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.
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.