On Boxing Day 2013, D, me and the 6 year old took a walk around the National Trust’s Fountains Abbey & Studley Royal Water Gardens in North Yorkshire. It was a perfect, frosty but sunny afternoon.
Fountains Abbey is a product of the Victorians. What?!?! I hear you scream: “no it isn’t”. Well, no, it isn’t (technically). The Abbey was founded in the early 12th cenutry and was one of the richest in the country before its riches were taken by Henry VIII’s men during The Reformation. See here for something I wrote about Henry VIII and his connection with the history of the country house. I was explaining to the 6 year old about how one man changed all the rules because he wanted a new wife, which wasn’t allowed at the time.
Anyway, fast forward 300 years to the mid 1800s and the Victorians, who were often preoccupied by the beautification of decay.
By the 1800s the ruins of Fountains Abbey were held up by centuries of soil that had settled inside the structure and many plants and trees, which were intertwined with the structure. The picture below gives an impression:
In 1846 an archaeological excavation of the site was begun under the supervision of John Richard Walbran, a Ripon antiquary who, in 1846, had published a paper “On the Necessity of clearing out the Conventual Church of Fountains”. This saw the removal of the soil and plants and the support of building. I seem to recall that some ruins were completely rebuilt by the Victorians after the trees and soil holding them up had been removed for otherwise they would have fallen down.
I’m not sure that the abbey would have received the same treatment today, but nevertheless this was done and the abbey, working water mill and visitor reception are make a spectacular visit.
However, if that isn’t enough, one walks through the ruins and along a long grass dip at the bottom of the valley in which the abbey sits. To where could we be possibly be going? I told the 6 year old “just wait until we get around the next corner”.
While I appreciate Fountains Abbey, for me real joy is found in all things 18th century, especially grand gestures created by one person for their own enjoyment (in this case John Aislabie, who returned to Yorkshire after being expelled for life from Parliament for his part in the South Sea Bubble). And that is what lays “around the corner”; for there are water gardens, dug out by hand and restored to an immaculate spectacle, even in the cold a December afternoon.
If I think back to my report of visiting Sissinghurst last year, I recalled how the “castle” (actually Elizabethan courtyarded house) had existed as a ruin in the farmhouse’s garden. Well, similarly, Fountains Abbey were bought by John Aisladie’s son (who completed the water gardens following his father’s death) to form grandiose ruins in the garden.
The water gardens were started in 1718, were dug by hand. Wish I had this in my garden.
When visited: December 2013
Garden * out of 5: ****
Theme tune: Garden Party