Manchester is the undisputed center of gay life in the British Midlands. Canal Street offers more gay bars, restaurants and saunas than you can shake a stick at. It’s no wonder it became the setting for the groundbreaking television series “Queer as Folk” (the British, not the revamped North American version).
One morning after a long night of shaking our butts and staggering back to the hotel room drunk on Vodka and Red Bull, my partner and I decided to take a day off of partying. Instead we made our way out into the great big world that is the Midlands. We drove into the English countryside in our Ford Mondeo rental, with nothing but a GPS unit and a couple of recommendations from the hotel concierge to discover some of the local flavor and see the sights.
Driving through the countryside was surreal, feeling as though we were in a Beatrix Potter novel. It was late spring, and high hedges surrounded verdant green pastures where sheep and young lamb frolicked alongside colonies of rabbits by the roadside. The whole scene was charming, yet saccharine enough to have us shaking our heads from the sugar rush.
A light rain started to fall as we arrived at our destination, Fountains Abbey. Built as an abbey to house and educate Cistercian monks in 1132, it was sold after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Passed down or sold again through several hands, the abbey is Britain’s largest monastic ruin. Now part of The National Trust and a British Heritage Site spanning 800 acres, the grounds include a Georgian water park and nature preserve and offer ongoing events that are open to the public.
When you arrive at the parking lot, you get no inkling of the grandeur beyond. Only a large manor house hints at the tableau about to unfold. After paying our small fee and getting a quick tour of the manor (tip: the only loo on the property is located here), we finally saw what all the hoopla is about. To say that the ruins of the abbey are impressive is an injustice, and an understatement.
The stones walls and tower looked as though they were in a perpetual state of falling down. Somehowe, though, they still conveyed a sense of power and stability. Pheasants hid from the rain under stones and rabbits could be seen scurrying about. A stream bubbled as it flowed past the abbey’s courtyard while the weight of centuries of history seemed to fall on our shoulders. Feelings of calm pervaded the air and made it seem as though all was right with the world, if only for a few moments.
As we explored the crumbling monastery, we chatted about what life must have been like. How grand this building must have been in its heyday, like in the movie “The Name of the Rose”. Wandering around we felt as though we stepped back in time and could easily see why the Abbey now attracts visitors year round. Events such as bee keeping demonstrations and Shakespearean plays present themselves against what must be one of the most romantic backdrops in all of Great Britain.
Looking back on the short amount of time we spent at Fountains Abbey, I nowrealize that it’s one of my most cherished memories. Even the rain didn’t keep us from enjoying this wonderful place and exploring the sight fully. I can’t wait to come back in summer and bring a picnic lunch to enjoy on one of the hills nearby.