Published: 17 September 2013
Quarr Abbey
The Isle of White has many interesting and beautiful buildings and on a recent visit to the island I called in on one such place to meet the Head gardener.
The Abbey tower beyond an asparagus ‘hedge’.
The Farm shop, Tea Shop and tea lawn.
Quarr Abbey is situated above the sea on the eastern side of the island and occupies a site that has religious connections dating back to 1132 when the first abbey was built. The stone ruins will soon be open to the public to visit.
 
The brick built structure that is the working monastery of today with its Benedictine monks carrying out their daily duties was designed by one of the brothers and completed in 1914. It is an intriguing structure; from certain angles it could be a mosque, from others perhaps influences from the east are seen, what is certain is that the size is impressive.

Its appearance to some may be rather plain but on closer inspection the detail is everywhere within the brickwork walls and towers. 

The Estate

The Quarr Abbey estate is approximately two hundred acres with the main agricultural land let out to tenant farmers. Certain areas are for use by the monks for their private meditation and relaxation, while the land near the main complex is open to visitors all year round.
 
The Head Gardener and Estate Manager is Matthew Noyce. It is his role to maintain and develop the land for the production of food and create visually attractive and interesting grounds for everyone to enjoy while not being in conflict with monastic life.

These diverse roles certainly present a challenge with high priority given to the monastic philosophy and the needs of the Benedictine order, these of course being the reason for the sites existence. Then there are the commercial pressures that require income generation from farm rentals, visitors and customers to the farm shop and tea shop.

Matthew Noyce inspecting fresh produce at the farm shop
Commercial activities include growing edible and ornamental crops for use in the monastery refectory with surplus produce sold fresh or as jams and chutneys in the farm shop and tea shop.   
There is also a thriving art gallery with regular exhibitions and displays open to visitors.

Crop Growing

In the vegetable garden Matthew is expanding the range of edible crops, there are several Heritage Varieties of beetroot and potatoes. Matthew commented that “Local residents and visitors alike are keen to see what’s in our farm shop and willing to try the more unusual varieties. Also, local hotels and caterers are beginning to take a real interest in our produce because of its quality and being locally produced.” To create ongoing interest for visitors and customers trials are taking place with different tomato varieties, yams and even purple carrots.
 

The polytunnels are in use throughout the extended season to maintain supplies of produce such as chillies and Australian cucumbers, several fruit cages are used to reduce the risk of damage from birds.
 

The orchard with the high level chicken houses
In the extensive orchards infill planting with old varieties of apple has been carried out bringing the total number of varieties to approximately forty five. Each new introduction has a history associated with it, and has been grown on the island by local nursery, Deacons. This will help ensure they will flourish in the local environment whilst also supporting the island economy.

It is hoped there will be the reintroduction of free range chickens into the orchards; the high level houses are already in situ for when the new birds arrive. It is planned that a small group of volunteers will be found to care for the new arrivals.

Where possible the Quarr estate follows organic principals in all its growing activities, Matthew said “This is important to the beliefs of the Abbey and we are all keen to adopt these practices to ensure we grow great quality produce while being ecologically responsible as custodians of the land”. The intention is to become as self sufficient as possible and dramatically reduce wastage in all areas across the site. 

There is also a community gardening  project for groups of local people. Amongst others, Denis O’Hearn oversees the Southern Housing group that meets regularly to grow fruit and vegetables that in turn become part of the supply chain for the farm shop and café.


 

Beekeeping

As with many monastic sites, colonies of bees have played a part in the lives of the monks down the centuries. Farther Nicholas is the resident Beekeeper at Quarr Abbey. Hives have been introduced to create a teaching apiary and in conjunction with the Isle of Wight Bee Keepers Association will introduce theory and practical training opportunities for beekeepers. This is a wonderful example of skills being passed down within such a traditional setting.
 
The old brick walls around the vegetable garden support many fruit trees including cordon pears and apples, new edibles including figs and berries are now being planted on spare wall space to increase cropping. The Dahlia flowers are used in the Abbey and with the surplus sold in the shop.
The small team of staff under the leadership of Matthew has gained an additional pair of willing hands recently with the appointment of an apprentice from the Isle of Wight College.  He is studying an NVQ 2 in horticulture and the Abbey grounds will provide a good variety of experience that is essential for new entrants into the industry. There is also an Internship programme where individuals join two month placements at Quarr Abbey and spend time living alongside the monks. Part of this involves working in different areas to gain an insight into monastic life.

The increase in visitor numbers is necessary to generate income, however keeping the balance between this and maintaining the values and principles of monastic life must be a fine line to walk. 
 
What is evident is that the work being carried out, including the building project just starting on the new visitor centre will draw more people onto the estate to see and experience what many may think of as a bygone age not relevant to modern day living.

For those who do spend time at Quarr Abbey when on holiday, as an island resident or as a regular visitors or volunteer, won’t just experience bricks and mortar. The beautiful trees and gardens, meandering footpaths and the grazing livestock all set within such a beautiful location, this unique place provides far more than that. 
 
For more information about visiting Quarr Abbey see their website: www.quarrabbey.co.uk
Reported by Chris Allen  
   
 

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