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Nuns could leave St Mary's Abbey, West Malling, forever if Bellway's 65-home proposal is approved

Nuns could leave West Malling forever if plans for 65 homes are approved.

An overflowing planning inquiry with more than 100 visitors heard opposition from villagers, councillors, environmental campaigners and even the superior nun at St Mary’s Abbey.

Mother Abbess Mary David told how the convent was fearful of the proposal to build 65 homes in land neighbouring the abbey off Lavenders Road and Swan Street.

When asked if the group of 12 nuns could leave the 10th century abbey, Mother Mary said: “Yes. We do occasionally wonder whether we ought to leave.

“The abbey is a heavy burden and Heritage England thinks we’re doing a marvellous job which is great.

“But if the noise and the general busyness prevents us from living our life and prevents the guests from having quietness and spaciousness we would think about it.

Mother Mary David, at the start of a public inquiry to build homes next to Malling Abbey. Picture: John Westhrop. (15516474)
Mother Mary David, at the start of a public inquiry to build homes next to Malling Abbey. Picture: John Westhrop. (15516474)

“It’s got to be a vote obviously, but our vocation comes first.”

The 16-acre abbey grounds contain two graveyards and its church, used for up to eight services a day, faces east toward the land proposed for housing.

A third of rooms occupied by nuns at the abbey face the same direction.

Diana Bullard, a West Malling resident, seated in an overspill room, expresses her opposition at the start of a public inquiry to build homes next to Malling Abbey. Picture: John Westhrop.. (15516488)
Diana Bullard, a West Malling resident, seated in an overspill room, expresses her opposition at the start of a public inquiry to build homes next to Malling Abbey. Picture: John Westhrop.. (15516488)

Mother Mary, who joined the abbey 50 years ago, said: “Looking toward the east seeing the rising sun knowing this day lies openly for us, we pray giving thanks and rejoicing in God’s creation. Between services the church is used by sisters for personal prayer and reading. The guests especially find the silence and stillness uphold them.

“The thing that frightens us most, first of all is noise, then there’s light and then there’s activity.

“The idea of a public recreation ground directly opposite the most holy places in the abbey would be an absolute disaster, we fear that more than anything.”

Nuns and guests in St Mary's Abbey in West Malling (7267936)
Nuns and guests in St Mary's Abbey in West Malling (7267936)

Among the 11 listed buildings within the abbey grounds, there is also the Pilsdon community, which has offered a home to people who have fallen on hard times and may be struggling with debt, mental health issues or may have just come out of prison.

Representatives from the charity voiced concerns they could lose their space if the nuns were to leave, as the charity is set up inside the abbey on a 25 year lease.

Around 1,000 people visit St Mary’s Abbey, also known as Malling Abbey each year. Numerous speakers include Mother Mary, international musician Thomas Kemp, one of the driving forces of Music@Malling and former St Mary’s Abbey vicar Bryan Stevens all spoke of it as a holy, uniquely silent and tranquil place.

Bellway hopes to build 65 homes next to St Mary's Abbey, West Malling
Bellway hopes to build 65 homes next to St Mary's Abbey, West Malling

Aside from the vocal support to preserve the abbey, there were concerns raised over the impact on roads in West Malling should the proposal be developed, particularly heading into the town from West Malling train station.

The inquiry heard Lavenders Road and Swan Street were both designated as quiet roads, and there were laughs from the gallery when the solicitor for TMBC, which is opposed to the development, said a highways survey found new homes would have no negative impact on local traffic.

Planning inspector Frances Mahoney told the inquiry: “This is not a comedy show,” after repeated incredulous laughter from attendees.

The crowded inquiry saw some members of the public sent to another room. Picture: John Westhrop.. (15516486)
The crowded inquiry saw some members of the public sent to another room. Picture: John Westhrop.. (15516486)

More than a dozen locals stood up to raise concerns, ranging from the resulting traffic 65 homes would bring, to the environmental impact and the loss of West Malling’s rural feel as an historic market town.

June Field, a resident for 33 years, said: “I commuted every day for 31 years. I found solace from the stress of working life in that walk home from the station.”

Nick Stapleton who co-ordinates the West Malling speed watch scheme warned: "It’s clear Swan Street is treated as a race track and any development will only add to this issue as well as the new junction being added on the road."

Cllr Nick Stapleton says Swan Street is West Malling's worst road for speeding. Picture: Andy Jones (9604443)
Cllr Nick Stapleton says Swan Street is West Malling's worst road for speeding. Picture: Andy Jones (9604443)

The area of proposed land has been listed as potential green belt in TMBC’s draft local plan, which has not yet been approved.

Former Gravesham MP Jacques Arnold, a resident of London Road, West Malling for 30 years, said: “ I hope the planning inspector will take into account the timing of the planning appeal, which comes before TMBC can protect the field as part of the green belt.

Bellway maintains the positives of the development, including delivering much needed housing, 40% of which will be affordable, outweigh the potential negatives.

The Planning Inquiry will resume on Thursday, followed by a site visit by the planning inspector on Friday, August 30.

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