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.
Quarr Abbey, Ryde, Isle of Wight
Photograph © WyrdLight
The abbey of Our Lady of Quarr is in the north east corner of the Isle of Wight, home to a small group of Benedictine monks.
Founded in 1132, originally as a Cistercian Abbey, it is unusual in that it has defensive walls and fulfilled a maritime role of trade and commerce.
It was dissolved during the Reformation and largely fell into disrepair, its stone used to build Henry VIII’s new coastal forts. In 1907 a community of French monks bought Quarr Abbey House and a new abbey church built from brick was consecrated in 1912.
The ruins are evocative and compelling, standing in silhouette against the countryside with its resident sheep, and the coastline. Part of the infirmary chapel still exists along with some of the kitchen and refectory including the monks’ servery hatch. The dormitory is now used as a barn. The old medieval culvert still gurgles with water.
Visitors can attend mass and the Offices or visit the abbey church, visitor centre, art gallery the woodland walk, the small farm and apiary. There is a guest house for those who wish to live quietly, or go on retreat, for short periods of time.
St Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough, Hampshire
St Michael’s is a small Benedictine community with an unusual history.
In 1880 the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III bought a house in Farnborough and built St Michael’s Abbey as a monastery.
In 1895 she invited French Benedictines to England where their work, prayer and study began. In 1947 a small band of monks came from Prinknash Abbey to anglicise the house and ensure the continuity of monastic tradition.
The monks live by the work of their hands, as St Benedict decreed. They have a guest house, a small farm selling their own produce, an apiary and a publishing and printing house. They also care for the shrine of St Joseph where pilgrims are welcome.
Visitors can attend the religious services or join the regular Saturday afternoon guided tour. Guests who wish to experience the Benedictine way of life, or simply benefit from its peace and tranquility, are able to stay in the monastery itself.
Ampleforth Abbey, North Yorkshire
Photograph © Ampleforth Abbey
Ampleforth claims its monastic descent from the last remaining monk of Westminster Abbey, Father Sigebert Buckley, who established a Benedictine community if France near Nancy.
In 1802 Father Anselm, Chaplain to Lady Anne Fairfax at Gilling Castle, gave his residence, Ampleforth Lodge, to this community of monks, fleeing France following the excesses of the French Revolution.
The present Abbey Church was built by the distinguished 20th century architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Today Ampleforth is an establishment of about 50 monks, running the Catholic boarding school, Ampleforth College, and working in local parishes.
Set in over 2000 acres in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the abbey welcomes visitors to the church, orchard and mill. The Visitor Centre explains the history of Ampleforth and the working life of a monk. People can go for the day, for retreats, or for one night individual stays. They are also offering online retreats in these difficult times.
The Friars, Aylesford, Kent
Photograph © Ian Capper
The Friars is home to a small community of Carmelite Friars who first came here in 1242. The left after the Dissolution in 1538 but returned in 1949. Visitors can the Chapels including the simple Cloister Chapel and the more ornate St Joseph’s Chapel. The Pilgrims Hall in the Great Courtyard dates from the 13th century and served as shelter for pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.
Panels by the Polish artist, Adam Kossowski, tell the story of the Carmelites from their origins as hermits on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land, their expulsion from England by Henry VIII and their eventual return. These panels in the 15th century Priors Hall were designed by the painter as an act of thanksgiving for his release from a Russian labour camp.
The Main Shrine is modern, featuring a sculpture of the Virgin Mary, designed by Michael Clark in 1960. It contains some earth from the Well of the Prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel and is a focal point for processions on pilgrimage days. Peaceful areas of the Friars include the Rosary Way, with Fifteen Mysteries displayed along the route, and the Peace Garden with fountains and landscaping where you can sit quietly.
The Friars has an 80 bedroom guesthouse for guests, a shop and restaurant.
Douai Abbey, Upper Woolhampton, Berkshire
Photograph © Edmund Shaw
The monks of Douai began their monastery in Paris in 1615, moving to Douai in Flanders after the French Revolution, and to Woolhampton in 1903. The abbey church was opened in 1933. The community now numbers about 25.
The abbey church has magnificent acoustics and regularly hosts musical ensembles and concerts. Visitors are welcome at services, and those wishing to go on retreat will find excellent accommodation in the guesthouse.
Ealing Abbey, Ealing, London
Photograph © John Salmon
The monastery at Ealing was founded in 1897 by Benedictine monks from Downside Abbey. The abbey church was completed in 1934, only to be largely destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1940. It has been restored and enlarged.
The Abbey has an active programme of musical recitals which are open to the public. Clerical and lay men are accepted as guests in the monastery; there is a guest house for those on retreat and everyone is welcome to visit the abbey church.
St. Augustine's Abbey, Chilworth, Surrey
Photograph © St. Augustine's Abbey
St Augustine’s is a Benedictine monastery located in beautiful countryside less than a mile south of the Pilgrim’s Way, an excellent stop for a short visit or a prolonged stay should you be walking this route.
It featured recently on BBC1’s Heaven Made at Christmas where it was described as a “powerful powerhouse of prayer and productivity”. The monks continue to say the Divine Office eight times a day and regularly sing Gregorian Chant. The shop sells their own skin and lip cream and beeswax polish.
The building dates from the end of the 19th century and was originally occupied by Franciscan Friars until a small Order of Benedictines moved there in 2011. The monastery is open 365 days a year and visitors are welcome to celebrations of Mass and daily prayers. Coffee with the monks is available after Mass.
The monks offer a programme of retreats, study days, meditation sessions and healing days. They believe that hospitality is a spiritual obligation and there is also a small guesthouse open to members of the public wanting to stay on religious retreat or experience the rhythm of monastic life. It’s available for four/five overnight guests at a time and may have food provided or be self-catering. There is no charge but donations are encouraged.
Find out more on the St. Augustine's Abbey website >>