Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire, July 2021
The ruins of Fountains Abbey sit on lawns that look as good as modern football pitches. It’s boiling hot and most people hide in the shade. This doesn’t feel like northern England.
The story of Fountain’s Abbey begins on the 27th December 1132 but abbeys have been in existence in northern England since the 600s. The abbey was founded under the Cistercian Order and monks had to serve as ‘a choir monk in prayer or as a laybrother in manual work’ (National Trust (NT), 2011).
The abbey and its residents lived through tough times: financial problems, livestock disease, climate change, raiding Scots and the onset of the plague. The plague hit around 1349-50 and killed a third of the abbey’s residents (NT, 2011).
On this hot day the ruins emit a welcome cool, tunnelling a gentle breeze that slips through the valley of the the River Skell. Skell is a non-English placename:
The name is from the Old Norse skjallr, meaning “resounding”, from its swift and noisy course. In the Middle Ages the river was known as “Heaven Water”, presumably from its association with Fountains Abbey.Smith, A.H. (1962). The Place-names of the West Riding of Yorkshire. 7. Cambridge University Press. pp. 137–138.
Yorkshire can sometimes feel like another country to southerners, so strong are its cultural links to Scandinavia. It’s the same for the rest of England, with the Viking territory of ‘The Danelaw’ once reaching down to the River Lea, just north of London, and covering large swathes of England.
Monasteries in England were dissolved after Henry VIII’s falling out with the Pope over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The abbey was surrendered in November 1539. After the monks moved on, the land and its materials were sold off. The stained glass windows and other valuable elements were crudely removed by the new owners. The abbey was ruined in a way to make it unfit for religious practices.
Some 450 years later, in 1983, the estate was purchased by the National Trust.
Inside the walls of the abbey, wildflowers burst from pockets of stonework: wild marjoram, black knapweed, St. John’s wort, field scabious and harebell. These flowers have taken root in substrates within the crevices of the masonry. They have prime positions to receive full sun, and are sheltered from some of the elements. It’s a great place to live.
I wonder why these plants are here, perhaps their medicinal value. No doubt they were cultivated and used by the monks who spent their lives here. I like to think the prevalence of marjoram (known in a culinary sense as oregano), St. John’s wort and scabious are due to their prior importance in the day-to-day lives of the monks.
My uncle recently sent me a copy of The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic by Christina Oakley Harrington. It has a lot to say about these plants.
I know that marjoram is a delicious herb. I grow it in a pot in my garden for pollinators and it’s something I nibble on when visiting the chalk grasslands of southern England, where it lives. According to Treadwell’s, it has high magical value, something which I can’t be sure was of interest to the monks at Fountain’s Abbey, who were obviously not pagan in the way previously settling Vikings were. It is thought that pagan beliefs of pre-Christian England did persist in people’s outlook. The connections people have with nature would have been safe spaces for those beliefs to persist.
Scabious gets its common name from the fact it was once used to treat skin ailments. The flowerheads eventually become scratchy after flowering and were once used on the skin.
St. John’s wort is a famous medicinal herb, another species which can be found in chalk grasslands in southern England, and in other areas throughout Britain. There are a number of different species. According to Treadwell’s it’s one of the most important and protective plants in magic folklore.
In its medical use, Wikipedia says:
“The red, oily extract of Hypericum perforatum has been used in the treatment of wounds, including by the Knights Hospitaller, the Order of St John, after battles in the Crusades, which is most likely where the name derived.“
It is also used to treat depression.
Ragwort does not have many supporters in England, which is a shame because it could be key to providing a fundamental nectar source for pollinators across the UK. This is particularly true of towns and cities away from grazing animals. It’s disliked because it has toxic properties which can go undetected in cut hay and then be consumed unknowingly by livestock, accumulating to cause organ failure. Its proponents (for ecological reasons) have created a website in its defence.
According to Treadwell’s, in Ireland it’s known as ‘fairies’ horse’. This is because:
it is believed that witches and fairies ride on it as if it were a horse, flying through the air at nightThe Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic, Christina Oakley Harrington (p.106)
The seeds definitely fly through the air because the plant grows in some of the highest parts of the masonry. Swifts screech in flight as they shoot past those higher outcrops, perhaps feeding on some of the many insects that nectar on the plant’s flowers.
One thing I learned here, and that I’ll never forget, is that urine was once used by the monks at the abbey. It was collected and used as a dye, for leather tanning and also for wool treatments. A urine pot was found near perfectly preserved.
I think I’ll stick to the herbs.
Thanks for reading.