Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal: A World Heritage Site

Studley Royal park, including the ruins of Fountains Abbey was one of the first sites in the UK to be inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage Site listings in 1986.

First thing's first, what is a World Heritage Site?

The World Heritage Site list is chosen by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). This list is made up of sites across the world which have great cultural and/or natural value and need to be treasured and maintained for future generations.

To become a World Heritage Site you must be able to show 'outstanding universal value' and be able to meet one of 10 criteria set out by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

How does it happen?

It's a gruelling process to become a World Heritage Site. First of all, after lots of hard work you make it onto a 'tentative list of future nominations'. Then the World Heritage Committee decides on whether you make it onto the list of Sites that include Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China, the palace and park of Versailles and the pyramid fields from Giza to Dashur.

Why are we a World Heritage Site?

The UNESCO Operational Guidelines note that in order to be included on the World Heritage List a site must (i) demonstrate Outstanding Universal Value (meaning ‘cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity); and (ii) meet one of the ten selection criteria.  

We are a World Heritage Site because in addition to demonstrating Outstanding Universal Value our site meets the following two of the ten selection criteria:

Criterion (i): our site represents a masterpiece of human creative genius

Studley Royal Park, including the ruins of Fountains Abbey owes its originality and striking beauty to the fact that a humanised landscape was created around the largest medieval ruins in the United Kingdom. The use of these features, combined with the planning of the water garden itself, is a true masterpiece of human creative genius.

Criterion (iv): our site is an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates significant stages in human history

Combining the remains of the richest abbey in England, the Jacobean Fountains Hall and Burgess miniature neo-Gothic masterpiece of St Mary’s, with the water gardens and deer park into one harmonious whole, Studley Royal Park including the ruins of Fountains Abbey illustrates the power of medieval monasticism, and the taste and wealth of the European upper classes in the eighteenth century.

It's not all about the abbey

Many visitors assume it is Fountains Abbey which gives the estate its World Heritage status, but it is in fact the ‘harmonious whole of buildings, gardens, and landscapes…which represents over 800 years of human ambition, design and achievement', meaning that Studley Royal water garden is an essential element of this harmonious whole.

The design of Studley Royal offered up famous 'borrowed views' of Fountains Abbey from the water garden
Surprise view spring 2019 at Fountains Abbey
The design of Studley Royal offered up famous 'borrowed views' of Fountains Abbey from the water garden

A tale of two parts...

There are two distinct parts to the Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal estate, as the name suggests: Studley Royal water garden and the ruins of Fountains Abbey. The two parts, while so different merge together to create one awe-inspiring whole.

The garden vision

The water garden at Studley Royal is one of the few great 18th century gardens to have survived well in its original form. It's the creation of a man called John Aislabie and later his son, William.

They both had astounding vision for how they wanted this garden to look, working with the landscape rather than changing it. Their design ingeniously channels the winding waters of the River Skell past the abbey ruins and into moon shaped ponds and mirrored lakes, framed with formal bosquet hedges and laurel banks. They pushed the boundaries of what's considered to be a garden and heavily influenced the typical 'English' garden style.

The water garden as eighteenth century visitors would've seen it
Studley Royal Water Garden in the eighteenth century
The water garden as eighteenth century visitors would've seen it

There's more to the site than the abbey and garden...

Sat on the west side of the abbey there's also the transitional Elizabethan/Jacobean Fountains Hall - built partially out of stone from the abbey - and Fountains Mill. Situated in the medieval deer park is St Mary's church, designed by William Burges in 1871 and is often thought to be one of his greatest pieces of work.

Explore Fountains Mill
Explore Fountains Mill
Explore Fountains Mill

What does it take to look after a World Heritage Site?

As part of the UNESCO Operational Guidelines all World Heritage Sites are required to have a management plan or management system which sets out how they look after the Outstanding Universal Value of the site in question for future generations to enjoy.

Our management plan includes our Statement of Outstanding Universal Value which sets out why our property has universal application. It describes the spectacular 18th century landscape and water garden, the ruins of Fountains Abbey and the beautiful Fountains Hall and St Mary’s Church.

See what's been happening so far:

2022 Update  

Our current World Heritage Site Management Plan is due its six yearly review.

We wrote the last plan back in 2014 and we’re now looking again at that plan with the other members of our World Heritage Steering Group and thinking about our management challenges and priorities for the next six years so that we can put together a new World Heritage Site Management Plan.

As part of the review and the work towards creating a new plan, we’re asking our local communities, visitors and our stakeholders for their ideas on what the new plan should cover.

If you have any ideas or thoughts or would just like to find out a little more about this process we’d love to hear from you so please do email us at

2021 Update

Fountains Abbey WHS management plan update 2021 (PDF / 2.505859375MB) download

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