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No Monk-ey Business, please
Fountains Abbey (Ripon)
Member Name: SWSt
Fountains Abbey (Ripon)
Advantages: Highly impressive ruins, beautiful areas to walk in
Disadvantages: Quite expensive, Need to pick a nice day to visit
Since moving to the northeast, Fountains Abbey had long been on our hit-list of must-visit places. So, when we eventually, got there was it worth the wait or a monumental disappointment? Only one way to find out: read on...
Getting to Fountains Abbey by car is a pretty easy affair. From the A1 follow the signs to Ripon and there are plenty of brown signs which direct you to the Abbey which stands on a major road just outside Ripon. There's a large on-site car park, so at peak times parking should be OK. The only downside is the car park's slightly confusing one-way system, which is not particularly well-signed.
Quick History Lesson
Founded in the 1200s as a Cistercian monastery, Fountains Abbey grew into one of the wealthiest and most influential monastic houses in the country. As with all monasteries, it was dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1530s and passed into the hands or Henry's servant, Sir Richard Gresham, sold off the stone, allowing the site to fall into ruin. Today, it is managed by the National Trust and is one of Yorkshire's most popular tourist sites.
The Abbey Today
It's not hard to see why people flock to Fountains. The ruins are surrounded by some spectacular north Yorkshire scenery (including a river running through the centre of the site) which help to give some idea both of the scale and the isolation of the place. All I can say is that if it is this spectacular now, how spectacular would it have been at its zenith?
There are plenty of good paths leading you round some of areas, although the main part of the abbey still standing is mostly grass, so a decent pair of walking shoes should be taken. It's also almost entirely in the open air, so you need to choose the day of your visit carefully and go when reasonable weather is expected. On a gloriously sunny day, there is no finer sight. On a wet one, I would imagine it's rather miserable and desolate.
You might also want to time your visit carefully. We went in early July and the site was already pretty busy. I suspect that during the school holidays that it gets packed. Fountains is a place which is best appreciated when you have time to stop and stare and reflect on its beauty, so if you're the kind of person who enjoys a leisurely look around, you might want to try and avoid periods when hordes of screaming kids might be running around!
To give you a sense of the site's history, there's an excellent exhibition housed in the old Porter's lodge, and I'd recommend starting here. This has a number of informative and interesting boards containing the story of Fountains and its inhabitants from its earliest days through to its dissolution and beyond. A fantastic model of the abbey dominates the room and gives you some idea of its size and scale at the height of its powers.
Once you know a little bit about the history of Fountains, you will appreciate the impressive ruins themselves more. It's surprising how much remains intact. As you approach the ruin, it appears only the tower (completed just 40 years before the monastery was dissolved) still stands, with the rest just crumbling walls and broken stonework. As you explore further, it's clear that an awful lot has survived. In some cases, whole rooms remain standing with deeply impressive vaulted roofs, whilst elsewhere you can see some of the original colourings and decorations on the floor tiles. Just wandering around the ruins gives you some idea of how stunning the completed building must have looked.
The ruins are so extensive that they will easily take you an absolute minimum of an hour to look around properly. Wandering around, you will be impressed by the vision and engineering skill of medieval masons in building such an impressive structure, whilst you'll also be left with a slight melancholic feel at the acts of state-sponsored vandalism which allowed them to fall into ruin.
But that's not all!
The monastery itself is fantastic, but Fountains Abbey offers more than just the ruins. In addition to the monastery itself, the site contains a working water mill (although, sadly, it was broken when we visited) which contain some informative displays, together with some more interactive elements to keep kids entertained. Fountains Hall (used as a private residence after the Dissolution) is very impressive, particularly from the outside. It's a shame that you can only actually see three sparsely furnished rooms (the rest are used as staff or holiday flats), but again, these give you some idea of how grand it must have been.
Keep walking past the Abbey and you come to Studley Gardens and Deer Park - access to which is included in the admissions price. These feature plenty of places to walk around the impressive landscaped gardens which contain several follies. Even if you don't particularly enjoy gardens or parklands, these provide a very pleasant area in which to walk and are impressive in their scale and ambition. Sadly, the lake, a centrepiece of the gardens was being drained in 2010 when we went, so the area was a bit of a mess, full of diggers and large piles of silt.
Slightly further on still is the church of St Mary, a Victorian Gothic Revival church built to serve Studley estate in the 1800s. The interior of this church was designed by William Burges (who also redesigned Cardiff Castle) and who had a very distinctive style. Never one to be accused of understatement Burges designed St Mary's in a riot of colour - all gold ceilings with ornate paintings of birds, animals and angels. He also liked to play little games with his audience and hid features amongst the décor (try to find, for example, the carvings of a stone snail and a mouse). Burges' style is completely over the top and not to my taste, but the church is still worth a visit.
There is so much to Fountains Abbey that you really need to allow yourself a complete day to do justice to it. You also need to be prepared to do quite a bit of walking as the various parts are sprawled across the site. Despite good pathways, large parts may also be inaccessible for wheelchair users, or those not too good on their feet, so it's not an attraction for everyone.
Facilities are also a little limited. Although there is a large cafe at the entrance, there was only one other place we came across the get something to eat or drink, at the Studley end of the site. Similarly, although there are plenty of toilet facilities, these are sometimes quite far apart, so be warned!
The cost of an adult ticket for 2011 is £9, £4.85 for children (free for National Trust or English Heritage members). This might sound like quite a lot, but there' so much to see and do that you could easily spend the whole day there, so it represents pretty good value for money.
I can definitely recommend Fountains Abbey, as there is something for everyone. If you enjoy looking at old ruins, the abbey remains are second to none; if you like walking, there are plenty of landscaped gardens to walk around, or if you like more recent history, the working mill will be the place for you. Well worth a visit!
Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Gardens
Ripon Nr Harrogate
North Yorkshire, UK
Tel: 01765 608888
© Copyright SWSt 2011
Summary: A superb place to spend a day
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