Tucked away in rural North Yorkshire, there’s an ancient gem. The UNESCO World Heritage site of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Park includes the ruins of the largest Cistercian monastery in the United Kingdom, splendid Georgian formal water gardens, and a medieval deer park.
At 850 hectares (almost 3.3 square miles) the site is far too big to see everything in just one day. This guide will help you if you’re thinking of visiting Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. You’ll find a brief history of the Abbey, details of what to see, exactly where to take the most incredible photos, plus where to eat, and more.
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 (12th-century Augustinian canon)
Top 5 Must-Sees When Visiting Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal
- The Fountains Abbey ruins: including Huby’s Tower, the Chapel of the Seven Altars and the wonderful Cellarium.
- Fountains Mill,
- Studley Royal Water Gardens, including the Octagon Tower, the Surprise View and Anne Boleyn’s Seat, and the Temple of Fame.
- The Deer Park
- St. Mary’s Church – the opening hours are limited opening but do see it if you can, as it’s gorgeous.
What to Know Before Visiting Fountains Abbey
- Wear comfortable footwear – you’ll be walking a great deal, and there are some steep hills.
- Yorkshire weather is notoriously changeable. Get tips on what to pack for a trip to Yorkshire here.
- Expect to spend a full day on-site, and use this guide to help you prioritise and plan your trip.
- Take a lightweight picnic hamper. The grounds of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal are perfect for a picnic, but it’s a fair old hike from the car park to the best picnic spots!
Fountains Abbey History
After a riot at St. Mary’s Abbey in York in 1132, thirteen Benedictine monks were expelled. The Archbishop of York granted the monks land, 30 miles from York, in a remote valley along the River Skell where they settled and built a new monastery called “Fountains Abbey” after the water springs in the area.
In 1133, the monks joined the booming Cistercian order and Fountains Abbey became the second Cistercian monastery in North Yorkshire.
At first, sheep farming was the biggest source of income for Fountains Abbey, which prospered and grew to a community of about 200 monks. The monks also earned from lead mining, cattle rearing, horse breeding, and quarrying stone at Fountains Mill.
Wealthy families also donated money to the Abbey, seeking prayers for their loved ones, particularly during the Black Death. Over time, Fountains Abbey became one of the wealthiest Cistercian monasteries in England.
Why was Fountains Abbey Destroyed?
The most significant event in the history of Fountains Abbey was in 1539 when the Abbey fell victim to the wrath of King Henry VIII. He wanted the Pope to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, so he could marry Anne Boleyn. The Pope refused and Henry’s terrible revenge was to order the dissolution of all monasteries in England.
Everything valuable was seized for the King, precious religious texts were removed, and the buildings were destroyed. Monastery lands were distributed to Royal favourites, and once the monks had left, Fountains Abbey lay in ruins for over 200 years.
In 1983, the National Trust bought the Abbey to save it for future generations to enjoy.
Here’s where you can find out more about the history of Fountains Abbey Yorkshire:
- Visit the exhibition in the Porter’s Lodge
- Take a guided tour from the Porter’s Lodge (pick up the day’s schedule from the Visitor’s Centre)
- Ask at the Visitor’s Centre for the audio guide.
Suggested reading: Visiting Harewood House
What’s the Connection Between Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal?
Fountains Abbey sits within the grounds of Studley Royal Water Gardens – the best-preserved Georgian landscaping in England, created by England’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Aislabie, who was expelled from Parliament (along with other MPs) for his involvement in the South Seas Bubble scandal.
He retired to North Yorkshire and created the gardens with his son William Aislabie. They created formal water gardens complete with classical statues, garden buildings, and follies within sight of the abbey ruin. William felt that the Abbey would make the ultimate folly, so he bought Fountains Abbey in 1761. Today’s gardens are barely changed from the Aislabies’ original 18th-century design.
The best way to see the garden is to follow the garden trail, which takes you around the site, with clear signage to viewpoints and areas of interest.
Best Things to Do When Visiting Fountains Abbey
Even if you arrive as the gates open and leave on the dot of closing time, you’re not going to get to see everything in one visit! Here’s what you can see when you’re visiting Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, with my recommended “must-sees”.
The Abbey is located in a deep valley, a pleasant 10 to 15-minute stroll from the Visitor’s centre. You won’t see the abbey ruin until almost the last moment. Then, you round a corner, and that first view will take your breath away!
If you visit in Springtime, this walk is THE BEST place to see beautiful wildflowers in bloom.
#1 Explore the Ruins of Fountains Abbey
The grassed area in front of the Abbey is the perfect place to drink in the magnitude of the site. From here, you can see the towering ruined Abbey and guesthouses, and on the other side of the river, the Bakehouse, the Woolhouse, and the Brewhouse.
As you wander around the ruins, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine what the Abbey would have been like all those centuries ago. It’s a very serene and peaceful place. The river meanders beneath weathered stone bridges, and wooded and grassy areas offer you a place to rest and reflect.
If you need refreshments, there’s a cafe by the stream near to the ruins.
Huby’s Tower (The Belltower)
The remarkably well-preserved belltower at Fountains Abbey is known as “Huby’s Tower” after Abbott Marmaduke Huby who had the soaring 160-foot high tower built. He even inscribed his own motto, Soli Deo Honor et Gloria (Honour and glory to God alone) on the building.
Sadly the bells ring no more, but it’s easy to imagine how wonderful they must have sounded in this great place.
In 1379, one of the original bells from Fountains Abbey was transported to Ripon Cathedral, by sledge and barge along the River Skell – what a mammoth task that must have been! The bell remained in Ripon until the mid-18th-century, where it was known as “the Mary bell”.
You may also enjoy: The 11 Best Things to Do in Ripon
While the fabric of the Abbey was vandalised by Henry VIII’s agents, he saved the bells as he knew what they meant to his people. Instead, they were re-distributed amongst local churches.
The Church and the Chapel of the Nine Altars
The church was cruciform in shape, with separate spaces for the monks and lay brothers to pray. The nave was 90 metres long and candles would have burned day and night here.
The Chapel of the Nine Altars was the holiest place at Fountains Abbey. It was the place where ordained members of the community celebrated masses.
The chapel design was based on the east end of the abbey church of Clairvaux, in Burgundy, as a reminder of Fountains’ link with its Cistercian mother-house.
This 300 foot long part of the ruins was the food store. The detailed arched ceiling is wonderful, and you can imagine the legions of monks scurrying around in here.
Today, the Cellarium is where events like Fountains at Christmas are held, with candlelit carol-singing.
The ruined and inaccessible floor above the Cellarium was the brothers’ dormitory, where the monks slept.
In addition to being the place where the vestments (clothes), vessels, and books used in services were stored, under the watchful eye of the sacristan, the Sacristy is probably the spookiest part of the Abbey ruins!
In the mid 19th century, the walls which blocked off the Sacristy were removed, and 400 skeletons were discovered! It’s believed that these represent “the dead of a local Civil War action.”
More to Explore while Visiting Fountains Abbey
- The Cloister: the large (38 square metres) central part of the Abbey, where the monks observed silence, meditated and prayed
- The Muniments Room, where the monks stored important documents. It’s upstairs, above the Warming House, so documents were protected from the damp,
- The Chapter House: the place where the monks met each morning for chapter meetings and celebrated on feast days,
- The Refectory: the vast room where the monks took their meals
#2 Fountains Mill
The 12th-century Fountains Mill is the oldest surviving Cistercian mill in Europe. There’s an exhibition here detailing daily life at the Abbey, and the chance to see the mill equipment working.
There’s a small cafe beside the mill if you need refreshments.
#3 Fountains Hall
Fountains Hall was partly constructed from stone repurposed from the ruined Abbey and was finished in the early 17th century. Inside, there’s an interesting exhibition about the Fountains Abbey Settler’s Society. Their mission was to provide training in trades for impoverished young men from the North East during the Great Depression (1934 to 1937).
#4 Studley Royal
While it’s tempting to spend all your time visiting Fountains Abbey exploring the Abbey itself, do leave enough time to discover Studley Royal Water Gardens. They are beautifully designed, well-manicured, and idyllic to explore, and there are a few must-see spots.
De Gray’s Walk
Heading from the Abbey towards the Water Gardens, there is a steep path uphill by the half-moon reservoir. It’s one of the best places to look back for wonderful views of the Abbey and the river.
The Surprise View and Anne Boleyn’s Seat
For a distant glimpse of Fountains Abbey, it’s worth the stiff hike up to “Anne Boleyn’s Seat”. Apparently, this lovely spot got its name for a rather gruesome reason! There was a headless statue here, but it’s not on public display any longer, and there’s no evidence that Anne Boleyn ever visited Studley Royal or Fountains Abbey.
The Temple of Fame
Next, you’ll come to the Temple of Fame. What’s surprising here is that the “stone” columns are actually painted wood! There’s a very lovely view of Fountains Abbey from this spot.
The Octagon Tower
This extravagant folly was built in the 1730s and extensively restored in 1976. While you can’t go inside, there’s a grand staircase to enjoy, pretty architectural details, and lovely views over the garden.
The Serpentine Tunnel
The Serpentine Tunnel is close to the Octagon Tower. Dark and curving, it’s rather spooky, as you have no idea what lies ahead. My dog, Bertie, loved it!
The Temple of Piety, Moon Pond, and Studley Lake
The Italianate Temple of Piety and the Moon Pond are serene and beautiful, with manicured lawns, still waters and classical sculptures everywhere.
#5 Studley Royal Deer Park
About 300 deer live in the park – Red Deer, Fallow Deer, and Sika Deer. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see wonderful groups of them.
I recommend walking through “Seven Bridges Valley” for the stunning scenery and the best photo opportunities! The mid-18th-century Studley Ice houses are archaeologically interesting, and are still being fully excavated and understood.
#6 St. Mary’s Church
This beautiful Grade I listed church is one of the finest examples of High Victorian Gothic Revival architecture in England. Designed in the 1870s by William Burges, St Mary’s Church has been named Burges’ “ecclesiastical masterpiece”. The high-quality stained glass is by Frederick Weekes.
The church was closed when I visited, so I could only enjoy the outside.
The Ultimate Photo Spots at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal
Photographers love to capture the sights at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, so remember to pack your camera! My Canon lightweight mirrorless camera is my favourite travel camera as it’s so light and easy to use. My backup is my phone camera!
For the best photos, try these spots:
- For Wildflowers: The walk from the Visitor’s centre to the Abbey is the best place to photograph wildflowers. Snowdrop season starts in February, followed by swathes of daffodils, then in late April and May you find carpets of bluebells and forget-me-nots.
- Views of the Abbey: Leaving the Abbey towards Studley Royal, take De Grey’s Walk, then turn around to capture the best shots of the Abbey, with the River Skell in the foreground.
- Distant Abbey Views: Walk up the steep hill to Anne Boleyn’s seat for the “surprise view” of the Abbey
- Popular, Instagrammable Shots: The most photographed place in Studley Royal is the Temple of Piety
- Architectural and Garden Shots: The Octagon Tower presents two photo opportunities – the tower itself and the spectacular views of the gardens.
Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal FAQs
Q1. Can I use my drone when visiting Fountains Abbey?
A. No, drones are not permitted.
Q2. Is Fountains Abbey dog-friendly?
Yes! Well-behaved dogs on a lead are very welcome everywhere in Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, except inside the buildings and the play area. My dog, Bertie, loved visiting Fountains Abbey, especially as he was allowed in the outside areas of the cafes and got to paddle in the river just behind the Abbey. There are plenty of dog waste bins too!
Don’t forget a dog water bottle and bowl, for those long walks!
Q3. How Accessible Is Fountains Abbey?
A. The National Trust has worked hard to make the site accessible; however, some places will be difficult for people visiting Fountains Abbey with accessibility needs.
The best place to park is the Westgate car park, for level access to the Abbey ruins.
There’s also a free shuttle bus from the Visitor centre to the car park, Studley Royal, and St Mary’s Church. Find more information about accessibility at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal here.
Tickets for Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal
One ticket provides entry to both Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Gardens. As of September 2020, ticket prices are:
- £13 for adults
- £6.50 for children
- There’s also a family ticket for £32.50 (with 2 adults) or £19.50 (with 1 adult).
If you’re a member of English Heritage or the National Trust, visiting Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal is free.
Get membership information for English Heritage here and the National Trust here. If you’re in the USA and interested in National Trust membership, check out the Royal Oak Foundation US membership affiliate programme and benefits here.
If you’re only visiting the Studley Deer Park and St. Mary’s Church, entry is free of charge.
The Best Time for Visiting Fountains Abbey and Opening Hours
While the Abbey is open all year-round, opening hours vary seasonally, and each season has its merits for a visit:
- From February through to May for the wildflowers
- In the summer for the best chance of good weather, and for picnics
- At autumntime for crisp walks with the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot
- In the winter when the Abbey is lit up with different colours and festive music plays throughout the ruins.
Check opening hours for your planned visit here.
Special Events at Fountains Abbey
Fountains by Floodlight: In October the ruins are lit up! Can you imagine how beautiful the ruins look in multicolour? It’s a fabulous North Yorkshire after-dark experience that I’ll definitely be returning for.
Christmas at Fountains Abbey: Fountains Abbey at Christmastime is incredibly atmospheric, especially on the days when there are Carols by candlelight.
How to Get to Fountains Abbey
By Road: The best way to get to Fountains Abbey is to drive via Ripon, which has good road connections. To get to Ripon:
- From Leeds, Leeds Bradford Airport and “The South“, including London: Drive North on the A61 from Harrogate (approx. 30 minutes)
- From Durham, Edinburgh, Scotland and “The North”: Drive South on the A1, turning off at Junction 50 (Baldersby Interchange) for Ripon
- From York: Take the B6525, then the A1 North to Junction 50 (approx. 45 minutes)
- Travelling From Ripon to Fountains Abbey is easy! Follow the B6265 for 3.7 miles (8 minutes). Satnav: Fountains, Ripon, HG4 3DY
By Public Transport: Visiting Fountains Abbey by public transport involves a long journey, with several changes. Here are some options:
- From York: Take the 22 bus to Ripon, then change to the 139 bus to go to Fountains Abbey.
- From London: take the train from London’s King Cross Station to Leeds, then change trains and travel onwards to Harrogate. Change for the 36 bus to Ripon, then change again to the 139 bus to Fountains Abbey. With all of the changes and extra time for connections, expect this journey to take at least 5 hours, but possibly longer!
If you’re travelling from outside of Yorkshire, I recommend staying nearby for at least one night.
Where to Stay Near Fountains Abbey
There are several excellent options:
- For an affordable luxury experience, it has to be Grantley Hall, just a few miles from Fountains Abbey. Set in a glorious rural location, with a spa and great food, you might be surprised how reasonably priced a stay here can be. Check pricing and availability here.
- In Ripon, there are two historic coaching inns located right in the centre of the city, close to the bus station and Ripon Cathedral. Both are comfortable, affordable and offer very good food! Check pricing and availability here.
- Airbnb is another option, with plenty of attractive properties and welcoming hosts to choose from.
Things to See and Do Near Fountains Abbey
- Meander through the quaint City of Ripon. Check out the three fascinating museums, the beautiful 12th-century cathedral with a 7th-century crypt, and the see town’s Hornblower – at 9pm EVERY evening!
- Explore the charming village of Ripley, with its castle, deer park and unique medieval monuments
- Venture into the elegant Georgian/Victorian spa town of Harrogate for upmarket shopping, fabulous food, RHS gardens and stunning architecture, not forgetting the incredible Victorian Turkish Baths (a real must-do!)
- Discover the pretty North Yorkshire town of Knaresborough, with its medieval castle, fascinating Civil War history and mesmerising waterfront, plus there’s a gorgeous Victorian viaduct.
- Venture into deepest Nidderdale, to discover Coldstones Cut – Britain’s biggest public artwork.
- The cities of York and Leeds are within easy reach too and brimming over with things to see and do.
- If you’re a gin lover and want to take an authentic taste of Yorkshire home – try a Gin Distillery Tour at the fabulous Whittaker’s Distillery!
So that’s it for this guide to visiting Fountains Abbey. For a hidden away place, it has so much to offer visitors and could make a great addition to your itinerary if you’re visiting Yorkshire.
Pin for Later – Visiting Fountains Abbey & Studley Royal
Have you been to Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal? What’s your favourite thing to do or see? I’d love to know!