Chapel of the Month – November 2015

Buckfast Abbey, Devon

For November’s post we are grateful once again to Dr Jennifer Freeman.

Buckfast Abbey Nave

Buckfast Abbey Nave

Buckfast Abbey stands in wooded countryside close to the River Dart on the southern edge of Dartmoor. It is the only mediaeval monastery in England to have been restored to its original use following centuries of abandonment after Henry VIII’s Dissolutions. The monks followed the Benedictine Rule, laid down by St Benedict in the fifth century, committing them to a regimen of hard work and prayer with the goal of self-sufficiency.

The monastery is probably of Saxon origin, re-founded in 1018 as a Cistercian Abbey but returning to the Benedictines in 1147. This change coincided with a major programme of rebuilding lasting over a century. Agriculture and sheep farming were the basis of the monastic economy, funding the works programme. Buckfast was at its peak in the 13th century, before declining in the 14th and 15th centuries while at the same time remaining a large-scale owner of land.

Buckfast Abbey Stations of the Cross

Buckfast Abbey Stations of the Cross

In 1539 came the Dissolution of Buckfast, where there remained but 10 monks. The decline in numbers of monks was mirrored throughout England, in part due to universities and hospitals taking over tasks previously undertaken by monks. Some monasteries had already given up voluntarily. Monasteries were ransacked for building materials and valuables. Events at Buckfast followed the pattern. Buildings were unroofed, useful lead melted, furniture auctioned. Smaller buildings were converted for habitation or agriculture and the land was sold though five of the monks found alternative local employment.

For several centuries the heart of the monastery lay in ruins though some new buildings arrived on site, including a substantial house. Eventually the whole site went on the market in 1882 with religious purpose in view. Ideal purchasers emerged. These were monks from a largely German-speaking monastery in France, who had been evicted for belonging to an ‘unauthorised’ establishment, and thence fled to Ireland. They made their lasting home at Buckfast.

Frederick Walters FSA was appointed architect for the rebuilding of the monastery. He researched the foundations of the mediaeval monastery, rediscovered the gardens and became greatly involved in designs for the new Abbey. Some of the remaining buildings were recreated, others re-instated often incorporating earlier structure. The precinct was tacked in a similar spirit.

Buckfast Abbey Blessed Sacrament Chapel

Buckfast Abbey Blessed Sacrament Chapel

Monastic labour, virtually self-trained and utilising basic tools, was harnessed. Works commenced in 1884 with Abbey status being accorded in 1904. At any one time only 4-6 monks were on site, working piecemeal. The church was completed in 1922, the Abbey being consecrated ten years later. A great spur to the pace of building programme was Abbot Ansvar Vonier, Buckfast’s second Abbot, in the wake of the tragic death of its first Abbot, Boniface Natter.

The uniqueness of the huge project made the Abbey something of a visitor attraction. As in mediaeval times the monks sold their produce, including the famous ‘tonic wine’. Bee-keeping and the sale of honey proved popular. Over time the precinct has expanded its facilities with a teashop, restaurant, bookshop, conference and guest suites. Today’s precinct throbs with life, leaving the monks in seclusion to the south side of the monastic enclave. The ruined Abbot’s Tower, the mediaeval Guest Hall and South Gate have been gradually restored.

Architecturally, the newly created Abbey Church is built along Cistercian lines, combining both Romanesque and Gothic detailing in a carefully modulated, restrained, evocative manner. The unifying of different styles is not only a reminder of the Abbey’s history but also reflects a preoccupation of many contemporary church designers such as Dom Paul Bellot, Sir Ninian Comper and W. D. Caroe. The peaceful, contemplative atmosphere at Buckfast is re-inforced by its low-key sensory gardens and seemly precinctual buildings.

Buckfast Abbey

Buckfast Abbey

The Church is constructed of local blue limestone and golden Ham Hill stone that takes sunlight gloriously. In shape it is cruciform with a tower, transepts and long nave on the footprint of its mediaeval predecessor. Inside, the confident, elegant modelling of the stonework and the finessing of its carving set off ravishing mosaic paving, exquisite enamel work and gilding – much of it the work of Dom Charles Morris. Yet visitors are never led away from the prayerful purpose of the building into pure admiration of adornment. The meaning behind its distinctive chapels and varied spaces is always felt.

It was this English monk, Dom Charles Norris, who after a training at the Royal College of Art began to create Buckfast’s amazing stained glass in 1932. He, too, was responsible for painting the Lantern Tower in egg tempera in 1939, for the mosaic flooring in the Sanctuary and Crossing in 1943/47 and the pavement in the Choir and Lady Chapel of 1958. Bernhard Witte of the Aachen Studio designed the extraordinarily delicate enamelling of the Corona Lucis and the Stations of the Cross.

In 1968 the Blessed Sacrament Chapel was constructed in a distinctive, vibrant, Modern / Byzantine manner north of the tower and transepts. The huge stained glass walls make a powerful statement, comprising thick tiles of glass, chipped to shape and set in concrete or epoxy resin. Buckfast had moved into a new era.

The Buckfast complex is self-evidently successful. Perhaps unexpectedly, it is one of Devon’s most visited sites. The monastery flourishes from the monks’ personal endeavours. An astonishing success story in an era of faith failures.


  • Robin Clutterbuck, Buckfast Abbey – A History, Buckfast Abbey Trustees, 1994
  • Visitor Guide to Buckfast Abbey, Scala, 2005

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Future of Welsh chapels debated

In early October a short debate was held in the Welsh Assembly on the future of chapel buildings in Wales. The country currently has a large excess of chapels and their upkeep falls to increasingly elderly and shrinking congregations. The Minister for Economy, Science & Transport referred to a strategic action plan currently being developed in consultation Cadw, and noted that Historic Environment (Wales) aims to introduce heritage partnership agreements to allow groups responsible for listed chapels to develop long-term management plans.

The Law & Religion UK website has a useful summary.

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2015 Heritage at Risk Register

The 2015 Heritage at Risk Registers indicate that 928 of the 14,790 (approximate) listed places of worship in England are at risk. Since 2014 there have been 161 new places of worship added to the list and 118 removed.

The four main reasons that places of worship end up on the Register are issues with gutters and downpipes, high level stonework, roofs, and structural stability. Most suffer from at least two of these problems.

The 2015 Registers are available here: and more information about places of worship at risk can be found here:

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National Maintenance Week – winter hints and tips

With winter on its way – and it has been a very chilly weekend – the onset of the cold weather will bring the usual related problems for churches and associated properties. The Church Matters website has a short video and useful guidance on how to protect your buildings in winter.

You can also find useful tips and advice on the SPAB’s Faith in Maintenance website.

So with National Maintenance Week well under way now is the time to check that your building has a fully functioning set of gutters and drains.

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Methodist Heritage News / ‘Property Matters’ published

The Autumn issue of Methodist Heritage News is now out, with a fascinating description of Methodist sites on the Shetlands Islands and an article on Cloud Methodist Chapel in Congleton. The chapel recently celebrated 200 years of continuous worship.

The most recent edition of the ‘Property Matters’ magazine includes information on fundraising and guidance on how to apply through the Connexional Property Grants Scheme. There are also updates on legal matters, insurance, and information specifically aimed at Trustees who manage chapels , such as how to reduce your carbon footprint.

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Chapel of the Month – October 2015

Sutton on the Hill Primative Methodist Chapel

Sutton on the Hill is a small scattered hamlet 8 miles to the west of Derby.  Mentioned in the doomsday book as Sudtun, the centre of the current hamlet sits on a rise above Sutton Brook. The C14 St Michael’s Church (rebuilt in 1863) is not within the village but is located on top of “the hill” about half a mile to the north east, giving commanding views of the surrounding countryside.

Sutton on the Hill Primitive Methodist Chapel

Sutton on the Hill Primitive Methodist Chapel

Sutton has a place in the historic development of Primitive Methodism. In 1811, aged 17, Sarah Kirkland of Mercaston, Derbyshire was so impressed by Hugh Bourne that she decided to devote her life to God and within two years she was accepted into the movement as its first female travelling preacher. Her first preaching engagement was at Sutton, where she converted a gypsy who then travelled with her and announced Sarah’s arrival in every town and village that she visited. Sarah became very popular and in 1816 preached to a crowd of 12,000 near Nottingham.

The Primitive Methodist Chapel is located about half mile north of the Anglican church in an isolated location in the corner of a field at the crossroad of Lane Ends. Interestingly, this is locally known as “ranter’s corner” after a name given to the Primitive Methodists when they were first founded in the early C19 due to their enthusiastic style of preaching.

The chapel itself is a small single storey brick building with Flemish bond and a Staffordshire blue tiled roof with decorative terracotta finials and the decorative date stone states “Primitive Methodist Chapel 1838”. The large symmetrically-placed metal windows give balance and grandeur to the building. Towards the end of the 19th century the porch and lean to the east were added.

This charming but unlisted chapel recently closed and has now been sold.

This month’s contribution was kindly prepared by Neil Robertson, Conservation Officer in South Derbyshire.

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Museum of Methodism

And now for some good news: the Museum of Methodism in London was awarded  a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £93,000 in 2013 to restore and exhibit material relating to the global growth of Methodism. The museum’s new interpretation shows how historic places of worship can successfully integrate mission and heritage to engage visitors from diverse backgrounds.

“The Warmed Heart” tells the story of John Wesley’s conversion. His Field Bible is one of the objects on display in a contemplative space.

“Mr Wesley’s New Chapel” traces the history of Wesley’s Chapel using a series of maps of Finsbury and Islington, the earliest of which dates to 1746.

“Connecting the Connexion” illustrates John’s Wesley’s visionary organisational system of Methodist societies, classes and bands. Exhibits include a range of membership tickets and a print of Francis Asbury, whose enthronement as a bishop in the United States sealed Methodism’s separation from the Church of England.

Huw Edwards, the BBC presenter, narrates our new seven-minute audio-visual presentation and the latest technology, including tablet computers, provides interactive access to major archival documents, such as John Wesley’s sermons and Charles Wesley’s hymns.

The museum holds one of the world’s largest collections of Wesleyan ceramics and some of the finest Methodist paintings. Visitors can step back in time and stand in Wesley’s original pulpit from The Foundery Chapel. Why not come along and explore the first phase of the new museum for yourself; entry is free and everyone is welcome!


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Blaze at Llanelli URC

From the Llanelli Star on 14 August 2015:

“FIVE youths have been arrested following last night’s fire at an old Llanelli Church. Llanelli Park United Reform Church on Murray Street was all but destroyed by the blaze that kept 40 fire fighters tied up for hours. And as investigations into the cause of the fire continue today, police have confirmed a 16-year-old boy and four 15-year-olds have been arrested in connection with the incident. They remain in police custody at this time.

The blaze swept through the church at 7pm last night and was not brought under control until around midnight. It brought the roof down and threatened to spread to surrounding properties. Llanelli’s town and county councillor John Jenkins said: “It’s a miracle nobody’s been hurt or more damage done to neighbouring properties.”

Around 50 people had to be evacuated from their homes and many remain unable to get home while engineers assess the remains of the building. A police spokeswoman said: “Five youths have been arrested in connection with the incident – a 16 year old boy and four 15 year old boys. They are in police custody.”

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Chapel of the Month – September 2015

Mansefield Trinity Church

Mansfield Trinity Church

Mansfield Trinity Church

Kilwinning has a long history both of Christianity and initiative.  The name Kilwinning means ‘saint or cell of Winning’, and after its foundation in the 8th century the town became home to a flourishing Benedictine monastery for four centuries. The abbey was built in the 12th century and disbanded in the late 16th century.

Commercially, Kilwinning has a history of wool-making and carpet-manufacture.  Most of those traditional companies have now closed, but in recent years Ayrshire College (formerly James Watt College) has set up a campus in the town, boosting local businesses.

The new church

Mansefield Trinity Church is the first church of the third millennium built by the Church of Scotland and was dedicated in March 2001.  It is one of two Church of Scotland parishes in Kilwinning; the other is Kilwinning: Old (formerly known as the Abbey Church).

Mansfield Trinity Church

Mansfield Trinity Church

The building, deigned by by architect James F Stephen, has a distinctive round design, which creates a light and airy atmosphere.  Full floor to ceiling windows frequently allow the church to be flooded with sunlight during our services throughout the year.  The contemporary design includes individual seating, allowing for flexibility of use according to congregational levels.

Mansefield Trinity offers a place to belong for all who enter through our doors, a welcome and hospitality to the people of the local area and beyond.  Tea, coffee and chat are offered to congregation and visitors alike after the Sunday service.

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Chapel of the Month – August 2015

Monks Chapel

This month’s guest writer is architectural historian, Ellen Leslie.

Monks Chapel

Monks Chapel

This chapel, just outside Corsham, is one of the oldest independent chapels in England. It was originally constructed in 1662. It is 31 x 18 ft and has a small gallery on three sides of the interior. The interior is white washed and it also has a double pulpit.

In 1662 the Parliament of King Charles II revised the English Prayer Book and required church ministers to use fixed forms of service and consent to the new Book of Common Prayer.

As a result many ministers felt compelled to leave the established Church and many more were ejected from their livings. In the same year the Five Mile Act was also passed by Parliament and this required all ministers to take an oath that they would not at any time seek to alter the government of the church. Those who refused to do so were not allowed to come within five miles of any town or borough.

The Quakers built Monks Chapel in 1662 outside the five mile radius of the borough of Chippenham to conform with the Act. At the same time, Benjamin Flower, son of the Vicar of Castle Combe, was ejected from his living in Cardiff, and made Chippenham his centre for preaching. He established independent worship in Corsham as a Presbyterian. In 1689 the Act of Toleration was passed and in 1690 the Independents bought Monks Chapel from the Quakers.

In 1818 a Sunday school was started and in 1824 a new gallery was constructed. Because of its remoteness, people used to spend the day at Monks, bringing their midday meal and heating it at the fireplace, which also served to warm the chapel. From the high pulpit the preacher had a good view of the surrounding countryside and he could make his way to safety if the chapel was raided by troublemakers or anyone who was trying to arrest him. There are signs that there might have been a secret doorway out of the chapel via the pulpit. This would have been for the Preacher to escape the King’s forces when they looked for him.

Regular worship has continued uninterrupted since 1690 and the chapel is now used by the United Reformed Church (descendants of the original “Independents”).

With thanks to the Wiltshire Online Parish Clerks. Additional photographs of the Chapel can be found online.

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