Buckfastleigh is a small market town, originally an important wool centre where some of the old mills still survive. The original name was Buck-tied-fast-in-the-leigh, where buckfast means a stronghold where deer and buck were held and leigh is open pasture. The name Buckfastleigh contains half the letters of the alphabet, none of which are repeated - check it and see! The abbey town is situated on the southern edge of Dartmoor National Park.
A Benedictine Abbey was founded at nearby Buckfast and endorsed by King Canute in 1018. Forty years later, the Abbey became a Cistercian Monastery and remained so until the Dissolution in 1539. The present Abbey Church was consecrated in 1932. The Cistercians were associated with sheep husbandry and the wool trade so their influence probably resulted in the wool trade in Buckfastleigh.
Buckfastleigh was an ideal location for wool production as it was surrounded by water and nestling on the edge of Dartmoor where flocks of sheep could graze. The local rivers – Dart, Mardle and the Dean Burn - provided the water for processing and dyeing the fleeces. By the end of the 16th century, about five mills were in operation. In 1850, the records show there were two serge mills and a few hundred wool combers. The peak of prosperity was reached towards the end of the 19th century when in addition to the textile mills there were also corn and paper mills and a tannery. This period saw a significant amount of public building in the town. Some of the original businesses still exist today and some mill buildings have been converted for other uses.
There are 196 steps down from the Church ruins to Station Road. Among these are the Wishing Steps. The stones of these two steps are laid in the opposite direction to all the others and it is said a secret wish made standing here will come true!
Beneath the church is an extensive system of caves where fossilised remains of sabre toothed tigers and woolly mammoths have been found. These date from about 100,000 years ago. There is no public access to the caves which are home to a population of Horseshoe Bats and have been declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest. An exhibition of fossils from the cave and photographs are on show, by appointment only, at the William Pengelly Cave Studies Centre.
Historically the town comprised of four elements. The agglomeration of Abbey buildings was set on the west bank of the River Dart; the isolated 13th century parish church was high on the hill; Higher Town and Lower Town were separate entities. The buildings along Fore Street in Lower Town are predominantly late 18th to early 19th century whereas Higher Town has far more 19th century structures. The two areas were separate settlements until around the middle of the 19th century, each with its own main street, respectively Fore Street and Market Street. There used to be considerable rivalry between the two areas.
One of the oldest buildings in Buckfastleigh is thought to be the Valiant Soldier on Fore Street. Although it was first mentioned in the 1841 census, it is believed that the building may date back to the Middle Ages. It was a public house for more than a century until 1965. Buckfastleigh Trust bought it and turned it into a visitor centre. They retained the complete bar, as part of a permanent exhibition.
Because of its proximity to Dartmoor, Buckfastleigh is an ideal base for walking and cycling. The well known Abbot’s Way starts at Buckfast and the Two Moors Way and South Devon Millennium Trail both pass close to the Town. Buckfastleigh is also fairly close to the magnificent South Devon coastal path. There are several local footpaths through woodlands and moorland, including walks to Hembury Woods and Hill Fort, both managed by the National Trust.
There are two parks in the town, plus a swimming pool, a skate park, tennis courts and, a bowling green. Every Thursday is a Farmers’ Market, and there are annual events such as Lamb Pie Day and May Fun Day. Naturally, there are also many interesting shops and galleries catering for locals and tourists.
Buckfastleigh cannot be left without a visit to the famous Abbey, still inhabited by Benedictine monks. Originally founded in Saxon times, the Abbey prospered until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, when it was closed and allowed to fall into ruins. 350 years later, monks returned to Buckfast, and set about rebuilding the Abbey on the original foundations. The Church was completed in 1938, after thirty years of hard labour by four monks. Today the Abbey is thriving and famous for its tonic wine, produced by the monks. Stained glass windows are also made here and the monks run a farm where they keep bees.
The steam trains of the South Devon Railway run from Buckfastleigh to Totnes along seven miles of the bank of the River Dart. Herons, swans, badgers, foxes and wild otters are frequently seen around the river and the railway route. A Vintage Bus runs from the Station and to both the Abbey and Buckfastleigh Town Centre.