Unquestionably one of the most evocative of all the ruined abbeys, this famous Cistercian foundation dates back to 1132 when a small group of intellectual monks broke away from the Benedictine abbey of St Mary's in York to follow a stricter rule. After three years' of hardship, the small community at Fountains Abbey were joined by the ex-Dean of York (Hugh) who provided the means to commence building the largest, and most celebrated, monastery of the time.
The original construction, despite its grand scale, would have been in the austere and simple form commonly associated with Cistercian views. However, a continual re-building programme spanning some 400 years, saw much enhancement to the severity of the plain stonework and many elaborate structures incorporated into the basic monastic complex. Every architectural period and building style are represented in some part of Fountains Abbey and this diversity, coupled with the sheer enormity of this site, give us such an important understanding of monastic life prior to the Dissolution in 1539.
Due to its remote location in the valley of the River Skell, the ruins are both impressive and extensive. Fountains Abbey church survives to almost full height, including the tower built c.1500, above the north transept, which rises to an awesome 170ft (51.5m). A very distinctive and unusual feature of Fountains Abbey church is the additional transept built at the eastern end of the presbytery. This splendid, and once lavishly decorated extension, called the Chapel of Nine Altars, is paralleled with only one other in England, and that is to be found at Durham Cathedral.
Forming part of the west range is a magnificent, vaulted cellarium over 300 ft long which survives almost in a state of completeness. This is an outstanding example of the skills employed by the 12th century lay brethren, and is an unrivalled feat of medieval architecture in the UK. A detailed tour of the entire site will take approximately two hours as, apart from the abbey church, there are the claustral buildings and numerous other outbuildings to explore extending along the River Skell.
We have visited Fountains Abbey throughout the different seasons: the timeless stones surrounded by fresh, spring growth; cloaked in the bright hues of early summer flowers; shrouded in autumn mist and glistening rain; and touched by a delicate icing-sugar frost. However, our very first glimpse of this bold structure nestling in its serene environment, was early on a chilly November morning as we peered through the autumn foliage of some tangled branches. This was the image that captured our hearts and stirred our souls, and became the inspiration for our first book. Visions of those silent, White Monks grouped in prayer or meditation, and the lay brothers working the lands and tending the sheep, flooded the imagination in the silent stillness of the morning.
Closer investigation of the site left us feeling very humbled, as we enjoyed and marvelled at the incredible skills used by the medieval builders to create such intricate and beautiful carvings in the local stone. There are some lovely sculptures, decorative corbels, ornamental columns and capitals, and an abundance of arcades ranging from the round-headed to the pointed. Other finds include early 13th century floor tiles, a section of the arcaded narthex, remains of the monks' day stairs, and evidence of the sophisticated water and drainage systems used by the Cistercians.
Owned by The National Trust, Fountains Abbey now forms part of the Studley Royal Estate and its setting is enhanced by the surrounding landscaped gardens. From whatever aspect this site is viewed, it cannot fail to astound and amaze. Whether it was the scale of the construction, the architectural beauty, the substantial and impressive remains after 850 years, or the obvious wealth and importance of Fountains Abbey within the Cistercian community, it will remain with us forever as an emotional milestone in our lives.