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The celebrated actress who loves tea, cake and debate with nuns

Patricia Routledge tells Isabel Westby why she is supporting a new appeal by Stanbrook Abbey

By on Friday, 6 July 2012

Patricia Routledge with nuns of Stanbrook Abbey (Photo courtesy of Patricia Routledge)

Patricia Routledge with nuns of Stanbrook Abbey (Photo courtesy of Patricia Routledge)

When actress Patricia Routledge received a surprise invitation to be patron of a very special appeal, she was delighted and immediately said yes.

She joins fellow patrons Bishop Terence Patrick Drainey of Middlesbrough and Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds (soon to take up a Vatican post as secretary to the Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments), in an appeal to raise £2.4 million for the building of a church and hospitality wing as part of the new Stanbrook Abbey at Wass in North Yorkshire. The community of Benedictine nuns who moved there three years ago from Callow End, Worcester, have a very particular place among a wide variety of Patricia’s friends.

Now known to millions throughout the world as the redoubtable Hyacinth in Keeping Up Appearances and as the elderly sleuth in Hetty Wainthropp Investigates, Patricia is one of Britain’s most distinguished actresses, regarded for her work in theatre, film, television and radio. The recipient of the 1967 Tony Award for her Broadway performance in Darling of the Day, the 1989 Laurence Olivier Award (Candide, Old Vic), Top TV Comedy Actress and Personality of the Year Awards, Grand Order of Water Rats (1991) and Variety Club of Great Britain (1993), she was further honoured in 1996 in the special BBC 60th Anniversary Awards.

In 1999 the University of Liverpool, where she graduated with Honours in English Language and Literature, conferred upon her the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters. In 1993 she was awarded the OBE for services to the performing arts and created CBE for services to drama in 2004.

In 2006 she agreed to play the role of Dame Laurentia McLachlan, the distinguished 20th-century Abbess of Stanbrook, whose three-way correspondence with the atheist and art expert Sir Sydney Cockerell and the agnostic George Bernard Shaw had been turned skilfully by Hugh Whitemore into a play called The Best of Friends. It was to be directed by James Roose Evans (himself a non-stipendiary Anglican priest and long-standing friend of the Stanbrook community), and Routledge asked if it would be possible to visit Stanbrook Abbey in order to learn more about the life of the community and to understand the role of the Mother Abbess. (It had been a very valuable exercise some years earlier when she visited the community of Anglican Benedictines nuns at West Malling in preparation for her BBC Omnibus role as Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century abbess soon to be declared a saint and Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI.)

“Mother Joanna Jamieson, abbess at the time, very graciously allowed me to visit for a day,” she says. “I was given a cell, dressed in the habit by Mother Joanna herself, had lunch in the refectory and attended at least two of the daily offices in the beautiful Edward Pugin Chapel.

“I can conjure up the memory of the nuns’ exquisite singing in a trice. That and the recreation hour, full of laughter and joy.

“Later I went into retreat for four days before starting rehearsal, and that was a profound and privileged experience. I do believe I couldn’t have done the play without it. It was an unforgettable time and made a deep impression on me.
“We gave a special performance of the play at Stanbrook after we had finished our tour and the community loved it.
“Many people have inaccurate, simplistic ideas about nuns, with the mistaken perception that they are ignorant of the outside world. Not so.

“Their reputation for Benedictine hospitality is legendary. From what I have observed, the community is a power house of prayer in a noisy, violent and disrupted world. This must be influential and to the good. It is awe-inspiring to have been given an insight into the lives of those who have dedicated themselves to this remarkably disciplined life – some of them for over 50 years. And they exude infectious joy and real peace.

“Whenever I was in the vicinity, often touring with a play, I would visit them at Stanbrook for a cup of tea – and excellent home-made cake – and a lively exchange of news and views. It was a highlight to look forward to.”
Born into a Protestant family in Higher Tranmere, Birkenhead, Patricia recalls a very happy childhood, coloured by memories of attending a “marvellous” Methodist Sunday school, singing in a Congregational church choir and later being confirmed in the Anglican Church. These days she worships regularly at Chichester Cathedral. Her brother, Graham Routledge, entered the Anglican priesthood after a distinguished career as a barrister, becoming Treasurer and Canon in Residence at St Paul’s Cathedral. There was, however, she admits with a twinkle, a close link with the Catholic Church in the shape of a very lively, lapsed, Irish maternal grandmother.

Describing herself as a “struggling Anglican” she declares that her faith has always been important to her – “especially when it’s wavering”. Alarmed by the strident evidence of secularism, Patricia feels that it dangerously threatens many areas of life, not least in the matter of simple respect – for law and order, simple human relations, family life, the young for the old and the old for the young.

“I could go on,” she says. “But we have to learn to understand it on this voyage of discovery… though not be sucked in by its negative force.”

She continues: “I’m eagerly anticipating my first visit to this ecologically friendly, Modernist-style monastery in a part of Yorkshire where the heavens seem almost to touch the earth and where there has been a long monastic presence: the former abbeys of Rievaulx, Byland, Whitby and the present Ampleforth Abbey nearby. It is, I believe, a stunningly beautiful location.

“I know these are difficult times for all of us but I do believe the wonderful Stanbrook community are very deserving of support. I hope that people may be able to find as much as they can manage towards funding the completion of their monastery. I can’t wait to see them in their beautiful home.”

You can donate to the Stanbrook Abbey appeal by visiting the nuns’ website at

  • teigitur

    Candlelight supper anyone? Superb actress!

  • Avrilwilliamson

    I am delighted to see that such a distinguished actress is supporting this appeal. In a time when lots of religious institutions are failing and closing it is good to hear of a religious community taking positive action to ensure the viability and continuity of this way of life. There are too few powerhouses of prayer and we would all do well to help support them whenever we can. I hope as many people as possible will find it in their heart to give even the smallest donation to help this remarkably community.

  • Michael Petek

    I remember her as the spirit medium Madame Fontana in Steptoe and Son:

    Madame Fontana: “Ah, I can see you’re a skeptic, Harold. You don’t believe in the living dead.”

    Harold Steptoe: “Oh yes, I believe in them! I’ve been living with one for forty years!”

  • Los Leandros

    Will she bring Onslow along ?. Seriously though, it’s great to read of a thespian who does’nt conform to the caricature/tiresome, atheist persona they usually love to project.

  • Tom Jones

    The nuns are wonderful so how could she resist? Even the agnostic Shaw wrote to the then Abbess the Rt Rev Dame Laurentia Maclachlan that he believed their prayers were the only prayers that wouldn’t get on the Heavenly Nerves.

  • GrahamCombs

    I would love to see Ms. Routledge in THE BEST OF FRIENDS.  I know only from her TV work.   I recently watched a public televsion (US) performance of the play with Dame Wendy Hiller, Sir Ralph Guilgud and the great Anglo-American actor Patrick McGoohan (as Shaw).   I can easily imagine Patricia Routledge holding her on in that group as well.    I’m an Episcopalian become Catholic myself and am always gratified to know that not all members of the acting guild are autonomically anti-Church.   Wonderful piece by Isabel Westby and a reminder why I always try to check in with the Herald although I’m an ocean and half a continent away.

  • Fr. Thomas Poovathinkal