Just half a mile from the A38, midway between Exeter and Plymouth in Devon, is Buckfast Abbey, a working monastery nestling close to the River Dart and Dartmoor itself. It is a tranquil retreat from the busy tourist hotspots that surround it and perfect for a morning or afternoon visit to soothe the soul.
The Abbey was founded in 1018, but fell into ruin following King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Its regeneration forms the basis of a fascinating story – exiled French Benedictine monks settled there in the late Victorian period and over about 30 years a small group of dedicated men rebuilt the Abbey Church, a feat which visitors today can only wonder at.
Vaulted ceilings, stained glass and stunning sculpture are testament to their hard work, and the church and Abbey still hold regular Roman Catholic services for both the monks and the local community. I was particularly struck by the modern stained glass window in the quiet chapel, the light from which shines through into the main Abbey and above the altar like fairy lights.
In the summer you can sit outside and enjoy the scents of the lavender garden, filled with every variety imaginable, or linger in the sensory garden which was, on the day of my visit in early autumn, still the perfect place to breathe in the glorious scent of deep red roses. The physic garden, close to the Abbey itself, offers an insight to the many herbs and plants used by monks over the years for medicinal, culinary and household purposes. There is also a section where poisonous plants are grown – you have been warned!
The monks still living at Buckfast are a self-sufficient community, keeping bees and making goods for sale, generating their own electricity and offering the facilities around the Abbey as a conference centre and retreat. You can stay on site and even join one of the bee keeping courses on offer. There is also a stunning newly refurbished restaurant and café offering everything from a snack to a full meal. On the day of my visit it was packed with visitors enjoying lunch, and there is an outside seating area overlooking the lavender garden perfect for the enjoyment of a good scone.
Although many of the visitors are older, there is something for everyone. Trails are available to keep children amused and fascinated, the Monastic Shop is full of goods made by monks and nuns around Europe (there was a particularly good perfume and some very strong alcohol!) and the book shop is a great place to browse for religious and spiritual texts and music of all denominations or none. There is also a more traditional gift shop, where children can find the usual pens and souvenirs and adults can take home preserves and pottery.
Entry to Buckfast Abbey and grounds is free, as is parking, which makes it perfect for a short stop, and the Abbey Church is open to the general visitor from midday to 6pm on a Sunday and from 9am to 6pm Monday to Saturday. Service times are detailed on the comprehensive Buckfast Abbey website.
Reviewed by author Suzie Grogan, www.suziegrogan.co.uk
Photo: Flickr / LittleMissPurps