Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire

The place was called Fountains, where, at that
time and afterwards so many drank of waters springing
up to eternal life as from the fountains of the Saviour.

William of Newburgh, twelfth-century Augustinian canon

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Western Range awaiting carollers

In 1132 thirteen Benedictine monks from York founded the abbey. Seeking retreat from worldly cares and space to pursue lives dedicated to God, within three years the Abbey had been admitted into the Cistercian order. This was the second Cistercian abbey in England and became the wealthiest order in England.

Whilst monks went to Fountains pursuing peace and tranquillity  we went in search of Christmas carols and mulled wine. Obvs, we looked at the World Heritage Site first!

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View of Fountains from Anne Boleyn’s seat

I love ruined abbeys – I like how you can see the shell and the marks of subsequent centuries. Fountains in particular was developed to be part of the Studley Royal landscape, so its landscape has been carefully curated to show it off.

These shots show some of the amazing remains you can explore.

Going clockwise –

One of the several side chapels that were within the church (this is in the south transept). These acted as ‘churches within churches’ and would be dedicated to particular saints. Fountains itself is famous for the Chapel of Nine Altars and I love this image from the Godfrey Bingley Collection at the University of Leeds:

GB Chapel 9 altars

Beautiful arches over the south aisle. I am always amazed at the strength in medieval architecture.

The cloister! It’s huge! There’s an enormous basin in the middle, which my friend is resting in for scale. This was the open area for monks to exercise and read – the chapter house was always close by which was where daily instruction was given by the abbot.

The tower dominates the site today, but wasn’t built until the late fifteenth century. It was added by . Interestingly archaeologist excavated a timber church under the south transept of the present one. This was the earliest church of the site and dated to the 1130s – see report below:

VI. Excavations at Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire, 1979–80: the Early Development of the Monastery
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Culvert running under the abbey

Whenever I visit large sites like this, I inevitably end of chasing watercourses around the site. Cleanliness and godliness were indeed close together and water was needed not just for drinking, but for the removal of waste. This wasn’t just the removal of rubbish (etc.), but that of industrial processes too. To support the holy life of the monks, the rest of the abbey was made up of lay brothers who worked to make money to support the foundation. This meant men to work mills, process wool and other ways of making money. It’s really easy to forget that these places were businesses, run strictly, that made huge amounts of money. This article by Glyn Coppack on the excavation of the Woolhouse at Fountains shows a reconstruction and challenges the misconception that monastic industrial areas were poorly built, showing in the case fine and complementary architecture to the rest of the site.

Water and wilderness are closely associated with Cistercian life. However this article by Malgorzata Milecka shwos that through these needs for industry there was huge impact on the landscape and environment around their abbeys, particularly drainage systems on sites like Fountains and their wider effects. For everything Cistercian in Yorshire go here.

One of the reasons I enjoy visiting churches is the feeling that I’m one small person in a long line of people. This film from the Yorkshire Film Archive shows someone else’s trip (go to 9.25 for Fountains).

Visiting Fountains at night was really remarkable, the rainbow lights, the candles and the carols brought something new to the site and to my experience of it. I read recently that ‘carol’ was a verb before it was a noun, and etymologically you could describe as “people have sung together before there were songs”.

I like being part of that.

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Note: If you visit for the carol concert, do go early as the western range gets really full and the acoustics aren’t great if you’re at the back.


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