Undiscovered Britain: North of England – Get the Abbey Habit

To celebrate the launch of the 2016 Best Loved Hotel & Travel Guide, we are pleased to bring you a series of stories on Undiscovered Britain by leading travel writers.

Get the Abbey Habit by James Ellis

Gracie, one of our five-year-old twins, screws her nose up. “Is this what onesies were like in the olden days?” she asks as she pulls the scratchy, woollen monk’s habit over her head. Despite it being child size, she’s still small and swimming in it. Yet she gamely pulls it tight around her waist as I don an adult version from a neighbouring peg. We are at the magnificent ruins of Fountains Abbey – the largest and best-preserved Cistercian monastery in the country, as well as one of the National Trust’s North Yorkshire treasures. It dates back to 1132 and became one of the richest abbeys in the land before Henry VIII began his campaign to dissolve the monasteries some 400 years later.

We had seen some of that magnificence earlier in the morning as we walked around its vast crumbling walls, beneath cloistered archways and through hidden passageways, before our girls attempted to make echo sounds in the jaw-dropping 49metre-high bell tower, despite it having no roof.

Following a run around the gardens, Martha and Gracie would normally be pining for a playground by this time. Instead, a summer shower sent us scurrying for refuge in the Porter’s Lodge interpretation centre, where we were offered the chance to try on the monks’ robes and to take a look at a replica model of what the abbey would have been like in its Gloria days.

These interactive, if basic, elements are enough to leave our two bewitched by the abbey’s rich history and questions arrive at a thousand miles per hour: Where did the monks sleep? Where was their dinner hall? Did they ever leave the house? Could they all ring the bell? Did they really wear onesies?

Interpretation is a recurring theme here at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden, to give the estate its full name. For the 800-acre plot also contains a Jacobean mansion, a Victorian church, a deer park, and 18th-Century landscaped gardens packed with ornamental lakes, canals and follies. Wherever we venture, there’s more to hold our kids’ interest: hidden walks around the water features, a folly arts trail where each has been dressed by a local artist, and even the chance to grind corn in an old mill. There’s also, of course, the obligatory playground, but the girls make short work of it before asking to “go back and find out more,’”

And so we head to Fountains Hall, the 17th-Century mansion house where there’s another chance to try period costume. This time both girls and mum have a go, pulling on bonnets and heavy black dresses with frilled collars before taking a seat in front of the fire to mimic one of the family portraits on the walls.

“I liked that other thing,” Gracie says of the monk’s habit she’d tried on earlier, as she settles into an antique chair. “But I think I’m more suited to life here in the manor. It’s even got a roof.”

Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/fountains-abbey

For a selection of hotels in the North of England, including the latest special offers, visit Best Loved Hotels in the North of England.

James Ellis is an award-winning travel writer, consultant and editor, and owner of www.your-hols.com