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A different kind of vision – Nuns create a unique home in Wass

PUBLISHED: 00:16 20 December 2010 | UPDATED: 18:18 20 February 2013

Stanbrook Abbey clocktower

Stanbrook Abbey clocktower

An ancient order of nuns has settled in the heart of North Yorkshire. Chris Titley visits them at their unique 21st century abbey

A different kind of vision



An ancient order of nuns has settled in the heart of North Yorkshire. Chris Titley visits them at their unique 21st century abbey

Sitting low on Wass Bank is one of the most distinctive buildings in the North York Moors. Uncompromisingly modern, all clean lines and right angles, this is like nothing else in the 550-square miles of the National Park.
And yet it belongs here in both a spiritual and historical sense. The building is Stanbrook Abbey, home to an order of Benedictine nuns, a place of prayer, contemplation and simplicity. Not far away are the buildings forebears, the likes of Bolton, Byland and Rievaulx Abbeys.
The physical differences couldnt be more acute. Stanbrook is conspicuously 21st century, with square corners instead of Norman arches, cloisters of glass not stone, equipped with broadband and a hi-tech climate control system.
Rather than reach for the skies like Fountains Abbey, its an unassuming two-storeys high, made from warm local sandstone and set back into the hillside.
In this way Stanbrook Abbey is at once part of a long and sacred Yorkshire tradition as well as a trailblazer here, thanks to the pioneering spirit of the Community of Our Lady of Consolation.
When the huge Victorian pile in Worcestershire they called home for 171 years became too unwieldy for the sisters to maintain, they chose not only to relocate to a new part of the country a true challenge for an enclosed order who rarely venture out but to reinvent the abbey from the foundations up.
We tried to design the perfect monastery, said the abbess, Andrea Savage. For us the perfect monastery would be something that was going to be ecologically friendly and would minimise our running costs. On the whole, weve managed to do that.
With solar panels, a woodchip boiler, rainwater harvesting and a reed bed sewage treatment system, 4.7m Stanbrook could not be greener. Such a cutting-edge home has taken a little getting used to, as Sister Josephine admits.
People think its a return to a simpler way of doing things. But its not necessarily easier or quicker. The woodchip boiler occasionally gets blocked. That means theres no hot water. Somebody has to go and unblock it, says Sister Josephine.
The technology behind the sustainable energy its like living in a spaceship with the buttons. Thats been quite a learning curve.
Their first winter in the new abbey turned out to be the harshest for many years, with heavy snowfall. It was actually very beautiful, recalled Abbess Andrea. Because this building is so well insulated weve never been as warm.
We knew then that wed been well and truly welcomed because people were ringing up and making sure that we had everything that we needed, added Sister Josephine. There was that sense of people looking out for us.
The welcome from the locals started when they first arrived in May 2009 to find cakes and flowers on the doorstep. The people of the area are very aware of their monastic roots. Theyre proud of it, said Dame Andrea.
Were really a continuation of the monastic line that they know about. Byland Abbey is visible from the property, and the monks of Rievaulx probably grazed their sheep on the Stanbrook land.
The community now numbers 22. Two of the sisters have died since the move and have been buried in the abbey cemetery. In one way this helps to confirm were actually here to stay, says the abbess.
Although their surroundings are unashamedly modern, the communitys way of life would be recognised by a medieval monk. They rise at five, Vigils begins at 6am, Mass is at 9am and other fixed points of worship are observed through the day till Compline at 8.15pm. In between are periods of prayer, work, meals and recreation.
It is a hugely welcoming place hospitality is a hallmark of the Benedictine order and laughter often rings out around the abbey. A glimpse of life inside the enclosure offers a privileged insight into the hidden life of a professed nun.
In one of the unfinished rooms at the abbey, Mother Joanna is painting a vast mural for the restaurant at Buckfast Abbey in Devon. Its a remarkable work which will measure eight and a half by seven and a half metres when all the panels are assembled, and depicts the monks restoring the abbey church between 1907 and 1939.
A former abbess, Mother Joanna was sanguine about the move to Wass. Youre used to moving cells so you didnt get attached to any particular room. You very quickly make a space your own, she says.
Sister Etheldreda is in the linen room. The nuns make their own habits and repair them when necessary. We make the most of them, she says. When not busy at a sewing machine, she is tending the young garden which includes shrubs and seedlings brought up from their former land in Worcestershire a lot more fertile than the glacial moraine of North Yorkshire, by all accounts.
The glass cloister presents stunning views over the moors and brings you to the refectory. The sisters eat at tables made for the nuns 90 years ago by Robert Thompson, the Mouseman of Kilburn, which were transported back to Yorkshire as part of the big move.
In the kitchen Sister Elizabeth, one of the youngest in the community, is helping to prepare lunch, under the watchful eyes of Sister Agnes. It is a simple and wholesome meal trifles and other treats are saved for celebrating feast days.
Sister Elizabeth is from Scarborough so her family are close by. She loves the views offered by their new home. You see the way the light changes. Every hour of every day is different.
Older members of the community are even more aware of the changes. Sister Hilda has been with the order for 56 years. When I entered it was entirely different. There was a huge community over 70. It was very solemn but we had a wonderful abbess. One of her tasks today is to look after the hens. They roam the plantation. Its wonderful, I get out in that forest, it keeps me alive. The skies are vast.
Dame Cecilia, 88, joined in 1948 after serving as a Wren during the war. The old abbey, a more austere place with its high windows and grills separating the nuns from visitors, could get cold. The Victorians took their fresh air in the form of draughts.
In her well heated room known as a cell she has a balcony where she grows pansies, a view over the moors and the comforts that werent available before. You had no washbasins in your cell. You had a little zinc bath and went and fetched a gallon of hot water and just got on with it. Here we all have en-suite bathrooms. Theyre not fancy ones we bought them wholesale. Sister Petra, the infirmarian who looks after the sick, says this has made a huge difference to the lives of the nuns. Theres a dignity about it. And it prevents the spread of infection. We had a sister last year with a severe case of gastroenteritis. The doctor said, I expect everybodys got it but nobody else did get it because we could keep her isolated.
Despite the upheaval involved in upping sticks to Yorkshire, it seems the Benedictine community are settling well into life as green pioneers on the North York Moors. Were re-foundresses, in a way, starting again, says Sister Josephine. Abbess Andrea then adds: Please God, well be here in another 171 years!



Past and present
The Benedictine Community of Our Lady of Consolation was founded in 1623 in Northern France, returning to England in 1795. Stanbrook Abbey was founded in 1838.
The new abbey is being built in four phases. Phase one is complete. Phases two, three and four the church, library and guest accommodation, will be completed as funds become available.

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