Fountains Abbey

A small group of riotous monks moved to this valley of the Ure, expelled from the Benedictine abbey of York in 1132. Joining the Cistercian order shortly thereafter, they built the abbey low and sheltered in these hills, folding their religious beliefs into the stones and their humility before God into the landscape. It lies almost invisible until you are directly upon it.

I don’t think you can really see this aspect of it unless you walk there, as others did long ago. Even from How Hill, once a Saxon pilgrimage spot itself and now a substantial sort of folly, the abbey’s great tower is all that can be seen and looks simply like a parish church. I did not believe what I saw could possibly be the abbey. I have no picture in that direction, preferring the light playing across the rounded hills to the east, and the flocks of birds white against the dark earth being ploughed.

I realised my mistake but it is extraordinary how long its extent remains hidden approaching from the south.

Extraordinary given the size of the ruins that still exist. Even approaching from Ripon I think you would have seen nothing until you rounded the bend of the Ure with its low cliffs rising to the right. Then the abbey must have suddenly, splendidly massed above you.

Because it grew of course, left humility behind though it always had a reputation for supporting the poor and the sick. Its early goodness led it to become one of the wealthiest abbeys in the country, those bequething money to buy a place in heaven believed them closer to God. Arguably it lost its way, spread outwards and upwards in stone and glass and filled itself with precious things. It speculated on its own wool production. Its fortunes rose and fell. And fell.

It contains pillars so slender my heart stopped its beating.

It is now little but one or two carved human faces staring down. Vaults, arches, tumbled walls, layerings of differently weathered stones. The lovely old flour mill still largely intact. Graves also carefully layered four and five deep yet rigidly separate to ensure everyone’s bones were intact and ready to leap upwards in new life on the last day and the resurrection.

It is very beautiful.

All this, and yet somehow it has become an appendage to the Georgian landscape created by John Studley. A feature of his water park. I stare at these gardens and see mostly just labour, a huge, back-breaking labour undertaken at the pleasure of one man like many another garden of that time.

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