An idle moment surfing pay television channels led BILL WATT to this pretty-as-a-picture English gem.
THERE have been times when I have spent too much time watching awful shows on pay TV. However, this day was not one of them, even though the show I was watching wouldn't classify as a classic in most people's minds.
There I was aimlessly channel surfing when I came upon something called Landscape Artist Of The Year, a British TV reality show that seeks to uncover the best landscape artist in the land.
The episode I had landed on was Series 4, Episode 1, where a whole pile of artists (What's the collective noun for artists? An artists' collective?) were required to paint the awe-inspiring ruins of Fountains Abbey in north Yorkshire.
I had never heard of Fountains Abbey, but as this show guided the viewer around the amazing ruins and documented the artists as they slowly developed their varied interpretations of the place, I fell in love with it and decided I had to go there in my upcoming trip to the UK with my wife.
So it was that several months later my wife and I headed from our hotel in beautiful York to the amazing UNESCO World Heritage site of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Park.
And we were not disappointed. The weather helped - it was a beautiful sunny but crisp day in early autumn. But it was the staggering ruins of this huge ancient abbey set in a verdant valley isolated from the hustle and bustle of the modern world that immediately set my mind thinking of Blake's famous hymn and his lines " And we shall build Jerusalem, in England's green and pleasant land".
Fountains Abbey was founded beside the River Skell in the year 1132 by a small group of Benedictine monks from York who were trying to escape the apparently raucous life of the mad, bad monks of that busy city.
Within three years they had joined the austere Cistercian Order and were soon committed to a vow of silence where idle speech was frowned upon and a form of sign language was developed. It was the Cistercian Order's use of "labouring" (lay) brothers in Christ that resulted in the abbey becoming one of the wealthiest in Britain. While the monks dedicated their time to worshipping in the abbey buildings, their brotherly helpers tended wool-producing sheep, bred horses, farmed cattle, mined lead and quarried stone.
No wonder the place is so enormous! And, as one of the informative signs at the site points out, the monks may have been silent, but the areas around the places of worship would have been a noisy hive of activity.
As my wife and I wandered around the amazing ruins which include a huge church, a once-spectacular chapel, monks' dormitory, hospital, cloister, communal dining area (refectory) and other buildings you get the sense that these busy holy men really were trying to build their own "Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land".
Certainly, as you stroll through the Chapel Of The Nine Altars" (pictured below) and see the artist's impression of the chapel in its former glory, it is easy to understand how this out-of-the-way religious retreat became such an important - and wealthy - religious centre during its 400 years operating as a house of worship.
Sadly, the monks' paradise in the north of England was cruelly ripped from them in 1539 when King Henry VIII (of the six wives), at war with the Roman Catholic Church, began dissolving the England's monasteries, priories, convents and friaries and absorbed their wealth into the royal coffers. The abandoned buildings fell into disrepair leaving their spectacular skeleton to astound visitors to this day and, no doubt, into the future.
One of the great things about a visit to Fountains is that once you can eventually drag yourself away from the ruins, it's time to stroll along the riverside to the wonderful Studley Royal Park water garden.
The gentle walk takes you through a park surrounded by woodland and a garden built around a picturesque series of ponds.
The National Trust website describes Studley Royal as "one of the few great 18th Century gardens to have survived well in its original form".
The gardens were the creation of John Aislabie and later his son, William both of whom, the National Trust tells us, had an "astounding vision for how they wanted this garden to look, working with the landscape rather than changing it".
I don't know anything about what inspired a couple of chaps to design such a large and spectacular garden in the early 18th Century, but thank goodness they did.
Quite simply, the walk along the channels and ponds created from the waters of the River Skell, and the surrounding gardens is one of the most pleasant and relaxing I can remember.
TRIP NOTES: Fountains Abbey is situated in Yorkshire, England about 36km north-west of the city of York, and is an easy 40 minute drive from there. Other travel options include a bus from York (1 hr 15 minutes) or a train from York to nearby and picturesque Knaresborough, then a taxi to Fountains (40 minutes + all up). It is a UNESCO World Heritage and National Trust site.