Buckfast Abbey – all you need to know
Buckfast Abbey – last day
With our Cornish odyssey over, we drove to Devon to stay with friends for the night on the way back. It was also a chance also chance to see the God-daughter, who at the time was growing up faster than my hair could – of course that isn’t hard these days.
The following day we prepared to leave Devon to go home. However, we thought it would be a good idea to visit a place called Buckfast Abbey along the way. I remember coming to this place previously, and all I could remember of it was mostly for its Breton biscuits that it produced locally. In fact I couldn’t remember setting foot inside the abbey last time. So it was a good opportunity to have a proper look.
Also being from Ireland, Ash wanted to try the famous Buckfast Tonic. A famous thing in Ireland apparently.
I remember this only being a short visit, but I just wanted to show all of you out there about the parts of the abbey I did visit and what there is to do. So, this article may be a little short on detail, but I’ll go through those things you really need to know about Buckfast Abbey.
Buckfast Abbey feels like heaven
One of the worries/burdens/frustrations about visiting tourist attractions is making the effort to go in the first place, and then finding out you also have to pay parking and admission for the privilege. Thankfully both are free at Buckfast Abbey.
Once we got out of the car and organised ourselves, we proceeded to walked and approached the abbey from the main entrance. First impressions? To me, it just looked like any other abbey. But there was one difference – it looked clean and almost brand new. Not what i was expecting from an abbey. However there were some indications as to the probably age of the site itself.
Despite the building looking so young, once we stepped inside the abbey, those initial impressions disappeared. There were the obvious Gothic-looking arches and vaults as expected with any abbey. What was unusual about Buckfast Abbey was that you could see the actual bricks and mortar that formed the ceiling. With older similar religious buildings, I would imagine these would have been plastered over.
But there was just one thing. I couldn’t help but notice how white the place was. Almost like a heavenly white – was this heaven?? Perhaps this was heaven. I mean, everything looked pristine and built with a sense of pride. Indeed the shiny marble floors made the white even brighter. The constant white gave a sense of comfort while in the building – a sense of heaven, maybe?
It was at that point that I took another look up the towering vaults at the ceiling fresco. I’m not a religious person, but I just had this feeling that something other-worldly was up there somewhere.
Buckfast Abbey is a story of rise and fall….and rise again
Founding and rise
The original abbey was founded as a Benedictine monastery in 1018. But where exactly it was located is still a mystery.
In 1134 or 1136, the abbey, now established in its current position, was granted to the French Abbot of Savigny, and was subsequently rebuilt in stone.
In the medieval period the abbey’s fortunes were linked to the fishing and wool trades. In fact it became so rich that it owned large tracts of land on Dartmoor for sheep farming, seventeen manors in central and south Devon, townhouses in Exeter, fisheries on two rivers, and a country house for the abbot at Kingsbridge.
However, by the time the Black Death killed substantial numbers of monks in the early 14th century, many buildings fell into neglect. However, it soon began to recover by the mid-15th century. This was short-lived as the abbey fell into decline in the 16th century.
At the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the abbey was surrendered to King Henry VIII, with all its gold and silver delivered to the Tower of London. The King later granted it to others, including William Petre, the Secretary of State, and Sir Thomas Dennis (c.1477-1561) of Holcombe Burnell in Devon.
Following dissolution, the abbey site and its lands were reduced to ruins where the buildings were stripped, essentially being used as a stone quarry.
In 1800, the site was purchased by a local mill owner, Samuel Berry who demolished the ruins. In its place a Tudor style mansion house, and a wool mill were built on the site in 1806. Of what was left of the former abbey, were some outer buildings and a tower from the former abbot’s lodgings. These features survive today.
In 1882 the property was sold to French Benedictine monks. And within weeks, monks were again living at the abbey where work soon began on restoring the place to former glories.
Initially a temporary church was constructed. However, construction of the current abbey church started in 1906. Mostly on the footprint of the original Cistercian abbey. The new abbey church was built in the Norman Transitional and Early English styles, to the designs of architect, Frederick Arthur Walters.
The whole community of Buckfast contributed to repair the ancient foundations up to ground level. Which shows great spirit. But it’s also a marvel that no more than six monks worked on the project at any one time.
The monks employed construction methods that would have been considered primitive even in those days. For example, wooden scaffolding was held together by ropes and no safety protection was worn by the monks, despite 4 of them falling from the scaffold from great heights.
Construction continued throughout World War I which was a sensitive time. Some of the monks were of German nationality. But they remained free, on condition they were confined to the abbey grounds.
Despite the building not being finished, the abbey church was consecrated on 25 August 1932. The last stone was finally laid in late 1937 with final completion of the church the following year.
The only portion of the medieval monastery which survives is the “much restored”, former abbot’s tower, which dates from 14th or 15th century.
Buckfast Abbey grounds aren’t ‘WOW!’. More like ‘aaaaahh….’
It wasn’t even a hot day but my smartphone had started to overheat. (Sony makes some great camera phones, but they can be so unreliable at times). So I was unable to take many photos of the gardens.
What I can say is that the gardens were very well-kept and tidy. Our walk within the grounds took us through several gardens for herbs, medicines, and fruit. Amongst the few sculptures dotted around, there also lay lavender and sensory gardens.
Luckily for Ash, the grounds were not very extensive – I think she’d had enough walking this holiday.
What if I was to say something about the gardens? It would be that I wouldn’t say that the gardens weren’t breath-taking or stunning. Just simply nice. I think the idea was not to give that wow factor. More the idea of them is to put you in a state of relaxation, contemplation and prayer. After all, it’s not just a place of worship, but also a retreat.
Aside from this, the abbey grounds were mostly just lawn with neat, tidy paths and open spaces. Areas where you don’t feel hemmed in and can open yourself up. Presumably to God.
Buckfast Abbey’s Tonic – rotten to the core?
After the walk around the grounds, we took a small lunch break in the Abbey’s restaurant. The restaurant was largely empty as we arrived a little after lunch, so we probably missed the crowds. I had some lasagne along with a lemon tart. The food was not amazing, but more comforting.
The biggest mistake was deciding to eat outside. The presence of food meant a constant presence of wasps to the point of annoyance. All were attracted to the sweet foods, not to mention the tonic wine.
I’d heard of Buckfast Tonic before. And I’d heard of other alternative tonics such as Sanatogen. But I’d never really tried the wine…..until now.
The wine we’d bought came in small cans. But you’re more likely to see it in its characteristic green bottle (brown in Ireland). My honest opinion? I’d say that the wine was OK, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to buy it again. In fact the taste was forgettable. Ash thought it was in her words, ‘rotten’.
Buckfast tonic is a caffeinated fortified wine originally made by the abbey monks. It’s said to have more caffeine drop for drop than Red Bull! The wine is based on a traditional French recipe. First made in the 1890s, it was sold in small quantities as a medicine using the slogan, “Three small glasses a day, for good health and lively blood”.
It became a popular drink in the UK and Ireland amongst the working class and students. Although the drink still retains its reputation as a health tonic, it also has a reputation of causing dark social consequences.
If you’re mixing caffeine with alcohol, you can only imagine!
An anti-social tonic
Despite being marketed as a tonic, Buckfast has become notorious in Scotland for its association with antisocial behaviour.
In fact its notoriety is perceived to be so bad that, an investigation by the BBC revealed that Buckfast had been mentioned in 5,638 crime reports in the Strathclyde area of Scotland from 2006 to 2009. In 2017, Scottish Police reported 6,500 crimes related to the drink in the previous two years, with Buckfast Tonic bottles commonly used as weapons.
More shocking statistics I’ve found: a survey at a Scottish young offenders’ institution showed of the 117 people who drank alcohol before committing their crimes, 43 per cent said they had drunk Buckfast Tonic. Another study of litter focusing on a council estate in Scotland found that 35 per cent of rubbish/trash were Buckfast Tonic bottles.
Here’s some anecdotal evidence: In 2016 a Sheriff sentenced a man for hitting a 15-year-old boy over the head with a bottle at a birthday party, quoting there was a “very definite association between Buckfast and violence”. Separately last year, a High Court trial in Edinburgh heard a man had consumed lager and a whole bottle of Buckfast before ferociously stabbing a workmate.
This apparent link to violence and anti-social behaviour has been such a controversial issue that the abbey employs a youth worker in one area affected in Scotland.
I wonder what a good day drinking Buckfast in Scotland looks like?
For me, Buckfast Abbey is a nice place, and it’s just that. There’s no wow factor to it. I mean it’s not one of those sexy, touristy historic sites. And why should it be? It’s a fully working abbey and monastery. A place of worship. A religious retreat.
What I did like about it is this place gives you space and time to yourself for contemplation, reflection and prayer. Not that I did any of that.
What I found is that the fortunes of the abbey have always been intertwined with the area around it. And this is from its connections with local industry . Whether that was through historical connections like fishing and wool or through more modern industries such as local tourism. Buckfast Abbey has always played an important part in local history.
Buckfast Abbey is also testament to the dedication and hard work by a small group of monks. Whom during the middle ages and the modern age demonstrated entrepreneurship, business-acumen and a virtuous work ethic. All working for the glory of God, in all sorts of trying circumstances.
This is something we can all learn from, whether we’re religious or not.
Just stay away from the Buckfast Tonic.
Visiting Buckfast Abbey
|Opening times||Buckfast is open all year round, but opening times of the various facilities such as the gift shop and the restaurant can differ depending on the time of year. There's not much indication on the Buckfast Abbey website, but Visit Dartmoor gives some guidelines.|
Buckfast Abbey is not surprisingly in Buckfast, which is a few mins off the A38 - pretty much halfway between Plymouth and Exeter.
The nearest stations are Totnes and Newton Abbot. From there you'd need to get to Buckfast by car, which is around a 20-minute drive from either station.
If you time it right, the South Devon Railway operates at certain times of the year. They run a heritage steam train service operating between Buckfastleigh and Totnes. In theory, you could take a train from Totnes and make your way by foot to the abbey from Buckfastleigh station.
There are buses from Newton Abbot and Totnes. Bus services are operated by Stagecoach. These are obviously much slower than other modes of transport, but probably a little more convenient than the train
|Best time to go||As always with most attractions, the best time is to go in the Spring and Summer when the weather is much warmer. This is also the time of year when everything in the grounds and gardens are in full bloom.|
|Costs||Entry is free all year round, Car parking is also free!|
|More information||Train tickets can be booked through GWR. Book early for the best discounts:
Time your trip right and you can get to Buckfastleigh in style on a heritage steam train from Totnes. Buy your tickets online now:
Bus timetables and prices from Totnes and Devon can be found on the Stagecoach website:
|Travel tips||Just be aware during the holiday seasons (usually Easter, summer and Bank Holidays) the abbey can get busy. As can the A38 during certain times of the day. If you're coming from afar, plan your journey to get there in good time.
If you're eating at the restaurant, be aware of eating outside, as the food can attract nearby wasps. I found that out the hard way.