TEA WITH AMBROSE

by Julia Ermert originally published in the Abbey Chronicle

Updated 15th May 2004

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The gatehouse at Cleeve, our most familiar image of the abbey, really does bear the inscription "Gate open be ..." and reminds us that there was more to the Cistercian life than work and prayer. There was a strong obligation to look after anyone who came in need. In the gatehouse lived the almoner, responsible for dispensing charity on a daily basis --- usually baskets of left-over food--- but also to minister to travellers wanting a night's lodging, or to villagers in need of medical treatment. Indeed, our words 'hospital,' 'hospice' and 'hotel' come from the same root. In medieval times, it was mainly the poor who needed this help. Wealthy travellers stayed with friends or family. Poor people travelled only on pilgrimages as a rule, so it fell to the monks to provide shelter and assistance.

Nowadays our needs for food, welfare, or shelter are taken care of by many different establishments. But Abbey Girls living or visiting in the Gloucestershire/Oxfordshire borders area can still avail themselves of Ambrose's hospitality. There are two hotels there whose buildings were once part of flourishing Cistercian abbeys. Visiting them brightened for us one grey day in a summer which was rather more like an Australian winter.

Calcot Manor lies 3 miles to the west of Tetbury on the A4135. Tetbury is, of course, near Prince Charles's country house, Highgrove, and we were charmed to see that the bookshop was 'By Appointment.' The Manor, well signposted, uses the Cotswold stone buildings that once formed the farmstead of 14th century Kingswood Abbey. The tithe barn, one of the oldest in England, still stands, and is in the process of restoration. It's an expensive country house hotel, but open to casual visitors, and we were made most welcome in spite of our rather shabby travelling gear, and served a pot of tea in a cosy sitting-room with comfortable mix-and-match furniture. If we'd wanted to stay the night, we would have been looking at 120 pounds and up, but it seemed like very good value. The menu looked delicious, and there was a pool, tennis courts and croquet, lovely grounds to explore, and bikes to borrow to go further afield. In the summer, there are jazz lunches, walking holidays and garden tours.

We could have lunched at their pub, The Gumstool, but having bought delicious pasties in Tetbury, we picnicked beside the road and then drove on to Shipton-under-Wychwood. Here we were looking for the appropriately named Shaven Crown Hotel. We drove through Burford (where there is a interesting needlework shop) on the A361 and found the hotel on the left-hand side of the main street, opposite the village green, with an inn-sign depicting the head of a Cistercian monk. The building was once the 14th century hospice of Bruern Abbey, and is quite small, with rooms of a more affordable price -- a single cost 40 pounds.

We were content with a visit to The Monk's Bar and a pint of best bitter, but could have had soup and a roll for 2 pounds 65p. The green wellie brigade were enjoying shrimps at a nearby table as we admired the military prints on the walls--Scottish regiments in the Boer War, 1 think. We also noted the motto over the fireplace: The reputation of a man is like his shadow--it sometimes follows or precedes him--it is sometimes longer and sometimes shorter than himself.

After the Dissolution, the hospice became one of Queen Elizabeth I's hunting-lodges; Wychwood was once a big forest. She gave it to the town for use as an inn, and the annual rent of 20 pounds was to fund a charity, which still exists. The same family has owned and run the hotel for many years now. Later we walked through the wet but flowery courtyard to the hotel's guest-lounge, a tiny but perfect medieval hall with enormous fireplace, black-and-white timbering and double-collar braced roof, and out through the 14th century gatehouse into the chilly afternoon. Our rainy drive back to our quarters on the M5 near Bristol was warmed by our memories of Cistercian hospitality.

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