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Fountains Abbey - the ultimate garden ornament

Aerial photo of Fountains Abbey Hidden away among the little valleys of North Yorkshire lies Fountains Abbey, a monastic gem in the most tranquil of settings. It was adopted as Yorkshire's first World Heritage Site in 1986, beating Saltaire, which became the second in 2001. But it's not just some abbey ruins, it lies within the Studley Royal Water Garden, which is an incredible attraction in its own right.

So to the basics. Fountains Abbey lies in the valley of the River Skell between Ripon and Harrogate. It's managed by the National Trust, and that means standard NT entry charges, of £22 per family or £8.25 for adults (2009). there's plenty of car parking at the visitor centre, and there's parking at West Gate for disabled visitors. Both car parks are free.

For those who haven't visited in a while, the West Gate car park is what used to be the main car park next to the gatehouse. But then the NT built a giant visitor centre on the hill above the abbey, and changed it so that disabled visitors are given priority at West Gate. If you're not too good at hills, try and get in at West gate; but if you can't, park at the visitor centre and ask them to ferry you down to the abbey - which they will gladly do. The visitor centre itself has a huge restaurant, and there's a tea room at the Studley Royal end of the park. NT food seems to be improving nowadays, but it's never going to be cheap.

History

Fountains Abbey The abbey itself was founded in 1132 and became enormously wealthy. In 1539, Henry VIII closed it during the dissolution of the monastries and that was the end of that chapter in its history. If you want an academic history of Fountains, click here.

Just how wealthy Fountains was is astounding. By the time of the dissolution it was the richest Cistercian house in England, and had outlying farms or Granges all over Yorkshire. Wherever you go in the dales you seem to come across them, Parceval Hall near Trollers Ghyll being one splendid example.

After the dissolution, the Abbey passed through several pairs of hands before being bought by William Aislabie in 1767 who landscaped it into the gardens of Studley Royal.

That William Aislabie was in possession of the Studley Royal estate is most fortunate. His father John created the gardens, but was as crooked a politician as they come. He was a prime architect of the South Sea Bubble, and when it imploded, a parliamentary enquiry  discovered he had taken a bribe of £20,000 of stock to promote the South Sea Company.  And all that while serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer and managing to reverse the national debt into the company as well!

Upon this discovery he was expelled from the House of Commons, cast into the Tower of London and ordered to make an account of all his estate that it might be applied to the relief of those who had suffered by his malpractices. This quieted the mobs who were rampaging through London, but with the help of his many friends in high places he was released soon after and fined, but allowed to retain all property he had owned before 1718.  A much kinder fate than the wholesale confiscations of estates faced by the directors of the South Sea Company. But then, politicians always look after their own as we've seen with the current parliament.

The Abbey

Fountains Abbey The ruins of the abbey are spectacular, but the first thing to see is Fountains hall, a splendid Jacobean mansion. Much neglected, but partially restored nowadays it's worth a look.

The abbey ruins themselves are set in nicely lawned grounds alongside the River Skell. Lovely to look around, but fairly meaningless without a guidebook or audio guide. But then, I would suspect that for most people the setting is the thing, rather than detailed descriptions of exactly how an abbey functioned in the mediaeval period.

And the setting really is fabulous, you can picnic anywhere and the grounds are beautifully maintained.

 

Studley Royal Gardens

Studley Royal Gardens Following the dissolution of the monastries, Fountains was incorporated into Studley Royal Gardens in 1767. Studley Royal itself burnt down in 1946, so all that's left is the gardens.

After looking at the abbey remains, you can walk down the Skell valley and turn the corner into the water gardens. These used to be a bit of a mess, but over the last twenty years the NT have restored them to a beautiful condition.

Every corner you pass round there's  a different view, and it's altogether a fantastic achievement to say that it was created without the help of any notable landscape architect.   The most famous view of all though is the surprise view, where you come round a corner and suddenly see the abbey. But of course, most visitors start from the abbey so it's not so much of a surprise.

Instead of explaining more, here's some photos.

Studley Royal Gardens Studley Royal Gardens
Studley Royal Gardens Studley Royal Gardens
Studley Royal Gardens Studley Royal Gardens
Studley Royal Gardens Studley Royal Gardens

The Deer Park

And finally, at the end of the water garden is the Deer Park. This large open area has about 500 deer, but don't expect to see them close up as they aren't people friendly. Bizzarely, there's also an enormous Victorian church sat on the top of the hill in the middle of nowhere. From here you can walk back round the top of the valley to the visitor centre, or retrace your steps and enjoy the gardens from the direction they were always designed to be seen.

All in all, a great place to visit and spend a day. And to finish off, here it is in Google streetview, filmed by a trike rather than the usual car

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