Interview: Father Martin, the Father Abbot of Prinknash Abbey
PUBLISHED: 15:21 02 December 2019 | UPDATED: 15:21 02 December 2019
© Thousand Word Media
Father Abbot Martin McLaughlin tells Katie Jarvis about his perfect weekend in the Cotswolds, his love of Painswick Beacon and the ‘secret’ walled garden at the Abbey
For the community of 10 Benedictine monks at Prinknash Abbey, Christmas is a time of celebration: of prayer and worship, as always; and of sitting down to a turkey dinner with all the trimmings: "We push the boat out at Christmas," says Father Abbot Martin McLaughlin. The community lives, works and worships together in a monastery building that dates back to the 1520s; there has been a chapel on the site since 1339.The monks also welcome all members of the public to share in the peacefulness of the estate - whether a dog-walk, a homemade lunch in the café using herbs from the garden, a time of prayerfulness in the chapel, or on day-retreat. For while monks live a very different sort of life, they also understand and experience the same emotions as the visitors they warmly welcome. And they encourage people on retreat to use that safe environment to explore feelings human beings are good at avoiding."People are afraid of not being busy, and we're a counter-culture to that," Father Martin says. "We also know loneliness but we're not afraid of that, either. We've seen the value of it, and we believe that God fills that loneliness."
Where do you live and why?
At Prinknash Abbey - for a very simple reason. When I was young, my family lived a mile from a medieval monastery called Pluscarden, near Elgin in Scotland. I worked with the monks there for two years, mainly in the garden, and got to know them well. At the age of 19, I thought: I want to be like them. It was an unusual but good life, and it spoke to whatever was going on inside me. The monks gave me a picture of Prinknash and recommended I come here. There was a connection: a community from Prinknash had re-founded Pluscarden [in 1948] when it lay in partial ruins. The thing that struck me was the greenery of the Prinknash estate: a different kind of beauty from the Highlands.
How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
For 35 years. It was a big thing for a 19-year-old to move hundreds of miles away to Prinknash but I was an uncomplicated kid. I was a thinker, though I didn't do much at school: the education I've had comes from my time here. I started to explore all the different disciplines you would need to really understand the Bible: Latin; New Testament Greek; and, ultimately, Hebrew, for the Old Testament. I wanted to find out about the saints of all ages, which meant having to learn about the times they were living in. And I thought to myself: I need to be a monk because I want to do all this stuff!
What's your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
On a Saturday, I've usually got a group - from young mums to older people - for a retreat-day or a talk. I enjoy sharing this life with them. This year, we have had a theme of prayer, and people really respond if you show them how to do it. If you sit and still yourself for two minutes in a safe environment, it's a great experience. Noise is one of the great pollutions. Sunday is supposed to be a rest day: it's not a rest day but it's a different day. And Sunday dinner - no matter what it is - is better than any other meal.
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
Somewhere like Painswick Beacon, in a purpose-built house, with all that view. It would be for the whole community - I wouldn't want to live anywhere without the community.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
I grew up in a town, Coatbridge in Lanarkshire, with all its noise; but once you live in the country, it gets inside you. I still enjoy visiting towns: I like people; I like to look in shop windows to see what they're selling. After about an hour, though, I get bored and go for a coffee!
Where's the best pub in the area?
If we get visitors, we might take them to lunch in the Butchers Arms in Sheepscombe, which is very traditional. I also like the Edgemoor Inn, a very different kind of pub. As the 'white' [-robed] Prinknash monks, we're always recognisable when we go out, though people seem more pleased to see us than not. Mind you, once - before my time here - when the monks happened to be in Gloucester, walking with their white hoods up, they got reported as the Ku Klux Klan. It made the newspapers!
And the best place to eat?
The Prinknash café. It's got character and there's no pressure on anyone to leave. I've noticed that customers there talk to each other.
Within the community, we cook on a rota-basis. Our youngest monk is 26 - he's a good cook - and Brother Giles, the oldest, is 87. He's the best cook! Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday lunches, we have meat, which could be anything from sausages to chicken; the other meals have got to be no meat, with fish on Friday. The one rule I have is: Don't produce what was served yesterday.
What would you do for a special occasion?
My feast day [the day for which each monk is named] is on November 3. We'll have a special mass and, in the evening, watch a film, as we do about five times a year. This year, it was one on the life of Tolkien. All new monks are either given a new name, or they keep the name they had if that's appropriate: when you become a monk, you're changing your life, so you pick a saint you admire. I had the choice between St Martin of Tours and St Martin de Porres. I liked St Martin of Tours, a 4th-century monastic founder, who once saw a beggar outside the town gates. It was freezing, so he cut his cloak and gave the beggar half. But when I was born, in 1964, I was actually named after St Martin de Porres, who lived in the 1500s. His father was a Spanish soldier, his mother a native Peruvian, and he lived a difficult life. Even though he worked in the kitchen of a Dominican monastery in Lima, everybody came to him for advice - including the aristocracy. I wanted to be Martin of Tours but it niggled me that I was named after this other saint. So I chose him. I believe, one day, I'll see a reason for that.
What's the best thing about the Cotswolds?
The beauty of the countryside.
... and the worst?
Like Washington DC, you only need go through a few back streets - even of Cheltenham - and you're in poverty.
Which shop could you not live without?
We order our food from Morrisons or Asda and they deliver. It's a pity a lot of the traditional high street shops have disappeared.We also have our own shop here at Prinknash. Our main business is selling incense, which we blend ourselves. It's gum from a tree, and only really grows around Yemen and the Horn of Africa: Eritrea; parts of Kenya. We also sell all kinds of religious items, including rosaries, which Brother Giles makes in his spare time. Even when we're having a recreational evening, he'll be sitting making them, as he has for 65 years. He does the laundry and carves the cemetery crosses, too.
What's the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?
Maybe Cotswold people don't appreciate the Cotswolds. I don't say that negatively: they're not ungrateful. It's the same with the beauty of this estate - it hits you immediately you enter it; but, when you're living in it, it just becomes part of your life.
What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?
If I go out, sausages won't be far away, and probably Gloucester Old Spot. Then a chocolate mix or a sticky toffee pudding. We'd have that on a special day. Normally, pudding would be something like fruit and custard. Lunch and dinner are formal meals for us: sitting down, no talking. At lunchtime, there will be a bit of scripture, and a book that could be anything - often a political biography. Then, at supper time: the rule of St Benedict [written in 516, by Benedict of Nursia]; a passage about the saint who's coming up the next day; a commemoration of monks of our order who have died; and a book of a more religious flavour.
What's your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
From Painswick Beacon, because you're not seeing all the industrial side of Gloucester. Or, from Prinknash, the terrace looking over Gloucester. You can see the cathedral from here.
Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds…
Village churches: Duntisbourne Rouse and Duntisbourne Abbots ooze history; The rollingness of the valleys: you don't have to go far to get the next view; And it's cosmopolitan - I'm a Cotswold person with a Scottish accent and I don't feel out of place.
What's your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
I've narrowed it down to Gloucester Cathedral for the scale, the beauty, the history and workmanship of the French masons who built it.
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
Don't drop rubbish. Don't sell drugs.
Starter homes or executive properties?
There must be ways builders can create affordable houses with a bit of class. A lot of huge industries that harm the planet are only benefiting the very rich. And yet we allow it! I don't do politics but I can see what's happening.
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
If I had to answer quickly, I'd say Bath, Tewkesbury, Chipping Norton and Cirencester.
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
A watercolour of a view from the Beacon, painted by our own Father Stephen.
What's the first piece of advice you'd give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
Cotswold people are very friendly and also respect your privacy: a great combination. You don't have to apologise for yourself or justify yourself: treat it as though you're coming home.
And which book should they read?
Read something about King Alfred, who was in Gloucester for a time. Gloucester Cathedral has been standing for 900 years - not much else has survived that long.
Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
I walk when I get the chance, and I tend to go to gardens. We've our own 'secret' walled garden here, built in the 1700s; you can actually grow figs inside it. There are ponds, too, dating to pre-Reformation when Gloucester Cathedral was a Benedictine Abbey. This house was an abbey grange, supplying the monks with fish, wood, and other essentials.
Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?
I like the markets. I've been to Provence once and the Cotswolds is not that different in its traditions.
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
I'd go to a beautiful garden, with a lake, for a swim. I'd have to be invisible to do that!
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
St Aldhelm of Malmesbury Abbey ought to have a monument. He was a great character: a very learned Anglo-Saxon, whose riddles are still in existence in Latin and English. A more modern person is Dominic Barberi, who is connected with Woodchester. An Italian priest who could barely speak English, he received John Henry Newman into the Church. Then I would have a monument to the person we call Our Lady, Jesus's mother. There was great devotion to her in this country and people don't realise that. Most cathedrals have a chapel to her but it would be good to see something in a public place.
The Cotswolds - aspic or asphalt?
We have computers and the internet at Prinknash, and people are surprised by that. Monks were always at the forefront of modern technology; they were the ones with the education. Yet we also do the same things that monks would have done centuries ago. I remember singing one of my favourite hymns one Saturday evening, when I was reading St Augustine's Confessions. His mother had died and he was dreaming; and in his dream, he was singing a verse of a hymn of St Ambrose to do with grief. I was reading this, thinking: 'We sing that!' These people might have lived 1,600 years ago but it's almost as if they're still here.
With whom would you most like to have a cider?
Instead of cider, I'll have a beer from a Cistercian monastery called Mount St Bernard, which we sell in our shop. And I'd have it with St Mary Magdalene. I've a few questions for her.
Prinknash Abbey, with its shop, garden, café and walks, is at Cranham, GL4 8EX. For details of retreats and talks, visit prinknashabbey.org