmy day with clear blue skies this place has added beauty, but we found plenty to enchant us, even in largely overcast, wintry weather. Some places are inspirational at any time of the year.
It’s a large site but, partly due to a detour on the journey from Lancashire necessitated by the recent flooding, we had woefully little time to explore it before dusk. We later found out we’d covered 4 miles, drawn on by the lure of something new around every corner. I’m planning to share pictures taken in the water gardens in a later post.
As there is so much to enjoy here, it’s well worth doing a little research beforehand if you plan to visit and allowing a full day if you can. I wish we had done, but we’d called in on a spur of the moment quest to see early snowdrops. The fact I only saw one in bloom and still enjoyed the visit speaks volumes!
We missed seeing the wonderful view from Anne Boleyn’s seat, the Gothic revival St Mary’s Church, the deer park, the last two of the ancient elms and the seven bridges, so I’m sure we’ll be back. We’re less keen to encounter any of the ghosts (including a choir and a blue lady) believed to haunt the site.
Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Estate is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site west of Ripon in Yorkshire, England, owned by the National Trust and managed by English Heritage.
Studley Royal Deer Park, part of the estate, is crossed by public rights of way. Ramblers mix with Sika, Red and Fallow deer. St Mary’s Church is also free to enter.
The estate is just on the edge of the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.