For a slice of quiet contemplation, Quarr Abbey, a working monastery on the Isle of Wight, is a wonderful place to soothe the soul. It is not just an architecturally beautiful church - there is much more than meets the eye – roaming pigs, café, farm shop, book shop, art gallery and for the first time in its history, very modern ‘monastic internships.’
Fewer than a dozen monks live at Quarr Abbey in a semi-closed Benedictine Order, where the frenetic fast pace of life beyond is rarely experienced. Quarr Abbey offers any young male aged 18 to 25 ravaged by the modern world the chance to taste the life in this Benedictine community to help ‘”find” themselves without a yoga retreat or Himalayan trek in sight.
Just like banking interns, Quarr Abbey interns will be selected and places are limited to a maximum of four at any one time. The interesting twist here is that you don’t have to commit to a monk’s life long-term, as the internship is just two months long. You also don’t need to be a catholic or have to worry about being monk material. Alongside plenty of prayer and reflection, the internships are not a taster course for people who want to become monks nor a spiritual boot camp, but it does mean adjusting to silence and solitude, to become rooted in the spirituality of a monk. In return for four hours work a day (bar Sundays) an intern receives board, lodgings and spiritual guidance at no cost to themselves.
A Bit of History
Quarr – pronounced "Corr" – the word comes from the shallow quarries nearby. The old abbey, founded in 1132, was the centre of life on the Island until its dissolution by Henry V111. The modern Quarr Abbey belongs to the Solesmes Congregation group of monasteries. The first monks arrived at Quarr Abbey House in 1907 to prepare the grounds and the beginnings of a kitchen garden. They also put up fencing round the property, established a chicken farm, and planted an orchard. Queen Victoria was a frequent visitor to Quarr Abbey House, and her daughter, Princess Beatrice, had spent her honeymoon there following her marriage to Prince Henry of Battenburg.
On the Island’s northeast coast the abbey is situated in 180 acres of picturesque woodland. Incredibly, some 250 people stay in Quarr's 10 guesthouse rooms each year. The recently refurbished rooms are comfortable and simply furnished (three even have en-suite bathrooms). The Benedictines have long welcomed guests, and the tradition of monastic hospitality goes back to the desert monks of third-century Egypt; Saint Benedict himself is regarded as the father of Western monasticism. Most Quarr guests are from Britain, but many also come from Europe, America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Although the majority are Catholic, the Quarr monks also welcome Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu guests.
Today, the red brick monastery and church is still praised as an architectural masterpiece. Built in less than a year by about 300 island workmen under a French-speaking monk architect it was completed in 1912. The journal, Architecture Today has featured the monastery in a ‘Brick’ special. Day-to-day life of the monks revolves not only around prayer and contemplation, but also activities as diverse as bookbinding, running the visitor centre and bookshop, overseeing the tea & farm shop, gardening, bee-keeping and rearing pigs. The bookshop has an extensive collection of material including a large children’s section.
Award Winning Tea Garden
The Quarr Tea Garden café is hugely popular with its very peaceful setting in the centre of the Abbey’s walled garden and was awarded the 2015 myisleofwight Award for ‘Best Place for a Cuppa & Slice of Something Nice’. There’s a great mix of home-grown fare, local produce and refreshments.
The farm shop offers a variety of local Island products along with Quarr Abbeys own unique range which include ale, eggs, honey, jams and chutneys, all made with Quarr Abbeys own allotment – grown produce which is also available to buy. Areas of the gardens have also been allocated for use by community groups through the Quarr Abbey Allotment Scheme. This enables people of all abilities to learn new skills by growing produce and tending to their own plot. Quarr even has its own beehives. When it comes to their own diet, the monks are incredibly self-sufficient. Much of it is based on local seasonal produce they have actually grown themselves as well as rearing animals. Meals however are always eaten in silence, at set times in the bare wood panelled refectory.
As well as the shop and Tea Garden there are a whole range of activities for visitors and volunteers including tours of the abbey, and woodland walks. The guided tours take place at 11am every Tuesday in July and August, and the first Tuesday of the other months of the year. Visitors can just turn up at the Monastery Shop next to the Visitors Centre at 11.00 am - no need to book. The visits take in the pilgrim chapel and the church, and tell you about Saint Benedict, the history of the community, the architecture of the church and the daily life of the monks. Donations are invited at the end of the tour.
Or explore the wider estate where some areas have been allocated for visitors to enjoy. The woodland walk and wildlife hide is a trail that meanders through some of the beautiful woodland and gives visitors the chance to catch a glimpse of the native Red Squirrel. There is a hide with a viewing area and Quarr Explorers Kits are available to borrow to really make the most of the trail. They contain binoculars, bug pot and activity cards to help get everyone involved. The trail runs in a circular route which also passes near to the old abbey ruins. In addition, they have resident pigs with a path around their enclosure which enables the public to get close - but not too close! Also a wildflower meadow has been created to provide a pollen and nectar source for their many bee hives. This area also creates a great foraging ground for many other fauna.
Keeping up with the times is at the heart of the on-going developments at the monastery. Their latest project is the creation of a Visitor Centre, which charts in detail the history of the abbey including some wonderful film footage of life there – showing that Quarr Abbey is a living community and not a dead institution.
Though this can be seen and most keenly felt when joining the monks during one of the daily seven services – where it’s an absolute joy to listen to the uplifting Gregorian chanting of hymns and psalms, which permeate around the church.
For anyone visiting Quarr Abbey, it’s remarkably easy to find inner peace and calm here by setting aside those familiar trappings of modern life outside the monastery walls.