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In July, on my way home from York I visited one of England’s most evocative ruins: Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire.

It was a wet morning but I was determined to see the Abbey as I had driven quite a distance out of my way. From the Visitor’s Centre entry you walk though a field and then down a winding path to the floor of the valley.

There lies the remains of one of Europe’s greatest monasteries. It is a haunting place – standing so quiet and empty.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this.

Founded in 1132, Fountains Abbey was one of the largest and richest monasteries in England. The monks were members of the Cistercian order.

The monastery’s wealth came mainly from sheep farming. This is the mill.

The outer buildings.

The approach to the Abbey church.

The Nave.

Inside the bell tower.

Looking up.

The crossing.

This is a view of the approach taken by the thirteen founding monks of the Abbey. They had been expelled from St Mary’s Abbey in York following a dispute about how the monks should live and worship. Their first harsh winter was spent camping here while they built the original wooden church on the site.

The Chapter House.

The Cellarium.

Here you can see where the stone for the abbey was quarried. In 1539 King Henry VIII dissolved all Catholic monasteries and Fountains Abbey was left to decay.

By the time I finished looking around the monastery complex the weather began to improve and I could put my umbrella away.

The Fountains Abbey ruins are now part of Studley Royal Park, which includes this Georgian water park designed in 1718.

There are formal gardens, lakes and views.

I took a walk up the hill to what is known as Anne Boleyn’s Seat.

From there you could look back down towards the Abbey.

I continued along the hilltop path to some of the other features of Studley Royal Park such as this pavilion.

Again, there were lovely views.

Looking at my map, I then realised the only way back down the hill was through this tunnel – it was pitch black in there and I could only see a couple of feet inside. It looked wet, slippery and very dark. There was no indication of how long the tunnel was but I knew that it would be quite a long way back to the level of the valley floor.

There was also this sign. It said that in addition to building and repair work taking place in the tunnel, it “is home to many bats…” and that it was designed to give visitors a “gentle fright”. I considered what to do – I could either walk the mile or so back along the hilltop or I could take my chances in the tunnel. Feeling brave I stepped inside. Even allowing time for my eyes to adjust, there were three or four steps I had to take in complete darkness when I just had to trust that the tunnel was safe and that I wasn’t going to plunge headlong into a crevice or be attacked by bats.

I walked several steps further and the tunnel bent to the right. Finally I saw the light at the end of the tunnel – literally. Luckily the tunnel isn’t that long but the bend in the middle means that you can’t see directly through it – hence its name: the Serpentine Tunnel. The rest of the way down to lake level was via a path.

Back down at ground level I continued my walk.

I was now about two miles from my car. I could either go along the lakeside back around to the Abbey or continue on the path that curved in the other direction that would take me back to the carpark via paths on open fields. I chose the change of scenery afforded by the latter option.

The map didn’t say quite how hilly it was…I thought I had already done my hill walking for the day! I was on the lookout for baby deer as it was fawning season. I didn’t see any though.

Somehow the closer I got to this church the further away it seemed. I stopped inside for a look around.

The church is called St Mary’s and was built in 1870 in the late Victorian Gothic style. St Mary’s was the last stop on my walk but I was still a good half a mile from the carpark – fortunately the rest of the circuit was on level ground.

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