The focus to create new jobs at the former Axminster carpets spinning mill follows its acquisition by Buckfast Abbey, which has until now, conducted its business affairs away from the media spotlight. Catherine Barnes visited as Buckfast opened its doors for a WMN exclusive.
Since Axminster Carpets fell into administration in February, there's been an eerie silence in its cavernous former spinning mill, one that's altogether different from the tranquillity of Buckfast Abbey next door.
But the Abbey's order of 13 Benedictine monks and the lay professionals that have helped transform this religious community into a thriving business hub, now have plans to bring new life to the defunct Axminster buildings and create new jobs.
In the wider world, a developer usually has very clear objectives when they make a capital investment such as this. Yet it's not been decided what will take shape at the industrial site, that will see the Abbey increase its bounds within Buckfastleigh.
But, says John Cunningham, consultant to the Abbey Trust: "We want to do the best we can for two co-equal reasons; to recreate some of the lost jobs that resulted from the factory's closure.
"The crucial thing is they are not looking for an immediate return within five to 10 years, but this is also a long-term investment in the foundation." A rescue buyout saw a new company, Axminster 2013 acquire the carpet manufacturing business in Axminster and has seen it maintain the running of a factory outlet shop on the former spinning mill site, which employed around 125 staff.
Lying idle, the spinning mill site's vast units look like a suitable location for an inevitable night-time chase in a gritty detective series.
It's a stark contrast to the beautiful next-door Abbey grounds, which drew in close to half a million sightseers annually prior to the economic crash and welcomed around 350,000 last year.
Its easy to imagine that the honey-coloured buildings, landscaped grounds and lavender bushes that are a mass of industrious bees have been acquired wholesale by the monastery. But much of the estate that visitors see here today has been reclaimed and built since the 1980s.
Back then, the Abbey was a community on the brink of financial ruin. Today, it is behind a thriving business portfolio with an extremely healthy balance sheet. Its 2012 accounts reveal fixed and investment assets of £49.6 million.
"Someone once said that if you took a blade of grass, a Benedictine could grow two in its place," says Abbey bursarFather James. But Buckfast has also embraced the counsel of business experts from the laity.
The Benedictines, currently preparing for Buckfast's 2018 millennial celebrations, were the first to establish a community here.
The Abbey later came into the hands of the Cistercians, a religious community that pioneered the wool-farming upon which England became an economic powerhouse.
"They were great builders and land management experts in this part of the world," says Father James.
"They created the pastures and really developed the wealth of England."
Stripped of its riches including the lead from its roof during Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, Buckfast fell into decay.
Then, in the 1820s, entrepreneur Samuel Berry built a manor house where the Abbey had been, adjacent to where he established a woollen mill, still a part of the former Axminster site.
His house later became home to a handful of Benedictine monks who arrived in Devon to escape religious upheavals in France in the 1880s.
They began work to rebuild the Abbey church, St Mary's, from the ground up. Photographs of the self-taught, sandal-wearing builders, hoisting stone and swinging from ropes hundreds of feet above the ground, are a lesson in how-not-do-do it, for the health and safety executives among the conference delegates that Buckfast hosts today.
Bees and the famous Buckfast tonic wine supported the new community's income. But in the mid 1980s, Jonathan Deacon an auditor for Ernst & Whinney, now Ernst & Young, paid a visit and warned that the Abbey was in danger of going bust. He not only helped establish it on a firmer footing, but then went on to become finance director of the Abbey Trust.
Back then, the town's main road ran through the now-manicured grounds and the cluster of shops around the church were in private ownership, resulting, says John Cunningham, in visitors to the Abbey having spent most of their money before they even arrived at Buckfast's own tiny gift shop.
"Our idea was to re-direct that, so the Abbey had an income to maintain the place and keep it viable," he says.
Hospitality has always been a part of Buckfast and a fundamental rule of the Benedictines.
There is no entrance fee to the Abbey and grounds, so the community generates income by attracting visitors to spend.
"The vast majority come not on religious retreat, but to enjoy the grounds," says Father James.
Day-visitors account for most of the footfall here, although the abbey can sleep up to 100 guests in its accommodation at one time; mostly through organised groups on both religious or secular activities that tap into the peaceful environment.
Thirty years ago, the town's main road ran through the Abbey gates – in past times, a day's journey away from both Plymouth and Exeter – and directly by what was once its guest house, now a gift shop.
At that time, visitors also had to part with small change to use the Abbey's loos.
This was not a huge revenue earner and, adds Father James ruefully, charging visitors to spend a penny did not exactly fit with the order's hospitality remit.
With a crack business team in place, Buckfast set about influencing step change.
The Abbey Trust was established as the legal organisation and registered charity which owns Buckfast's property and assets. Dart Abbey Enterprise Ltd was established to oversee trading ventures, with profits going to the Trust.
The monastery's Abbot, David Charlesworth, is currently the ecclesiastical leader and chairs the Buckfast board of trustees. He is elected to his post every eight years by the community; with each Benedictine foundation independent of other houses within the order.
"It's really a Benedictine disorder – each sinks or swims on its own," says Father James. "You don't really become a monk, but become a member of a house."
As the first stage in its major vision for change in the 1980s, Buckfastleigh's main road was re-routed away from the Abbey grounds, affording scope for a new visitor car park to be built and the now pedestrianised area re-landscaped.
The Abbey borrowed to buy the privately owned shops and establish its own retail facilities in their place – and build new toilet facilities.
Also among its acquisitions was a council-run caravan site and car park, later sold to Axminster Carpets when it sought to expand its Buckfast spinning mill and now back in the hands of the Abbey.
"That's the Buckfast way of doing things, one toe at a time, so you can take them out quickly if it gets cold," says Father James, who, since joining the community in 1970 has served in roles including librarian, teacher and bookshop manager. In his role as bursar, is now focused upon the development of the Abbey's conferencing facilities.
"You don't become a monk for the reasons you end up doing what you are doing; but you do take on all sorts of responsibilities," he adds.
The conference facilities are located in the Abbey's former prep school, along with an interactive education centre that draws in 11,000 young visitors a year.
The community has spoken of its "betrayal and dismay" over former monk and headmaster Gregory Miller's conviction earlier this year, for making and possessing indecent images of children. It said it was ashamed of his actions and would "provide neither excuses, nor a hiding place," for anyone who breaks the law.
Along with many small private schools across the country, the Buckfast school closed in 1994 when the number of Government funded places for overseas-based forces children fell into decline.
Conferences began in the late 1980s with the facilities attracting many public sector organisations. Since the recession, this market has shrunk, with Father James keen to explore new markets and build this side of Abbey enterprise up.
One recently completed investment project is a £1 million complex of studios on the site of the Abbey's former pigsties – set to become home to a team of accountants – and with its administration and maintenance staff also based at the hub, which includes five studios open to artisan businesses.
Last year, the Abbey's business enterprises generated £6.7 million. It spent £5 million on its charitable activities, which are primarily centred around the advancement of the Catholic faith.
From a team of around 20 people in the 1980s, the Abbey now employs 123 staff across its shops, cafes, maintenance departments and the Buckfast tonic wine facility. It holds a 20% minority stake in the famous tonic wine business. Based on an old French family recipe brought to the abbey by one of its number, the brand was taken on by wine merchants J Chandler & Co in the 1920s. It handles the brand's marketing and press interest which has been lively, to say the least, since the brand was linked by MPs to binge-drinking problems north of the border.
Wine imported from France is shipped to the Buckfast plant, where it is fortified and blended by a team of four employees. It is then goes on to Chandlers' Andover headquarters for bottling and distribution.
The Abbey's bee hives, once a traditional source of income, are now looked after by two lay keepers. Honey production fell off as a source of income as cheap imported varieties began to hit supermarket shelves.
The famous Buckfast bees, bred, in a lifetime's work, by the Abbey's late Brother Adam are famed worldwide for resisting diseases spread by the Varroa mite, which has wiped out billions of bees globally. The apiaries are now primarily the focus of educational sessions and beekeeping courses.
Administrators are due to continue stripping the former Axminster site next door of its saleable assets until the end of the year, while surveys are also being done to evaluate what use can be made of the huge units.
"We have an agreement with Axminster 2013 for the shop for the time being and will reach a longer term agreement with them once we know what's happening," says John Cunningham.
Buckfast is working closely with Teignbridge and Devon County councils, along with the Dartmoor National Park Authority and Heart of the South West LEP to assess the possibilities.
Plymouth-based architects ADG have been appointed master planners and Alder King as property consultants to help identify key demands for employment space.
"Whatever we do, it has to be economically viable," says John. "The Abbey has borrowed money to acquire it – and it can't just be a nice-to-have space next door."