FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Fountains Hall and Abbey

Posted in England, York by folkestonejack on August 13, 2017

A Sunday outing to the National Trust site at Fountains Abbey proved to be a great way to enjoy a sunnier day in Yorkshire, but the initial draw for us was not the abbey ruins but the somewhat overlooked Elizabethan prodigy house. Arguably, you could say that we were still coming to see the abbey as Fountains Hall was built using stone from the ruins (the hall even includes a complete spiral staircase taken from the abbey).

Fountains Hall

In any other location Fountains Hall would be a major attraction, but on this site it is dwarfed by the majestic ruins of Fountains Abbey and the extensive 18th century pleasure gardens of Studley Royal. Construction of the hall began in 1598, almost 60 years on from the dissolution of the abbey and the subsequent wrecking to make it unfit for religious use. The abbey has been a ruin for the entire lifespan of the hall.

The exterior of the hall reflects the influence of Robert Smythson but is not in the league of grander houses from the late Elizabethan/early Jacobean age such as Hardwick Hall or Burghley House. Nevertheless, Fountains Hall has the wow factor that you expect from a prodigy house even if the three rooms open to visitors can’t hope to live up to that first impression. Through much of its history the hall has been in a state of decay as the home of estate workers and tenant farmers. The rooms not open to visitors include holiday and staff flats.

The later history of the hall turns out to be as fascinating as its beginning. In 1923 the hall was purchased by the Vyner family and their extensive restoration efforts saved the building at a pivotal moment in its history. It is intriguing to note that Clare and Doris Vyner were great friends of the then Duke and Duchess of York and had history turned out differently Fountains Hall may have become a royal country retreat. Instead the abdication of Edward VIII set the couple on a different course.

I gather there are plans to open up and make more of the hall, including the re-opening of the chapel room. I hope this comes to pass as this house deserves to be appreciated for the architectural marvel it is.

Fountains Abbey

A short walk from the hall brought us to the west range of Fountains Abbey, which was first established on the site in December 1132. The views of the surviving buildings as you wander through are magnificent and make it pretty clear that this was an impressive complex by the time of its surrender in November 1539. Some elements, such as Huby’s Tower, were barely 40 years old by this point.

The pleasure gardens present an altogether different collection of delights with temples, towers and statues within a watery setting. Although these stand on their own today they were originally the grounds of Studley Royal House which burnt down in 1946. I particularly liked the gothic Octagon Tower which you reach by taking an artificial uphill tunnel (known as the Serpentine Tunnel).

Our day visiting the estate was a delight and it is wonderful to see a site where so many layers of history are so accessible, from the earliest abbey buildings to the carefully engineered water gardens of the eighteenth century and on to the second world war memorial established by the Vyner family inside Fountains Hall in memory of their two eldest children. It is well worth a day of exploration and discovery!

Practicalities

We caught the first 822 ‘Fountains Flyer’ bus of the day from the stop at York Theatre Royal to Fountains Abbey at a cost of £10 for an adult return. This bus only runs on Summer Sundays and Bank Holidays, taking 1 hour 20 minutes to reach Fountains Abbey via Ripon. The seating on the bus was filled up by the time we reached the halfway point, though many switched to another bus at Ripon. We picked up the return bus at 2pm, but there is a later bus at 4.55pm and I suspect that most of the passengers we encountered in the morning opted for the latter.

Our stay was sufficient to take in the abbey, water gardens and the hall but we skipped the mill and the exhibition in the Porters Lodge. We also didn’t stray far beyond the National Trust grounds. If you want to take the time to walk out to the Deer Park and St Mary’s Church you would probably need the later bus.

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