Monday, 4 September 2017

A Rather English Abbey


It only struck me last weekend that there may be tourists these days who turn up at Downside Abbey believing it to be Downton Abbey. In fact, I will be surprised if this is not the case. Downton Abbey was, however, completely unheard-of last time I visited Downside, in 2007. So many things have changed, among them the conference facilities, which have moved from the St Bede Centre which we used for the SSF conference ten years ago to the Weld Cafe (both are equally difficult to find until you know your way around the multi-purpose complex of abbey and school).
The reason for visiting on this occasion was a symposium organised by Joseph Melling to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Dom Sebastian Moore, whom I had interviewed on camera in 2007. Sadly, my DVD of this meeting has deteriorated, and the Abbey seem to have lost the copies we gave them at the time. As a result I wasn't able to show the film as planned. Instead, I gave a talk to the small but knowledgeable audience about Siegfried Sassoon, his conversion to Catholicism and his relationship with Sebastian. For those who do not know, the two men met in 1957 - sixty years ago - when Sebastian was appointed to give Siegfried his instruction in the Catholic faith. Ten years later, Sassoon died at nearby Heytesbury House, but by this time Sebastian was working as a parish priest in Liverpool. He subsequently spent some years in the United States, as a college chaplain, first in Milwaukee and later in Boston.
Like Siegfried, Sebastian was a rebel, though mainly in theological terms. He had also suffered a mental breakdown, which he agreed might have led to him forming a closer bond with Siegfried than would otherwise have been possible. It is difficult, looking at Downside now, to imagine anyone either wanting to rebel or being unhappy there. The monastic community seem to be very laid-back about their duties. When I spotted an old acquaintance, Father Alexander, in the road outside the abbey, I thought for a moment he must have left the order, as he was wearing an old sweater and serviceable trousers, which he explained by saying that he had just been on a pleasant country walk.
Apart from having to get up early in the morning for Lauds, it was difficult to see any sign of hardship in the life of a 21st-century monk. One of my fellow guests did tell me that he had seen a bat in the monastery's sleeping quarters (the part that I, as a woman, was not allowed to enter), and of course they have to share a bathroom and are expected to eat their meals in silence. All seem like a small price to pay for having the beautiful Victorian Gothic buildings in golden Bath stone around one all the time, surrounded by well-tended gardens and the kind of rolling countryside so typical of south-west England. Father Dominic Mansi, who looked after us in the guest wing, seems a progressive thinker and even apologised for women not being allowed to roam freely!
The symposium was an international affair, with American, Irish and Portuguese academics among the speakers, not to mention Father Louis Roy, Master of Sacred Theology at the Dominican University College in Ottawa, Canada. Those attending included former students of Downside School - now very much segregated from the Abbey even though the two institutions share the same site - and others who knew Sebastian, including theologian Peter Harvey, who told me that he had played cricket alongside Siegfried Sassoon. Peter kindly corrected me when I stated that the Ravens, Downside's cricket team, had been trained by the late Father Martin Salmon. "None of us were trained," said Peter. "Martin just happened to be the captain." I hope to persuade him to write up some of his memories for Siegfried's Journal at some future date.
Also present was our own Lindsey Spears, who taught at Downside School and knew Sebastian Moore well. At one time it had looked as if I would not be able to attend the symposium and Lindsey had agreed to fill in for me if necessary; in the end, the timings were changed and I was able to make my appearance after all. Even though I was unable to attend the afternoon session, I would have been very disappointed to miss it altogether. Luckily Joseph had distributed transcripts of all the talks to us, so we could read them at our leisure. However, I must say that some of them stray into arcane theological territory which left me feeling intellectually inadequate (and anyone who knows me will understand how difficult it is for me to admit that).
I have one final tip on visiting Downside, which seems not to be generally known to local tourist agencies. The abbey's visitor centre, which is run by volunteers, contains not only a very nice bookshop and gift shop, but also some coffee and tea-making facilities. If you are lucky, you will also get a slice of cake, in return for a small donation. Cheaper than Starbucks and much, much more congenial.