What it’s like to go to Ampleforth, a school taught by monks
‘If I were caught drinking or smoking, I’d much rather be caught by a Monk than a teacher’
From nine until half three every day, the majority of teenagers in the UK attend school. They sit, they listen, they learn.
For those of us who attended one, the rough and tumble existence of an all-boys school and the seemingly debaucherous goings on were all just quirks of our day-to-day life, our norm.
However, there are some schools that are far more extreme in this respect, such as independent boarding school, Ampleforth College.
Nestled in the heart of rural Yorkshire lies Ampleforth College. Founded in 1802, it’s a school where the pupils live with and are taught by a group of Benedictine monks.
In a 2003 documentary about the school, the headmaster at the time, Father Leo, makes a very telling comment about what appears to be the nature of life at Ampleforth: “Good schools involve walking along a lot of knife edges and balancing freedom and responsibility. I’m sure we don’t always get it right.”
We sat down with Matthew, a former pupil, to find out more about Ampleforth and what really goes on down in the valley.
Drinking is commonplace
It seemed like the monks were well aware, but not necessarily approving, of the quite obvious underage drinking going on at Ampleforth. Although, it seems bizarre that they were getting hold of alcohol while they were in school so easily.
Whilst most of us in our town-based schools would huddle outside Londis, waiting for someone older to go in for us, it isn’t very clear how they were all getting so easily sozzled in the middle of the countryside.
The answer is that Ampleforth College actually has its own pub, The Windmill, where you can drink from age sixteen onwards. Whilst there were rules about how much each student could drink there, it wasn’t particularly hard to get round them by the sound of things.
When we spoke to Matthew, he told us: “Breathalysing people at school was almost normal… I think you were meant to definitely have no more than twenty, but it wasn’t uncommon for people to get a reading of 80/90 at the school pub. You’d be drinking at school by Year 10.”
Moreover, alcohol was also provided at house dinners for anyone aged fifteen upwards, and the wine servers were middle sixth-formers (year 12), so it was easy to get very, very drunk.
According to Matthew, he could recount the sort of stories that you could write a book about: “Our Speech Day was in May, before exams, that’s a whole weekend, I drank so much I probably should’ve been in hospital, I was being sick everywhere outside our house. This was when I was fifteen.”
And he says he wasn’t the only one: “I had a friend who got that drunk at House Punch he had to go to the Infirmary. One of the Monks once came back to our house with us after our house dinner and got really drunk with us.”
Despite its traditional reputation, it sounds like Ampleforth might be the only school actually equipped to prepare you for uni in this respect.
“I’d say around 40 per cent of the school smoked, from first year upwards”, says Matthew.
This in itself isn’t massively shocking, it goes on in most schools, but the part that’s hard to get your head around was how this could go on when they were living surrounded by monks who are supposed to live free from vices.
When asked how aware he thought the monks were of the stuff people were getting up to, Matthew told us: “Oh yeah very… They knew where everyone went to smoke from almost first year onwards, they used to joke about it, it was just kind of known.”
Ampleforth does have girls in separate boarding houses, but forbids public displays of affection, a term which extends as far as piggybacks according to the documentary.
Moreover, Matthew recounted to us a most charming tale that once whilst playing football, a Sixth Form couple emerged from the woods, hurriedly putting their clothes back on looking rather disheveled to the sounds of cheers from the windows of the boarding house.
Whether it’s Father James – the monk who listens to Trance and smokes, the weird dress code or the sex in the woods, there’s something about Ampleforth which makes me wish I’d gone there.
According to Matthew: “They’re moving monks around and and moving in more teachers, because the monks are actually quite liberal.”
I think we all could have possibly done with a few monks at our schools.