Ruined stone church
England,  Monday walks,  Ruins

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.

Old building with series of stone arches
In the cellarium, Fountains Abbey

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.

Ruins of a stone church surrounded by trees
Looking down at Fountains Abbey

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!

Worn stone carving of a pig
Stone pig carving, Swanley Grange

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.

Stone bridge over a river with a ruined church beyond
The abbey church from the mill

The River Skell winds around the ruins of the old abbey guesthouses.

Then we approached the church and complex of main monastery buildings.

Looking across a grassy lawn to a ruined church
The Abbey Church and cellarium

The Cellarium

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.

Old building with series of stone arches
Old building with series of stone arches
In the cellarium

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.

Looking the length of a ruined church
The church nave

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.

Straight river alongside grass with distant ruined church
Looking back at the abbey

I visited Fountains Abbey in August 2022


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