Fountains Abbey is one of the largest and best preserved ruined Cistercian monasteries in England. It is located approximately 3 miles (5 kilometres) south-west of Ripon in North Yorkshire, near to the village of Aldfield. Founded in 1132, the abbey operated for 407 years, becoming one of the wealthiest monasteries in England until its dissolution in 1539 under the order of Henry VIII. The abbey is a Grade I listed building owned by the National Trust and part of the designated Studley Royal Park including the Ruins of Fountains Abbey UNESCO World Heritage Site.
** – History – **
After a dispute and riot in 1132 at the Benedictine house of St Mary's Abbey, in York, 13 monks were expelled (among them Saint Robert of Newminster) and, after unsuccessfully attempting to return to the early 6th-century Rule of St Benedict, were taken into the protection of Thurstan, Archbishop of York. He provided them with land in the valley of the River Skell, a tributary of the Ure.
The enclosed valley had all the natural features needed for the creation of a monastery, providing shelter from the weather, stone and timber for building, and a supply of running water. After enduring a harsh winter in 1133, the monks applied to join the Cistercian order and in 1135 became the second house of that order in northern England, after Rievaulx. The monks subjected themselves to Clairvaux Abbey, in Burgundy which was under the rule of St Bernard.
Under the guidance of Geoffrey of Ainai, a monk sent from Clairvaux, the group learned how to celebrate the seven Canonical Hours and were shown how to construct wooden buildings in accordance with Cistercian practice. After Henry Murdac was elected to the abbacy in 1143, the small stone church and timber claustral buildings were replaced. Within three years, an aisled nave had been added to the stone church, and the first permanent claustral buildings built in stone and roofed in tile had been completed.
In 1146 an angry mob, displeased with Murdac's role in opposing the election of William FitzHerbert to the archbishopric of York, attacked the abbey and burnt down all but the church and some surrounding buildings. The community recovered swiftly from the attack and founded four daughter houses. Henry Murdac resigned the abbacy in 1147 to become the Archbishop of York and was replaced first by Maurice, Abbot of Rievaulx then, on the resignation of Maurice, by Thorald. Thorald was forced by Henry Murdac to resign after two years in office.
The next abbot, Richard, held the post until his death in 1170 and restored the abbey's stability and prosperity. He supervised a huge building programme which involved completing repairs to the damaged church and building more accommodation for the increasing number of recruits. Only the chapter house was completed before he died and the work was ably continued by his successor, Robert of Pipewell, under whose rule the abbey gained a reputation for caring for the needy.
The next abbot was William who presided over the abbey from 1180 to 1190 and he was succeeded by Ralph Haget, who had entered Fountains at the age of 30 as a novice, after pursuing a military career. During the European famine of 1194 Haget ordered the construction of shelters in the vicinity of the abbey and provided daily food rations to the poor enhancing the abbey's reputation for caring for the poor and attracting more grants from wealthy benefactors.
In the first half of the 13th century Fountains increased in reputation and prosperity. They were burdened with an inordinate amount of administrative duties and increasing demands for money in taxation and levies but managed to complete another massive expansion of the abbey's buildings. This included enlarging the church and building an infirmary.
In the second half of the 13th century the abbey was in more straitened circumstances. It was presided over by eleven abbots, and became financially unstable largely due to forward selling its wool crop, and the abbey was criticised for its dire material and physical state when it was visited by Archbishop John Romeyn in 1294. The run of disasters that befell the community continued into the early 14th century when northern England was invaded by the Scots and there were further demands for taxes.
The culmination of these misfortunes was the Black Death of 1348–1349. The loss of manpower and income due to the ravages of the plague was almost ruinous. A further complication arose as a result of the Papal Schism of 1378–1409. Fountains Abbey along with other English Cistercian houses was told to break off any contact with the mother house of Citeaux, which supported a rival pope. This resulted in the abbots forming their own chapter to rule the order in England and consequently they became increasingly involved in internecine politics.
In 1410, following the death of Abbott Burley of Fountains, the community was riven by several years of turmoil over the election of his successor. Contending candidates John Ripon, Abbot of Meaux, and Roger Frank, a monk of Fountains were locked in discord until 1415 when Ripon was finally appointed and presided until his death in 1434. The next four abbots undertook some much needed restoration of the fabric of the abbey including notable work on the church, and Fountains regained stability and prosperity.
When Marmaduke Huby died in 1526 he was succeeded by William Thirsk who was accused by the royal commissioners of immorality and inadequacy and dismissed from the abbacy and replaced by Marmaduke Bradley, a monk of the abbey who had reported Thirsk's supposed offences, testified against him and offered the authorities six hundred marks for the abbacy. In 1539 Bradley surrendered the abbey when Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
** – Architecture – **
The abbey precinct covered 70 acres (28 hectares) surrounded by an 11-foot (3.4 metre) wall built in the 13th century, some parts of which are visible to the south and west of the abbey. The area consists of three concentric zones cut by the River Skell flowing from west to east across the site. The church and claustral buildings stand at the centre of the precinct, the inner court containing the domestic buildings stretches down to the river and the outer court housing the industrial and agricultural buildings lies on the river's south bank. The early abbey buildings were added to and altered over time, causing deviations from the strict Cistercian type. Outside the walls were the abbey's granges.
The original abbey church was built of wood and "was probably" two stories high; it was, however, quickly replaced in stone. The church was damaged in the attack on the abbey in 1146 and was rebuilt, in a larger scale, on the same site. Building work was completed around 1170. This structure was 300 feett (91 m) long and had 11 bays in the side aisles.
A lantern tower was added at the crossing of the church in the late 12th century. The presbytery at the eastern end of the church was much altered in the 13th century. The church's greatly lengthened choir, commenced by Abbot John of York, 1203–11, and carried on by his successor terminates, like that of Durham Cathedral, in an eastern transept, the work of Abbot John of Kent, 1220–47. The 160-foot-tall (49 m) tower, which was added not long before the dissolution, by Abbot Huby, 1494–1526, is in an unusual position at the northern end of the north transept and bears Huby's motto 'Soli Deo Honor et Gloria'.
The cloister, which had arcading of black marble from Nidderdale and white sandstone, is in the centre of the precinct and to the south of the church. The three-aisled chapter-house and parlour open from the eastern walk of the cloister and the refectory, with the kitchen and buttery attached, are at right angles to its southern walk.
Parallel with the western walk is an immense vaulted substructure serving as cellars and store-rooms, which supported the dormitory of the conversi (lay brothers) above. This building extended across the river and at its south-west corner were the latrines, built above the swiftly flowing stream. The monks' dormitory was in its usual position above the chapter-house, to the south of the transept. Peculiarities of this arrangement include the position of the kitchen, between the refectory and calefactory, and of the infirmary above the river to the west, adjoining the guest-houses.
The abbot's house, one of the largest in all of England, is located to the east of the latrine block, where portions of it are suspended on arches over the River Skell. It was built in the mid-twelfth century as a modest single-storey structure, then, from the fourteenth century, underwent extensive expansion and remodelling to end up in the 16th century as a grand dwelling with fine bay windows and grand fireplaces. The great hall was an expansive room 52 by 21 metres. Among other apartments were a domestic oratory or chapel, 461⁄2 by 23 foot (14 by 7 metres), and a kitchen, 50 by 38 foot (15 by 12 metres).
The house was built by Stephen Proctor between 1598 and 1604, partly with stone from the abbey ruins. It is an example of a late Elizabethan prodigy house, perhaps influenced by the work of Robert Smythson. After Proctor's death in 1619, Fountains Hall passed into the possession of the Messenger family, who sold it to William Aislabie of neighbouring Studley Royal 150 years later. Fountains Hall became redundant as the Aislabie family remained at Studley Royal. It was leased to tenants and at one time parts of it were used for farm storage.
The hall was renovated and modernised between 1928 and 1931, and the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) often stayed there as guests of Lady Doris Vyner, sister to the then-current Duke of Richmond and Gordon. During the Second World War, Fountains Hall and other estate buildings were used to house evacuees. Studley Royal became the wartime home of Queen Ethelburga's School from Harrogate and the school's sanatorium was at Fountains Hall.
The stable block and courtyard were used for dormitories while one corner became the school chapel, at which Sunday Evensong was regularly said by the Archdeacon of Ripon. The hall has a balcony although it cannot be used because the staircase is considered unsafe for the public.
The Vyners lost a son and a daughter in the Second World War; Charles was a Royal Naval Reserve pilot missing in action near Rangoon. Elizabeth was a member of the Women's Royal Naval Service and died of lethargic encephalitis while on service in Felixstowe, Suffolk. There is a sculpture remembering them which can be seen as one comes out of the house down the stone steps.
After the war the hall again fell into a state of dilapidation. The National Trust acquired the Fountains Estate from North Yorkshire County Council in 1983 and has restored the hall. Part of it has been divided into flats, one of which is a holiday lets. Visitors to Fountains Abbey can view the oak-panelled stone hall and an adjoining exhibition room, and there are plans to restore the chapel.
The Hall has several reported hauntings. Years ago, when the best route into the main area of Fountains Hall was through a side entrance, visitors would report the sensation of an invisible figure running at them as they walked along the corridor and brushing past them as they walked through to the main part of the house. The Great Hall at Fountains Hall has the sound of musicians rehearsing a piece of music - the sound of a spinet and wind instruments are heard through the walls together with a woman's voice going through the same musical phrase several times and indistinctly, yet as soon as the door to the Great Hall is opened the music stops.
The bedroom adjoining a former staff flat on the first floor is haunted by a "shining golden lady" in eighteenth century dress. A former resident of the Hall during its time as staff accommodation commented that this apparition would appear to children living there at that time when they were sick in bed - she would come and sit beside them and stroke their hair. Previous occupants of the same rooms on the first floor have also reported the ghost of a dog and another apparition of a dark figure carrying a lighted candle.
The main staircase at the back of the Hall is haunted by the sound of two children at play - their voices are heard and the sound of them moving up and down the staircase, with the sound of rainfall in the background even if the weather outside is sunny.
Fountains Hall has become home to a brand new exhibition. Discover the untold history of the Settlers Society – a boys training camp set up in the 1930s at Fountains Hall, offering young men from deprived areas of the North East a chance to escape the poverty of the Great Depression. The National Trust's interactive new exhibition will tell the personal histories of the boys who lived here.
** – Fountains Mill – **
Boasting more than just the abbey, Fountains has many interesting tales to tell, including a Cistercian mill. Fountains Mill is one of the oldest buildings on the estate and was in continuous use until 1927. Fountains Mill was built by the Cistercians in the 12th-century to grind grain for the monastery. It survived the closure of the Abbey and continued to mill grain right up to 1927.
In its long history, the building has also been a monastic granary, a timber sawmill, a home for refugees, and a mason’s workshop.Today you'll find an interactive exhibition and see objects discovered when we restored the mill in 2001, including some very old graffiti. You can even have a go at grinding corn in the mill.
** – Porter's Lodge – **
Find out more about the history of the Abbey in the Porter’s Lodge exhibition. Tucked inside the original gatehouse is the contemporary structure which houses the interpretation centre. The Porter's Lodge sits on the edge of the west green overlooking the Abbey. Important visitors to the Abbey would have passed through the gatehouse and local poor people would have gathered outside the gates waiting for free food from the monks (alms for the poor).
Today you can learn about the Abbey’s rise from humble origins to religious powerhouse and eventual decline. You can also see a model showing the Abbey as it would have looked before the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s. They opened the Porter's Lodge exhibition in 2008 and won a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) award in 2009.
** – Water Garden – **
Studley Royal water garden is the result of a breath-taking vision from John Aislabie and his son William. These tranquil but playful gardens continue to delight all these years later. Recognised as a site of cultural importance, they were granted World Heritage Status in 1986 for everybody to enjoy.
In the early 18th-century John Aislabie had great plans to impress visitors to his Yorkshire estate and so turned the wild and wooded valley of the river Skell into one of England’s most spectacular Georgian water gardens. John Aislabie inherited the Studley Royal estate in 1693. He was a socially and politically ambitious man and became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1718. Disaster struck his career in 1720 due to his part in the South Sea Bubble financial scandal and he was expelled from Parliament. It was then that John returned to Yorkshire and devoted himself to creating this ground-breaking garden.
Inspired by the work of the great French landscape gardeners, the two gifted amateurs created the Water Garden with its formal, geometric design and extraordinary vistas; including the much photographed Temple of Piety. You can also find classical statues, follies and garden buildings carefully positioned within the landscape to discover and enjoy.
In 1767 William Aislabie purchased the Abbey ruins to complete the garden and create the ultimate vista. The climax of the garden is known as “The Surprise View” or “Anne Boleyn’s Seat”. “Surprise View” is an apt name as it gives an astonishing view of the Abbey ruins in the distance and was designed to cause a sharp intake of breath when visitors to the garden came across it. Amazingly the garden you see today is little changed from the one that would have impressed Aislabie’s visitors 200 years ago.
** – St Mary's and the Deer Park – **
St Mary's Church was one of two, late Victorian, memorial churches in Yorkshire, built by the family of the First Marquess of Ripon in memory of Frederick Grantham Vyner. The other is the Church of Christ the Consoler at Skelton-on-Ure, and the architect of both was William Burges. Vyner was murdered by Greek bandits in 1870 and his mother, Lady Mary Vyner, and sister, Lady Ripon, used the unspent ransom, gathered to obtain his release, to build two churches in Vyner's memory on their respective Yorkshire estates.
Burges' appointment as architect was most likely due to the connection between his greatest patron, John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute and Vyner, who had been friends at Oxford. St Mary's, on Lady Ripon's estate at Studley Royal, was commissioned in 1870 and work began in 1871. The church was consecrated in 1878. As at Skelton, Burges' design demonstrates a move from his favoured Early-French, to an English style. Pevsner writes of "a Victorian shrine, a dream of Early English glory." The interior is spectacular, exceeding Skelton in richness and majesty. The stained glass is of particularly high quality. St Mary's is Burges' "ecclesiastical masterpiece."
Deer park. Studley Royal deer park is a much-loved part of the estate; home to over 500 wild Red, Fallow and Sika deer. The Deer Park once contained the Tudor manor house known as Studley Royal House – but this was largely destroyed by fire in 1716 and so was rebuilt about 50 years later in the grand Palladian style. Sadly, this house too was damaged by fire in 1946. The building was entirely demolished shortly afterwards.
Today all that remains to remind us of the house is the impressive stable block, built between 1728 and 1732, which is now a private residence. The Deer Park also contains a large variety of ancient trees – many are over 300 years old. The lime tree avenue leads the eye down through the deer park to the original entrance to the estate and all the way to Ripon Cathedral.
Biddulph Grange Garden. This garden was the vision of James Bateman who, from 1841, spent over 20 years collecting plants from all over the world. Bateman did not go on many of the expeditions himself, instead he employed plant hunters who sent the specimens back to him by sea. The plants and trees were brought together at Biddulph amid rockwork, topiary, tree-stumps and an extraordinary collection of eclectic garden buildings designed by Bateman and Edward Cooke.
** – Facilities – **
Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays service 139 from Ripon; Sundays and Bank Holidays (May – September) Fountains Flyer service 822 from York, Ripon; Brimham Explorer bus 825 runs between Ripon, Fountains Abbey, Brimham Rocks and Harrogate. Daily connections to Ripon on service 36 from Leeds and Harrogate. The National Trust is also running a free shuttle bus from Ripon with TransDev. These depart Ripon bus station throughout the day (10am, 11am, 12pm, 2pm, 3pm) with return buses at half past the hour and a last bus at 4.10pm. Details of all buses at: www.dalesbus.org/fountainsabbey, or call traveline 0871 200 2233. Enjoy a free regular tea or coffee in the restaurant when you purchase a full priced admission ticket, or show your NT membership card. You'll just need to present your bus ticket too.
Location : Fountains Abbey, Fountains, Ripon, North Yorkshire, HG4 3DY
Transport: Harrogate (National Rail) then bus 9 miles. Bus: see above.
Opening Times - Daily 10:00 to 17:00; Deer Park 16:00 to 18:00.
Tickets - Whole Property: Adults £16.00. Children £8.00.
Tel: 01765 608888