Buckfast Wine is just the tonic for Devon abbey

Father Abbot
Image caption Abbot David Charlesworth has seen major changes in the abbey's fortunes

The tarpaulins have come off Buckfast Abbey church of St Mary's, the stonework underneath cleaned and restored.

Lead workers, stonemasons, coppersmiths, glaziers and conservators have been busy sprucing up the centrepiece of the 11th Century Buckfast Abbey.

The church was rebuilt in 1932 but the entire abbey and grounds are getting a makeover to mark the abbey's millennium in 2018.

Restoration of the church, with a new limestone floor, is costing about £4m, according to the abbot, David Charlesworth.

Elsewhere, new workshops have been built, a terrace has been added to the restaurant and there are big plans to increase accommodation for visitors.

It is a huge turnaround from the 1980s when the monastery was in serious financial difficulties.

And underpinning it all is the success of Buckfast Tonic Wine, which is made at the abbey.

"Clearly there were financial problems," said Abbot Charlesworth, 62, who has been at the abbey since he was a would-be monk aged 18.

"And there is no great fund in the Vatican that doles out money.

"A monastery is an independent entity which happens to be linked to Rome."

At the beginning of the 1980s, the monastery produced the tonic wine, but "it was not the industry which it is today", said the abbot.

From a team of about 20 lay staff in the 1980s, the abbey now employs 123 across its shops, cafes, maintenance departments and a modern winery, opened two years ago.

The abbey's charitable trust, chaired by the abbot, is a 34% shareholder in the wine's seller, J Chandler and Co, and gets a royalty fee for every bottle sold.

Last year the trust received £6.6m, which includes income from other activities such as the shops, restaurant, a conference centre and accommodation.

The conference facilities are located in the abbey's former prep school, along with an interactive education centre that draws in 11,000 young visitors a year.

The conference centre is on the site of a former preparatory boarding school.

A former monk and headmaster, Gregory Miller, 80, was given a suspended prison sentence earlier this year for making and possessing indecent images of children.

The abbey community at the time spoke of its "betrayal and dismay" and said "there is absolutely no place for this totally unacceptable behaviour".

Ordained priest William Manahan, 80, was jailed for 15 months in 2007 for sexually abusing boys at the school between 1971 and 1978.

Another monk at the abbey, Paul Couch, was convicted in 2007 of two serious sexual offences and 11 indecent sexual assaults against boys at the school and was jailed for 10 years and nine months.

Bishop Christopher Budd ordered an investigation by the NSPCC after Christopher Jarvis, 49, who was employed by the Diocese of Plymouth to investigate sex abuse allegations, was jailed for a year in 2011 after admitting 12 counts involving indecent images.

The school closed in 1994, with the abbey saying it had become financially unviable.

Abbot Charlesworth said that today the tonic wine was the "biggest part" of the abbey's income.

"We use the income to consolidate what we are doing here, particularly to make sure the buildings are in good order."

Father James Courtney, the abbey bursar, is the only monk still involved in the Buckfast production which is staffed by three lay workers.

"I look in from time to time and say you're all doing very well," he said.

"Monks have been making drinks for centuries. Dom Perignon invented champagne and Chardonnay was invented by monks.

"I feel a lot of satisfaction with the winery.

"A lot of hard work and resources have gone into what I think is the right direction."

Image caption Buckfast Abbey owns about 250 acres of land including a farm
Image caption The abbey's church was rebuilt in 1932
Image caption Monks work on the church's window arches
Image caption Restoration work continues inside the abbey where the old concrete floor has been replaced with stone
Image caption The abbey's monks have a full day of worship, work and recreation
Image caption Workers put the finishing touches to the altar in St Mary's
Image caption Sales of Buckfast Tonic Wine are the abbey's biggest earner
Image caption A new winery opened in 2011

Adjoining the abbey is a huge former wool spinning plant which the abbey bought earlier this year.

Details of the plant's future are unclear, but the abbey hopes to create more jobs there.

The number of monks has declined - there were about 40 when the Abbot Charlesworth was elected abbot in 1992. Now there are 15.

"Monasteries don't exist in bubbles, they exist in societies," he said.

"It is a society that might talk a lot about spiritual things but it's a pick and mix way of dealing with it

"If I get bored with pilates, yoga, evangelical, fundamentalism, Christianity, Judaism, whatever, I can dump it.

"It's a very restless society and therefore it's very difficult for people to commit themselves to this way of life.

"So if you look at the bigger picture it's not surprising."

He has established a house of "vocational discernment" - a sort of stepping stone into monastic life without any commitment.

There are summer schools too - and other events aimed at bringing more people into the monastery.

And like Abbot Charlesworth, who arrived as a teenager, he hopes that some will stay.

"All these things are bringing people here so they can investigate the potential of Buckfast and whether they have a part in something like this," he said.

"But it is not about numbers, but the spirit of those here."

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