Fountains of delight

Kevin Berry reports on a dramatic dayat Yorkshire's favourite abbey. A screaming jet fighter swoops low over the ruins of a magnificent abbey, shattering the silence. In the cloisters children give their wholehearted attention as Father Abbot welcomes them for the day: the jet has not disturbed them nor has it bothered the crows and the swallows darting under the high archways.

Fountains Abbey looks and feels timeless. Visiting it and the adjoining Studley Royal Water Gardens will make anyone aware of the slow passage of time. The Yorkshire landscape is dotted with many fine abbeys but this one is the favourite, the one everybody remembers. Situated in a narrow valley it has a secret, sheltered air, and there is a satisfying feeling of discovery when the visitor first sees it. The entire estate is, quite rightly, a World Heritage site.

The Harrogate theatre in education group has joined the National Trust for a third year to provide role-playing experiences on the site. Their programme for this year, Playing with Perspectives, involves children looking at the evolving landscape of the valley from the 12th century to the present day and focusing on how the monks, and then a Georgian gent, used the river.

Monks welcome children from St Wilfrid's Roman Catholic Junior School in Ripon and take them down to the abbey. Actors prime the children for role-playing immediately so that when they are down at the Abbey they are in character. Actor David Smith says: "Being from the 12th century we don't have to notice cars and tarmac paths and screaming jets. One lad was quite surprised that I wasn't wearing trainers." The estate covers a huge area and requires a lot of walking, but there are helpful facilities for youngsters in wheelchairs.

The children have a clearly defined role to play - they are visitors from nearby Byland Abbey. Their abbey was built on boggy ground so they have the experience to tackle problems with water and advise the Fountains Abbey monks. Strictly speaking, of course, the monks at Fountains were Cistercians, a silent order, but they have been given a special dispensation to speak today.

The children slip into their roles quickly. One young man drops his bag and is soon at the back of the line, then he sprints forward, shouting: "Hey. Wait for me, Brother William!" As the youngsters are led to their problem-solving area, the monks chatter in rustic Yorkshire accents, explaining their home to the visitors - where they eat and where they sleep. The phrase "here is our ..." assumes that the children know enough about the function of an abbey to make comparisons. The actors remain doggedly in role, refusing to comprehend such 20th-century solutions as "electricity" and having to have the function of a "pipe" explained over and over.

After lunch the children walk down to the water garden where four curious figures from the 18th century are stock still on the grass. Are they statues? Well, they have fooled many adult National Trust visitors. They present a piece of promenade theatre, two actors talking and the other two wandering off. The dialogue is taken in twos and threes and the constant movement within the group is wonderfully fluid. The actors are cast as John Aislabie, the owner of the estate; his wife; their son and a girl cousin who is the object of marital ambitions. They wander the lawns, children following them and hanging on to their every word.

The children become estate gardeners, helping Mr Aislabie to plan improvements to his landscape. They dash off with an actor and make group shapes in the distance as Mr Aislabie tries out his plans.

"Ah now, I want you to make a colonnade of arches. Perhaps not - not enough symmetry. Now try making a temple, yes that's it!" The acting is so thoroughly prepared and executed that there are no cries of, "Oh it's him. He was Brother William."

An interesting final session has the actors taking on yet more characters - people from the late 20th century who have plans for the estate's future. Walt Wet, an abrasive American, wants to turn it into a theme park; the lady from Northern Reservoirs wants to completely flood the valley and give visitors diving suits. They sound horribly convincing. Walt snaps: "Hey, lady, the monks spoiled the environment: they were building in this valley and they were throwing their trash into the river."

The discussion is quite startling, showing mature and diverse thinking - the children agreeing that if you change the valley people won't know and appreciate what happened before, what went on here.

Young Thomas Sherwood struggles to explain and then neatly sums up what all the children are thinking. "Well, we'll have nothing to look back on."

Fountains Abbey, tel: 01765 608888. Harrogate theatre in education, tel: 01423 502710

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