Walking: Set forth into a walking wonderland

St Mary's Church stands proud in the grounds of Studley Royal estate.
St Mary's Church stands proud in the grounds of Studley Royal estate.
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This gloriously-picturesque circuit makes good use of the National Trust’s adjoining estates of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal just outside Ripon.

National Trust members should take their membership cards with them because there is the opportunity on the return leg to divert from the main route and walk back through the Fountains estate past the abbey ruins (fee for non-members).

Walking down the delightful Valley of the Seven Bridges.

Walking down the delightful Valley of the Seven Bridges.

The setting of the twin properties of Fountains and Studley Royal has to be seen to be believed; the journey down the Valley of the Seven Bridges, for instance, is an idyll almost beyond compare. And the delights do not finish once the National Trust’s acres have been left behind – the saunter through Whitcliffe Wood and the neighbouring Hell Wath Nature Reserve keep the superlatives flowing. All you need is a day of spring sunshine and your cup runneth over!

Fountains Abbey, now officially recognised as one of the most important historical sites in the world, dates from 1132 when 13 monks broke away from St Mary’s Abbey at York to seek a more austere way of life Archbishop Thurstan of York gave them his blessing and, more importantly, a piece of land on his Ripon estates in an area described as “remote from all the world and set within thorns.”

Within 100 years, the community had turned itself into the richest Cistercian abbey in the country with land holdings stretching as far as Borrowdale in the Lake District. Its industries included lead and iron workings, coal mining on Fountains Fell (which took its name from the abbey), sheep farming, wool production and fish farming.

Today, it is celebrated as the most complete Cistercian abbey in Britain, a magnet for visitors from around the globe. Don’t miss the opportunity at the end of the walk to visit the cafe for a well-earned cuppa (and cake!) to round off the best of days.



6 ¼ miles: Allow 2 ½ – 3 ½ hours. Map: O/S Explorer 298 Nidderdale or O/S Explorer 299 Ripon.

Start from the main car park at the visitor centre at Fountains Abbey. Return to the mini-roundabout at entrance to car park and bear right along the road for Ripon (road sign: Exit B6265). After about 40 yards, just past a “horses crossing” sign, bear right along a broad path.

After about 500 yards, turn right through grey park gates into the Studley Royal Estate with obelisk to your left and St Mary’s Church to your front left.

The obelisk was erected in 1805 as a memorial to John Aislabie, former owner of the Studley Royal Estate, who was responsible for laying out the ornamental gardens and parklands at the beginning of the 18th century.

St Mary’s Church was built in 1871 by the Marchioness of Ripon, wife of the-then owner of the estate, in memory of her brother who was killed by brigands in Greece.

John Aislabie inherited the Studley Royal Estate in 1699. The son of a prosperous Yorkshire lawyer, Aislabie became a great figure in the land as Chancellor of the Exchequer only to fall spectacularly from grace when he became embroiled in the South Sea Bubble scandal and was incarcerated in the Tower of London for fraud.

He returned to his Yorkshire estates in disgrace and set about turning Studley Royal into the beautiful landscaped park and ornamental gardens you see today. On his death in 1742, his son, William, carried on his father’s work, purchasing the adjoining Fountains Abbey Estate in 1768 and continuing the landscaping right up to the abbey ruins.

The Aislabies lived in a grand house in Studley Park, built on the site of a medieval manor. This house was called Studley Royal and the estate took its name from that. From the Aislabies, the estate descended in the female line to Earl de Grey. In the 19th century, the earl was succeeded by his nephew, the 1st Marquis of Ripon, a former Viceroy of India, who died in 1909 aged 82.

On the death of his son, the 2nd Marquis, in 1923 – he died childless and the title became extinct – the estate was sold to Cmdr Clare Vyner. It was during the Vyners’ ownership that the house at Studley Royal burned down in 1945. The Vyners sold part of the Studley Royal Estate - including Fountains Abbey and the deer park - to West Riding County Council in 1965 and it later came into the possession of the National Trust. The impressive, four-square stable block of Studley Royal House survived the 1945 fire and was later converted into a house, as it remains to this day.

After 20 yards, at end of low wooden fence on your right, go half right down the grass on a cut path to a fork and take the left branch and descend to the Studley Royal car park (toilets to right). Cross the car park, descend to the lake and turn left along the lake shore and then curl right with the lake shore.

Cross a footbridge at the lake outflow and turn left to an immediate fork and take the left branch down the Valley of the Seven Bridges with the River Skell to your left.

You will encounter only five bridges – to get to the full seven, you will have to take into consideration the bridge at the lake outflow and another one beyond the end of the valley which the route crosses.

At end of valley, go through a tall kissing gate and press on along the broad track for a couple of hundred yards and then turn right over a footbridge spanning the Skell.

A strong track now leads up a shallow valley through the Chinese Wood. At top of slope, turn left along another strong path and follow it to a fork and bear right, through a gate, and then bear left (as per arrow) along a line of hawthorns to gain a fence corner at a gate. Continue along left side of fence with line of hawthorns to your left.

1: On arriving in Whitcliffe Lane, turn left and stride out in splendid fashion with Ripon Cathedral appearing in distance. After about 500 yards, turn left into Whitcliffe Wood at an information board – don’t overshoot! There is an immediate fork - take the left branch by wire fence. Follow this broad path all the way through the wood to exit at information board and turn left round edge of field and follow a good path to emerge in road at Hell Wath Cottage.

Turn left for 30 yards to gates, but do not pass through. Instead, turn right along a woodland path through a bower of trees into the Hell Wath Nature Reserve. After about 100 yards, at fork, take the left branch with the River Skell down to your left. At next fork, go straight on along the main track to enter a clearing – STOP!

Within a couple of paces, turn left for 50 yards, over the first cross path, to strike a strong path at trees overlooking the river and turn right along it. On re-entering clearing, turn left to continue above the river. On passing an ancient square block of stone, bear right with the main path to a fork within 50 yards and take the left (minor) branch to rejoin the River Skell.

Press on to gain, eventually, a footbridge at the confluence of the River Skell and the River Laver and turn left across it to enter a park. Within a few yards, at a fork at rubbish bin, take the left branch by side of the River Laver.

Just before entering road at steps, step over the low metal fence on your left to follow a good path by the river through the trees. On arriving at a weir with bench, turn right up steps to enter road (Mallorie Park Drive) and turn left along pavement to mini-roundabout and turn left for Pateley Bridge using pavement on righthand side of road.

2: Press on to pass the entrance to the River Laver Holiday Park and then turn left across the B6265 with great care to a fingerpost and gate. This strong path leads between hedgerows towards the hamlet of Studley Roger.

After a few hundred yards, at a cross track, go straight on to enter Studley Roger. Follow a gravel drive out to the road, cross it and take the path opposite and follow it to enter the parkland of the Studley Royal Estate.

Take the cut-grass track going almost straight ahead to – eventually – arrive in the access drive and turn right along it or, better, walk along the grass verge. An imposing view of St Mary’s Church materialises ahead.

Press on to a fork in the road and go straight ahead for the church, although the left branch leads to a cafe, toilets and, for National Trust members, free entry to the Fountains Abbey estate through which the walk can be finished (fee for non NT members).

For the main route, go straight on past the Choristers’ House. This was built at the end of the 19th century by the 1st Marquis of Ripon for use as a music school for choristers. Later, it became the estate office and has now been converted for holiday use.

Continue past St Mary’s Church to join the outward leg, go through the gate and turn left and retrace the outward route back to the mini-roundabout and the finish.