It’s not often you can spend more than an hour or so around a ruin – but at Fountains Abbey you’ll certainly need at least that.
That’s firstly because this is the largest and most complete Cistercian monastery left in England, and secondly because it has been incorporated into
a spectacular royal park.
The abbey’s story begins in 1132, when 13 monks from St Mary’s Abbey in York were granted land at Fountains to start a new abbey. Throughout the 1200s, the abbey grew in size, power and wealth. But by the 14th century, the combination of a rising tax bill, the invasion of northern England by the Scots and the Black Death almost brought it to its knees. However, in the early 15th century, the abbey regained some power and prestige – but it wasn’t to last.
Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries is, of course, the reason these fantastic buildings are in such a state of ruin today. But the reason so much of the impressive abbey remains complete is that the king intended to use the site for his own ends. A change of plans led to partial demolition in 1540.
The new owner of the site did make the abbey completely unusable again, as his king decreed – but he didn’t really do the full job, as he wanted to make a house from the ruin.
In 1693, the Aislabie family inherited Studley Estate, just north of Fountains, creating the impressive Studley Royal House and possibly the greatest 18th-century water garden in England, with ornamental lakes, cascades, temples and canals cutting through stunning scenery.
So, when you visit today, you’ll be spoilt for what to see first in the 800 acres of parkland. The ruins of the abbey are a big draw: you might think with Listed and World Heritage status, you’d be kept well away from the abbey, but that isn’t the case.
Make yourself at home
You can explore the various rooms and chambers of the abbey at close quarters, walking right through the impressive ruins. With such a large amount of the building still standing, you really feel dwarfed by its sheer size. Walking through the Dormitory undercroft, with its intricate stone archways is a wonder – especially in winter or spring with a low sun.
Make sure you don’t miss the only surviving Cistercian corn mill and the impressive Victorian Gothic Revival church of St Mary’s nearby – considered to be Victorian architect William Burges’ finest buildings.
Take in the rest of the medieval deer park and its 500 or so inhabitants – not to mention the other fauna and flora that make this a truly great day out.
HOW TO GET THERE
By car, from the A1 turn on to the A61 heading towards Ripon. Follow the B6265, taking a left to skirt around the edge of Studley Park.
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Ripon, North Yorkshire
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The on-site restaurant is top-notch, with a wide variety of seasonal dishes. Keep an eye out for venison, reared here on the estate.
Bay Tree Farm
Aldfield, near Fountains Abbey, Ripon, HG4 3BE
Located in the nearby village of Aldfield, this friendly farm offers either bed and breakfast or self catering for two – perfect for that romantic break.