He [Thurstan] granted to them by the grace of
God a place of habitation
in the estate of the blessed Peter, a place uninhabited for all
the centuries back, thick set with thorns, lying between the
slopes of mountains and among rocks jutting out on both sides;
fit, rather, it seemed, to be the lair of wild beasts than the
of human beings. Its name was Skelldale.(31)
[‘Foundation history of Fountains’ (Narratio)]
1132, more than two months after their departure from St Mary’s,
the monks left Thurstan’s residence to embark
on their new life as a community. The archbishop granted them a
site at Skelldale, near his manor at Ripon, as well as land at
Sutton, some two miles north-west of Ripon. The monks were unanimous
in their decision to appoint Richard, the former prior of St Mary’s,
as their first abbot. This was not, however, to be a smooth transition.
Whilst the community had a site, a leader, and the solitude that
it had sought, it lacked buildings and also provisions, save the
bread received from Thurstan and water afforded by a nearby stream.
To make matters worse, this was winter and the site was cold, barren
The elm tree
The elm still lives unhurt with its green leaves and thick foliage to make
a later generation believe from what a humble state sprang the foundations
of our mother abbey, that is the church of Fountains.
[‘Foundation history of Fountains’ (Narratio), p. 166.]
The poignant account of their hardships in the
foundation history (Narratio), paints a bleak image of
the way of life at Skelldale. This describes how the community’s
only shelter was an elm tree that stood in the middle of the valley.
The monks slept beneath its branches, covering themselves with
straw and anything else at hand, to keep out the bitter cold. Life
was hard in this desolate and inhospitable spot, but the monks
did not complain. They lived according to the Rule
of St Benedict,
rising during the night to celebrate the office of Vigils,
and working hard during the day gathering wood to build a chapel,
mats and cultivating a garden. It was in this way that the new
community passed the winter of 1133.