Travels Through Historical Fiction: Fountains Abbey

UK-regional-map-562x790The English countryside holds so many wonderful historical sites it would take months, maybe years, to visit them all.  Although I long for another trip to take in the ones I’ve missed, my husband and I have been fortunate in seeing our fair share of ancient places. On our last trip to the UK, we landed at Gatwick, went straight to Hertz, drove north, and didn’t slow down until we reached Yorkshire, a place of great natural beauty (in red on map). Driving through the area is an experience to be sought in and of itself.

In addition to the tourist trade attracted by the wonderful scenery, Yorkshire boasts other industries including a thriving agricultural tradition. While English food has a less than stellar reputation, we found that once you’re away from London, the cooking improves with every mile traveled. In Yorkshire, it is plain country fare that will remind anyone from the American South of home. I hate being disloyal to Texas’s own Blue Bell, but the best ice cream I have ever tasted was found in a village High Street tea shop on the outskirts of Yorkshire Dales National Park. The only flavor offered was sweet cream. It was simple, rich, and completely delicious. When I asked for the brand name, the girl behind the counter looked puzzled, then said she guessed there wasn’t one. A local dairy farmer hand-churned the ice cream for their shop and brought it in daily. SIGH! I still dream about that ice cream.

Yorkshire-Dales-National-ParkAfter enjoying a post-lunch scenic drive, we found our B&B located in a tiny village not too far from York. The B&B was run by a charming gentleman in a home his family had occupied for over two hundred years. A portrait of an early 18th century military officer hanging over the drawing room mantle bore this out as it revealed a striking family resemblance to our host. Over a generous country breakfast of scrambled eggs, English style bacon, broiled tomatoes, and mushrooms, we enjoyed chatting with him and his twenty-something son, who happened to be home for the weekend. I mentioned noticing that the village church seemed abandoned. The young man chuckled and hesitated before explaining that the majority of the village and surrounding area residents were witches. I guess my eyes must have flared in surprise because he went on to explain that there was a resurgence of witchcraft in that part of England. Hmmm…perhaps he was referring to the Wicca movement or maybe he was just enjoying a jest at my expense; however, he did appear quite in earnest. Sadly, the passage of time has erased the names of the village and the B&B from my memory, but if you search the major route going west out of York you may find them nestled slightly south of the highway down a quite lane. The village is about 30-40 minutes from York and about 30-40 minutes from the focus of today’s post, Fountains Abbey.


Cistercian coat of arms

In 1132, 13 Benedictine monks from St. Mary’s in York went into the wilds of Yorkshire seeking a simpler way of life. Their goal was to establish a monastery where they might live a harsher, reformed, more devout life away from the hustle and bustle of York, a major city even at that time with all that city life entails. In order to achieve their purpose, within three years the monks were admitted to the Cistercian Order, known for its austere lifestyle through strict adherence to the simplicity of the Rule of St. Benedict (more about Cistercian history here and about a monk’s daily life at Fountains Abbey here).

cistercian monksWhile the  monks at Fountains Abbey lived out their lives to the toning of bells announcing the daily offices and spent much of their time in prayer, devotion, reading, meditation, and attending to all matters spiritual, the abbey came to depend on its lay brothers for the financial means to support all within its walls.[1]  Through the efforts of those lay brothers, Fountains grew to be the largest and richest monastery in northern England with affiliated houses spread as far as Norway.[2] The Abbey’s wealth came from its ventures in wool production, lead mining, cattle rearing, horse breeding and stone quarrying. While its fortunes waxed and waned with those of the periods in which it existed, the Abbey didn’t survive Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. In 1539, it ceased to function as a religious community and the abbot, prior, and monks were sent away with pensions. The estate was sold by the Crown to a merchant, Sir Richard Gresham, and stayed in private hands until 1960’s. West Riding County Council sold it to the National Trust in 1983. Since that time, Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden, located on the edge of Yorkshire Dales National Park, have become major tourist sites.[3]


Yorkshire Dales

The Abbey ruins and Study Royal are approached by car from either Ripon, a short distance north of the entrance, or Harrogate from the south. Either route provides scenes of rolling dales and small villages. It is quintessential northern English countryside. Visions of James Herriot bumping over rough lanes to attend the birth of a lamb or Mary and Dicken entering their secret garden come to mind.

fountains in mist

Not exactly as I remember it, but close enough.

Once inside the park with tickets in hand, we proceeded through a stand of trees, emerging on the other side to a scene that took my breath away. My memory is of standing on a slight rise above the Skell River Valley with a view of the ruins fairly close by rising up in the morning mists seemingly as if by magic. The scene was magnificent. One can only imagine what the Abbey must have been in its heyday. Looking at the present park brochure map (here), I am wondering if we entered through what is labeled the West Gate. Regardless of the direction from which one approaches, the first glimpse of the ruins will not disappoint. A walk through the grounds will reveal much about abbey life as it was long ago.

The King's Bishop Fountains Abbey

Many novels have been set in Yorkshire, but oddly, I can find only one actually mentioning Fountains Abbey. Fortunately, I have read it. If you are a fan of mysteries and medieval English history, you will love Candace Robb’s Owen Archer series. I believe I have read all of them, including The King’s Bishop. In this novel, Owen and his friend Ned Townley set out to Fountains Abbey and Rievaulx Abbey respectively seeking support for the king’s candidate for Bishop of Winchester, but when Ned is accused of murder, Owen’s mission follows a very different course. If you are interested in the series, I would suggest beginning with the first title, The Apothecary Rose.


The gallery below the notes contains several views of Fountains Abbey. Thank you for joining me today!


  1., Retrieved April 11, 2016.
  2., Retrieved April 11, 2016.
  3., Retrieved April 11, 2016.



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