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Discover Fountains Abbey: England’s Best Preserved Monastic Ruins

Monastic ruins

Fountains Abbey is England’s largest and best-preserved monastic ruin and is located in Yorkshire. Not only is it a feat of architectural brilliance, but it is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and 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 Great British Road Trip around England and Scotland and decided to find out more about Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Gardens, a must-visit Yorkshire landmark.

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A Pinterest graphic depicting Fountains Abbey

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 place was called Fountains, where, at that time and afterwards so many drank of waters springing up to eternal life as from the fountains of the Saviour.

William of Newburgh (12th-century Augustinian canon)

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.

Monastic Orders

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 

Chapel Ruins at Fountain Abbey

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 Royal Water Gardens

Fountains Abbey is situated on the grounds of Studley Royal 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) adds 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 1980s when the National Trust bought it.

Near 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.

Fountains Abbey is just one of many great things to do in the Yorkshire Dales. We stayed for around 4 hours and got a fantastic insight into monastic life in medieval Britain.

Getting to Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Gardens

Address: Fountains, Ripon, North Yorkshire, HG4 3DY

By Car: Parking is available free on-site at the visitor centre or pay-and-display at Studley Royal car park. Travelling from Ripon will take 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.

Stay: We travelled from Harrogate and stayed at the beautiful Rudding Park Hotel and Spa.

The property is now owned by the National Trust where you can find opening times and pricing.

Pinterest Graphic showing the chapel at fountains abbey
About Author

Angela Price

Angie is a full-time travel writer with over 30 years of travel experience. She has always had a passion for travel, and after a 3-month world trip with her 18-year-old son, she created her popular travel blog to share her adventures with a wider audience. When Angie is at home in the UK, she enjoys exploring the English countryside, visiting castles and gardens and planning her next big adventure. Her motto is "Live Life Wandering not Wondering".

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2 years ago

It seems they just left it to weather. One set of owners in the 17th century built a Manor House for their private use using some of the stone from the abbey and also used the stone to create several structures in the gardens.

lannie travels
2 years ago

love this post! i’d love to visit this place. if you can imagine, yorkshire is near the top of my list for when travel between scotland and england is allowed! 🙂 thanks for sharing!

Reply to  lannie travels
2 years ago

Yes we did visit it on our way back from Scotland to England. It’s a lovely place to spend the day.

2 years ago

Oh wow this place looks amazing! Exactly the sort of thing my husband and I love exploring, so thank you for the introduction! I’ll be pinning for future reference x

Reply to  Kerry
2 years ago

Great to know Kerry 😃 hope you can visit at some point soon x

2 years ago

Beautiful ruins! I to find it so interesting that there are these sites everywhere in a England and yet people often overlook them. Maybe that’s a good thing! Just love the history and the settings!

Reply to  Linda
2 years ago

We are blessed with so many historic places in the UK – we are spoilt for choice!

2 years ago

It’s lovely to hear that you have actually been here – it’s a great place – glad I could take you for a walk down memory lane.

2 years ago

I just love exploring ancient ruins and old historic sites. Its like every stone, every tree has a story to tell and if only we could listen, right? This seems like such a beautiful place to wander around and soak it all in. It really looks so well preserved too!

Reply to  Karthika
2 years ago

I agree. I always imagine what the the people were like throughout the centuries, how did they cope in a world so removed from ours today. It is wonderful to find ruins such as these still in such good condition so you get such a good visual.

2 years ago

Oh, I really like the idea of a visit to Fountains Abby! England is on our radar so this is especially good timing. I think I could lose myself in these ruins and the beautiful grounds that surround them. It looks so meditative. Pity they were left to deteriorate, as they are such impressive works of architecture, history, and art.

Reply to  Jackie
2 years ago

England is full of wonderful places like this. I hope you get to visit.

2 years ago

Magical architechture!
I have always wanted to take a roadtrip through UK and Scotland 🙂

Reply to  Ann
2 years ago

I hope you get there , the scenery is stunning.

2 years ago

I love to explore ruins of historical castles and churches! This looks like a place I would love to take photographs of. It reminds me of a similar place called St David’s Cathedral in Wales – a lot of ruined structures to walk through. Studley Water gardens look beautiful!:-)

Reply to  Jan
2 years ago

We were so glad we stumbled upon it. If you ever get the chance I would recommend a visit.

Stuart Forster
2 years ago

I’ve been to Fountains Abbey a handful of times and think it’s a great place to explore with a camera. I like the historical details in your article.

Reply to  Stuart Forster
2 years ago

Thank you Stuart. It was a fabulous place to discover.

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