Monday 20 June 2022

Fountains Abbey parkrun

In the year 1132 a group of 13 monks were unsatisfied with the indulgent lifestyles lead at Benedictine house of St Mary's Abbey in York. They craved a simpler, more humble, life, and were eventually expelled following a dispute and riot. These monks were subsequently taken under the protection of the Archbishop of York who provided them with some land in a valley where they could create a monastery. Along this valley flowed the River Skell. The site contained six springs and this inspired the Monks to call the area 'Fountains'.

In 1135 Fountains Abbey joined the Cistercian order, which called for a life of self-imposed hardship, and became the second Cistercian house in northern England (the first was the nearby Rievaulx Abbey). In the very early days the abbey would have been a simple wooden building, but construction of the stone buildings began and the main section of church completed around 1160. At this time it is estimated that around 60 monks and 200 lay brothers would have resided here. The monks' main focus was reading and prayer, and the lay brothers took care of everything else with many of these being skilled craftsmen.

The monastery by this time had acquired significant areas of land, much of which was used for farming and this, of course, contributed towards the growing wealth of the monastery. It is reported that the fleeces from their sheep were exported all the way to Italy. It had also become pretty much self-sufficient. In addition to the main church were the monks' and lay brothers' living quarters, kitchens, infirmary, guest houses, tannery and a mill. A 300ft long Cellarium was constructed (possibly not all at once), this section of the building would have been called the Great Cloister. The final significant element of the church to be constructed was the 160ft tall bell tower named ' Huby's Tower' after the Abbot Marmaduke Huby, the 37th Abbot of Fountains.

The monastery was the wealthiest Cistercian monastery in England when King Henry VIII's 'The Suppression of Religious Houses Act 1539' came into law. This triggered the process known as The Dissolution of The Monasteries. The buildings and over 500 acres of land were seized by the Crown and the following year were sold and gradually stripped of valuable materials such as lead, timber and stone (a condition of sale was that the buildings must be made unfit for worship). In the early 17th century further materials were removed and used in the construction of a country house named Fountains Hall.

The estate of Fountains Hall (including the remains of the Abbey) was purchased in 1742 by William Aislabie, who owned the adjacent Studley Royal Estate and the two were merged. The Aislabie family had created a stunning Georgian water garden which is said to have been England's most important 18th century water garden. In 1966 the estate was bought by West Riding County Council and in 1983 was acquired by the National Trust, who run the site to this day. Fountains Abbey itself is maintained by English Heritage. In 1986 'Studley Royal Park including the ruins of Fountains Abbey' became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The modern day estate is now over 800 acres in size and can be visited all year round. Along with the abbey and the water garden, the estate is also home to the Church of St Mary and Studley Royal Deer Park which is home to 350 Fallow, Red and Sika deer. Being a National Trust property there is an entry fee of £17 for adults and £8.50 for a child. There are of course family tickets and various other discounts available. Naturally if you are a National Trust or English Heritage member you can enter for free. It's worth noting that the church and the deer park are outside of chargeable area so can be visited without paying the entry fee.

In March 2014 the estate became home to Fountains Abbey parkrun and after years of it being number 1 on my must-visit parkrun list, I finally made the decision to book a hotel and make it happen. With North Yorkshire being a popular tourist destination, there were many accommodation options ranging from hostels, B&Bs, hotels and even options for yurts and glamping. For those looking for something extra special, I hear that you can even stay within the grounds of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. We chose to stay in a Premier Inn, which worked well for us as a family. There were options in Harrogate, but we stayed at their Thirsk hotel which is just under 30 minutes drive away from Fountains. This made for a simple journey on the Saturday morning via Ripon where the route was clearly marked with the brown tourist information road signs.

Upon arrival at Fountains Abbey we parked for free in the main visitor centre car park which is just off Abbey Road (technically there are three car parks here; A, B and overflow. We parked in A). However, since we visited, the parking arrangement has been changed and all vehicles arriving for parkrun must be parked in the overflow car park. There are other car parks dotted around the estate, but access to the site for the parkrun is only possible via the visitor centre so make sure you go to this one. Travelling by vehicle is really the only way to arrive at Fountains Abbey as there are no bus services until later on in the morning. From what I can see the closest railway station seems to be in Harrogate which is about 10 miles away. If you happen to be cycling, the Way of the Roses cycle route passes the venue. Cycle racks can be found right outside the visitor centre.

The grounds officially open at 10am, however on Saturday mornings parkrunners can enter for free for the duration of the parkrun event. It is very important that if attending the parkrun you have parked and got yourself through the gates and down to the meeting area well in advance of 9am as the staff close and lock the gate to prepare for the day's paying visitors. The walk from the entrance drops you down into the Skell Valley to the parkrun meeting point. It can take around 10 minutes to walk down. However, if you have kids with you they'll probably be distracted by the brilliant playground so it's worth planning extra time for that.

The main toilet facilities are located in the visitor centre at the main entrance, however if you make it all the way one down to the meeting point before feeling the call of nature, there is a second toilet block just next to the Grade I Listed Fountains Hall, which is just to the west of the ruins of the abbey (follow the path to the right as you descend) - don't forget to check out Fountains Hall if you visit these toilets. Anyway, it will be very obvious where the parkrun meeting point is from here as you'll see the usual parkrun paraphernalia and hi-vis vests of the day's volunteers dotted around on and beside the west lawn.

The main thing you'll do at this point is gaze upon the remarkable ruins of Fountains Abbey. From this viewpoint you'll be able to see the western end of the Nave and the remains of the Great Cloister (which contains the Cellarium) stretching out alongside it. It's worth popping inside as you'll see the incredible vaulted ceiling and rows of gothic pillars. Just to the right you'll see the remains of what was the Hospitium - a lodging house for guests. The abbey and extended buildings are home to eight species of bat. As it nears 9am you'll have to divert your attention away from the abbey to listen to the briefings.

The parkrun takes place on hard paths with absolutely no grass or mud sections to negotiate, so road shoes should be sufficient all year round. The course is run in a clockwise direction and is made up of a short lap followed by a longer one which is actually not quite a full lap (you can see what I mean by checking my GPS data or Relive Fly-by video). This course configuration has been especially designed to try to ensure that no participants are lapped - my wife went around with our 4 year old in 55 minutes and was only lapped by the first few very speedy finishers. The profile is largely flat, but contains a few ups and downs at various points. Buggy runners are of course welcome here and all the usual considerations apply.

From the start the participants head in an easterly direction towards the abbey and along its northern side, passing directly in front of Huby's Tower on the way. The path is only regular width so you may find a bit of congestion at this stage of the event. Once past the church the East Lawn comes into view. It had been known for many years that this area had been used as a cemetery for the Monks and lay brothers, however the true scale of it was not known until the area was surveyed with radar technology. The results showed that there are 500 graves present under the lawn using a bunk bed system of burial. Each of the graves could contain four bodies meaning there could be up to 2,000 buried here.

Continuing along the path which follows the inner curve of the valley, it's not long before the course makes its first crossing of the River Skell. From here the course heads around the outer curve of Half Moon Reservoir to start heading back westwards. Here you get to take in one of the classic views of Fountains Abbey - The gently meandering river and the lawn in the foreground, flanked by trees on either side and the striking eastern face of the abbey in the distance. If the conditions are right, the reflection of the abbey will be seen in the reservoir. This end of the church contained the Chapel of 9 Altars.

A loop of the abbey follows, which includes a second crossing of the river, this time via Mill Bridge, which as you may expect is located near the mill. The mill is the oldest building on the estate and continued to be used to grind grain right through until 1927. There is also a bell on the side of the building which visitors are free to ring, should they wish. You can't see the mill from the parkrun course, but it's easy to take a peak before leaving.

Once over the bridge the course passes the original meeting point and start area where the second, longer, lap starts by following the same path eastwards past the abbey. Once around the inner curve for a second time, the course continues onwards and into the main section of Studley Royal Water Gardens. In this area you will notice that the River Skell has been painstakingly engineered into a perfectly straight ornamental feature where it has been given the name of 'Upper Canal'. A bit further along it features a perfect 45 degree angle turn (I checked by using a protractor against the online map). You may need to pop your head through the gaps in the hedges to get a proper look at the water.

On this side of the river you may spot the Banqueting House which is the first of the many follies within the water gardens. The water remains out of view at this stage of the event as the paths pass through a slightly wooded section before entering back into an area of beautifully manicured grass, shrubs and trees. There is even a solitary white bench. Next up comes the final crossing of the river and is achieved via a pretty special feature. It's a narrow, wooden bridge with no sides which must be negotiated in single file. The river flows underneath and then heads down a small water cascade into the ornamental Studley Lake which has a decorative stone balustrade along the edge. It is marshalled by two volunteers who have a lifebouy to hand just in case somebody takes an unintended dip into the Skell.

Upon reaching the opposite bank the surface underfoot changes from smoother tarmac into a stony path for a short stretch. This leads through another shadier section where just out of sight through the overhanging trees is another folly, this one is called the Octagon Tower. As things open up the Moon Ponds come into view. This part of the garden has a Roman theme and sitting perfectly placed opposite the circular pond is the Temple of Piety, yet another of Studley's follies. If you look closely you may see three statues. These are the Roman gods Neptune and Bacchus, and Galen (renowned physician and philosopher). A fourth statue, The Wrestler (copy of a famous Roman statue) can be seen on the opposite bank in front of the half-moon pond. These may look like stone, but they are in fact made from lead and painted to mimic a marble finish - this was common during the 18th century.

The course continues to meander along the perfectly formed path until it re-joins the section that was covered earlier as it makes its way back around the outer curve of Half Moon Reservoir. This time around the finish line is not far away. The finish line itself stretches across the entire path, so once you've crossed you can't really go back (say, to take photos or something) without potentially causing issues with the finish line team. You may spot what is known as Robin Hood's Well right next to the finish - the small stone construction is thought to have been made in the 1800's from stone reclaimed from the abbey. But where did its name come from? Well, it is said that Friar Tuck, one of Robin Hood's merry men was once a monk at Fountains Abbey.

Once in possession of a finishing token, the participant's need to continue along the footpath for another 300 metres or so where a line of smiling volunteers will be on the grass waiting to take care of scanning. Before reaching them there is a very special viewpoint overlooking the abbey so it's worth taking some photos before moving on. With that done, depending on the time, you'll need to generally start to make your way back towards the visitor centre where you can have some refreshments if you wish. Of course if you feel as if you need more time to explore the grounds, you can of course re-enter the estate via the general admission system.

I had spent the event running with Nicola Forwood, one of the presenters of the With Me Now podcast (and before that, The parkrun Show), so that was an unexpected, but very nice way to spend the 33-and-a-bit minutes it took to get around. It definitely made the event extra memorable. The results were processed and published a short while after and 326 people took part in event number 348. At time of writing (June 2022), this is slightly higher than the official average, but comfortably within the expected number which tends to be in the 300-400 range.

During my post-parkrun exploring (to take extra photos) I bumped into one of the marshals who told me that the original proposal for the parkrun route was for it to be located within the deer park, meaning the abbey and the water gardens would not have been seen during the event. Thankfully a member of staff at the abbey suggested an alternative route and the rest is history. Fountains Abbey parkrun also has its own 'portmanteau word' so it is usual to find Fountains Abbey described as Fabbey or Fabbey parkrun, in fact the parkrun event's Twitter handle is @fabbeyparkrun. It's also worth noting that the mobile phone signal is almost non-existent, especially down in the valley itself.

The abbey has been used as a backdrop in films and TV shows. The most notable for me was The Witcher, season 2 episode 3 where Yennifer saves Cahir, which I had watched just a few weeks before visiting (watch this and this). It was also the filming location for the Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark - Maid of Orleans music video. Other films include The Omen 3, where the final scenes take place here, and also The Secret Garden (possibly scenes inside Fountains Hall) and a few others. There have been multiple historic TV documentaries filmed here, plus The Antiques Roadshow of which the full 44 minutes episode is also on YouTube.

And with that our morning at Fountains Abbey drew to a close. It certainly lived up to expectations of being one of the finest parkruns out there. It got me thinking that if this parkrun featured just the abbey or just the water gardens, it would still be a stunning venue, but to have both elements in a single event really makes this one of parkrun's truly iconic venues. If you have even the slightest hint of an opportunity to visit, it is definitely worth doing so.

Many thanks to all of the volunteers that put the event on and made us feel so welcome during our visit.

Related links:

Fountains Abbey parkrun (my GPS data from 18 June 2022)

My pre parkrun exploring GPS data (starts from the car park and finishes at the start)
My post-parkrun exploring GPS data (starts from the finish line and finishes back at the car park)

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