We are lucky enough to live near three of Normandy’s important abbeys: the great ruins at Jumièges, and the Benedictine abbeys at St-Wandrille and Notre-Dame in Le Bec-Hellouin. This last is famous not only for its abbey and monastic community but for its situation in one of the most beautiful villages of France.
We set out to visit Le Bec-Hellouin on the kind of drizzly grey April day that tries to make everything look depressed but just can’t seem to manage to wipe away the green blossominess of a Normandy April.
As is so often the case in Normandy, the history of Bec starts out in France then gets knotted up with England. The abbey was founded in 1034 by a Norman knight, and quickly became an important intellectual centre for the Catholic church. A number of the monks from Bec went on to become Archbishops of Canterbury.
After the Norman Conquest, the abbey was enriched with properties in England. The then village of Tooting Bec belonged, at one point, to the abbey, and was named after it. If you stand in the global-suburban-London bustle outside the Tooting Bec tube station today it’s hard to imagine any kind of connection to this quiet valley in northern France.
The abbey suffered after the Revolution, and only the medieval belltower remains. After the Revolution the abbey was used as a cavalry barracks, and elegant buildings were added in the eighteenth century. In 1948 the abbey was reinstated, and today it hosts an active Benedictine community.
The monks sing vespers most Sunday evenings in the simple chapel. There is an excellent bookshop with Benedictine products including ceramics manufactured by the monks in residence. It’s peaceful yet quietly active place, busy with visitors taking walks through the parkland, groups on spiritual retreat, and the monks in white-hooded robes going about their daily life.
For the best views of the abbey, it’s worth turning left out of the gates and across a little bridge towards the old railway station. Look back to the abbey accross the fields. At the old railway station there’s a cycle path running along the former railway line towards Evreux which seems a wonderful way to visit this countryside.