01 March 2022, The Tablet

Report urges Downside trust to safeguard heritage

Report urges Downside trust to safeguard heritage

Downside School and Abbey.
Steven May / Alamy

Leading heritage experts are urging the monks of Downside Abbey to set up a charitable trust to safeguard their precious heritage after they have gone.

On 12 March, the community will move out of their estate near Bath, Somerset, where they have lived for more than 200 years, leaving behind their Grade I listed abbey church, other historic buildings, and valuable collections including a world-renowned library.

A newly-published report says their departure has the potential to create “the biggest heritage issue facing the Catholic Church in England and Wales since the closure of the seminary at Ushaw.”

Downside Abbey and School: A Statement of Significance, by the Architectural History Practice Ltd (AHP), was commissioned by the monks and has just been placed on the website of the Southern Historic Churches Committee. It states that the only acceptable option for preserving the abbey church intact is to pass it “to a trust or similar”.

The chair of the Bishops’ Conference’s patrimony committee, Archbishop George Stack, recommends a separate trust to care for the church and its treasures like the one set up for Horace Walpole’s famous villa, Strawberry Hill at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. When he was chair of the Board of Governors at St Mary’s, Archbishop Stack brokered the arrangement whereby the Catholic Education Service let the villa on a 120-year lease to the Strawberry Hill Trust.

Archbishop Stack said: Since its foundation in 2002 the trust has secured over £10m for the restoration of the house and garden both of which are now open to the public. A solution such as this might work well at Downside. It should complement the work of the school and ensure a sound future for the outstanding abbey buildings and the magnificent collections housed within them.”

Sophie Andreae, vice chair of the patrimony committee, highlights the work of a second trust that has relieved a school of the burden of caring for a major Grade I listed building. The Stowe House Preservation Trust owns and maintains the historic mansion in Buckinghamshire which is used by the public school. The trust has spent more than £25 million since it was founded in 1997 and opens the house to the public. The magnificent historic park is cared for by the National Trust.

Andreae is concerned that the monks have given no information about how they plan to secure the future of their buildings and treasures in the longer term. She is a member of a working group established by the Abbot of Downside in 2020 with the support of the Abbot President of the Benedictine Congregation, Christopher Jamison, to advise them but points out that this has not met for nearly a year.

“A solution like those established at Strawberry Hill and Stowe could provide a model for the way forward at Downside with an independent trust focussing on promoting the heritage and collections, raising the necessary funding and working closely alongside Downside School,” said Andreae.

Downside’s director of heritage, Simon Johnson, said that staff are working hard with several stakeholders to ensure that the patrimony of the monastic community is secure for future generations.

Johnson added: “It is important to point out that the abbey church is already in a trust committed to its continued use by the school and the parish.”

The monks have so far sold property and art worth several million pounds and have not ruled out selling their monastery. The AHP report has found that several important buildings have not been listed and says this must be addressed if they are to be protected. It has also identified areas where there is no physical division between monastery and school.

The school is now run by a separate trust as recommended by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) which criticised the monks’ response to historic complaints of abuse at their school.

The eight resident monks are moving to Southgate House, part of Buckfast Abbey, Devon, where they plan to stay for up to five years while they determine their long-term future. They will mark the feast of their patron, St Gregory the Great, on the day of their departure.









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