Sat 28th October….by steam train to Buckfast Abbey

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It was the last weekend of the season for trips on the South Devon steam railway and tickets were half-price, so what better excuse for a visit? Bus to Plymouth, then the excellent Gold service bus to Totnes (leather seats, wi-fi, excellent views from the upper deck), where we walked the short distance to the steam rail terminus. As expected this was like stepping back to the fifties (or earlier?), and the atmosphere on the station, and its general feel, was great.

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and you never know who you might bump into on a station like this…

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our loco arrived after we had had a pleasant wait (coal fire in the waiting room was one pleasant touch), and we were surprised to see that it was a London loco…

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once aboard, we were soon pulling out..

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and what a lovely journey it proved to be (right alongside the beautiful River Dart)…

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There was one stop at Staverton from where there are riverside walks to the pretty village with its pub and 14th century church. We must do that some other time. After a perfect length of journey taking 30 minutes, our destination was reached…

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We decided to walk the short distance to Buckfast Abbey, and were pretty soon walking through one of the Abbey gateways. We had no idea what to expect, but we were shortly to be astounded. The first thing we did (as usual) was make for the cafe/restaurant in this case the Grange restaurant, and what a pleasant experience this was….great food, a glass of wine ( I was a bit worried they might be TT, I should have known better!), and a lovely environment with tremendous views.

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the mural in the restaurant was spectacular, and showed real-life scenes from the building of the Abbey

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and we were truly amazed to learn its story……. its history dates back to 1018, but it is its modern history which is truly astonishing. By 1872 it was in private hands but lay in ruins. The owner “decided to sell the property, but was keen to offer it to a religious community. An advert was placed in The Tablet, describing the Abbey as “a grand acquisition could it be restored to its original purpose.” Six weeks later, monks were again living at Buckfast after a gap of 343 years.

The monks who returned to Buckfast came here by a very roundabout route, for they were exiled from their own monastery in France, and eventually made their way to England. They were given shelter by the community of St. Augustine’s Priory (later Abbey) at Ramsgate, who loaned them a large property in Leopardstown on the outskirts of Dublin.

Two years later, they noticed the advert in The Tablet, and the superior, Pere Duperou, travelled with Dom Adam Hamilton (a monk of Ramsgate, who acted as translator) to Plymouth, where they met Dr. Gale. They immediately took out a lease on the property. The first six monks arrived at Buckfast on 28th October, 1882. The remainder arrived during the next few weeks.

Much public interest and support was shown for the monks’ plans to restore the Abbey. Mr. Frederick Walters, one of the leading architects of his day, was appointed to draw up plans for the restoration, which he did using the evidence of the Buck print of 1734 (a picture of the ruins of the Abbey at that time), and the few ruins still standing. As it turned out, Walters’ original plans for the restored Abbey Church turned out to be 107---rebuildingthemonastary-1.jpgwrong, for shortly after Walters made his proposal, one of the monks discovered part of the medieval foundations whilst digging in the vegetable garden. The monks then uncovered most of the rest of the foundations of the 12th century Cistercian Abbey. Substantial foundations of the domestic buildings were being uncovered as late as 1997. By March 1884, Walters had made accurate drawings of the foundations, and put forward another design for the rebuilding of the Abbey in the style of the mid-12th century, based on studies of other Cistercian Abbeys such as Kirkstall and Fountains.

In the meantime, work was under way to improve the monastery buildings. The Abbot’s108---rebuildingthemonastary-2.jpg Tower had been restored, and a temporary church (now the Chapter House) had been erected next to it. This was opened on 25th March, 1884. Also in 1884, work started on the South Wing of the monastery, which was to include the kitchen, refectory and cloister, mostly paid for by Lord Clifford of Chudleigh.

109---Boniface_Natter.jpgBoniface Natter was blessed as Abbot on 24th February, 1903 – by pure coincidence, exactly 365 years after the closure of the medieval Abbey. After the blessing, a cheque was found in the collection basket for £1,000. This money was used to complete the West Wing of the monastery, providing much-needed bedrooms, as well as rooms for the novitiate. Abbot Natter also arranged for the medieval statue of Our Lady of Buckfast to be restored. The lower part of the statue had been discovered in an old wall, still retaining its original colouring and gilding. This is now in the Lady Chapel of the Abbey Church.

Abbot Natter was tragically drowned in a shipwreck in 1906. Anscar Vonier, who had been with Natter at the time of the shipwreck, managed to survive. Shortly after his return to Buckfast, Anscar Vonier was elected as the new Abbot.

Soon after becoming Abbot, Vonier announced to the community that his first project would be to rebuild the Abbey Church. Br. Peter Schrode, who had been sent to a monastery in France to learn the art of masonry, was to lead the project. On January 5th, 1907, the whole community gathered at the north-east corner of the foundations, and watched as Abbot Anscar laid the first stone.

The Abbey Church was built piecemeal, according to the funds available – but at no time did work come to a halt until the whole church was completed, thirty-two years later. The builders – normally only four monks, and never more than six – began with the east end, the sanctuary, transepts and two bays of the nave. At first, while funds were low, all the stone had to be cut and dressed by the monks. In later years, they were able to buy the stone ready-dressed from the quarries. Scaffolding was made from wooden poles, lashed together with ropes and chains. Stone was lifted with manual hoists or block and tackle.

The building work continued throughout the First World War, during which time the community (two-thirds of whom were German) were prohibited from leaving the monastery without special licence, as well as having to endure the hostility of some of the local population.

Nevertheless, funds still came in. In 1910, Sir Robert Harvey donated a peal of fourteen bells. Most of the furnishings in the church were also donated by individuals, such as the Stations of the Cross, the stone carvings on the altars in the side-chapels, the stained glass, candelabra, and the great Corona Lucis above the sanctuary.  (Pictures of the candelabra and the Corona Lucis can be seen on the Abbey Church page).


Life at Buckfast in the early years was quite austere – this was a legacy from the Abbey’s origins in France. The 2-00am Night Office was retained until 1933; silence was strictly observed in the monastery, leading to the use of traditional monastic sign language; monks knelt when speaking to the Abbot, and newspapers were a rarity.

The 25th August, 1932 was the day chosen for the Consecration of the Abbey Church. After 25 years of labour, all but the upper section of the tower had been completed. Cardinal Bourne was chosen by the Pope as his representative; also taking part were five Archbishops, sixteen Bishops, thirty Abbots and many priests. Not only was the Church full to capacity, but thousands heard the service outside, where loud speakers had been installed. The service was also broadcast by the B.B.C.

The final phase of the rebuilding of the Church was the completion of the tower to accommodate the superb set of bells which had been donated in 1910. The final stone was laid on the tower on 24th July, 1937, completing thirty-two years work. It was not until December of the following year that the pointing was finished and the scaffolding removed.


Abbot Anscar was away on a lecture tour in the last weeks of 1938, returning on December 6th. The builders had hurried to remove the last of the scaffolding for his return, so that Vonier, exhausted and ill with a cold he had caught on the long journey home, could see the great work completed. He died three weeks later. Abbot Anscar was internationally known as a writer, preacher and scholar, but it was his life’s work as a builder that he was best known. One writer in the Telegraph recalled a conversation that they had recently had with Vonier, in which Vonier had said, “Once the Church is completed and the whole building finished, I have done my task and I can go.” Abbot Anscar was buried in the Church. A Bronze memorial plaque, showing the achievements of Vonier’s life was made by Benno Elkan, was erected in the south aisle.”

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Seeing this magnificent set of buildings, and realising that they were built by a tiny group of monks (4 or 6 at a time) with self-taught skills, well it really takes the breathe away. It is quite quite unbelievable.

And what awaited us inside was equally astounding. We had to be super quiet!

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The detailed work of building, carving, woodwork, artwork, metalwork, mosaics and more must surely be the equal of anything one sees in our older abbeys and cathedrals…….

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It was a real privilege to see all this, and afterwards to relax by walking round the prize-winning gardens (lavender garden, physic garden, sensory garden, fruit garden……) in the beautiful surroundings of the bowl of wooded hills and the river Dart.

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We must return when they are at their best….

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A visit to the excellent shop was repaid with some purchases. And then it was time to walk slowly back to the station where we found the vintage bus which we will catch on another occasion.

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All in all, the day could not have been improved upon….

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