Great place to visit
Buckfast Abbey is a living monastery garden for all season.This is a great place to visit if you are interested in plants, whether for culinary and medicinal use or simple delight in colour and scent. The grounds are dotted with well-filled borders, and there are some magnificent trees, such as the Monterey pine (Pinus radiata). There are a number of smaller themed gardens, including the Millennium Garden, the Sensory Garden, the Lavender Garden and, of course, a Physic Garden. And the garden is all very accessible with wide level paths, which are easy to negotiate. There is a sense of space and order, not too fussy but neat.
A Benedictine tradition
Buckfast Abbey is home to a Benedictine monastery, justly famous for beekeeping (there are beekeeping courses) and for its fortified tonic wine (available in the shop). Building of this modern Abbey started in the early twentieth century, finishing over 30 years later in 1937. The Abbey replaces an earlier medieval building abandoned after the Dissolution of the sixteenth century. It is beautiful inside, with soaring arches using locally quarried stone and timber. At one end of the Abbey are spectacular large modern stained-glass windows, and a quiet chapel for prayer and reflection.
The Millennium Garden is a striking combination of pristine white Himalayan birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) trees and lower planting of ferns and foxglove. The formal arrangement is effective, with a superb deer sculpture, and we loved the walls made from old logs! The Lavender Garden also has a fairly formal layout of mounds of lavender. There are dozens of lavender varieties in beds edged with gravel, essential to provide drainage for these sun-loving plants. A Sensory Garden is laid out with water features around a fountain emerging from a stone previously used as a cider press. Surrounded by roses this garden will be a delight in the summer months.
The Physic Garden has a traditional feel with separate beds, all well-labelled, ranging from culinary herbs such as fennel to thyme to useful household plants, not forgetting some poisonous plants. A range of the plants, including varieties of lavender and thyme, can be found in the Abbey shop at very reasonable prices! The herb beds demonstrate a good spread of traditional medicinal herbs from feverfew to selfheal. However, my eye was taken with the imposing arbour structure dividing the Physic Garden area into four quarters. Exemplary pruning of woody plants growing up alongside and through the arches can be seen: these include apple (Malus domestica), fig (Ficus carica), honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum), medlar (Mespilus germanica), pear (Pyrus communis) and quince (Cydonia oblonga). Having been pruned hard back, these plants will be highly productive of flowers and fruit.
Buckfast Abbey today is a lively place with a very modern feel, the occupants providing well-organised services such as conference facilities and a welcoming reception for visitors. In the past the communal lifestyle of such monasteries was highly structured, with a programme of routines for eating, sleeping, prayer, study, work and all other aspects of life. The sixth-century Benedictine Rule emphasised hospitality, charity and care for the sick, so it was not uncommon for therapeutic care and treatment to be provided. From archaeological evidence there are suggestions of a wide range of healthcare components including nursing care, hygiene practices, surgical techniques, diet, herbal preparations, bloodletting, uroscopy and amulets. For a detailed summary of archaeological sources of information on monastic healthcare, including plant traces, see Chapter 3 in Roberta Gilchrist’s Sacred Heritage (2020).
Visiting the garden in January
Our visit to Buckfast Abbey was in January and it was chilly. Perhaps it would not be the best time of year to visit any other garden, yet at Buckfast Abbey the plants and structures are fascinating in the winter. There is evident attention to detail at every turn and the use of found or local resources stands out. Much of this impressive garden management can be best appreciated before the plants start leafing out. On a glorious sunny day, and wrapped up warmly, we lingered in the peace and quiet of these gardens. We will be going back through the seasons and expect to enjoy the changes even more.
Visitor information for Buckfast Abbey
Buckfast Abbey, Buckfastleigh TQ11 0EE
The gardens, restaurant (great pasties), shop and toilets are open daily (10-4.30 Mon-Sat but check times on Sundays). Buckfast Abbey is reached by car from the A30 in Devon, it is well-signposted and there is free parking. Alternatively, an hourly bus 88 service runs from Totnes railway station taking about 15 minutes, or there is an X38 bus from Exeter to Plymouth which passes through Buckfastleigh.
Gilchrist, Roberta. 2020. Sacred heritage: Monastic archaeology, identities, beliefs. Cambridge University Press.