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South West Buckfast Abbey


Buckfast Abbey is home to a community of Benedictine Monks who live work and pray in a small monastery on the edge of Dartmoor. They still practice the tradition of welcoming all and the Abbey is now a major tourist attraction receiving thousands of visitors each year.

It is a lovely site surrounded by attractive gardens. Despite the numbers of visitors, there is a sense of peace and quiet as soon as you walk through the gate and birdsong everywhere.

Buickfast Abbey map.jpg

The Abbey is self supporting with a farm and shop selling wine, honey beeswax, fudge and other items made by religious communities throughout the world. Buckfast Tonic wine has been made since the 1890s using a traditional French recipe and was marketed as a medicine using the slogan "Three small glasses a day, for good health and lively blood”. The Monks have traditionally kept bees. Breeding has created their own variety of bee, the Buckfast bee, which is a good pollen gatherer, normally gentle, less likely to swarm and also resistant to mites causing Acarine disease which has wiped out colonies in the past.

There has been an Abbey here since 1018. By the C14th it was one of the wealthiest Abbeys in the South West. It had fisheries on local rivers and owned extensive sheep runs on Dartmoor.

After the dissolution of the Monasteries, the buildings were stripped and left in ruins. 1.5 tons of gold, gilt and silver, from the treasures of the abbey, were delivered to the Tower of London.

The site was bought by local mill owner, Samuel Berry, in 1800. He cleared the ruins and built a grand mansion, although some of the smaller buildings survived as barns. The site subsequently changed hands several times before being bought by Dr James Gale in 1872. Ten years later Gale decided to sell the site and was keen to offer it to a religious community. He placed an advert describing the Abbey as "a grand acquisition could it be restored to its original purpose."

The advert was seen by a group of Benedictine Monks whose monastery in France had been suppressed under a new law. They took out an immediate lease and arrived in Buckfast. Plans for a new abbey were drawn up and building work began on monastic buildings including a temporary church.

Work began with just £5 in funds, a load of stone and a horse and cart loaned by a kind neighbour. One monk was trained as a mason with a team of five others helping him. Construction methods were primitive. Wooden scaffolding was held together by ropes and no safety protection was worn by the monks. One monk fell 50 feet but survived. Three monks fell off a hoist without serious injury. Construction continued throughout World War I. Some monks were of German nationality, but were not sent to an internment camp on condition that they remained confined to the Abbey grounds.

Buckfast was formally reinstated as an Abbey in 1902 and the monks began work on a new abbey church in the Norman transitional/early English style began in 1907. The church was consecrated in 1932 although building wasn’t finished until 1938.




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The Abbey Church dominates the grounds with its pale grey local limestone with window arches, corner stones and turrets picked out in pale brown Ham Hill stone that glows orange in sunlight. It is a dramatic building.


To the side are the monastery buildings which are private.


The Norman influence is strong with rounded arches and windows and the very characteristic dog toothed carving over the west door


The inside is equally as dramatic with white bath stone which reflects all the light making the inside feel light and airy. The vaulted ceiling is the local red sandstone, making a stricking contrast.


It is a cruciform church with solid pillars separating nave and side aisles and small transepts. The nave is short compared to the choir and sanctuary. Beyond is the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. The arcading reflects the transitional/early English architecture with pointed arches. The triforium is pure Norman.


There are small side altars carved at the base of the nave pillars. These have a carved reredos above and each is different.




On the walls are the very attractive Stations of the Cross made from copper, bronze and enamel set in wooden frames. The craftsmanship and detail are amazing.








The simple wooden choir stalls are just in front of the lantern tower.


The ceiling of the lantern tower shows Christ surrounded by angels, prophets and saints. this was painted by the monks using pigments mixed with egg yolk and gold leaf. It has a Byzantine feel.


Beyond is the sanctuary with the high altar.


This is made of black marble. The reredos behind depicts Christ in Glory when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples in tongues of fire. The figure are silver against a copper gilt background. Made in Aachen, it took twelve craftsmen two years to complete. There were problems when it was brought to England as the monastery was unable to afford the duty imposed on it by Customs and Excise, who agreed a nominal charge, recognising its importance as a major work of art.


Above is the Corona Lucis, which is lit electrically rather than by candles.




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As well as the nave altars, there are also small chapels. The Lady Chapel is in the north transept, with a painted Statue of the Virgin and Child set in a carved reredos. The stained glass window depicts the Annunciation.


There are two chapels at the end of the north aisle . That on the left is dedicated to the memory of Lord Clifford and his family who were benefactors of the abbey.


Next to it is the Chapel of Christ the High Priest, with its impressive gilt altar front and canopy.


There are another two chapels at the end of the south aisle On the right is the Chapel of St Benedict, C5th hermit who wrote ‘Rules for Monks’ .


Next to it is the Chapel of St Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary.


The Chapel of the Holy Cross is in the south transept. A painted cross is supported by two angels. On either side are statues of Mary Magdalene and St Helena, mother of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor. Helena in attributed with finding the cross of Christ from a cave on the slopes of Calvary at the beginning of the C4th.
with its impressive gilt altar front


In a reliquary box is the hair shirt belonging to Thomas More. He was a staunch Catholic and executed for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as the Head of the Church of England. The shirt was given to the English community of Nuns in Belgium. They returned to Abbotskersell Priory in Devon, bringing the shirt with them When the Priory closed in 1983, Buckfast abbey was asked to house the relic.


High on the wall of the south transept is a small gallery used by sick or infirm monks unable to attend services in the abbey itself.


In the south aisle is the bronze memorial to Ascar Vonier, second Abbot of Buckfast, who was responsible for much of the construction of the abbey. It depicts different scenes from his life. He lived just long enough to see his vision finished.


At the back of the south aisle is the solid bronze font. The kneeling figures supporting the bowl represent the four great rivers of Paradise.


In the lobby leaving the church is a small black marble piscina and a statue of Archangel Michael defeating the dragon, representing Satan.


The Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is at the far east end of the church and reached up a short flight of stone steps from the end of the sanctuary. It was added after the main church was built as a place of private prayer and it also serves as the parish church for the local community. It is remarkable for the glorious stained glass windows, the work of Dom Charles Norris, a monk at Buckfast who was also responsible for the lantern tower ceiling. He used a technique known as dalles-de-verre in which pieces of coloured glass are chipped into shape and laid, mosaic-fashion, in a matrix of resin.

The east window depicts Christ at the last supper.


The side windows are abstract designs of colour and the south wall includes a wooden mural.



The abbey church is a remarkable building. Not only was it completed in a short time using very primitive methods it is filled with beautiful artwork. It is a warm and embracing place.


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The Abbey grounds

The Abbey is surrounded by beautifully maintained grounds. There is grassland with specimen trees, hedges and smaller gardens.


These include the lavender garden with many different species of lavender


Beyond is the Millenium Garden, a secret garden with a stag drinking from a pool of water and a statue of the Virgin and Child.



The sensory garden is enclosed by a hedge and has a central water feature with trellising around it.



The Physic Garden contains plants that would have been gown in the original monastery garden and includes many plants used for medicine. There are also herbs and other sweet smelling plants used for strewing on floors. There are dye plants and also teasels used for teasing the tangles from wool before spinning. It is divided into four areas separated by hedging.




The fruit trees growing over the arbour include species of apple, pear, medlar and quince.


The grounds include the original medieval guest house with a shop and bookshop built onto it.


There is also a cafe


The tiny Methodist Chapel in the grounds predates the present abbey and was built in 1881 on what was the main road through the village. The inside has been refurbished with chairs replacing the pews.




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