Reverend Paul Williams, Tewkesbury Abbey
PUBLISHED: 18:22 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:58 20 February 2013
From filling sandbags to holding an impromptu prayer meeting outside a pub, Paul williams has had an eventful year, as he tells Katie Jarvis
THE REVEREND Canon Paul Williams enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame this summer when he appeared on televisions all over the world as the floodwaters lapped at the doors of Tewkesbury Abbey. As the town's vicar, he and his wife, Catherine - also an ordained minister - joined in filling sandbags as well as giving spiritual solace to those affected by the torrential downpours.
His consistent message has been that the disaster, far from showing God's wrath, revealed His love, as symbolised in the well-known Getty image of the Abbey completely marooned.
"During that time, the Abbey became an ark for people to run into and an icon of hope," he says. "There were about 100 of us left on the island of Tewkesbury, and we were just walking in and out of each other's houses; it was bizarre yet an incredibly positive feeling. It brought out the best in people."
He lives in Abbey House, next door to the abbey, with his wife and their two daughters, 16-year-old Alice and Hannah (12).
I live in Abbey House, which has Saxon foundations and is probably where Tewkesbury began. It was once the home of the Abbot of Tewkesbury, who had to live next to the main gateway so he could greet all guests: the rule of Benedict said it was the stranger who brought Christ into the community. Even now, we take the gift of hospitality very seriously. In some ways, the floods were just an extension of that. On that first Friday night, the abbey became an ark, a refuge for people who were stuck in their cars. We must have had about 60-80 sleeping in the Abbey and another 200 in the hall.
How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
Four-and-a-half years. Before I came here, I was Chaplain to the Bishop of Rochester. They say Kent is the garden of England, but The Medway Towns - which is where we were - is more like the backyard because it's a dormitory to London. When the time came for us to leave, I looked at a number of jobs - some very senior appointments - but none of them felt right. When Catherine and I saw Tewkesbury Abbey, we both said, 'Yes! This is it!' We just knew.
What's your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
Weekends for me are working! My one day off is a Monday when Catherine and I will often take ourselves off for a long walk and a pub lunch. I go out in mufti - people need space to be themselves. Even Jesus had to go away and be on his own to pray and be with his Father. Also, I'm a married man; I need time to be with my family and they need me.
There's a huge debate at the moment as to whether clergy should wear dog collars for safety reasons. I've never found a dog collar any problem whatsoever; in fact, I've seen it open doors.
But you can get mixed up between role and person, which can be a dangerous thing. You need to be in touch with who you are because that's who God called originally.
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
I'd still want to live in Tewkesbury, but I'd buy somewhere I know doesn't flood! Many people thought with all we've been through that I'd eventually retire away from here, but Tewkesbury people are fantastic, and the best came out of them during the floods. The secret about the town is its sense of community, and that is particularly demonstrated by the fact that all the major institutions are publicly-funded: the Abbey was bought by the people; locals saved the Roses Theatre when it faced financial ruin; and the hospital and swimming pool also continue to exist thanks to local support.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
I could alienate the whole of the Cotswolds here, but I would not want to retire to Gloucester! It's a very big place and I'd miss that sense of community. Old medieval Gloucester has gone; it's only round the cathedral now that has a bit of character. You could be dropped down in the middle of the main street and think you were in Chatham.
Where's the best pub in the area?
I'd have to say the Bell (Hotel), which used to be the guest house for the Abbey. Quite often, on a Sunday evening, with the choir and my fellow clergy and members of the congregation, we go over for a pint. When the water finally got into the Abbey, I went into the Bell and asked if anyone would help me lift some of the furniture clear, and they all piled out. It's the first time I've ever cleared a pub in favour of a church - it's usually the other way round.
And the best place to eat?
Tewkesbury Abbey Refectory. We've a great new manager, Glenda Ford. During the floods, she phoned up and told us to eat all the food before it went off. The Abbey's executive officer, Philippa Shaw, used to be a cook, and she helped make a curry for 100 people on the Sunday. It was a most beautiful evening, and I decided to hold Evening Prayer outside the Bell. Some of those who came said, 'We don't know what you're doing, Vicar, but you stood by us so we'll stand by you'.
A group of us are starting up a dining club, going around eating in the local restaurants once a month. It's good fun and it's a way of supporting local trade.
Have you a favourite tearoom?
I have to mention the Refectory again, but also The Abbey Tea Rooms, who were brilliant during the floods.
What would you do for a special occasion?
We'd go to Nirala, the Indian restaurant. They're a lovely local family, and whenever we have a birthday, we end up there.
What's the best thing about the Cotswolds?
The people. In disasters, two things come out: the best or the worst of people. I did hear about bowsers being vandalized and polluted but, when I asked, the percentage turned out to be incredibly low compared to the enormous good that was around. Tewkesbury people look after each other.
... and the worst?
Which shop could you not live without?
Marks and Sparks Simply Food. After the flood, I wanted to hold a garden party at Abbey House because I felt Tewkesbury needed to let its hair down and celebrate. Around 300 people came, and Marks and Sparks supplied all the food for free.
What's the most under-rated thing about the Cotswolds?
The fact that it's quite normal! If you looked at it from London, you'd think it consisted of Liz Hurley and yokels.
What would be a three course Cotswold meal?
My favourite meal is bangers and mash so I'd have Old Spot sausages from our local butcher, David Dudley, accompanied by vegetables from the garden. The Flower Guild, who grow and arrange flowers for the Abbey, have started a vegetable plot here and they kindly put some out for me. We also have some very good apples from the old trees so I'd finish with an apple pie. And to start with, probably a fish pat in honour of the fish ponds the monks used to keep here. I'm ashamed to say, though, that my wife does all the cooking.
What's your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
It's the Getty photograph of the Abbey isolated, which flashed around the world and became such an icon of hope for people. In some ways, it was in that same class as the picture of St Paul's during the Second World War, with all the bombing around it.
What's your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?
I like Stanton, near Broadway, particularly the pub right up at the top there (The Mount Inn).
Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds...
Its churches, which are among the most beautiful in the country, as you'll see if you look at the Simon Jenkins book, England's Thousand Best Churches;
Asparagus: you can't go very far round here without being inundated with home-grown asparagus;
And Tewkesbury Mop Fair, which is in October. The whole of the town turns into a playground. I love seeing the lights in the evening and people enjoying themselves. It's here for two days and then, like the dew, it vanishes.
What's your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
The Abbey. The floods have raised its profile, as not many people in the Cotswolds knew of it before. The Abbey is known for the quality of its liturgy. We are fortunate enough to have outstanding music here, both from the Abbey Choir and from the internationally-renowned Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum who sing weekday Choral Evensong, which is a secret more people should know about. Because of the acoustics, and the fact that the building is so stunning, people come from all over the world to sing and make music here.
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
Rob a bank: I'd be recognised.
Starter homes or executive properties?
We need both if we want a balanced community and, moreover, they should be mixed in together because people need to understand each other. Diversity brings richness.
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
Tewkesbury Abbey; Bath Abbey; Worcester Cathedral and St Mary's Church in Fairford, with its wonderful medieval windows.
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
What would you change about the Cotswolds or banish from the area?
It needs to have more confidence in itself.
What's the first piece of advice you'd give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
Slow down; get into the rhythm and pulse of the place. When Catherine and I arrived from the South East, which is unhealthily fast, we went to the local supermarket to get bread and milk. The lady on the checkout had the audacity to hold a conversation with us! It took some getting used to. When I walk down the street here, people actually look you in the eye and say 'Good morning'. In London, looking a person in the eye means you're about to attack them.
And which book should they read?
John Moore's Portrait of Elmbury, which is a fictional biography of Tewkesbury.
Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
We love the walk up to Broadway Tower, where the Vale of Evesham opens up before you.
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
If you were invisible, you would just be observing, and that's voyeuristic. You lose something when you can't engage.
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
I would want to celebrate volunteers. Without them, our common life together would be absolutely poverty-stricken, and we certainly wouldn't be able to run the Abbey as we do.
The Cotswolds - aspic or asphalt?
We've always got to look to the future. In fact, you have to change to change to stand still. It's a balancing act at the Abbey, but if you don't change, you won't survive. The monarchy is a classic example in that we still have it because it's evolved.
With whom would you most like to have a cider?
The wonderful thing about being the Vicar of Tewkesbury Abbey is that you meet and have a drink with all sorts of people. We're still living our Benedictine tradition by welcoming the homeless, who see the Abbey as theirs and feel at home here. Everyone from the vergers to the shop knows them. But we've also welcomed Her Royal Highness, The Princess Royal. And that's the key to being a parish priest: there aren't many professions where you can welcome into your home someone homeless and then Princess Anne.