Thursday, 22 September 2011
Fountains Abbey - The largest monastic ruin in Britain.
Fountains Abbey in Rippon, Yorkshire, is a truly wonderful place to visit. It's owned by the National Trust, and is a World Heritage Site. It's huge, and awe inspiring.
The facilities are OK. The restaurant is large with heaps of seating, but there were big queues at the food counter because as usual with the NT there weren't enough people cooking and serving. Loos were a little dated and scruffy but clean. Staff, as ever, helpful and knowledgeable.
The Abbey stands on the floor of the Skell Valley and was built by monks from 1132 onwards.
The river Skell which runs through the site, and the following photos are of a model of what the original must have looked like; it shows how vital this water must have been for milling, transport, and drainage.(the monks' toilets extended out over the river) Fresh water for drinking came from the springs on the hillsides.
You have to put all three photos together to get an idea of how huge this site was.
The Cistercian movement had a highly organized set of rules and the community at Fountains Abbey had to follow them, including an annual trip to France to Cistercian HQ for decision updates from the parent Abbey.
Choir Monks. The first Cistercian choir monks led austere lives (you could either be a laybrother or choir monk) They were known as "White Monks" a nickname which came from their white clothes. Their habits were made of coarse, undyed sheep's wool with underwear only permitted when sent on a journey (nb there was no heating in the Abbey for the entire year, but there was a fire in one room which was used for washing - more later)
They spent their day in silence, using only signs to communicate. They were called to prayers 7 times a day between daybreak and dusk, and had a Vigil at 2 o'clock every morning.
The Cellarium. (right and below) This was where the Abbey's food supplies would be stored.
The cellarer was the monk in charge of managin the estate. His lockable stores for food and produce occupied the alcoves.
Each day a monk would read a chapter from St Benedict's Rule, to remind everyone of their calling. This is where the name Chapter House comes from. The book addresses all aspects of life in a religious community and shows a deep understanding of the workings of communal life. The monks were also supposed to confess to wrongdoings here and receive their punishment from the abbot.
Excerpt from St Benedict's Rule
"Idleness is the enemy of the soul. For this reason the brethren should be occupied at certain times in manual labour and at other times in sacred reading."
Laybrothers took care of the running of the Abbey so that the choir monks could devote their lives to prayer. They wore dark brown tunics and cloaks, and attended fewer services, though they would pray in the fields when they heard the abbey service bell.
Their work was demanding so they had longer hours of sleep and more to eat. The dormitory could house up to 200 laybrothers, but more stayed on local farms. By the middle of the 1200's, Fountains Abbey had become one of the richest and most powerful religious houses in the country. The sale of wool was the main source of wealth.
The refectory. The monks took their seats on wooden benches along the walls, separate from each other, and in silence. One monk would climb the stairs to the pulpit, and read aloud from devotional texts.
The monks on kitchen duty would serve the daily ration of thick vegetable soup (pottage) through a hatch from the kitchen next door.
In summer the monks had two meals a day and in winter, one. Each monk was given a daily loaf of coarse bread made with flour from the abbey's mill and some weak ale to drink. The abbey had fishponds and the occasionally eat fish but not meat. For the elderly, sick, or after blood-letting, meat could be cooked and eaten but in the Infirmary.
This tower is 167 feet high, and was built around 1500 by Abbot Marmaduke Huby. It's made from local limestone.
Below: The oldest part of the abbey was the wooden church, and early stone building. As you walk from the Church, you pass over tiles from the medieval church floor. This is where the main altar was.
Log fires burned in two huge fireplaces from November to Easter. There was no other heating in the Abbey, and monks could come here to warm themselves just for a few minutes (they weren't allowed any longer)
Three or four times a year, the abbot would order blood-letting for the monks, to purify them. They'd go to the warming room for this, and afterwards would be allowed to rest on their beds or in the Cloister.
The choir monks were allowed to rest for 6/7 hours each night (service at 2 am though). They had simple beds and slept in their habits.
Right, is a view up the chimney of the fires (I can't resist peering up chimneys!) Above the fireplace was a room used for storing papers - The Muniment Room. It was because it was the warmest and driest room in the abbey. It's believed they stored treasures here for King John at the time of the Magna Carta in 1215.
The mill was needed to turn the increasing amount of grain harvest into flour for bread. Cistercians were known as masters of water-driven machinery.
The Mill escaped damage under Henry VIII dissolution, because it was valuable, bringing in an income of £3 a year. It ground wheat, rye, oats and barley, and produced enough to feed the abbey, servants, visitors and the needy.
A bit of graffiti from 1787 on the mill door.
Why did it all go pear-shaped?
At the end of the century however, the mis-management of the accounts led to debts. The abbey made huge money from sheep (wool trade) but it's flocks became riddled with disease. Changing climate meant cooler weather affected the harvests which failed, and raids from hungry Scots, who were suffering famine in Scotland, were followed by the Black Death. Between 1349 and 1350 over 1/3 of the entire population of the country died of the plague. This meant there weren't enough laybrothers to work the fields, so the land was rented out to provide an income. It struggled until late in the 1400's when it underwent a short revival, once again becoming the richest abbey in England under Abbot Huby (see great tower above)
In 1539 however, it all ended with a deed of surrender to Henry VIII, and 400 years of worship at the abbey came to an end, and the asset stripping began.
There's not much I can say about this, as although you are allowed in, there's nothing much to see. 3 rooms are open, but have no furniture or architectural features of note, apart from 1 fireplace.
The outside is pretty however. It stands at the foot of a steep slope in the Skell Valley just west of the abbey. It facade is 17th century in the style of Robert Smythson, who was the architect of Hardwick Hall (posting to come)
Finally, there is a lot to see at Fountains Abbey including a walk around the Studley Royal Water Gardens, which include a lake, canal and cascade. There is a deer park to walk around, the De Grey Walk, The High Ride, Lakeside and Seven Bridges, and The Church of St Mary the Virgin to visit as well.
Plenty to do, and it will take you the whole day to do it all. At £9 this was good value. Unfortunately the WestCountryBuddha's time was limited and Durham Cathedral was calling!