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Mysteries of monastic life

Prayers before dawn, baths once a year - who would be a medieval monk? Trish Walters finds out

In a large medieval dining hall, the children of nine-year-olds at St Dominic's Priory School from Stone, Staffordshire, are eagerly questioning a Benedictine monk. "How many meals a day do you have?" asks one, and "Do you really have to get up at 2 o'clock in the morning to say your prayers?" another wants to know.

The monk is one of the costumed interpreters at a remarkable visitor attraction that opened in Shropshire three years ago. It's called the Shrewsbury Question, and it's a re-creation of the medieval Benedictine monastery that existed within the grounds of Shrewsbury Abbey in the 12th century.

Readers of medieval thrillers may recognise the Abbey as the home of Brother Cadfael, the monk-detective hero created by local writer, the late Ellis Peters, and certainly his influence is never far away. "Live the history . . . solve the mystery" reads the legend in the guide book, and visitors, young and old are encouraged to apply Cadfael-like powers of deduction as they make their way round the Quest with a murder mystery to solve.

An authentic interpretation of a medieval garden, designed by garden historian Sylvia Landsberg is bounded on two sides by cloisters, and over-looked by the Abbey Church. On a still summer's day, you can hear the buzzing of bees, and the faint chanting of monks in the background.

In consultation with some of the country's leading authorities on medieval history, the interior has been faithfully replicated and furnished with the minutiae of medieval life. The Great Store contains all the foodstuffs required for the Abbey's inhabitants and their guests, and a smell of yeast pervades the air. The Guesthall is a great source of fascination, not least for the life-like leftovers of a banquet which still remain on the table.

Upstairs in the Scriptorium, an assortment of writing materials are laid out on the tables, and the children of St Dominic's, now dressed in monks' habits, have become medieval scribes. Alice's manuscript says, "To Mum, with love" -and very authentic it looks too, with a large illuminated letter M, and the characteristic medieval patterns around the edge.

Alice is at an advantage over the scribes of old, since her large capital letters are printed from blocks, and the intricately patterned borders are achieved with a roller and ink pad. Presiding over the Scriptorium is Brother Gary, an accomplished calligrapher, who is only too happy to write the children's names on their manuscripts for them.

It's all great fun, but as class teacher Jo Heath is quick to point out, it also gives the children an insight into the work of the monks at the Abbey. "It's easy to talk about monks slaving over their manuscripts," she remarks "but now that the children have seen how long it takes just to write a name, they can really appreciate the work that has gone into an entire book."

Working alongside the children of St Dominic's is a small party from Brook Farm School, Tarporley, Cheshire, who are busy embellishing their capital letters with gold ink. Brook Farm is a residential school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, and class teacher Mrs Robinson says, "I've worked at the school for 11 years and I don't think I've ever seen them so engrossed for so long."

A wealth of material has been produced to support the national curriculum, from several pre-visit activities relating to each section of the Quest, to key stages 2 and 3 worksheets, designed to be used during the visit. For younger children the wearing of monks' costumes opens opportunities for role play, and the smells and sounds make it an ideal location for concentrating on 'the senses'.

Many objects from the displays are accessible for measuring and comparison work, and in the garden the interconnecting pathways around the herb beds and cloisters give plenty of scope for simple map work. For science, the bone drinking cups, large leather jugs and flasks with wooden stoppers, the wooden cart wheels and quill pens, are just some of the items which can be used for comparison with modern materials.

For the children of St Dominic's this visit has been the culmination of a year-long project on medieval history and, according to Jo Heath, it has proved to be a complete success. "It has brought this period of history to life for them," she says, "and I do think that when they've experienced something like this, they will never forget it."

And just in case you are wondering, it turns out that Benedictine monks had one meal a day in winter and two meals in summer, and yes, they did have to get up at 2 o'clock in the morning for prayers. Small wonder, then, that the general consensus of opinion among the children of St Dominic's was that, much as they had enjoyed their visit, they were only too glad to return to the 20th century.

The Shrewsbury Quest, Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury, Shropshire. Information line: 01743 243324. Group bookings: 01743 355990.

The making of the garden at the Shrewsbury Quest is chronicled - along with several other projects - by its designer, garden historian Sylvia Landsberg, in The Medieval Garden published by the British Museum Press at Pounds 12. 99.

Some facts of everyday life in a 12th-century monastery

* According to the Rule of St Benedict, the monks slept in their clothes even keeping on their belts, but they were advised to remove their knives so that they would not cut themselves in their sleep.

* Benedictine monks were required to take one bath a year until the Norman Conquest when, much to the monks' dismay, this was increased to five a year.

* An abbey the size of Shrewsbury would probably produce no more than four books a year.

* An average size book would require 300 calf skins, and for books such as the Gospels, the covers would be encrusted with jewels.

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