Exploring the Ruins of Fountains Abbey

Before lock-down happened, we decided to have a night away in Yorkshire and one of the places we wanted to visit was the ruins of Fountains Abbey.

The ruins are listed as UNESCO World Heritage site and I can see why! They are definitely the most impressive abbey ruins I’ve seen so far.

Getting there

We drove so Google Mapped our way there as it’s about 5km outside Ripon.

There is bus that goes out to the visitor’s centre but it only goes on Monday, Thursday and Sunday’s so probably best to check out the bus timetable here.

Visitor’s Centre

The visitor’s centre is large and quite modern. You’ll find the gift shop, plant shop, bathrooms and cafe as well as the front desk to pay your entrance fees. If you’re not a member of National Trust you will need to pay £16.80 per adult to enter the site – which is steep but it’s well worth it!

Pretty sure you’ll be given a map for free when you pay your entrance fee but if you don’t, make sure you ask for one and if you do have to pay, it will only be a minimal amount. You’ll definitely need one though! The grounds are huge and the abbey ruins are only one part of the whole site.

The walk begins …

After you’ve finished exploring the visitor’s centre, you can pass through the gate by the front desk and begin your walk down to the ruins! They’re a short walk, maybe 5-10 mins and you won’t be able to see them until you’re almost on top of them.

As you come out of the entrance gate the path splits so you can go left or right. If you go right, the path will take you through the playground and may be a slightly shorter walk to the ruins but don’t quote me on that as we didn’t go that way. If you go left, you’ll walk through a small copse of trees where you’ll find a small hide so you can stop and birdwatch for a bit before carrying on.

This path also takes you through a paddock that may or may not have stock in it so make sure you close all gates behind you and keep dogs on a lead as you wander through.

By now you’ll be able to see the top of the ruins but you won’t truly be able to appreciate the full scale of them until you get to the bottom of the hill and onto the lawn in front of them.

History of Fountains Abbey

The Abbey was founded in 1132 by 13 monks who had been expelled from the Benedictine house of St Mary’s Abbey in York. They were given the land by the Archbishop of York to begin a simple and devout lifestyle.

By 1135 they had been accepted into the Cistercian Order and became subject to Clairvaux Abbey in Burgundy. Clairvaux Abbey sent a monk to Fountains to teach the new monks (monklets haha) how to celebrate the seven Canonical Hours and how to construct wooden buildings in line with Cistercian practice.

The monks were also introduced to the system of lay brothers – this was important as it now meant they had labourers to carry out everyday tasks for them, allowing them to dedicate more time to God.

Through wool production, lead mining, cattle rearing, horse breeding and stone quarrying the monks became extremely wealthy. They were able to build a bigger and grander abbey to live and worship in.

As always though, good things come to pass and after over 200 years of prosperity the Cistercians began to fall on hard times.

They were raided by the Scots on a number of occasions throughout the 14th century. At least one group of Scots set up camp in the abbey for a time! Eventually though, the monks were able to recover from the raids only to be hit with the Black Death in 1348.

The abbey would never fully recover from the resulting loss of manpower and income during the plague and parts of the abbey began to fall into ruin. It was still an important place however, and monks continued to live at the abbey right up until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539.

After the dissolution, the roof of the abbey was destroyed to stop monks returning to it to live and worship. To make matters worse, the entire estate was sold by the Crown to Sir Richard Gresham and it would remain in private hands until the 1960’s.

While it was in private ownership a lot of the stone, timber and lead was sold off or used in other building projects which helped to hasten the decline of the abbey.

What else is there to do?

The site is HUGE as you may have guessed from the map. We didn’t go everywhere as our main priority was to see the abbey plus there had been a lot of heavy rain and flooding around the that time and parts of the park weren’t accesible.

Fountains Hall

Not far from the abbey ruins you’ll find Fountains Hall, an Elizabethan-style manor house built by Stephen Proctor between 1598 and 1604. Some of the sandstone blocks from the abbey have been used in the construction along with one of the staircases – see if you can work out which one!

I think it looks like Wayne Manor and I was half expecting to see Albert walking out the front door!

You can enter into the main hall but that’s it. The bedrooms and other private living quarters have been turned into apartments to be rented out by holiday-goers.

There is a display in the main hall about the Settler’s Society – a boy’s training camp in the 1930’s to help young men escape poverty. It’s not a large display, but it is interesting to check out.

Immediately in front of the manor and across the driveway, you’ll find a small garden with a little sun-room at the end and a separate herb/vegetable garden. Worth poking your head for a look-see but there’s not a huge amount there to see.

Porter’s Lodge

Built inside the original gatehouse you’ll find the Porter’s Lodge which has been turned into a small museum about the history of Fountains Abbey.

There are a handful of items on display that were excavated at the site but there are more information boards that artefacts. It’s here that you’ll also find a scale model of what the abbey would have looked like at it’s height.

A scale model of how the abbey would have looked in it’s prime

To read all the panels properly won’t take you more than about 45 mins and it’s incredibly interesting so I highly recommend you make some time to check it out and learn all about the abbey.

Studley Royal Water Garden

Unfortunately we didn’t have the time to explore the gardens too much, plus a lot of it was blocked off due to flooding at the time. We did go for a short walk that looped around the abbey though which was nice, albeit a little wet!

These Georgian water gardens were created by John Aislabie in the 18th Century to impress his visitors – I mean, why else would you create them?!

There are a number of places to explore throughout the gardens as well as follies, statues and even a banqueting hall to check out. You can find a list of the Top 12 Things to do in the Garden on the National Trust website and I’m looking forward to getting back there in the summer time to explore it properly!

Facilities

There are a couple of cafes dotted about throughout the estate but they have different opening hours. I know the cafe nearest the ruins is open until 3pm but I’m not totally sure about the others.

The same goes for bathrooms, though these are open while the estate is open. The ones we used are situated very near Fountains Manor in the old outbuildings.

Something to note

As at 04th June 2020, the UK is still in lockdown due to Covid-19 however, things are beginning to open and life is slowly starting to become a little more normal.

National Trust are opening up a number of their sites (nothing that is inside) and Fountains Abbey is one of these sites.

Their website states: “The abbey and water garden at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal will reopen from Monday 8 June and you’ll need to book tickets before you visit. Members can book for free, while non-members will need to pay when booking. We’ll be releasing tickets every Friday from 5 June. Please note we’ll be turning people away who arrive and haven’t booked.”

So if you’re planning to go – make sure you book here! And be aware the toilets and cafes may not be open at this time.

Hope you enjoy exploring the ruins as much as I did! I will update this post as soon as I have explored the gardens, which will hopefully be soon 🙂

Chel xoxo

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