Today I took my grandson to Prinknash Abbey for a snack in the wonderful café, and to play in the beautiful grounds of the Monastery of Our Lady and St Peter. I have written about the abbey several times before as it is a very special place for me. I was thrilled to meet Fr Stephen Horton again, who painted all the beautiful doors above.
The Abbey is set high in the Cotswold Hills near Cranham and Painswick so the views are spectacular. There is ancient woodland behind, and to the front, a clear view towards Gloucester with its magnificent Cathedral. On a clear day you can see May Hill with its crown-shaped clump of trees on the summit. They were planted in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and are visible for miles around. Beyond that there are the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains. Having observed that view on a daily basis, the monks are very good at forecasting the weather merely by looking at May Hill. If the hill looks a misty blue they know there will be rain at Prinknash later. If the crown of trees is lost in cloud, there will be a storm.
I discovered while working in the old ‘St Peter’s Grange’, which is now home to the monks again, that it was built in this position, sheltered by the hills and trees, as protection from the plague! There is documentary evidence, as well as evidence inside, that some parts of the Grange were built in the 14th century. In 1339 the Bishop of Worcester granted a licence “For the Abbot of Gloucester and his fellow monks to celebrate Mass or to have it celebrated by a suitable chaplain in an oratory within their manor of Princkenasch.” So we know that there was a chapel on the site then. By the time the Grange was built the Black Death had already swept through England and people thought it was carried on the wind. Wealthy people therefore built their homes on the side of a hill sheltered from the wind in the hope that this would protect them.
One of my jobs at the Abbey was to polish the Parker room. This room was named after William Parker who was Master of the Works in the Abbey before he was elected Abbot in 1515. He was responsible for many improvements to the building. In July 1535 Abbot Parker entertained King Henry V111 and Anne Boleyn for a week. They used St Peter’s Grange as a hunting Lodge because there were many deer around – as there are today nearby. One fascinating snippet that appeals to me is that Abbot Parker had windows put into positions from which he could watch the monks about their work. He used to spy on them. I believe, contrary to what Wikipedia states, that this is where the phrase “Nosey Parker” comes from.
At Prinknash the monks have long been known for their art and craft work. Vestments and stained glass were early specialities. They also made beautiful pottery for many years from the local clay. The monks still make Incense that is exported all over the world. One of the monks. who sadly passed away. created a huge wonderful painting for the millennium which was displayed in the Abbey Church. He also painted and created stained glass. Many of his pictures were made into lovely cards which were sold in the Abbey Shop. The abbey’s walled garden is still growing a variety of fruits. Today there were ripe raspberries to pick.
As I said, we met Fr Stephen Horton OSB who is the Prior and Novice Master. He is a prolific and very talented painter. I was fortunate enough to buy some of his original water colour paintings while I worked at the Grange. They are my pride and joy. The one I love especially is a watercolour of the Vale of Gloucester as seen from the roof of the Abbey. When inspiration struck him for this painting he had no suitably sized paper on which to paint the panorama. Being a monk and used to making use of whatever is available, he used two pieces of A4 paper side by side. This painting speaks to me of so much more than the view. It is creativity at its most basic, I feel. The painting had to be painted there and then using whatever was to hand. The muse could not wait for a trip to the art suppliers! It also speaks to me of the way of life of the monks. They waste nothing and ask for nothing. They live such a simple life yet produce beauty all around them from whatever is there to be used.
Apart from being a brilliant painter, Fr Stephen is also a great thinker who gives wonderful sermons. He says that “the one journey that really matters is the journey inwards”. On occasion I have asked him for copies of his notes as I want to study his words deeply. He says monastic silence is, “an inner stillness like at the bottom of the ocean, where the force eight gale might be going on, but deep down you do come to a stability, an inner anchoring”.
One of the saddest things that happened at Prinknash was the theft of a statue of Our Lady of Prinknash in 2002. There are many statues at Prinknash but this one was extremely beautiful and so special. It was about 20 inches tall, carved of Flemish Oak, and had belonged to St Thomas More. After the Reformation, it was taken abroad but returned in 1925 when the Benedictine monks founded their new abbey at Prinknash. Of course this means it was hundreds of years old and priceless in the truest sense. The Abbey Church was always open for visitors and those who wished to pray, and the statue used to stand on a shelf to the left side of the church. One day it just disappeared while the monks were at tea, stolen to order presumably as nothing else was taken. It devastated the community in the abbey and the wider community, including myself, who attended Mass there. I almost believe it took the heart out of some of the monks and the community itself. I have a picture of that statue and I often think that one day it will return to its rightful home. Maybe when the current ‘owner’ dies he will leave it in his will to be returned to Prinknash ~ after all he can’t take it with him!
This coming Saturday, 11th July is the Feast Day of St Benedict who lived in the 6th Century. I have no doubt that the monks at Prinknash, who follow the rule of St Benedict, will be celebrating with a special meal and maybe a glass of wine.