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Past conservation projects at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal

The Dying Gladiator statue is reinstalled at Fountains Abbey & Studley Royal 2019
The Dying Gladiator statue is reinstalled at Fountains Abbey & Studley Royal | © Anthony Chappell-Ross

Discover some of the conservation projects we’ve completed at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal in recent years to restore and preserve the features designed by father and son John and William Aislabie. With the help of historical paintings and visitor stories, we’ve uncovered more about this unique place than we’ve ever known before.

The installation of solar panels on the Visitor Centre roof 2023

In March 2023 we installed solar panels on the visitor centre roof. The panels will contribute approximately 28,000kWh annually, helping us power the busy restaurant, shop and admissions. They'll also make an estimated saving of around £3,500 each year on electricity costs for the building which was opened in 1992.

As a large site, it's important for us to make changes for a positive impact. We've completed other projects to reduce our carbon footprint - from small actions like draught-proofing to larger scale changes like installing a ground source heat pump in the visitor centre.

How is it going so far?

The panels are on target to contribute 28,000kWh annually, which means we’re on track to meet our carbon saving goals for this project contributing to the National Trust’s overall target of being Carbon net-zero by 2030.

Studley Royal canal gates restoration 2022

The canal gates at the Studley Royal entrance were the main point of welcome for visitors when the gardens were first laid out by John Aislabie in 1718 and date to around 1730.

In September and October the gates underwent some important conservation works thanks to National Trust funds and a donation from the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers. While they’re regularly maintained by our team, routine maintenance could no longer deal with the conservation issues – meaning they were in need of some specialist attention by Nicholson-Harris Blacksmith & Metalworkers. The works included a full programme of remedial conservation, followed by full redecoration and regilding restoring them to their pristine look.

The return of the Dying Gladiator in 2019

The Dying Gladiator is a Roman copy of an ancient Greek statue, and one of the most celebrated icons to have survived from antiquity. It appears in famous gardens across the world, evoked and reproduced by sculptors and artists for several centuries.

The Dying Gladiator at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal mysteriously disappeared from the water garden in the late 1800s. But thanks to the generous support of visitors and the local community, we were able to raise £82,000 in 2018-19 to cast a new statue.

How the statue was recreated

We worked with expert statue conservators, Rupert Harris Conservators, to cast the new piece. It was then painted white to match the other statuary in the water garden, reflecting how they all appeared in the 18th century. We also undertook archaeological surveys to determine the exact location of the original statue and discovered its original foundations.

You can see the Dying Gladiator next to Neptune, Bacchus and the Wrestlers alongside the moon ponds of the water garden, just as it did in the 18th century.

Path conservation in 2020

When there's heavy rainfall at any point in the year, the River Skell – which runs through the estate – is prone to flooding. Surface water then builds up throughout the abbey because, due to its archaeological importance, there isn't much modern drainage. As a result, it takes a long time for the water to clear from the abbey's pathways.

The old paths had been made out of materials that didn't let rain or flood water soak through, which meant that it sat on top as surface water. Unfortunately not many people like wet feet, especially if they want to go on and explore the garden too.

A plan to keep feet dry

Starting in 2020, the landscape team put new paths in place. They were chosen to be sustainable and to be in keeping with the original abbey masonry. Each phase of the improvements costs £35,000, but water will now be able to soak through into the earth below, meaning that it will no longer swamp the paths.

A family walking by the ponds at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden, North Yorkshire.
Family exploring Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Limewashing the Temple of Piety in 2018

The follies of Studley Royal were designed by the Georgians to be fun and frivolous eye-catchers to enjoy as they whiled away afternoons in the grounds. The Temple of Piety is possibly one of the most well known of the follies in this World Heritage Site. It's been a part of the garden since the 1800s.

In the summer of 2018, we carried out a £4,500 project to lime wash the building, which is a brilliant way of helping to protect it from the elements. This is partly due to how permeable the stone is. The lime wash allows the moisture to escape back out into the elements rather than keeping it trapped within the walls and causing damp.

Restoring the river walls in 2018

When the monks first came to this secluded valley, they set about diverting the river so they could build Fountains Mill to process their grain and to channel fresh water to the infirmary.

Following many years and several floods, the water had taken its toll on the riverbanks and the walls built to support them. On occasion this caused the path and stretches of the riverbank to collapse. Over several years we worked to gradually strengthen and protect the riverbanks to prevent this from happening in the future, a project that cost £50,000.

The second phase of work on the riverbanks took place in 2018 and involved restoring the bank below De Grey's walk, which had slipped in the preceding years due to water erosion.

Rediscovering How Hill in 2017

The year 2017 marked the 300th anniversary of John Aislabie’s acquisition of How Hill, which dominates the landscape just to the south of Fountains Abbey. Archaeologists took advantage of the routine site inspections taking place at How Hill Tower in 2017 to learn more about the site.

It was long known that the monks built a chapel some time before 1346 on the summit of the hill, dedicated to St Michael the Archange. We also knew that it was a pilgrimage site, where receipts from visitors helped in the upkeep of the building.

The chapel was rebuilt early in the 16th century and survived the Dissolution. It served local people for another half-century before falling into ruin. 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.

Looking up towards How Hill Tower, which sits on a lush green hill with a mature tree in the foreground.
How Hill Tower at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal | © National Trust Images/Chee Wai Lee

What the archaeologists unearthed

The archaeologists excavated routine trenches to inspect the tower’s foundations on behalf of the National Trust 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 building having once stood here. This east–west 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. The chapel flooring needn’t be of the same date, but it’s tempting to think it might have been.

'This is a really exciting find, 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

Revealing Rustic Cottage in 2016

Rustic Cottage was originally built as a folly and once stood next to the boundary wall between the Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal estates. The two estates were separately owned until William Aislabie bought Fountains Abbey from the Messenger family of Fountains Hall in 1767.

From the 1840s Rustic Cottage was used to house estate staff and is thought to have been demolished sometime during the 1930s. We didn’t know much about Rustic Cottage as very few images of the building remain and only a small part of one wall still stands above ground level. In 2016 we excavated the site to understand more about the cottage.

The results of the dig

Digging the trial trenches uncovered lots of exciting information about the history and appearance of the building. Fragments of wall plaster revealed that the interior of the cottage was decorated in an eccentric colour palette over the years. During its use as a garden building, the cottage was originally painted with a midnight blue and then a ‘Pompeian’ red.

We suspect that the cottage was redecorated for domestic use with lighter shades of goose grey, yellow ochres, and duck egg blues and greens. Unexpected fireplaces, indications of well laid flagstone floors and walls of unknown rooms were also among the team’s discoveries.

The restored statue of the Wrestlers at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden, North Yorkshire.
The Wrestlers at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Painting the statues in Studley Royal water garden in 2016

The moon ponds sit in the formal centre of the water garden and are part of John Aislabie’s original design. Restoration of the classical statues here took place in the 1980s but some of the techniques used caused damage to the surface of the statues and removed all traces of the original paint.

In 2016 specialist conservators spent 5 days working to return four statues – Neptune, Bacchus, the Wrestlers and Galen – in the moon ponds to their original 18th-century appearance.

The restoration process

We knew from research and contemporary images that the statues would have been an off-white colour. In common with other 18th-century gardens, they are made of lead and would have been painted to mimic the appearance of marble at a fraction of the price.

The restoration work involved removing any existing modern grey paint using specialist paint stripping equipment and high-pressure steam. The surfaces of the statues were then primed and any areas of damage filled, before two topcoats of an off-white/grey masonry paint were applied to complete the work.

Looking over the Half Moon Pond and weir of Studley Royal Water Garden from the Surprise View towards Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire

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