I used to visit Fountain's Abbey as a young girl in Yorkshire, and it was a privilege to return to this haunting and incredibly well-preserved site with the Great Inns of Britain and Historic Hotels of Europe. Got Saga published my piece about this extraordinary 800 year old Cistercian abbey complex, which is now also Yorkshire's first world heritage site.
We were very fortunate indeed in our excellent volunteer guide, Glenda Hunter. She has been guiding for seven years, and gave an enthusiastic and passionate account which brought the ancient spaces back to life. There is quite a lot of complex historical and ecclesiastical ground to cover intellectually, and Glenda struck the perfect balance between depth of information and broad accessibility.
This once thriving and huge monastic community was divided into Choir Monks and Lay Brothers, who had different responsibilities, uniforms and hairstyles. To put the scale in perspective, during its medieval heyday, Fountains Abbey had 1000 residents, as opposed to 800 people living in the whole nearby town of Ripon. Life could be tough: no personal items were allowed and there were three prison cells. However, in an age of low life expectancy and prospects for the vast majority, entering Fountains Abbey guaranteed food, shelter and a daily routine.
Something unexpected is the scale of production undertaken here: there is a fascinating industrial complex to look around, which begins to grant a way into the question of how this vast apparatus was funded, by, for example, selling wool. Even so, the financial history of the Abbey is not always a happy one, and the institution suffered not only from universal miseries like high taxation but also from disasters such as the Black Death, which wiped out a large proportion of the Abbey’s inhabitants in the fourteenth century.
The kitchen part of the tour is perhaps the most fascinating. The Cistercians of Fountains Abbey were a vegetarian order, reliant on local produce to an extent that would be desperately trendy today. Their staple diet of pottage, or thick vegetable soup, eggs and, surprisingly perhaps, rocket, was enlivened by more exotic ingredients like saffron. The remains of the huge refectory, now exposed to the open sky, are still there today.
Another incredibly important survival is the Cellarium: a stunning space, unique in Britain. The vaulted ceiling roof is still intact, indicating where the lay brothers once ate and slept, and today it shelters about eight different species of bats instead.
Once the tour is over, rest easy that the amenities on offer today are significantly more diverse and lavish than those available to the Cistercian order, including an enormous gift shop and a licensed, attractive visitor centre restaurant stocking tasty Yorkshire fare. This site richly deserves its World Heritage status and looks set to continue its run as a tourist attraction for centuries to come.