Saturday 28 November 2015

Fountains Abbey

I try not to be overly impressed by National Trust properties that have appeared on TV. However, Fountains Abbey near Ripon was in the video for Maid of Orleans, the atmospheric 1981 electro-hit by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, which IS worth writing home about (although I'm not actually going to write home about it, as my parents wouldn't have the faintest idea what I was talking about). 

This is not me bringing a horse to Fountains Abbey
to qualify for more scones - it's the OMD video.
In the video, Joan of Arc rides her behatted horse around the snow-covered ruins, until she is sadly murdered. I knew I was unlikely to see any snow - in fact, the sky was beautifully blue when we set off, so I was congratulating myself on some excellent scone scheduling.

I checked my weather app later and it told me to expect cloud in York. Never mind, I thought, that means atmospheric pictures of the ruins. But the rain was tipping down when we reached Fountains Abbey - the only pictures are of me and the Scone Sidekick staggering around like drowned rats. 

Of course, the upside of visiting during a torrential downpour is that we were pretty much the only ones there. I imagine this is a rare treat - Fountains Abbey is the National Trust's 5th most popular property, with a staggering 373,364 visitors per year. 

Things I Managed to Do Today:

1. Visit Fountains Abbey
Fountains Abbey is AMAZING. It's huge and it leaves you astounded - firstly that anyone managed to build such a thing over 800 years ago, and secondly that so much of it is still there. There are plenty of other abbeys that were closed during the Dissolution and ended up being rebuilt as homes for bigwigs - Lacock Abbey for one. Fountains Abbey is very different - you don't need much imagination to picture what life was like for the monks who lived there.

Fountains Abbey

Some brief history:
  • Fountains Abbey was founded in 1132
  • It was established by 13 monks, who left St Mary's Benedictine Abbey in York looking to return to the true teachings of St Benedict
  • They secured the help of the Abbot of Clairvaux and the Cistercian abbey was created
  • The abbey was maintained by monks (who did most of the praying) and laybrothers (who did most of the day-to-day running of the place)
  • Throughout the 1200s, Fountains Abbey was very wealthy and very powerful, mainly thanks to the wool trade
  • Trouble was brewing though - harvests failed, the sheep got a disease, and the Black Death wiped out a third of the population between 1349-50
  • The abbey revived itself in the later 1400s 
  • The imposing tower was built around 1500 by Abbot Huby
  • But in 1539 it all ended, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and the deed of surrender was signed at Fountains Abbey
  • It was sold to a Robert Gresham, who was obliged to make sure it wasn't fit for religious use - he pulled the roofs down, basically
  • It was then owned by the Messenger family, followed by the Aislabies
  • The National Trust bought the estate in 1983
2. Eat Fountains Abbey scones 
Poor old Fountains Abbey was under extreme pressure today. Every other NT property in Yorkshire that I've visited has scored top marks for its scones; Goddards and Beningbrough Hall both got five out of five in July, while Treasurer's House has a special place in the Scone Blogger's heart for its fabulous Christmas pudding scone. 

The fruit scone at Fountains Abbey looked extremely solid. It was almost too solid - I was a bit concerned about it, to be honest. But it turned out to be delicious - it was crisp on the outside and good and fluffy on the inside. I came very close to knocking off half a point for the hard and flaky Rodda's, but the scone held its own so I didn't. This means that Yorkshire holds on to its unblemished record. Nunnington Hall and co - it's all resting on you in 2016.

Fountains Abbey scone

I was also OVERJOYED to see that Fountains Abbey was selling Christmas scones. It was lovely - it tasted of festive spices and fruit and I enjoyed it very much. 

But now we must be honest and consider the Things I Didn't Manage to Do Today:

1. Visit Fountains Hall 
Fountains Hall was built between 1597-1604 by Stephen Proctor, who had bought the land near the abbey. The Hall was eventually acquired by the Vyner family in 1923, who often entertained the Duke and Duchess of York (who later became George VI and the Queen Mum). You'd think that I would have welcomed any opportunity to get indoors today, but I was scared that I'd get in the warm and never want to leave. At least I have a reason to go back.

2. Visit Studley Royal Water Garden
The other reason I'll have to go back is to see Studley Royal Water Garden. I just couldn't face trudging around looking at water features today, when my shoes were rapidly turning into water features of their own. This was a shame because the garden was made a World Heritage Site in 1986 and it sounds amazing - it was originally created by John Aislabie who started planning around 1718 when he owned the Hall. It has canals and all sorts in it, so I'll definitely return one day.

3. Visit Brimham Rocks
I'm also going to 'fess up to you and admit that I had planned to visit Brimham Rocks today. I knew there wouldn't be any scones there, because they don't have a tea-room, but they do have very weird rock formations that look a bit like E.T. and have names like 'The Dancing Bear'. How can anyone resist that? (Plus - and I'm spoiling you with the pop-picking facts today - Brimham Rocks were in a Bee Gees video.)

Let me also tell you now that I am not easily defeated by rain - I am half Irish for one thing and I was also in possession of a newly purchased National Trust umbrella (£8). But when we pulled up in the car park at Brimham the rain was so heavy that the Scone Sidekick literally opened his car door, said the single word "no", and shut it again. 

I eventually persuaded him to venture out for a look (I was helped quite a lot in this by his bladder) and we squelched along the path. Then he just refused to go any further, like a horse at Becher's Brook, and so we returned to the car and gave up.  

4. Visit Treasurer's House
I had also (ambitiously) been hoping to fit in a trip to Treasurer's House for its world famous (according to me) Christmas pudding scone. But the Sidekick had started talking about pneumonia and so I reluctantly decided to cut my losses and take him to the pub, where he cheered up enormously. It broke my heart to be within two miles of the Christmas pudding scone, but the Sidekick had to come first.

Fountains Abbey: 5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
My weather app: 0 out of 5. Cloudy? CLOUDY?


  1. Sorry you had the elements to contend with and much sogginess,but delighted to hear of your success elsewhere! Scone sounds delish and hopefully one day I'll get there despite an aborted 4 days in York earlier this year ....

  2. One of our fave places - so glad you liked it :). But I can maybe help with the weather app issues and a tip for anyone else visiting Yorkshire: the sheltered city of York has its own weird little micro climate that rarely has much to do with what's going on in the rest of North Yorkshire, so its weather forecast won't give much clue as to what you'll get 30 miles away and over a few hills - indeed it will just tease you with what you might have had if you had not ventured out into the countryside. (Having said that, the weather was pretty miserable here in York yesterday too - though not as bad as you had it. I think the grimness you had is reaching us today :(. *girds loins in thermals ready to face going out*)

    1. Thanks Jane! It was my own stupid fault for not checking the weather for Ripon! If I travelled 30 miles from my home, I wouldn't expect the same weather. Will definitely return to Fountains Abbey in the Spring though!