Fountains Abbey is England’s largest and best-preserved monastic ruins and is located in Yorkshire. Not only is it a feat of architectural brilliance, but its history dates back to 1132 when 13 Benedictine monks founded the Abbey as a place to live a simpler life. We were on our way home following our road trip around Scotland and the North of England and decided to take a break for a few hours to explore Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, the grounds and gardens it stands in.
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The Monks of Fountains Abbey
We never expected the grounds and ruins to be so large and intact. From the gated entry point to the main chapel and ruins it felt like the monastery had only been standing for a few centuries when it actually dates back to medieval times.
It seems that the 13 monks arriving from St Mary’s Abbey, York in 1132 found this the perfect place. They were looking for a simpler way of life and a return to a stricter existence of worship. Ripon on the outskirts of York offered just what they were searching for, and they set about building their religious community naming Fountains Abbey after the natural springs of water that existed in the area.
The monks branched away from the Benedictine Order and joined the Cistercian Order, originating in France, with their focus being on a life of manual labour and self-sufficiency. Lay-brothers (labourers) were employed by the monks to harvest crops, tend to livestock and deal with wool production. This left more time for the monks to dedicate to God. It worked well for all concerned and made the abbey very wealthy.
I should mention the difference between the two orders. The Benedictine monks followed a strict daily routine and dedicated their day to worship with no contact to the outside world. Over time this sect became more lapse, and so the Cistercian Order formed returning the values of hard work and continual daily worship to their lives. Each Cistercian Abbey was laid out similarly so that visiting monks from home and abroad would find their way around and would quickly settle into monastic life.
The monks remained at Fountains Abbey for 400 years until Henry VIII dissolved all Catholic monasteries in 1539. They were then sent away with a small allowance to start a life elsewhere, and the abbey was sold. It remained in private ownership until the 1960’s when the local council took it over. In 1983 it was once again sold to the National Trust who are now its caretakers.
The Magnificent Chapel
Stroll around the ruins, and you can imagine what life would have been like all those centuries ago. Streams meander beneath bridges, and wooded and grassy areas offer you a place to rest. Refreshments can be bought from the cafe by the stream near to the ruins.
Head to Porter’s Lodge where you can find out about the beginnings of the abbey through to its demise. A timeline compares the abbey to other world heritage sites and events in history. We found out the abbey is only slightly younger than Angkor Wat in Cambodia and as I have visited that site as well, I loved discovering this comparison.
It is crazy that thousands of people visit Angkor Wat every year and yet in this little corner of England a true gem is virtually unknown.
Studley Water Gardens
Fountains Abbey is situated in the grounds of Studley Water Gardens. If you are searching for the quintessentially English setting, then you will be hard pushed to find a better location. The water gardens are the best-preserved example of Georgian landscaping still existing in England.
Created in the 18th century and designed in harmony with the abbey ruins, the gardens remain in their original form. Mirror-like lakes, water fountains and babbling streams can be seen all over the gardens and are breathtaking. Hard landscaping consisting of ornate statues and several follies (extravagant garden buildings designed to suggest another purpose) add visual depth to the gardens.
We followed the garden trail that took us all around the site, highlighting viewpoints and areas of particular interest. A centrepiece named the ‘moon pond’ is located in front of a Greek-style villa and statues of Greek Gods. The property remained in the ownership of the council until the 1980’s when the National Trust bought it.
A folly built for no particular reason other than to add a mystical dimension to the gardens.
A wonderful view back towards Fountains Abbey Ruins
Near to the car park, you will find another cafe overlooking a beautiful lake with inside and outside seating; a lovely spot to visit at the beginning or end of your day for refreshments. The adjacent deer park offers a walk to the Church of St Mary, a gothic revival church constructed in 1871.
I would definitely recommend a visit to Fountains Abbey if you are in this area of England. It is a wonderful place to spend some time (we stayed for around 4 hours) and gives you a fantastic insight into monastic life in medieval Britain.
Getting to Fountains Abbey and Studley Water Gardens
Address: Fountains, Ripon, North Yorkshire, HG4 3DY
By Car: Parking is available free on-site at the visitor centre. Travelling from Ripon 10 minutes, from Harrogate 25 minutes and it will take one hour from York.
By Coach: If you are using York as a base to explore this part of England then you may enjoy a Tour of the Yorkshire Dales and Fountains Abbey.
The property is now owned by the National Trust where you can find opening times and pricing.