A look at the history of Studley Royal, North Yorkshire, with Dr Emma Wells

in Ripon

Endless historic delights await the visitor within the parkland of Studley Royal, an 18th-century designed landscape located 2.5 miles west of the small city of Ripon in North Yorkshire. Not only are these magnificent Georgian water gardens a landscape of outstanding merit, so much so they are now designated a World Heritage Site, but at their heart, awaiting a ‘surprise’ discovery, are the atmospheric ruins of the formerly wealthiest Cistercian abbey in England: Fountains, deliberately hidden then revealed to instigate a feeling of astonishment when glimpsed.

The history of the site dates back to 1132 when a group of disgruntled Benedictine monks left St Mary’s Abbey in York to establish their own institution within the deserted landscape adjacent to and therefore well serviced by the River Skell.

Following the monastery’s dissolution ordered by Henry VIII in 1539, the estate was then sold by the Crown to a merchant, Sir Richard Gresham. After being passed down through several generations of Gresham’s family, Stephen Proctor became the next owner, and reclaimed some of the medieval abbey stone to construct his own mansion there, Fountains Hall. It was, however, another affluent gentleman, politician John Aislabie, and his son William, who are to thank for transforming the site and imbuing it with such cultural importance.

After retiring to his extensive estates at Studley Royal, near Ripon, after the South Sea Bubble scandal erupted during his tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer, John commenced plans to transform the wild, wooded valley into a vast canvas for one the most spectacular water gardens in England. It became an outstanding example of the ‘English’ garden style, integrating the topography and form of the natural landscape, at its heart the meandering river, and ‘borrowed’ vistas punctuated throughout with surprise statues and follies.

John’s son, William, then saw to the garden’s completion, when, in 1767, he purchased the ruins of Fountains Abbey and integrated the romantic relic of the nation’s religious past to create the ultimate vista. And, finally, a must-visit is located in the extensive deer park: St Mary’s, a High Victorian Gothic church, designed by William Burges in 1871.

While the estate remained in private hands until the 1960s, the National Trust became its final owner and remains much the same as the Aislabies envisioned 250 years ago.

Books by Dr Emma Wells

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