The very top of Fountains Abbey’s tower tantalises as you descend from the visitor centre into the valley where monks first settled in 1132. Their simple structures were replaced by the magnificent stone buildings you see today. The most extensive of any English abbey, they stretch beside (and over) the little River Skell. The lawns surrounding the buildings invite picnics, but don’t miss the impressively vaulted Cellarium and the spacious church, and leave time to watch the water rush under the medieval arches.
Nearby, the monks’ mill, with a restored millwheel, and Fountains Hall, a sumptuous Elizabethan house built largely with stones from the abbey buildings, are a must if you’re staying for the whole day.
The adjoining Studley Royal Water Garden, an early 18th-century masterpiece filled with classical statues and follies, provides the perfect complement to the abbey and an alternative venue for a picnic.
Fountains Abbey is the climax of the estate, and the irregular Half Moon Pond links the ruins and the more formal garden. The geometric pools, grassy slopes and classical statues were the brainchild of John Aislabie, a one-time Chancellor of the Exchequer who was forced from office in 1721 after a financial scandal.
North of the circular Moon Pond, you’ll find the pretty Banqueting House (another lovely picnicking spot), and further along the formal garden ends at a large lake. Either follow the lake edge into the attractive Valley of the Seven Bridges, where the Skell meanders beneath stone arches, or cross the bridge at the end of the canal and head back towards the abbey.
Ahead, by the Moon Pond, is the Greek-style Temple of Piety. Leave the lower path at the ‘High Ride’ sign, and climb up through a mysterious (though short) tunnel to find the Gothick Temple and circular Temple of Fame beyond, both with sublime garden views. Next along the path is the Surprise View, which suddenly reveals the classic panorama of the abbey.
One last surprise at Studley is the Victorian church, which sits at the end of a long drive that is aligned to Ripon Cathedral. It has one of the most colourful and surprising interiors you’ll find in an English church, and is well worth the detour – with or without your picnic.
HOW TO GET THERE
Fountains Abbey is four miles west of Ripon off the B6265 to Pateley Bridge, signposted from the A1, 12 miles north of Harrogate.
FIND OUT MORE
FOUNTAINS ABBEY AND STUDLEY ROYAL
Fountains, Ripon HG4 3DY
Abbey, hall, mill and water garden: Open daily Apr-Sep 10am-5pm, Oct-Mar 10am-4pm (not Fri Nov-Jan, nor 24/25 Dec). Adults £8.50, children £4.55, family £21.60. Church: open daily Easter until 30 Sept, 12-4pm, free. Deer Park: open daily, dawn-dusk, free.
SAMUEL’S AT SWINTON PARK
Masham, Ripon HG4 4JH
Dine in style at Swinton Castle (you can stay, too) on a menu that mixes adventurous ideas with great local produce.
THE OLD DEANERY
Minster Road, Ripon HG4 1QS
In the shadow of the cathedral, this quirky hotel offers modern-styled rooms and a great menu, with a legendary Sunday lunch.
Minster Road Ripon HG4 1QS
Explore the cathedral and carvings that inspired Lewis Carroll.