A riverside walk, marked from the visitor centre car park, takes you through Fountains Abbey to a series of ponds and ornamental gardens, harbingers of Studley Royal (same times as the abbey), which can also be entered via the village of Studley Roger, where there’s a separate car park. This lush medley of lawns, lake, woodland and Deer Park was laid out in 1720 to form a setting for the abbey, and there are some scintillating views from the gardens, though it’s the cascades and water gardens that command most attention.
It’s tantalizing to imagine how the English landscape might have appeared had Henry VIII not dissolved the monasteries: Fountains Abbey gives a good idea of what might have been. The abbey was founded in 1133 by thirteen dissident Benedictine monks and formally adopted by the Cistercian order two years later. Within a hundred years, Fountains had become the wealthiest Cistercian foundation in England, supporting a magnificent abbey church. The Perpendicular Tower, almost 180ft high, looms over the whole ensemble, while equally grandiose in scale is the undercroft of the Lay Brothers’ Dormitory off the cloister, a stunningly vaulted space over 300ft long that was used to store the monastery’s annual harvest of fleeces. Its sheer size gives some idea of the abbey’s entrepreneurial scope; some thirteen tons of wool a year were turned over, most of it sold to Venetian and Florentine merchants who toured the monasteries.