155th Annual Conference, Buckfast 2017

Abbey Church bathed in evening sunshine

The Devonshire Association’s 155th Annual Conference and AGM was held at Buckfast Abbey Conference Centre from Friday to Sunday, 2–4 June 2017.

Friday afternoon included presentations on the Distinctiveness of Buckfastleigh by the DA Sections (see below) and guided tours of the Abbey and precincts by Fr Christopher Delaney OSB and Stewart Brown, respectively. A special feature of the Abbey tour was a private viewing of the magnificent vestments. This was followed in the evening by the President’s Reception, and by Stewart Brown’s public lecture – 35 years of archaeological investigation at Buckfast Abbey – which attracted some fifty non-members.

Outgoing Vice Chairman Prof. John Mather with incoming Vice Chairman Dr Sue Andrew

Saturday was dedicated to the reading of papers to be published in the 2017 Transactions and to the AGM during which farewells were made to Vice President Professor John Mather, DA News Editor Brendan Hurley and Book Review Editor Dr Sadru Bhanji. Dr Sue Andrew was duly elected Vice President, replacing John Mather, while Dr Jenny Bennett, John Maltby and Richard Pocock were elected to serve on the Executive Committee. The installation of David Fursdon LL as the new DA President was followed by his address: Heads below the parapet – still the best way to preserve a country estate?

A choice of Sunday excursions included: a tour of the Abbey gardens led by head gardener Aaron Southgate; a visit to the William Pengelly Caves and Study Centre led by Sheila Phillips; a visit to Spitchwick Manor led by the owner, Patrick Simpson; and a visit to Old Parsonage Farm at Dartington Hall led by Jon Perkin.

Peter Beacham, the Executive Committee Chairman, wrote in the leaflet that was printed for the event:

Even for the peripatetic Devonshire Association, Buckfast Abbey offers a venue of quite exceptional interest for our 2017 conference. A monastery was first founded at Buckfast in 1018 which developed into a major Cistercian abbey before the Dissolution: we now know much more about this medieval foundation thanks to major archaeological, historic and architectural research of recent decades. But what the vast number of visitors to the present day Buckfast come to see is not the ruins of a medieval abbey but the remarkable achievement of a group of Benedictine monks who re-founded the monastery and abbey church from the late nineteenth century, a monumental task carried out throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty first.

Ceiling of the Lantern Tower

It is a truly inspiring story, still centred on the monks’ life of worship and prayer in the beautiful abbey church with its exquisite furnishings and decoration. But there is much more to interest DA members, including the site’s considerable industrial history, based on the use of abundant water power for the textile industry.

Nor will you be coming to bare monastic cells! The conference centre and residential accommodation offers some of the best modern facilities in Devon for our comfort and as a base for exploration of the abbey, its precinct and the surrounding area.

I very much hope you will be able to join us for all or part of our exciting programme.

The Association is greatly indebted to Mr Geoff Pring for his invaluable help and advice in connection with the arrangements for this year’s Annual Conference.


Fursdon, D.President’s address. Heads below the parapet – still the best way to preserve a country estate?
Brown, S.Public lecture. 35 years of archaeological investigation at Buckfast Abbey
Andrew, S.The master carver and the monks: Harry Hems and the rebuilding of Buckfast Abbey
Ashford, R.Dartmoor Powdermills – an update
Ashford, R.Thomas Gill and the industrial development of Plymouth in the nineteenth century
Bhanji, S.Caleb Hedgeland’s 1811 model of Exeter Cathedral: a description and comparison with other contemporary depictions
Billinge, F.Customs of the historic manor and borough of Bovey Tracey from the seventeenth century
Christie, P. S.The Skeleton Army comes to North Devon
Whitten, E. H. T.Widecombe-in-the-Moor – topography and drainage: a story from early maps

Reports from the Sections

As usual the Sections were invited to submit reports on their specialist interest related to the area around the conference’s location. These were presented at the conference on Friday afternoon.

The following reports appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of DA News:

Participants in the Schiller Hall lecture theatre

The Annual General Meeting

The AGM was held in The Schiller Hall, Conference Centre, Buckfast Abbey on Saturday afternoon.

  1. Apologies for absence
  2. Minutes of the last AGM
  3. Members and Associates: a) elected; b) resigned; or c) deceased since the last AGM
  4. Report of the Executive Committee
  5. Annual Financial Report
  6. To elect the Officers for 2017/2018 (Rules 20 & 31)
  7. Incoming Executive Committee members Richard Pocock, Dr Jenny Bennett and John Maltby

    To elect three members to serve on the Executive Committee for three years (Rule 25)

  8. To appoint an ‘independent examiner’ for 2017 (Rule 20)
  9. List of papers accepted by the Executive Committee for publication in the Transactions
  10. Vote of thanks to all who have contributed to the success of the conference
  11. Vote of thanks to the Officers of the Association, including those of the Branches and Sections, the Local Advisers and the Registrar

Sunday excursions

Mass in the Abbey

A number of delegates attended the 10:30 mass and had the pleasure of listening to the Abbey’s excellent choir.

The Abbey gardens
Tour of Buckfast Abbey gardens with head gardener Aaron Southgate

Tour of the Abbey gardens with head gardener Aaron Southgate (right, in hat). Photo: John Maltby

That a group of members walked round in the pouring rain for over an hour without losing interest is a testament both to the beauty of the gardens and the informative and entertaining commentary of Aaron Southgate, the Abbey’s Head Gardener.
Members were shown parts of the gardens not usually accessible to public view, and Aaron freely shared his expertise and enthusiasm for the gardens and his horticulture brief. The gardens are notable for a wide variety of trees, and landscaping in sympathy with the Abbey buildings.

Spitchwick Manor

W. G. Hoskins states that Spitchwick was in existence as a manor by the late 11th century and it was in the 18th that Lord Ashburton ‘purchased a long term in the manors of Widecombe and Speechwick, and built a neat house in the latter, in a romantic situation, where he made extensive plantations’. Around 25 people were welcomed to the Manor by current owners, Patrick and Jane Simpson. The group heard about the history of the building and future development of the estate. The party then toured the gardens. Highlights were the 1774 plunge pool and a wonderful cream tea on the terrace accompanied by the sound of leather on willow as the Spitchwick Cricket Club played across the valley. Idyllic spot!

Pengelly Caves Study Centre and Museum

These caves are named in honour of William Pengelly, who was one of the founders of the Devonshire Association. Pengelly wrote later that Buckfastleigh is ‘the very metropolis of caverns, at least, so far as Devon is concerned’.
The visit to the caves and museum started at the ruined Buckfastleigh parish church, destroyed by arson in 1992. Guide, Sheila Phillips, explained how the roof of one of the caves was not far below ground level and that occasionally graves collapse into the cave. The group then walked down to the cave entrances and were able to visit the Joint Mitnor cave where elephant bones dating from more than 100,000 years ago were discovered in 1939. Sadly, some of these bones were stolen recently and models are now being put in situ. We learned also that the caves are a valuable site for bat hibernation and as a result no visits are permitted between October and April.

Old Parsonage Farm, Dartington

At Old Parsonage Farm, Dartington, a group of some 20 members were welcomed to the Dartington Hall Estate by the Chief Executive of the Trust, Rhodri Samuel. He addressed them on the subject of the Elmhirsts’ experiment in rural regeneration and the continuing work being done under the Land Use Review to secure a more environmentally, socially and financially sustainable future for the Estate. The new Tenant, Jon Perkin, outlined his farming policies, including low carbon farming techniques, and the development of a niche market in ice cream made from goats’ milk. The visit ended with much licking of some delicious ice cream flavours.

Reports by Brendan Hurley, Jennie Hurley, Jenny Bennett, Nick Wells and Jonathan Aylett

Photo gallery

All photos on this page courtesy of Antony T. Buller, except where stated. Click on them to see larger versions. Conditions of reuse are here.