A stroll around Fountains Abbey
In 1132 a small group of monks left their Benedictine Monastery in York, fed up with the extravagant and rowdy lifestyle of the monks there. Seeking a more devout and simple way of life, they were granted a parcel of land by the River Skell near modern-day Ripon. There they built a small wooden church and applied, successfully, to join the Cistercian order.
The valley was an ideal place to settle and grow their community. They had running water not only from the river but from six natural springs. From these their abbey took its name, Fountains. They had timber and stone from which to build, and were sheltered from the worst of the northern winters.
A potted history
This isn’t a history blog and the story of how Fountains Abbey grew over the centuries is well documented elsewhere. So I will be brief.
Over the next four hundred years it flourished, on the whole, but also faced challenges. The Black Death hit the community hard, as did financial challenges and political upheaval. Between those tough times, however, the community expanded and so did their church.
The end came, as it did for all such communities in England, with Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The Abbey buildings and land were seized by the Crown and sold to Sir Richard Gresham a Member of Parliament. He and later owners partially dismantled the various structures, including the great church, to build elsewhere. Fortunately for us however much remains. In the eighteenth century the abbey was absorbed into the Studley Royal Estate when it was purchased by William Aislabie. Today the whole estate is owned by the National Trust and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
During our recent stay in Ripon we spent the best part of a day here exploring the abbey and park. I have enough material from that day for two of Jo’s Monday Walks! So today I’ll concentrate on the abbey and its surroundings, and leave the beautiful Studley Royal water gardens and park for another day.
To the abbey
After paying our entrance fee we followed a path through woodland and across some open ground to a viewpoint above the valley.
Before going down to explore we detoured to visit Swanley Grange, an old farmhouse on the estate. Here we saw an exhibition about the links between Fountains Abbey and the wool trade, but I was more taken by the little stone pig I found outside in the courtyard!
Our descent into the valley took us first to the mill, the oldest building on the estate. It survived the dissolution of the monastery and was used to mill grain until as recently as 1927. We had a look around inside where a lot of the old milling machinery is still in place and operational. There was also part of an exhibition of photographs called Still Time to Wonder, which I loved. Photographer Joe Cornish had the run of the Abbey and park during the Covid lockdowns and so was able to capture it without people. The photos were on display in a number of the buildings on the site, so we were able to seek them out in various locations.
After a cold drink outside the mill we started to approach the abbey buildings. We could see the church tower beyond the old bridge, a little hazy on what was a rather dull day at this point.
The River Skell winds around the ruins of the old abbey guesthouses.
Then we approached the church and complex of main monastery buildings.
The first part we explored was the Cellarium, which I found the most atmospheric and photogenic of all the buildings, perhaps because it is more intact than many. This vast space was once the monks’ food store.
The Abbey Church
Like all Cistercian churches, the abbey church here was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of the order. The first wooden church had been replaced by a small stone one which was largely destroyed in an attack on the abbey in 1146. A replacement was built on the same site and completed in 1170. It is that third church which formed the basis of one that grew over succeeding centuries, as the community grew, and which now lies in ruins here today, although its tower, known as Huby’s Tower, is surprisingly intact.
Although we had a short wander around the other ruins, the water gardens beyond were calling us, So with a final look over our shoulders at the abbey we followed the river to that next part of the Studley Royal site; one that will, as I suggested, have to wait until a future Monday Walk.
I visited Fountains Abbey in August 2022
The ruins with the greenery hanging off them are so inviting. All interesting historic places to walk.
Thanks Ruth, glad you enjoyed all the history here 🙂
What a amazing series, Sarah! Love how you captured the abbey. 🙂
Thank you Amy – it’s such a striking building and so rewarding to photograph!
I was struck immediately by the moodiness of the cellarium and was glad to therefore see two shots of it! Interesting and evocative, Sarah.
Thank you Annie 🙂 If you count my featured image there are actually three of the cellarium! I couldn’t resist finding a way to include all of them as they were my favourite shots 😏
These lovely photos have me imagining an epic movie – any minute something grand is going to happen… the fields will fill with beautiful horses… or a gorgeous wedding is about to begin… or a group of children will be learning fantastic history from their brilliant teacher… and sunbursts appear at just the right moment. 😊 My daydreams may not fit with the actual history of Fountains Abbey, but it’s fun to imagine what wonderfully exciting things could happen next.
Yes, it’s a wonderful setting for all sorts of special things, and quite a few films have been shot there: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/fountains-abbey-and-studley-royal-water-garden/features/fountains-abbey-in-explosive-plot-
Of course… “The Secret Garden” movies did some filming from here. Funny how our brains work, I didn’t consciously recognize the settings, but my brain must have stored the scenery associations. 🙂
I can see why you found the cellarium most photogenic. I am always amazed by the perfect symmetry of buildings like this, how they did it without modern technology and heavy machinery is a mystery to me. Wonderful pictures.
That always amazes me too – the precision and perfection of it all!
Ah, Fountains….one of my favourite places on earth, despite the fact I have only been twice. Once on a reasonable Autumn day, another time in the pouring rain..And I agree, the Cellarium was very photogenic Here’s my dull day effort: https://suejudd.com/2015/07/19/cees-black-white-photo-challenge-older-than-50-years/ (I wrongly called it a crypt in that post
Thank you Sue 🙂 I really like your version – as I commented on the post, it’s really moody and atmospheric.
Mike and Kellye Hefner
Super interesting, Sarah. Mike thinks so too! We love the photos and history.
Thank you, glad you both enjoyed it 🙂
Such a beautiful Abbey, Sarah! I am trying to comment here now. Hopefully it will be successful.
Yay, it worked 😀 Lovely to hear from you Teresa!
You are really good at telling brief historical notes and that made this post flow!
I have e seen documentaries about some of England’s history and so I was a little familiar with the banned monasteries
And so glad that this is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Your photos show the green and natural beauty that goes with the very long history on that ground
Thank you so much 😊 I’m really glad you enjoyed this and found the history content interesting! Yes, it’s very green here, even during this summer’s drought, thankfully.
Don’t you think that this is one of those haunting, eerie places….conjures up the feeling of spirits of times passed, especially when seen silhouetted. If walls could speak, and all that. Fountains Abbey, Corfe Castle, Riber Castle….all equally spooky in the same way.
I do think so, especially when a bit misty – and even more so in the cellarium, perhaps because it’s so enclosed? I’ve not been to Riber Castle but Corfe yes, especially the way the ruins loom over the village!
Your images are enchanting, Sarah. And your research engaging to read. The Cellarium is really stunning and your photography is excellent. Thanks for the interesting tour!
Thank you so much Jane 😊 I always really appreciate any positive feedback on my photos from you, as your own are so excellent! Glad you enjoyed the tour.
It’s a beautiful site, isn’t it? Especially lovely when the sun comes out. I’ve been many times and even on a damp day I can enjoy being there. Your photos really do it justice. Many thanks for sharing, Sarah. Sorry I’m a bit late commenting here but it’s been a very eventful couple of days.
You’re hardly late Jo, commenting the same day I published the post 😘 Yes, I found it atmospheric early on when there was a bit of haze and beautiful during the sunny periods too. We had a wonderful walk from here through the water gardens and deer park which I’ll share for a future Monday Walk but it may be a couple of weeks as we’re away (again!) next weekend 🙂
The walk is one I’ve done many times over the years. Where to next? 🤔💟
A weekend in Paris for our anniversary 🙂
Ooh, lovely! Congratulations and have a good time 💗💗
Aletta - nowathome
Amazing to see structures that they have built so many years ago! Such perfection!
Thanks Aletta 🙂 And isn’t amazing too, to see how well and strongly they built without our modern tools and machinery?!
Aletta - nowathome
That always fascinates me!
Great information and images. I’m impressed by the beauty and flow of all the various arches. I’m so glad they managed to survive. Great post.
Thank you Anne – I too loved the arches and found them wonderful subjects for photography!
Sarah, I’m surprised my reply went through. WP started giving me trouble, I was on my laptop, and finally said the message couldn’t be delivered. After that WP wasn’t working well on my laptop. Oh well!!
There was a WP glitch a couple of days ago Anne that was preventing commenting. They say it’s resolved but some people still seem to be having problems on my site and I can’t fathom why! Glad yours got through OK 🙂
I think you must have gone on a tour? You seem very well informed! It’s lovely to see somewhere I’m so very familiar with through someone else’s eyes, and if course your camera is always your friend. Sorry to have missed you!
I’ve never been there. That’s why I like this group. I get to travel without leaving home.
You’re right, Anne. Sarah and go do the leg-work so we don’t have to ;)!
Haha Margaret 🤣🤣 This is one place I know you could do far better justice to than I ever could! No, no tour – I just read it up a bit, as I always like to do, to give people some context.
Well done you. You’ve done a fine job.