The elderly lady is stooped and moves slowly with the aid of a walking frame, yet there is vigour and pep in her eyes. She emerges from the café at Buckfast Abbey and I fully expect to see her move towards the herb gardens along with the other silvern passengers from the tour bus. Instead, she stops and looks up, her gaze alighting on me and I‘m suddenly aware of being appraised for signs of delinquency. I estimate her to be nearer 90 than 80.

I’ve seen that look many times before and feel sure she had once been a teacher - most probably a headmistress - at the sort of English prep school that produces vicars and viceroys.

Check over, she moves closer and asks: “Can you tell me where the gift shop is?”

It’s more of a command than an entreaty and I direct her to the stone building with the handsome windows over there on the right. “Is there anything in particular you’re looking for,” I ask, ever the shameless hack looking for a decent intro.

“Yes, I can’t leave without two bottles of their wine,” she replies. This sounds promising and so I press on, careful not to appear too bold, lest she think me impudent. “It’s quite strong stuff,” say I and she looks at me once more. “It is rather, isn’t it,” she replies. “But it hasn’t done me any harm.” There’s a twinkle in her voice and a hint of pride. “Have you tried their mead,” she asks, “it’s quite delightful.” And it’s only with great strength of will that I refrain from saying, “would that be the ‘aff its heid mead”.

I recently discovered that, quite literally, I’ve had a lifelong relationship with Buckfast tonic wine. When I told my mum I was heading down to Devon to commune with the monks who make this jaggy nectar she told me that on the day I was born my gran had come to the maternity ward bearing two bottles of this irascible potion. I was the first-born and the birth, it seems, had been a difficult one. “This will help you get your strength back,” my gran had told my mum. “So, now you’re telling me, mum that I was howling with the Buckie after you’d fed me?” I concede that this might explain a lot. 

The Herald: Buckfast Abbey in BuckfastleighBuckfast Abbey in Buckfastleigh (Image: Paul Slater/The Herald)

A newspaper advert around this time features a picture of an anxious-looking woman below the heading: “When everything’s an effort, you need Buckfast.” And then comes a spiel which imbues it with remarkable powers of healing.

“Taken regularly, Buckfast will prove a splendid pick-me-up that restores the zest and sparkle that makes life worth living.

“Buckfast is a blend of choice red wine and tonic ingredients, prepared by the monks of Buckfast Abbey to a recipe known only to themselves. Subtle in flavour, with full-bodied maturity, it is not only a wonderful restorative but a delightful wine that can be enjoyed as an aperitif …”

This is not a description that would find favour with Scotland’s civic elites. Ten years ago an assortment of career politicians began blaming Buckfast for all of the social ills that afflicted some parts of Glasgow and North Lanarkshire. To them, this was the devil’s brew whose high caffeine count made it solely responsible for turning these places into war zones.

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Some of the more hysterical reactions came from within the Scottish Labour aristocracy like Baroness Helen Liddell of Coatdyke (formerly Robert Maxwell’s Director of Corporate Affairs in Scotland) and Baron Jack McConnell of Glenscorrodale. Never mentioned was that their own party in power both before and after devolution had failed to improve the life chances of some of Scotland’s most deprived neighbourhoods. But that never stopped them from taking ermine and discounted fine dining in the House of Lords restaurant.

Inequality caused by unemployment; low wages; lack of affordable housing and violent crime still stubbornly haunts the same places afflicted by them for decades. When they “blame it on the Buckie” it’s convenient that they can focus their contrived fury at an ancient community of around 20 elderly Benedictine monks living 460 miles away in South Devon.

No other alcoholic drink available in Britain has attracted the opprobrium and notoriety that Buckfast encounters at the mere mention of its name. You can choose from a beguiling suite of sobriquets by which it’s become known in those edgy neighbourhoods that bear its imprint. It’s credited with being the original “wreck the hoose juice” and who isn’t entertained by “the Coatbridge Commotion Lotion”? Male West of Scotland drinkers vie with one another to coin their own honorific as a way of conveying street smarts. The best I could conjure was “the Elixir of Strife”. 

The monks rarely comment on criticism of Buckfast. It’s been left to the distributors, J Chandler and Co, to defend this tonic wine. The company have referenced police statistics that were intended to reinforce the notion of Buckfast as an accelerant for anti-social behaviour. “Buckfast was mentioned in 5,638 crimes in Strathclyde over the last three years, that is 1,879 per year,” the company once pointed out.

The Herald: Kevin McKenna gets to the source of 'The Coatbridge Commotion Lotion'Kevin McKenna gets to the source of 'The Coatbridge Commotion Lotion' (Image: Paul Slater/The Herald)

“Given that there were 424,589 crimes recorded in Strathclyde last year, this is a very small proportion — about 4 in every 1,000. J Chandler and Co contacted the police who gave this statistic asking for details of other alcoholic products mentioned in the 424,589 crimes. The police were unable to give any information for any other brand.”

Buckfast Abbey is swaddled in the folds of the South Devon countryside in the sort of place where Merchant and Ivory seemed to make all of their Edwardian period dramas. Its actual name is St Mary’s at Buckfast, this being the name of the small town that lies nearby.

My initial request to interview one or more of the monks was politely refused by the Charitable Trust, but I hadn’t really expected them to agree. They are a small and elderly brotherhood who adhere rigidly to the Rule of St Benedict drawn up more than 1500 years ago. They didn’t sign up to be interrogated by people like me.

They are the successors of a remarkable group of six monks who came here in 1882, fleeing an anti-religious crackdown in France. They constructed the Abbey themselves over a period of 30 years on the site of the original one, built in 1018. It’s the only monastery still extant that stands in the place where it was first recorded in the Domesday Book. In those 1000 years the fortunes of the abbey had risen and fallen with the religious wars and politics of England.

The Herald: 'Just the tonic': A measure of Buckfast wine'Just the tonic': A measure of Buckfast wine (Image: The Herald)

The monks make lifetime vows to live and work in service to God, to the community, to the Church and to those people – of all faiths and none – who may be in need of their hospitality and help. Hard manual work in the fields and gardens is the foundation of all that they do.

In strictly secular terms it would make Karl Marx sing hosannas. The Benedictines’ way of life is built on collectivism and the absolute rejection of rank and privilege. St Benedict laid down its value system: “The vice of personal ownership must by all means be cut out in the monastery by the very root, so that no-one may presume to … have anything whatever as his own, neither a book, nor a writing tablet, nor a pen.”

And so it was left to Geoff Pring, the Visitor Experience Director and Philip Arkwright, CEO of the Charitable Trust to guide me round this ecclesiastical Xanadu and gently to pilot me away from much discussion about the shimmying properties of their tonic wine.

The monks, they pointed out, felt that all that needed to be said about their wine production had already been stated. Our chat proceeded with me deploying the full journalist’s arsenal to chivvy out nuggets: finding common cause in football; an exchange of views on the Middle East; our shared Catholicism (at one point I blessed myself rather too extravagantly with the holy water from the font at the rear of the abbey).

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Gradually, another story began to unfold and with it the reason for their studied diffidence. The Abbey lies in several acres of woodland in the middle of Dartmoor National Park. The Trust maintains a bee-keeping facility which has become a refuge for people, mainly military veterans, who have PTSD. Its conference facilities are reckoned to be the best in this part of South Devon and it has free lodgings for the pilgrims and the waifs and strays among the 300,000 annual visitors.

Last May, 300 primary pupils attended a festival staged by the Abbey to support their mental health and wellbeing as schools sought to recover from the ravages of Covid. More than 10,000 pupils pass through these grounds each year.

The Green Hub Gardens feature one of the region’s largest and most diverse collections of plants based on three themes: Lavender, Physic and Sensory. They provide spaces for local artists and craftspeople.

Geoff Pring points out a water wheel which generates hydro-electric power from the River Dart. They’ve installed a turbine capable of generating up to 72KW an hour. “The Abbey is committed to renewable energy sources,” he says. “This clean energy supplies more than a third of our electricity requirements and anything we don’t need is fed into the National Grid.” Patrick Harvie would be leading them all in their Latin matins if he saw this.   

The Herald: 'The half bottle... easy to clutch between your thumb and fingers and easily concealed about your person for swigging throughout an afternoon.'The half bottle... easy to clutch between your thumb and fingers and easily concealed about your person for swigging throughout an afternoon. (Image: Paul Slater/The Herald)

Meanwhile, the abbey is on call 24 hours a day to take families and individuals fleeing domestic crises. The lodgings for them and for the pilgrims are free of charge. As is the parking. And access to their gardens. “Do walk on the grass”, you’re told, somewhat startlingly.

Almost 150 people are employed here on the real living wage and full pension entitlement. It’s a significant contributor to the economy of this part of England and plugs large gaps in the south coast’s social services infrastructure.

It soon becomes clear that every penny made from Buckfast tonic wine assists in one of the basic requirements of this monastic life: to provide sanctuary and healing for those broken in mind and body.

Eventually, I persuade Mr Arkwright to say what needs to be said. “The monks don’t want to discuss this for one simple reason,” he said. “To do so would convey earthly pride and exceptionalism. This is what they are called to do as Christians. They don’t think it’s in any way special.”

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I depart clutching two half bottles of Buckfast and a box of miniatures. Its charms are best appreciated al fresco and so I find a suitable tree in the shadow of the Abbey and sit down beside it. Nearby, there’s a statue of the Virgin Mary and I raise my bottle to her.  

The political elites find it difficult to conceive of people enjoying the Buckfast for aesthetic reasons. It comes in an eye-catching green bottle with a vivid orange livery featuring an etching of blue grapes and a relief of the abbey.

I like the half bottle. It’s easy to clutch between your thumb and fingers and can easily be carried concealed about your person for swigging throughout an afternoon.

On first doing so, you immediately feel a pinch on your upper cheeks. A gentle warmth swaddles your stomach, borne there on an admittedly cantankerous fleet of cherries. There’s a tidy aftertaste which doesn’t overstay its welcome.

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I’ve seen smart-ass types mocking Buckfast by writing supercilious tasting notes in the style of a Beaujolais snob. But they shouldn’t try to get wide with this potion. It shouldn’t be judged. It’s rich, full of flavour and isn’t slow to make its presence felt. The bouquet suggests a hint of cherry blossom petals after someone’s spilt, well … a bottle of Buckfast over them. Is it boisterous? Yes.  Temperamental? Perhaps. But it’s not inelegant.

It should be drunk at a respectful gallop: not too fast, but not slowly either. Anyone who drinks alcohol not hoping for some kind of frisson is kidding themselves on. And if you’re looking for a buzz in the first place then you renounce the right to judge others whose personal circumstances might make their need for it to be more urgent than yours.

And if nothing else, do it for the Greater Horseshoe Bat. A wee colony of them lives in the Abbey too. And so the monks have installed discreet and highly specialised floodlighting that doesn’t disorientate the wee fellas when they’re hunting for food. The Buckie made that happen.