Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden are the crown jewel in the north of English for the National Trust. Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and jointly run by the National Heritage, this stunning landscape is steeped in history.
Founded in 1132 by 13 monks from St. Mary’s Abbey in York, Fountains began life as the second Cistercian house in England and was plagued with troubles almost from the outset. After only 14 years, in 1146, all the buildings surrounding the small stone church were razed by an unruly mob protesting the recent archbishopric elections in York. Rebuilding began immediately and the period until 1170 saw huge expansion works at the site. Expansion continued periodically until the abbey reached the scope visible today in the early 1500s. In 1539, Fountains Abbey was surrendered to Henry VIII to buffer state coffers in his dispute with the Pope.
As with many fine English abbeys, Fountains was ravaged and is now merely ruins. But what amazing ruins they are! They are still grand enough to let your mind imagine how magnificent they must have been during the abbey’s prime. The main abbey is vast in size, with many of the internal and external walls still standing at their original height, reaching up to the heavens. The site sits in a shallow ravine with woodland on both sides and a bubbling brook running down from the Water Gardens which is beautifully calming. Wandering through the remains of the buildings, devotion and wonder become tangible, providing a sense of the lives of the monks who lived here many centuries ago.
As you walk past the abbey, the landscape gently curves, following the manmade lake which leads to the Water Garden. The undulating landscape offers extended views with focal points that help guide the eye. On one bank of the lake, a steep path runs up to the top of the hill but the climb is well worth it. At the top is a heavily forested and secluded area with natural pathways and a couple of viewing platforms which provides beautiful views of the abbey and water features.
The Gardens themselves are kept in pristine condition with lush lawns and alabaster-white follies (sculptures) standing around the central lake. There is a great sense of openness here as the trees and sky are reflected in the still waters and the two temples on the hillside serve as a more modern reminder of the religious roots of the adjoining abbey ruins.
Even after all of this, a final surprise awaits. Tucked away from the main entrance to the site is the watermill at which the monks lived and worked. This has been converted into a museum, offering information on the history of the waterworks and installations showing what life was like nearly a thousand years ago.