ABBEY HOUSE retreat centre in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey, in Somerset, is to close on 27 December — to the dismay of its trustees, staff, and residents.
The chairman of the Abbey House Trustees, the Revd Prebendary Peter Martin, confirmed the news with “deep regret” on Monday. “Our Landlord — Glastonbury Abbey Ltd — has decided to serve us with Notice to Quit, with effect from this date, as they require the House for their own purposes,” he wrote in a statement.
“I know the closure of Abbey House will be a deep loss to many people who have visited during the past 85 years, and have come to value the peace and quiet, and spiritual aura the House conveys.”
Abbey House has been a place of spiritual retreat and quiet since its dedication, in 1931, as a house of retreat, conference, and prayer by the diocese of Bath & Wells, which had acquired the building in 1909. It will be available to hire through Glastonbury Abbey throughout the week, but residential accommodation will no longer be offered.
The diocese announced on its website last month that Glastonbury Abbey had served notice of its intention to terminate the lease on Abbey House at the end of the year, and that it would therefore cease operations from that time.
The chairman of the Abbey Trustees, John Brendon, said that the intention was to develop the whole abbey precinct, including Abbey House, to “secure the future” of Glastonbury Abbey. “Our masterplan is ambitious, and involves creating an improved visitor experience, interpretation and learning opportunities, completing our conservation programme, as well as providing appropriate collections storage and office accommodation.”
Echoing the chairman, the Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, said that the decision would enable Glastonbury Abbey “to take back the building for its own use” as part of its long-term development plans. He acknowledged the impact of the closure on staff and trustees, whom he thanked for their service.
“Discussions are ongoing at diocesan level as to the implications for the diocese. This new landscape also provides us with the opportunity to consider how we can best support and encourage clergy, parishes, and leaders who seek retreat as a vital part of their ministry.”
Abbey House was built in the Tudor Gothic style, between 1829 and 1830, from the stones of the abbey ruins, and was altered and extended in the 1850s. Further alterations were made in 1957. It offered individual or group retreats, conferences, residential courses, training, and social events.
A resident, Margaret Morris, who chairs the Friends of Abbey House, expressed her dismay at the decision. “It seems an irony that when the Abbey House was bought by the then Bishop of Bath & Wells, it had been advertised as ‘a gentleman’s residence with interesting ruins in the garden,’” she wrote in a letter to the Central Somerset Gazette.
“The diocese then took ownership of the ruins, but due to the vagaries of property management at that time, it was agreed that the Abbey would actually hold the lease for the house.”
Since she had moved to the area, in the mid-1970s, Glastonbury Abbey, which had offered free entry to residents and a nominal charge for visitors, had become an increasingly commercial enterprise, “with little spiritual significance” except a weekly eucharist in St Patrick’s chapel; compline; and an annual pilgrimage, she wrote.
Abbey House, however, had provided a “safe haven and spiritual sanctuary for retreatants who sought time apart and a quiet space to reflect and grow their faith. . . The Abbey Trustees refer to ‘storage and office accommodation’ — what a sadness that the house and beautiful gardens, which have given peace and joy to so many, will likely be swallowed up with day-to-day administration.
“I wonder if this could have been an opportunity for the Abbey to have absorbed the Abbey House into its own work, maintaining the current service and thus offering a spiritual dimension to the Abbey experience. After all, there would have been no ruins at all were it not for the Benedictine monks’ choosing to build an abbey to worship and honour their God.”