Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Survivor of the Dissolution: Yorkshire's First World Heritage Site

RoadTour and just about every other guide to this part of the world rate Fountains Abbey and the Studley Royal Water Garden as the not-to-be-missed attraction - in a recent local survey, it was even voted Yorkshire's top beauty spot.

And rightly so... Fountain's Abbey and the surrounding estate and parkland is a sensory pleasure park in which you could lose yourself for days. Unfortunately the unseasonal weather didn't show it off in its best light, but you cannot fail to be awestruck by Britain's mightiest monastic ruin which sits on the banks of the River Skell.

In 1132, following a dispute in York, thirteen monks were exiled to this spot in the Skell valley to establish a new monastery which was admitted into the austere Cistercian order. By the mid-thirteenth century, Fountains had become one of the wealthiest religious houses in England. In 1539, Henry VIII's dissolution brought monastic life here to an abrupt end along with 400 years of agricultural and industrial prosperity.

The abbey itself has survived the ravages of time and history unbelieveably well. Large sections of the impressive structure remain substantially intact - not least the cellarium's magnificent vaulted ceiling. Originally, this was a series of partitioned rooms where the abbey's workforce - the lay brothers - ate, slept and socialised.

On closer inspection (with a bit of help from the fantastic free guides), there remains evidence of intricate carvings and sculptures, the sophisticated medieval water and drainage system, the monks' day stairs and the huge fireplace in the warming room which kept them warm in winter. It really is a fascinating insight into medieval monastic life.

The surrounding estate is equally impressive. Expertly landscaped in the 18th century, the Skell valley's natural beauty is enhanced by a Georgian water garden with ornamental lakes, canals and cascades, geometric lawns and a series of classical temples (one dedicated to Fame, another to Hercules) and statues.

With countless perfect spots for a picnic, Victorian visitors would have been disappointed as the strict regulations prevented them from eating, drinking, smoking or even lingering in the grounds or abbey. No such restrictions exist today thankfully. Among other local fare, the estate serves delicious Brymor icecream by the bucket load which is produced using milk from a herd of pedigree Guernsey cows who graze a few miles up the road in the Yorkshire Dales.

Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden
North Yorkshire HG4 3DY

Tel: 01765 608888

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