Abbeys and monasteries are places of reflection, peace and simplicity; the perfect antidote to the stresses of modern life. Many open their doors to day visitors or those who are looking to stay for a while to go on retreat, to take their time to absorb some of the quietude and serenity. You do not have to have to be of a religious mind to appreciate all that these pockets of peace can bring you, and they are the perfect experience for the Slow Traveller.
800 monasteries once dotted the countryside of Britain and played a significant part in the fabric of medieval society. In the 1530s Henry VIII dissolved them – to add to his own coffers, rather than to support the growing Protestant ideology of the time. This action had a dramatic impact, causing the eventual loss of all the religious houses – abbeys, convents, monasteries, priories and friaries – and the wholesale destruction of manuscripts, relics, icons, statues so integral to Catholic faith.
Over the following years most of these sacred buildings were pillaged for their stone or lead, or simply fell victim to erosion and neglect. Some of these ruins – for example Rievaulx and Fountains - are well known for their evocative settings and buildings and regularly attract many visitors.
Less well known are those religious houses that re-established their buildings and their way of life once it was politically acceptable to do so in a more modern, more tolerant British society. These are not the ruins of the past – although many retain aspects of their medieval heritage - but working institutions.
St Benedict, the founder of the majority of these institutions, wrote that “a monastery is never without guests”, and these houses continue the medieval tradition of hospitality. The establishments listed here encourage visitors for short or long term visits, offering a glimpse of their history alongside an insight into their current spiritual and daily lives.
Downside Abbey, Stratton-on-the-Fosse, Somerset
Photograph © Rabanus Flavus
Downside Abbey is the senior Benedictine monastery of the English Benedictine Congregation and recently featured on the BBC4 programme about meditation and contemplation.
It was originally founded at Douai in Flanders in 1606. The community moved to Downside in 1814 and opened a chapel and new buildings for a school, designed in the Gothic style to recreate the medieval monastic life.
Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described the Abbey as the “most splendid demonstration of the renaissance of Roman Catholicism in England”. The Library, specialising in Theology, Philosophy and Ecclesiastical History holds about 500,000 volumes, with the earliest texts dating back to the 11th century.
16 monks live at Downside and run the school and several local parishes. The abbey church and Visitor Centre welcome visitors and the Library is accessible on special request. The guesthouse can accommodate male visitors on retreat.
Belmont Abbey, Herefordshire
Photograph © Poemen
Belmont, recently featured in the BBC programme about meditation and contemplation, is home to 20 monks who continue to follow the 6th century Rule of St Benedict, seeking to live “the ancient wisdom of the monastic life in a contemporary way”.
In the 17th century Benedictine monks from Britain lived in exile on the continent, vowing to return to their native land. In 1860 Belmont was consecrated as the Common House of Studies for the three existing monasteries of Downside, Ampleforth and Douai. It became an independent house in 1917.
The Abbey Church was designed by Edward Welby Pugin, son to the better known Augustus Welby Pugin, in the decorated, Early English style. Although a relatively modern building it has the atmosphere and appearance of an old medieval abbey. The exterior is of local pink sandstone, the interior is faced with Bath stone. It has four elegant arches supporting the central tower and is noted for the quality of its stained glass windows, particularly in St Benedict’s Chapel.
The monks run a retreat and guest house centre at Hedley Lodge. The church is open daily, and group tours to learn more about the monastic way of life and visit the private gardens can also be arranged.
Buckfast Abbey, Buckfastleigh, Devon
Buckfast was originally founded as Benedictine Abbey in 1018 in the reign of King Cnut. It was rebuilt in stone in 1147 as a Cistercian Abbey.
In the 14th century it was one of the wealthiest abbeys in the south-west of England, owning sheep runs, manors, town houses, fisheries and a country house.
It was dissolved in 1539, then its buildings were stripped and left in ruins before it was finally demolished. In 1882 a group of French Benedictine monks refounded a monastery on the site, dedicated to St Mary. They uncovered most of the original foundations dating back to the Cistercian period, and rebuilt the Abbey in the Norman transitional and Early English styles of the mid 12th century. The arch of the North gate and part of the barrel-vaulted undercroft by the west cloister survive from the original period.
The new church was built very largely by the monks themselves, working with very primitive constructive methods and no safety harnesses. The Grange Restaurant has a wall depicting the labour of these monks, showing only 6 working on the project at any one time.
Visitors can tour the abbey church with the striking huge east window in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, designed by one of the monks and erected in 1968, and tour the gardens which include a Lavender Garden, a Physic Garden and a Sensory Garden. They may also be lucky enough to catch a local choir in rehearsal. There is a very comprehensive exhibition called The Monastic Way which includes a detailed history of the Abbey and the Benedictine Community with animations, films and interactive models.
Pluscarden Abbey, Elgin, Scotland
Photograph © Pluscarden Abbey
Pluscarden Abbey recently featured on a BBC4 programme about reflection and meditations which followed the daily life of this community of 30 Benedictine monks, living and working in the only medieval British monastery still being used for its original purpose. The setting is stunning – the buildings set in the peace and stillness of a secluded glen.
It was founded by King Alexander II of Scotland in 1230, originally as a Valliscaulian order. Despite the Reformation in Scotland, monks appear to have lived unobtrusively in Pluscarden until the end of the 16th century. The priory buildings then passed into various lay hands but eventually were left to the effects of Scottish weather – the roofs collapsed, ivy grew up the walls, the woodwork rotted, rubble accumulated in the church and cloisters.
In 1943 the land was given to the Benedictine community of Prinknash, the buildings were restored and the community moved into them in 1948. In 1974 the monastery was elevated to Abbey status. Now it trains novices, and is a place of worship, work (including weaving and beekeeping) and reflection.
The Abbey Church has been largely restored but traces of a 15th century fresco can still be seen around the Chancel Arch. There are several memorial stones, the oldest dating back to 1480. The night stair is also still visible. The stained glass windows are modern, with dramatic designs in bold, striking colours.
Several sections of the abbey and grounds are open to the public, and there is an exhibition on the history of the site and the work of the Benedictines. Visitors are welcome to attend Mass or any of the offices. Longer term guests are welcome in two guest houses. People can go on a retreat here – they can share in the prayer and work of the community or simply use their time for rest and reflection.
Iona Abbey, Iona
Iona is one of the oldest centres of Christian pilgrimage and of a monastic community in Britain.
The 12th century abbey church stands where Columba’s monastery once stood. Known as St Mary’s cathedral, it is of the Romanesque style.
Today the abbey is the home of the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian community of men and women from all different Christian traditions founded in 1938.
Visitors must take the ferry from Mull and follow the pilgrims’ route to reach the Abbey Church, and see the original Celtic crosses. The community runs 3 residential centres on Iona and Mull.