Rediscovering How Hill at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal

How Hill Tower at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal

Recent archaeology at How Hill tower may have unearthed a long-lost medieval chapel. Archaeologists have used the opportunity of routine site inspections to learn more about the site.

How Hill crowned by its striking tower, dominating the landscape just to the south of Fountains Abbey, can be seen from across North Yorkshire, with views on a clear day stretching over fifty miles.

2017 is the three-hundredth anniversary of John Aislabie’s acquisition of How Hill. John Aislabie was the original designer of Studley Royal water garden and How Hill tower was one of the catalysts for the creation of the garden which is now recognised as a World Heritage Site. 

It’s long been known that the monks built a chapel on the summit of the hill, dedicated to St Michael the Archangel. It was built some time before 1346, when there was a court case about whether the abbey or Ripon Minster could charge for the services there.

We also know that it was a pilgrimage site, where receipts from visitors helped in the upkeep of the building – not unlike like the National Trust today! The chapel was rebuilt early in the sixteenth century, and survived the Dissolution to serve local people for another half century, before falling into ruin.

Its ruins then played an important role in the development of landscape design. When John Aislabie built his tower in 1719, as an eye-catcher for his new garden, he seems to have preserved much of the ruins as a ‘garden feature’. This early antiquarianism (and many other examples) helped to found monument preservation as we know it today.

While John Aislabie may have been a protector of the ruins, his successors were maybe not so diligent. The tower was lived in by up to three families, totalling 17 people, along with their livestock. It was lived in until the inter-war years, and in world war two was used as a Home Guard observation post. The Tower and much of the hill were acquired by the National Trust in 1990.

Test pits at the tower have revelaed interesting finds
Test pit at How Hill tower near Fountains Abbey
Test pits at the tower have revelaed interesting finds

On Site Archaeology excavated routine trenches to inspect the tower’s foundations for the NT and found basic footings spreading out from the wall line. On the south side this rested on another footing bonded with a different sort of mortar and made of much finer stonework, a clue to a finer buidling having once stood here. This east-west aligned foundation continued well away from the tower – and seems to be part of the chancel of the medieval chapel.

Other clues included half a dozen small mosaic floor tiles, most likely from the chapel’s floor. In the abbey itself these tiles have always been connected with a painted pavement laid to the orders of Abbot John of Kent between 1236 and 1247.

This was one of the first tiled floors in a monastery in England. The chapel flooring needn’t be of the same date, but it’s tempting to think it might have been. It certainly makes sense to think about the chapel appearing in the last great flourish of building work at Fountains before it started to find its finances stretched, even though that would date the chapel to over half a century before dates that have been considered previously.

It’s amazing just how much we can learn, and of what significance, from what appear to be entirely routine, uninteresting, inspection trenches.

The excavations have now been backfilled, though there may be opportunities for further investigation, if any groundworks are thought to be necessary for the conservation of How Hill Tower. 

The National Trust provide permissive access to How Hill, from a footpath entrance on Watergate Lane.

" This is a really exciting find” said Mark Newman “the first time that the chapel of St Michael has been seen in centuries. Naturally we were aware of the possibility that early remains might be exposed, but weren’t expecting them here or in this form. We expected the chapel to lie to the west of the tower, it leaves a space on the summit. If these remains are medieval – and it’s hard to think what other period they would date from - then they may well represent a narrow chancel, completely lost before 1719, extending off a wider nave remains of which still survived, further to the west."
- Mark Newman, archaeological consultant