Haunting and beautiful, the ruined sites of England can offer a way for people to take a raw peek into life in the Middle Ages. Yet the view of these abbeys as you descend towards them are enough to lift the spirits, especially on a crisp winter’s afternoon with sunlight streaming through the abbey’s many arched windows.
None do this better than the UNESCO recognised Fountains Abbey & Studley Royal Water Gardens near Ripon in North Yorkshire. It's magnificent 12th-century abbey ruins is one of the largest and best preserved ruined Cistercian monasteries in England and amongst the most significant monastic remains in Europe. So the perfect place for a little 'road schooling' with the help of their excellent audio guides. Using a clever narrative, you listen to a young 'novice' monk being mentored by an older choir monk... it takes you through all the aspects of how the monastic day was run, what the structure and hierarchy were and some of the medieval influences on the monastery.
It's interesting to see how this differs from other abbeys we visited including Whitby and Riveaulx. Perhaps in part due to it's position adjoining the Royal Studley deer park but also due to it's excellent play facilities, water mill and water gardens, it's certainly a place that offers a full day out for families.
Set in a charming wooded river valley, Fountains Abbey has a dramatic setting in an old river valley with cliffs on either side. However, it isn't far from two other amazing places to explore at the National Trust 'Brimham Rocks' or the Stump Cross Caverns in Nidderdale.
Created in 1132, it survived as a working Abbey until King Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. Many of the monastic sites throughout England were abandoned and gradually fell into ruin. If you wanted an easy way to find more, try a visit to 'Barley Hall' in the centre of York. It's excellent visual exhibition offers a child friendly experience to help understand the complex nature of Henry VIII's financial and religious decision.
The dissolution of the monasteries was one of the key features of Henry VIII's reign. Henry broke with the Catholic Church in Rome after his wish to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon - who had failed to give him a male heir - was refused by the pope. This led to Henry setting up the Church of England and began to take over monasteries, as they were seen as a cornerstone of Catholicism. Between 1536 and 1540, Henry took charge of more than 800 monasteries, abbeys, nunneries and friaries.
By destroying the monastic system, Henry took in all its wealth and property whilst removing its Papist influence. Thankfully certain elements at Fountains Abbey have stood the test of time, including the small green man that was used to show the Cistercian's focus on living a simple life linked to nature. Or the choir stalls, medieval drying or record keeping rooms (with their Ottoman influences ceiling we first saw in Cordoba or Granada in Spain)
There's plenty more to see here, with the Swanley Grange offering more on how this small community of Cistercian monks and lay brothers used their skills to make Fountains Abbey into a splendid, rich and self sufficient community based largely on their skills at turning wool into tradable products.
Grabbing the chance for a cup of tea in the easily accessible visitors centre (surrounded by a large car park) we headed out by the board where you can find out more about the regular programme of medieval re-enactments, theatres, trails and craft workshops. That's if you can prise your children out of the brilliantly imaginative adventure playground.
Perhaps not quite rivalling Holkham Hall (Norfolk) for size or Alnwick (Northumberland) for it's treetop adventures.... it's still really worth planning to spend your lunch here. Easy seating surrounds an enclosed playground that will have something for all ages... from toddlers playground equipment to zip wires for older children.
Since the 18th Century, the Study Royal and Fountains Abbey ruins were merged into a central estate, at which point the Gardens were created to seamlessly join the two areas through a series of water channels and semi circular ponds. If you explore the trails, you'll even be treated to surprise views over the temples plus plenty of wildlife to keep you entertained today.
Fountains Abbey is 3 miles south west of Ripon and costs £34 (family of 4). Special offers are available online or just use your York Pass.
But to see the real stars, you'll need to head towards the medieval deer park in Studley Royal. Visit like we did between September and November and you'll be treated to rutting displays between competing male stags/bucks.... who even cover their antlers with grass to attract the hinds (females)
Casting their antlers each year in March-May, it takes around 3 months to regrow.... You can see them at this time with a 'velvet' covering which supplies nutrients to the growing antlers. But in August, they are said to 'be in tatters' as the velvet is rubbed off against trees and walls...
But what's particularly interesting about this deer park rather than the likes of Burghley Park near Stamford, is the variety of deer on show (not to mention the Canada Geese). You'll be treated to the Red Stags who 'roar' during a rut, whilst Fallows 'belch' or 'bark' and Sika stags 'whistle' or 'scream'. There's just so many of them and it's hard to pick a favourite...
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