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Yorkshire Ampleforth Abbey, North Yorkshire

A working monastery and school

As well as being a highly regarded school, Ampleforth Abbey is a working monastery set in the North York Moors. It is a delightful setting with lakes, woodlands and trails. Visitors can join the monks at prayer as well as visiting the abbey between services.

The Benedictines were expelled from France in 1792 during the Revolution. Fr Anselm Bolton came to England and became chaplain to Lady Anne Fairfax of Gilling Castle. She built Ampleforth Lodge for him. In 1802, Fr Anselm handed the lodge over to his brethren to become their new monastery and a school was opened in 1803. The monks taught in the school and went on mission to the industrial towns. There are nearly 60 monks attached to the monastery now.

Although the school buildings are part of the monastery, Ampleforth College is now an independent boarding school with its own board of Trustees. The prep school at Gilling Castle has now closed.

The massive Abbey with its solid tower is set at the centre of the complex of school buildings. It is a lovely site overlooking the broad valley. The church was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, replacing an earlier church, and was completed in 1922.

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The day we visited, there were plenty of cars parked, but there was no one around. It felt quite eerie inside the building with its long corridor and signs saying ‘Silence’. We followed the signs to the Abbey and opened the door. There is always a sense of excitement when we visit a church as you are never quite sure what you will find inside. This was a complete surprise, as it is two churches in one with a central altar. The monks worship in the chancel and the school in the nave..

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The altar is a massive dark stone structure with a big arch and a crucifix hanging from it. There are carved saints, bishops and angels on the sides. Facing the school is the Virgin Mary and St John.

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The nave is massive and feels very light with plain glass windows and clerestory. There are simple pillars and pointed arches and the school sits on pale wooden benches. It feels rather austere.

The choir used by the monks is smaller and more intimate. Pillars and arches are a darker stone. Monks have dark carved wood benches. At the centre is the Abbot’s chair with stalls on either side. There is wood panelling under the stained glass east window.

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The north chapel off the choir has the most amazing sculptured reredos. In the centre under an elaborately carved canopy is the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ with the cross behind. On the left is the baby Jesus being presented at the temple. On the right is Jesus carrying his cross. Below are four carved figures of Roman soldiers.

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On the west wall of the chapel is a carved stone niche with Christ crucified on the top. This contains the roll of honour for 1914-18, opened at the right day.

Visitors are welcome to attend services and there are stalls allocated for them in the choir. Guided tours of the Abbey are available every Thursday at 2.15.

The Abbey has a small Visitor Centre next to the main car park with information about the abbey and monastic life. It is run by enthusiastic volunteers who go out of their way to welcome visitors and explain what makes Ampleforth special. They also have a leaflet with details of a six mile walk around the estate. The shop in the Abbey buildings sells books, jewellery, scented candles, cards and scarves as well as Ampleforth beer and ciders. There is also an excellent tea room.

Entry to the Abbey is free and visitors are welcome to explore the extensive grounds. They have apple orchards and the apples are used to make cider and liqueurs. In April and May the Abbey runs blossom tours; in June to October, apple tours. There are details of a walk around the area here.

This makes an interesting and different visit. The post code is YO62 4ER and the grid reference is SE 598788.

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