Christina Farrell savours the unique tradition of Ampleforth College
You catch a
glimpse of Ampleforth, long before arriving at the school. The road twists, turns and falls through the North
Yorkshire countryside. Pheasant dart out from the fields, disturbed by the solitary, car. In early summer this land is lovely, England green and pleasant.
Rumour says Hogwarts, aim mater of Harry Potter, is based on Ampleforth College, The monastery building. sombre Victorian gothic, certainly has a touch of Hollywood. The setting is spectacular. School and Abbey dominate the wide valley with views that catch the rising and setting of the sun. I'm told the winter sun here, in January, is memorable — blood red in a cold sky.
Ampleforth College is both school and community. For over 200 years the Benedictine order has worshipped and taught here governed by the rule of St Benedict that life and man should be "tempered in all things, so that the strong may have something to strive for and the weak nothing to run from". Basil Hume was pupil, novice and abbot at Ampleforth. He did not welcome the move to Westminster as Archbishop and later Cardinal to leave his beloved valley".
In April a television documentary showed "life" at Ampleforth. The producers said they were interested in the juxtaposition, the conflict between monastic values and the demands of running a modem school.
They focused on the arrival of sixth-form girls as boarders. But what emerged was a curious mishmash of Brideshead Revisited meets Wuthering Heights. Hooded monks appeared out of the mist. Amplefordians were depicted as cool adolescent rebels with an anarchic taste in fashion and a predilection for real ale. The boys loved it. Fee-paying parents were less amused.
The school has, rightly, insisted that this was a slice of life, not the reality. The sensational aspects of the
programme have already been dealt with. The police reminded local publicans of "their responsibilities". The school has a policy of allowing sixth-form students to visit local pubs on a Saturday for a drink with meals. A dilapidated shed in which an Ampleforth boy and girl were shown holding hands strictly against school rules — was torched.
The decision to take girls as boarders two years ago and plans to extend that provision to the 13 plus age group inevitably will change the dynamic of the school. By 2007 Ampleforth expects an extra 120 girls on the roll. Monks and lay staff say coeducation is working and they are positive about the future. The boys are less circumspect.
6 feel sorry for the
monks," says Tom.
Do they realise what 13 year Old girls are really like. Do they know how bad they can be?" I'm told that some of the older monks simply pretend the girls aren't there".
But schools have to function in the real world. Ampleforth says the move is necessary, that their students, as adult men and women, will work and compete against each other and so should learn to live together.
I meet some of the pioneers at St Aidan's, the girls' new sixth form boarding house, The house is named after an older boys house — a good diplomatic move. Honours boards listing past alumni, including the present head Fr Leo Chamberlain, line the con-idor. It gives St Aidan's a sense of place and makes the girls feel less like interlopers. The girls I speak to left convents in the home counties to come here to the rigours of North Yorkshire. This is still a boys' school, dominated by rugby and the elements. You have to be tough, the girls say, and no, they insist, they were not attracted by the 'favourable' male to female ratio.
At first the girls were treated differently, a kid glove approach, as staff and pupils sought to get the balance right. They are no longer a novelty and equality has a price — girls and boys both get Saturday detention.
There are concerns that the unique atmosphere of Ampleforth will change and that the character of the school will be lost. There is something very special about this place. Ampleforth even in rain and mist has its own beauty and it rains hard in "God's own country".
Time stops here and it is not just the isolation. the sense of being far removed from the city. I joined the community for Matins and Lauds in the early morning. To hear the monks sing psalms in the quiet of the darkened church is very moving. The Abbey bell, deep and sonorous, sounds out the office of the day. It is this that gives Ampleforth its own pulse; a sense of 'other' in the world.
Cardinal Hume wrote that St Paul's letter to the Romans was a particular source of inspiration for his own, meditative prayer: "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them." You feel it here, a depth of faith that shakes up even the most recalcitrant teenager.
And it is the monks, not the students, who stand out, dashing in Benedictine black robes, back and forth across the campus. Twenty-two monks still teach in the school and theirs is a vital presence, a constant reminder of the sacred.
Religious orders are leaving schools in Britain, handing teaching and authority back to the laity. Ampleforth is a glimpse of the past as well as the present.
The boys are well-aware that they are privileged. "A school run by lay staff wouldn't be the same," says Cranley. "The monks are really dedicated, there's less of a feeling that 'this is my job, I'm getting paid for it'."
The monastery is out of bounds but at certain times of the year the boys enter to go on retreat. They follow the cycle of the monastic day, rising for Matins at 6am, praying with the monks, becoming part of the life of the Abbey. Cranley, Mark and Tom help co-ordinate Ampleforth's own charity programme — Facefaw. They tell me they are touched by the witness of giving, the fact that these men have opted for a different pace of life. "It's so much slower, life in the monastery." A number of old boys are working in countries such as Bosnia and the Sudan, and funds can be sent direct. Facefaw has a strong social element. The school rock concert raises funds and allows for the infamous Ampleforth selfexpression. Last year, they raised over £16,000.
Fr Leo Chamberlain steps down as headmaster at the end of this year to take up his new post as Master of St Benet's Hall, Oxford. A quietly spoken man, he has overseen dramatic changes in the physical fabric and direction of the school during his 11 years as head.
We drink Gurkha tea in his study — Ampleforth is helping the Pahar Trust to raise funds for schools in Nepal. "I have not the slightest doubt there is a strong sense of spirituality in the school. It doesn't mean to say they will always go to church every Sunday but they stay on side." He continues: "If you do it wrong, if you approach religion the wrong way you simply encourage children into reaction and loathing."
Greater financial security and an ambitious programme of expansion has given Ampleforth the courage to both stand apart and be a presence in society.
"It's easier to be ourselves, to be what we want to be, we are not simply contre monde but engaging with the world."
Fr Leo says he will miss teaching and the friendship of colleagues and community. Ampleforth's worth will be seen in the generations that pass through this valley, in the lives that people lead. Fr Leo says, "To whom much is given much is expected. I want them to be brave. To take a stand in society. It is very hard to stand against your contemporaries and say don't do that."
peter Green is Second Master at the College. He agrees that strong faith is
central to Ampleforth; the monastic community is what sets the school apart. "In medieval times the monks were the spiritual flagships and it is true today. Ampleforth is a school that will teach your children about death, the one certainty in life we all have.
"We want our students to be truly Christian in their response to others. Parents don't want their sons and daughters growing up in a spiritual void." In Catholic circles the monks are known, affectionately, as the "Big Brothers of the Rich", a neat contrast with the Little Sisters of the Poor. The Benedictines live according to monastic rules of obedience, chastity and poverty. School fees are £18,000 per annum. Fr Chad Boulton acknowledges the incongruity.
"On a personal level this is what I can offer, what I can do. I am humbled by people who work on the margins. We need always to be moving forward. Ampleforth will always strive to be much more than just a school."
Television depicted Fr James Callaghan as the Marlboro monk, the chainsmoking Benedictine with a passion for trance music, a techno variant of pop. It has given him a certain superstar status among the boys. "The producers had this misconception that monks are grand, ethereal and not remotely in touch with reality. But we're normal," he laughs. An elderly gentleman wrote to him after the programme: "How do I apply to become a monk? I'm sure my wife won't mind."
He agrees there is a tension between the, demands of school and monastery. "At the beginning of my housemastership and for quite a long time I more or less became a housemaster first and a monk second and I don't think that did my spiritual life any good at all. I came to realise that I had to give priority to my monastic and spiritual life.
"It has given me a deeper understanding of the rule of St Benedict than I ever had living in the monastery as a junior.
"It's the balance between work and prayer — it's the whole thing about being fair, not having favourites, rooting out vices when they occur, operating on a basis of love rather than fear."
There is no watering down of faith here, no desire to be ecumenical and inclusive. The choices are clearly made.
"I'm happy that the Catholic Church does not do
what the Anglican Church does, trying to adapt to every passing fad," says Fr James. "As Newman said, the Church needs to evolve but slowly. We are Catholic and we are not going to apologise for being Catholic,"
hey don't believe in spoon-feeding religion or morals at Ampleforth. "Last century the model was faith by absorpdon," says Fr Chad. "That's no longer the case. The challenge for us is to work out different ways of communicating faith. It's a challenge faced by all schools." Sixth formers attend classes that prepare them for life beyond the valley with frank discussions on sex, money. power, self-esteem and prejudice. Discussions on sexual morality include graphic details of venereal disease, a strong argument for a chaste life.
Three years ago Fr Chad took 50 boys to Holy Island to walk in the footsteps of their house saint, St Cuthbert. They set off across the sands carrying a cross and built an altar on the beach where they said Mass. He says the day was a "revelation" that the boys forgot they were cynical adolescents. "It is times like that when you realise there is something special here."
In his last Exhibition speech to school the traditional open day for parents and friends Fr Leo wished his students "deep faith and good courage in virtue". Ampleforth strives to give its young people a sense of "decency, kindliness, a life motivated by more than immediate advantage" — rare qualities in a secular society Fr Leo concluded with the words of Pope Pius XII. "Let us thank God that he makes us live among the present problems. It is no longer permitted to anyone to be mediocre."