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?

Recognised as a ‘feat of human creative genius,’ Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal met two of the criteria that UNESCO set out:

Criterion (i): represent a unique artistic achievement, 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): be an outstanding example of a type of building or architectural ensemble which illustrates a significant stage in 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.

You can read more detail about the statement put forward to UNESCO in order to become a World Heritage Site here:

Read our Statement of Outstanding Universal Value (PDF / 0MB) download

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.

Enjoying the Fountain Abbey ruins from afar
A couple enjoying the Fountain Abbey ruins from afar
Enjoying the Fountain Abbey ruins from afar

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 statues are dazzling eye-catchers again!
The classical statues at Studley Royal water garden after restoration work
The statues are dazzling eye-catchers again!

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?

There's a big responsibility to look after the site and to preserve it for the generations to come but of course this, as a conservation charity, is what we do best. You can find our whole World Heritage Site management plan, our progress report and our statements of significance below.

See what's been happening so far:

2019 update

World Heritage Site management plan: 2019 progress report. (PDF / 2.2MB) download

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