Group of deer with antlers
England,  Gardens,  Monday walks

Studley Royal, a very English country garden

The water gardens at Studley Royal are a striking example of the elegance of Georgian garden design. Here, in the style that was popular at the time, it is not flowers that steal the show, but water features and statuary. But what extensive water features these are!

The gardens were created for politician John Aislabie’s country estate next to Fountains Abbey. They incorporated many of the features popular at the time, not only water and statues but also follies and artificial but realistic landscaping. A folly is usually a purposely constructed ruin. But at Studley Royal Aislabie had as neighbour the extensive real ruins of Fountains Abbey. When I read how the garden design was partly shaped around views of the abbey I was reminded of the Japanese style known as ‘borrowed scenery’ or Shakkei, such as I had seen at Tenryu-ji in Arashiyama, Kyoto. Later, as a bonus, John Aislabie’s son William was able to purchase the abbey ruins. The grand ‘folly’ was no longer borrowed scenery, it was part of the gardens themselves.

William also added wilder woodland walks to fringe his father’s water gardens. Together with the surrounding parkland, home to herds of deer, the estate today is under the protection of the National Trust and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A walk round Studley Royal

I left you a few weeks ago as we walked away from Fountains Abbey to explore the gardens beyond. For this week’s Monday Walk with Jo let me show you what we found there.

Our path along the River Skell led us to the first of the water features, the Upper Canal.

Long body of water beyond a rough stone wall
The Upper Canal from the Rustic Bridge

Beyond this lay the Crescent Ponds and Moon Pond. There was a lot of algae in the ponds, perhaps due to low water levels as a result of the summer’s drought. Classical statues dotted the lawns around them.

We climbed a path up through the well-named and rather dark Serpentine Tunnel. It led us to a viewpoint above, near the Octagon Tower. From here you get a much better view of the distinctive shapes of the ponds below.

View through a tunnel of lawns and a rectangular pond
Looking down at the Upper Canal
Looking down at ornamental pond and lawns
One of the Crescent Ponds from above

Returning down the path we followed the Lower Canal to the ‘Cascade’, which I put in quotation marks because it definitely wasn’t cascading! But the structure itself was attractive in its own right, as was the large Studley Lake beyond, where ducks and swans swam among more algae.

Ornamental pond with small buildings and balustrade
The (dry) Cascade and Fishing Tabernacles
Swan swimming on a sheet of water with bright green algae
Swan on Studley Lake

Here we paused for lunch at the café at one end of the Cascade, watched by some expectant young crows.

Two black birds on a wooden ledge
‘Leave some for us’
The deer park

After our meal we climbed the low hill beyond the lake to explore some of the parkland.

Large ponds set in grassland
The view of Studley Lake and Lower Canal as we climbed

This brought us to a long avenue that runs between two of the park gates. At one end we could se distant views of Ripon Cathedral, while at the other was the much closer St Mary’s Church which sits inside the park.

View of a distant cathedral among trees
Ripon Cathedral beyond the park gates
Church with a spire at the end of a tree-lined path
St Mary’s Church

The path led us towards the church, hoping to spot some of the park’s heard of red, sika and fallow deer as we walked. Nearly at the end we found them, off to our right among the trees. We crept a little closer to take photos (but not too close, these are wild animals!)

I was interested to see that the Choristers’ House nearby had a carving of a deer above the door, while more deer appear on the shield.

Stone wall with carving of a deer, shields and arches
Carvings on the Choristers’ House
St Mary’s Church

We finished our time in the park with a visit to the church, St Mary’s. This is a Victorian Gothic Revival church designed by William Burges, whose most notable work was probably Cardiff Castle. It was commissioned as a memorial to Frederick Vyner who was murdered by Greek bandits in 1870, by his mother and sister. Nikolaus Pevsner described the church as ‘a Victorian shrine, a dream of Early English glory’. Not knowing what to expect of a church in this location I was struck especially by the extensive and rather beautiful stained glass.

From the church we made our way back down a wooded lane which connected with the access road and the car park. Before leaving however we made sure to return to the visitor centre complex where we rewarded ourselves with an ice cream!

I visited Studley Royal in August 2022


  • ThingsHelenLoves

    A beautiful place, that shot of the stag and the pheasant is wonderful. We used to walk here when we were posted in Catterick, this post has brought back some memories of lovely days outdoors.

  • rkrontheroad

    The opening photo looks like there’s a conversation taking place. The ones on the right are turning to look at the one on the left speaking. 😉 And of course, loved the crow babies.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Oh yes, I see what you mean – two couples having a nice gossip on the lawn perhaps?! Those crows posed beautifully for ages, I don’t think they had any intention of flying away while there was a chance of some leftovers!

  • bluebrightly

    Your writing is perfectly clear and to-the-point, something I always feel I have to struggle for. I like the way you tied in the borrowed scenery concept with a Japanese garden you’ve visited. In the 90s I worked in the gardens of an estate outside New York City. The owner hired John Brookes, the famous British garden designer, to transform the landscape. There was no folly (around then I did see a terrific one at Chanticleer Gardens outside Philadelphia) but there were endless rooms and rills and other wonderful things. It paled in comparison to places like this but it was an education nevertheless. Thanks for the tour!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Lynn, I appreciate the compliment – although there’s nothing wrong with your writing that I can see, I always enjoy reading what you have to say 😊 It’s amazing what a good garden designer can do to bring a landscape to life!

  • Suzanne

    Interesting architecture and gardens with plenty of space to walk, a splendid combination. It has been sad to see how damaging the heatwave has been to the beautiful parks. I am sure the rain and with human help will restore the ponds back to how they were. Your photography captured the park well, Sarah.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Suzanne 🙂 Yes, this place offers a great mix of history and open spaces, something for everyone! And if you only want to visit the park for a walk you can simply pay for parking, no entrance fee 🙂

  • restlessjo

    I think it was only last year that this park was badly flooded, Sarah, and they managed to reopen to the public in a very short space of time. The last time we were there, there was quite a lot of algae but the volunteers had wellies on, fishing it all out. I suspect Margaret may well have been involved. It’s an amazing job they’ve done to keep it all in such fine condition over the years. I really love the walk along from the Abbey too. It’s always a treat to see deer and I liked the stone lion in St. Mary’s. I don’t remember that so well, but am sure we must have been in at some point. Thanks for the tour. I really enjoyed it.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I remember hearing about those floods Jo, although I’d forgotten again until now! They have certainly done a great job of repairing any damage, it all looks lovely and well cared-for as you say 🙂

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