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The Yorkshire Versailles. By Lucinda Lambton

Blog | By Lucinda Lambton | May 16, 2024

Heavenly: Fountains Abbey, founded in 1132 by 13 monks

Studley Royal Park is an 800-acre estate. It includes the ruins of Fountains Abbey – named after the six springs that watered the site.

The abbey was founded in 1132 by Benedictine monks. They had left St Mary’s Abbey, York, to follow the Cistercian order.

Their leader St Benedict’s rule was a firm one: ‘Idleness is the enemy of the soul. For this reason, the brethren should be occupied at certain times in manual labour; at other times, in sacred reading.’

Fountains became wealthy through wool production, lead mining, cattle- rearing and stone quarrying. After the Dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s, the abbey buildings were sold by the crown to Sir Richard Gresham, whose family stayed at the helm until 1598.


The Surprise View, which overlooks the ruins of the abbey and the River Shell


As a scholarly bonus, the gardens and the park were to reflect every stage in the evolution of English garden design. If that were not enough, it has some of the largest Cistercian abbey ruins in Europe, as well as the ruins of a Jacobean mansion and a Victorian church, designed by the great architect William Burges. Hurray for such a wealth of wonders! Since 1983, Fountains Abbey has been owned by the National Trust. Between them, Studley Royal and Fountains Abbey encompass one of the finest assemblies of buildings in the country. Furthermore, they are set down in an exquisitely beautiful parkscape.

This also has – blow me down – a deer park, abundantly full of creatures; so numerous that when they stirred, they were once described as a ‘moving forest’.

There was once a glorious water garden, too. It was all the work of John Aislabie, a Chancellor of the Exchequer who created it from 1720 until his death in 1742. Two beautiful little buildings, most pleasingly known as the Fishing Tabernacles, date from the late-17th century. The tabernacles’ windows were opened for angling. You could catch mainly trout, grayling and roach. The salmon were killed off by the neighbouring cascade.

Aislabie was, catastrophically, the first and principal sponsor of the world’s first financial crash, the South Sea Bubble. When the bubble burst, so did he! Accused of ill-gotten gains, he was decried by parliament as most ‘notorious and dangerous with infamous corruption’. He was expelled from the House and incarcerated in the Tower. Nearly every cloud, though, however dark, has a silver lining. Aislabie’s forced,

The Fishing Tabernacles – anglers caught trout, grayling and roach humiliating retirement sent him north, where he was to toil with his admirable plans of beautifying his estate by Fountains Abbey.

Later, his son bought the adjoining estate of Fountains Abbey, adding the sublime 12th-century ruins to the fold. Father and son could claim to have created heaven on earth.


The Fishing Tabernacles - anglers caught trout, grayling and roach


There was a bathing house, a boathouse, a grotto and an octagon tower with fancy stucco work, as well as temples and scenic foot paths galore. A private garden with an aviary gave a good deal of pleasure. There were two ice houses, as well as a Gothic garden room and a statuary scheme. At one point, 100 gardeners were employed on the job.

With the River Skell flowing through his parkland, Aislabie was off to a picturesque flying start. He created cascades and a lake – in fact, a reservoir – as well as a canal, over which he built a rustic bridge.

The Temple of Piety is a real beauty of a building, standing over the round Moon Pond, flanked by two crescent pools, all still cut out of the turf with exquisitely sharp delineation. Aislabie is thought to have been helped in his great endeavours by the renowned architect Colen Campbell.

It was then that John Aislabie created the greatest shock of all: one that could make you pass out with excitement.


John Aislabie, Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1721-28


Called the Surprise View, that is precisely what it was: a panorama of the a little wooden building. While they were sitting in the dark, the walls would suddenly slide away, revealing – EUREKA – the view!

Stop, stop, stop! How many more delights can be introduced? Here goes with a few more! The gardens were to be flooded and the reservoir expanded with such new water features as the Green

The Surprise View, which overlooks the ruins of the abbey and the River Skell

ancient abbey ruins, standing like a giant folly in the midst of the planted parkscape, swept around by the River Skell.

In William columns, gilded decoration and a quantity of Chinese decoration outside. Most appealingly, it was approached by Chinoiserie-style bridges.

The Temple of Venus was filled with family portraits and smothered with plasterwork decoration, when its name was changed to the Banqueting House.

Most suitably for our purposes, the gardener of this paradise on earth was called William Fisher.