400 years of prosperity . . . then along came Henry VIII

Founded in the early 12th century, Fountains Abbey – lying alongside the River Skell just to the southwest of Ripon in North Yorkshire – became one of the most prosperous of the many Cistercian abbeys in Europe.

However, in 1539, Henry VIII and his henchman destroyed Fountains Abbey at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. With its wealth plundered, and the lead roofing removed and sold, Fountains Abbey soon slipped into complete disrepair and became a ruin – a ghost of its former glory. Today the ruins, cared for in a partnership between the National Trust and English Heritage, receive hundreds of thousands of visitors. I wonder if, like me, many of them wonder what it must have looked like in its heyday, and perhaps, in the silence, imagine for a fleeting moment the plainsong of monks at prayer.

But the community at Fountains comprised both monks and lay people who tended the fields and looked after flocks of sheep (the Cistercians built their wealth on wool) leaving monks time for daily mediation. The abbey also took in visitors and the sick, and several of the ruined buildings were used for this purpose. Today there is a small museum in what was once the Porter’s Lodge, with a timeline of the abbey’s development and ultimate downfall. At it’s dissolution it was valued at around £1160, the equivalent today of tens of millions of pounds.

Most of the buildings have lost their roof, but one – the Cellarium (storeroom or undercroft) – has an impressive and beautiful vaulted ceiling. Whether there originally was glass in the windows, I’m not sure although I would expect so.

Close-by are the Guest House Bridge and monks’ latrine building – the Reredorter, strategically positioned over the River Skell in which effluent flowed away, without contaminating any sources of drinking water.

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The Refectory opens on to the Cloister, across from the Church and its impressive Tower.

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And then there’s the Church and Tower, dominating the whole site. No wonder that Fountains Abbey has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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In the 18th century, the pools and gardens of Studley Royal were created to the east of the abbey ruins, where visitors could stroll and take in the views. At another Cistercian Abbey – Rievaulx – not that far away from Fountains Abbey, a viewing terrace was also built in the 18th century to facilitate access to the abbey ruins.

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When we first arrived at Fountains there were several parties of school children, a number of whom were making the most of being in the open air, running around and making rather a cacophony. After about 20 minutes, however, peace descended and we could then appreciate the magnificence of this ruined abbey in the relative silence it demanded. Very spiritual.

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