I have visited several abbeys in England and Scotland before but nothing prepared me for what I would see at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, England. Russell told me that the ruins were huge, but still, I was blown away by what I saw.
Fountains Abbey together with the Studley Royal Water Gardens are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You wouldn’t expect these magnificent abbey ruins to be paired with an elaborate Georgian water garden. The contrast between the two makes it special. It’s something that you need to see for yourself.
Visiting Fountains Abbey can be overwhelming because the site is much bigger than you might expect and you will struggle to see it all in one day. That’s why I created this guide to help plan your visit to Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. It includes an overview of the history, what to see, practical tips, and logistical information.
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The History of Fountains Abbey
The Abbey was founded in 1132 and operated for 407 years! A small group of Benedictine monks left St. Mary’s Abbey in York seeking a simpler life. They became Cistercian monks and were granted land along the River Skell to build a new abbey. The new abbey was called Fountains Abbey because of the springs of water in the area.
Over the years, the Abbey faced hard times and also thrived. They had bad harvests, financial problems, and health issues. At other times, Fountains Abbey did well with wool production, lead mining, cattle rearing, horse breeding, and the stone quarrying Mill It was one of the wealthiest monasteries in England until Henry VIII ordered its dissolution in 1539.
You can learn more about the history of Fountains Abbey through the exhibit in the Porter’s Lodge. They also have tours that leave from the Porter’s Lodge, so ask at the Visitor’s Center for the day’s schedule, or if you prefer, request the audio guide.
Why are Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal connected?
I thought it was a bit odd that there was a Royal Garden as part of the site containing the ruins of Fountains Abbey, but there is an interesting story behind it. Studley Royal is the result of a breath-taking vision from John Aislabie, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and his son William.
They created the formal Water Garden with extraordinary vistas, classical statues, garden buildings, and follies next door to the ruins of Fountains Abbey. (A folly is a costly ornamental building with no practical purpose, like a tower or mock-Gothic ruin). In William’s mind, the Abbey would make for the ultimate folly. In 1761, he purchased Fountains Abbey making the two sites one. Amazingly, the garden you see today has not changed much from the one the Aislabies created more than 200 years ago.
Where is Fountains Abbey?
Fountains Abbey is located in the county of Yorkshire in England. It is in the serene countryside, kind of in the middle of nowhere. The closest city is Ripon. Ripon itself is worth a visit if you are in the area. It’s attractive, full of history and has a beautiful cathedral.
Things to Know Before Visiting Fountains Abbey
Fountains Abbey is not your typical English Abbey ruin. There are a few important points that I think visitors need to know:
- Wear appropriate footwear. The place is much bigger than it looks on the map. You will be walking a lot and some of it will be uphill. Even though the ruins of the Abbey are huge, they are not even visible from the Visitor’s Center entrance!
- Be prepared for the weather. Hopefully, you will visit on a day with spectacular weather like we did. If that is the case, be sure to wear sunscreen. If it is going to be cold or rainy, make sure to be dressed for the conditions.
- Expect to spend a full day. You will not be able to see everything in one visit, so make sure to prioritize and plan accordingly.
- The food we had at the restaurant by the visitor’s center was creative and tasty, not the typical dishes you see at many other tourist attractions. I think the menu changes frequently but we had salmon cakes. It was reasonably priced too.
- Cell phone reception is basically non-existent! They do have free wi-fi at the Visitor’s Center though.
- Fountains Abbey allows dogs on the grounds, but not inside any of the buildings.
Things to do When Visiting Fountains Abbey
Fountains Abbey is much more than just the abbey ruins. In fact, there are so many things to do at Fountains Abbey that you most likely won’t be able to see everything in one visit. Keep reading for more detail about everything you can see at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. After I go through everything, I will tell you what I think are the must-sees.
Exploring the Ruins of Fountains Abbey
The Abbey was built in a valley about a 10 to 15-minute walk away. We started our visit by heading straight to the Abbey. Once we got to the grassy area in front of the Abbey, I tried to take it all in. Outside the main Abbey, there are the guesthouses and then across the river the Bakehouse, Woolhouse, and Brewhouse. My attention was drawn to the tower and how tall it was! Even then, I don’t think I realized how big the ruins were.
We stepped inside the cellarium and I was surprised how this part of the ruins is basically intact. I admired the arches and thought about how much they could have stored here – it’s 300 ft long! Then we moved into the church. I could picture it full of monks attending a service.
I walked over to Huby’s Tower to see if it would be possible to climb up, but no. There were plenty of birds enjoying the view from up there. Just off the alcove with the tower, there were a couple of rooms to explore too. After peering in, we went back into the nave and then walked towards the Chapel of the Nine Altars.
Next, we explored the rest of the abbey. This is not something you just walk through quickly. There are many nooks and crannies to go in. Don’t miss the Cloisters, the Muniments Room (it’s upstairs), the Chapter House, Refectory, Infirmary, and if you’re curious, the Laybrother’s toilets.
Fountains Mill was built in the 12th century by the monks of Fountains Abbey. The Mill was the heartbeat of the Abbey and is the oldest surviving Cistercian mill in Europe. It is one of the few buildings to survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries, probably because it generated an income on its own.
It was originally run by lay brothers, members of the monastic community who had not taken vows. You can see some of the mill equipment in action and there is an exhibit that explains more about daily life at the Abbey. Next to the Mill, there is a small cafe if you need a drink or snack.
Fountains Hall was made partly from stone from the Abbey. It was finished in the early 17th century. Inside you can see a few rooms where there are exhibits about the Fountains Abbey Settler’s Society which helped train young men during the Great Depression. Opposite the Hall, there is a herb garden and orchard.
It’s a beautiful building but since there is not much to see inside, I recommend skipping it so you have more time to see the rest of the Fountains Abbey site.
What to See at Studley Royal
It’s tempting to spend your whole day admiring the Abbey and the attractions nearby, but please leave some time to explore the Studley Royal Water Gardens. It’s what you might expect from a Royal Garden – beautifully designed, well-manicured, and idyllic. Additionally, it is less crowded than the Abbey.
The Studley Royal Gardens are more than just a pretty place! There are a few spots that you need to make sure to see. If you follow De Gray’s walk from the Abbey, there is a turn-off going uphill by the half-moon reservoir which will take you to see the attractions. Fair warning it is a steep path.
Surprise View & Anne Boleyn’s Seat
The Surprise View offers a glimpse of the Abbey in the distance. While I preferred the views from De Gray’s walk, it’s still worth a look. “Anne Boleyn’s Seat” got its name because of the headless statue that was there (it is no longer on public display). I don’t think she ever visited Studley Royal or Fountains Abbey.
Temple of Fame
The next attraction you will pass is the Temple of Fame. It looks like something from ancient Rome. The columns appear to be made of stone but are actually just painted wood. I actually like the views here better than the Surprise View.
The Octagon Tower is aptly named. It was built in the 1730s but restored in 1976. You can’t go inside but it’s still worth admiring all the architectural details. Plus, the views over the garden are lovely.
Not far from the Octagon Tower is the Serpentine Tunnel. I have to admit it was a bit spooky! It is dark and curves so you are not sure what is around the corner. As we were walking through it, I thought about how much fun kids could have in the tunnel.
Temple of Piety, Moon Pond, and Studley Lake
To me, the Temple of Piety and the Moon Pond is the most beautiful part of the Garden. The grass is green and perfectly manicured. The water adds to the serenity. It has a distinct Italian influence with the classical sculptures, but the columns on the Temple of Piety remind me of ancient Greece.
A bit past the Moon Pond is Studley Lake. It’s another area with gorgeous views. There is also a cafe where you can sit outside and enjoy the ambiance.
Studley Royal Deer Park
We walked through a bit of Studley Royal Deer Park on the way from Studley Royal Garden back to the Visitor Center. It is called a deer park for good reason – you can see deer here. They have about 300 that live in the park. At Studley, there are three types of deer – Red Deer, Fallow Deer, and Sika Deer. Since we were tight on time, we didn’t have the opportunity to explore or look for deer.
St. Mary’s Church
Unfortunately, due to the limited opening hours (end of March – late October, 12pm-4pm) of the church, we didn’t get to go inside. It’s supposed to be one of the finest examples of High Victorian Gothic Revival architecture in England, designed by William Burges. The stained glass is also said to be magnificent.
Must-Sees at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal
Ok so since you have come to terms with the fact that you won’t be able to see everything at Fountains Abbey, you are probably wondering how to prioritize. In my opinion, make sure to see the Fountains Abbey ruins (of course!), the Fountains Mill, and then walk through Studley Royal as described above. You can walk to the Visitor’s Center through the Deer Park or the Abbey, both are about the same distance and both will have hills.
I think St. Mary’s Church is probably a must-see too but because of its location and limited hours, it may be hard to fit into your itinerary.
Best Photo Spots at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal
Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal are a photographer’s dream, so be sure to bring your camera. We have been using the Sony a6000 for a while, and hope to upgrade to the Sony a7iii. Keep in mind that some spots can get crowded, so be prepared to be patient. For the best photos whether it is for Instagram or something else, try these spots:
- The walk from the visitor’s center to the Abbey has the best spots to photograph the wildflowers. We visited in May and saw bluebells and forget-me-nots. In early spring, the snowdrops will be in bloom.
- As you walk from the Abbey to Studley Royal, turn around for the best views of the Abbey.
- The Octagon Tower is photogenic in itself, but it also has spectacular views of the gardens.
- The Temple of Piety is the most photographed site in Studley Royal.
Should You Visit Fountains Abbey with Kids?
Yes! In addition to the fact that there is plenty of space for kids to run around, there is also a playground located close to the visitor’s center. I think they would also like the Serpentine Tunnel. Please make sure that they are respectful of the Abbey ruins and don’t try to climb them.
Is Fountains Abbey Accessible?
The sheer size of the site and the steep inclines bring accessibility challenges for sure. The National Trust has done what they can, but there are still areas that will be difficult to reach.
It’s best to park in the Westgate lot as from there it is level access to the Abbey ruins. There is a regular shuttle from the Visitor Center to Westgate, Studley, and St Mary’s Church and a wheelchair friendly vehicle available on request.
Tickets for Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal
One ticket gets you access to both Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Gardens. As of July 2019, it costs £16 for adults and £8 for children. There is also a family ticket for £40.
National Trust and English Heritage members can visit Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal for free. We are members of both organizations. If you are trying to decide which to join, think about the places you would like to go and see if more are part of English Heritage or National Trust.
Some of the English Heritage Properties I have written about are Dover Castle, Framlingham Castle, and Stonehenge (although National Trust members also have free access to Stonehenge). Get more information about English Heritage Membership here.
Some of the National Trust properties I have written about are the White Cliffs of Dover including the Fan Bay Deep Tunnel, Brownsea Island, and Corfe Castle. Click here to get more information about National Trust Membership here.
Those traveling to England from overseas can visit Fountains Abbey for free with the National Trust touring pass. Get more information about the National Trust Visitor pass here.
Note: English Heritage has a visitor’s pass too but it does not include access to Fountains Abbey.
Everyone can visit the Studley Deer Park and St. Mary’s Church for free.
Best Time to Visit Fountains Abbey and Opening Hours
The Abbey is open year round but the opening hours do vary. Check the hours for the day(s) you plan on visiting here.
Since most of the attractions are outside, I think the best time to visit is in the summer. I would be tempted to also go during the holiday season when they light the abbey with different colors and play festive music throughout the ruins
Getting to Fountains Abbey from London
Fountains Abbey is too far from London for a day trip, but there are plenty of other things to see in the area to make at least a weekend out of it. Since Fountains Abbey is in a bit of a remote location the best way to get from London to Fountains Abbey is to drive. Allow about 4 ½ hours. Parking by the Visitor Center is free.
If you’d rather, it is possible to take public transportation but be prepared for several changes. There are two options to consider:
- Take the train from London’s King Cross Station to York. Then take the 22 bus to Ripon and change to the 139 bus to go to Fountains Abbey.
- Take the train from London’s King Cross Station to Leeds and then transfer to a train to Harrogate. From there take the 36 bus to Ripon and change to the 139 bus to go to Fountains Abbey.
Check the schedules and pricing for the train here. Remember to save money on train travel, book in advance and choose specific train times.
Where to Stay Near Fountains Abbey
Since Fountains Abbey is located in the countryside, you may wonder where to stay. There are several excellent options:
- Choristers’ House is a holiday cottage located in the Studley Royal Deer park close to St. Mary’s Church. It was also designed by the architect Burges and the master bedroom has a view that’s hard to beat. Imagine being able to wake up and step outside right into the Royal Deer Park, take a stroll, and see some wildlife. Click here to check the price and availability.
- In Ripon, consider the Ripon Spa Hotel. It actually used to be called the Fountains Abbey Hotel since it is located just outside the city and close to the Abbey. The same family has owned the hotel for a century, but it has been refurbished. The hotel is set in eight acres of landscaped gardens. It looks so luxurious, I was surprised the hotel is so affordable. Click here to check pricing and availability or click here to read reviews on Tripadvisor.
- Airbnb is another option. We stayed at the Tack Room Cottage, which is one of the most adorable Airbnbs that I have stayed in. Our host, Brenda, was so friendly and welcoming. It is also very affordable. I would stay there again in a heartbeat. Click here to check out pricing and availability.
Tour to Fountains Abbey
From York, it is possible to take a tour to Fountains Abbey. With this Fountains Abbey tour, you get two hours to explore the site. It also includes visiting Aysgarth Falls, Middleham Castle, and Bolton Castle in the Yorkshire Dales. Get more information here.
Other Things to Do Near Fountains Abbey
- Ripon Cathedral – A beautiful cathedral with spectacular stained glass and a 7th-century crypt. There is no charge for admission, although donations are appreciated to help maintain the cathedral. Read Tripadvisor reviews here.
- Brimham Rocks – 400 acres of moorland and unique rock formations to explore! Read Tripadvisor reviews here.
- The city of York is about an hour’s drive away. It’s one of my favorite cities to visit in England.
Our Visit to Fountains Abbey
We had an amazing time exploring Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Gardens. Russell had been singing its praises so I was a bit worried it wouldn’t live up to the high expectations. Surprisingly, I liked Fountains Abbey more than I could have imagined. It was bigger and had more to see than I had anticipated. Additionally, I was blown away by the beauty! I was disappointed we weren’t able to see everything I wanted. Next time, I will know better!
I can’t recommend a visit to Fountains Abbey enough. Plan on spending a full day and using that time wisely. I hope I get the chance to go back and see the parts that I missed.
Have you been to Fountains Abbey?
Expert Tips for Visiting Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal
- Plan to spend the whole day at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal and know you still won’t be able to see everything.
- Be prepared for lots of walking and some steep hills.
- To visit Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal for free, join the National Trust or English Heritage. Those visiting from overseas can visit for free with the National Trust Touring Pass.
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