A surprise encounter at the Abbey of Saint-Ferme, where I am doing a concert next year, introduced me to a corner of history I was not expecting to find there. Our concerts- including course concerts – are often in churches and abbeys which might date back to the 12th century or even earlier. I always try to pay them a visit in advance to get a sense of the space. So when I visited Saint-Ferme I was thrilled to discover just how special it was. This ancient Benedictine abbey is the largest in Aquitaine and played an important part in the Hundred Years’ War. The abbey was founded in the 6th century and its monolithic church was built in the 11th century.
The church is on the pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela and contains relics of Mary Magdalen. Whatever you may think of that, there is undeniably a great sense of mystery and awe inside the church. I felt the stones were alive with atmosphere as the sun streamed in through the Romanesque windows. You could feel the weight of history all around. The acoustic is also amazing, thanks to the extraordinary vaulted stone roof. It’s easy to see why it’s often used as a concert venue for classical music.
A surprise encounter
After exploring the church, I intended to take a look at the cloisters, but a surprise encounter led to an unexpected twist in the day. Emerging into the sunshine I was bemused to find myself in the midst of a group of white-robed men on the abbey steps. Who were they? Why were they carrying swords? It didn’t look like I’d stumbled on a medieval cos-play session – it was all far too serious. I couldn’t resist asking, and they were generous enough to answer my questions. Evidently, John and I had found ourselves in the midst of a meeting of the ancient Order of the Knights Templar. Their gathering was taking place that afternoon in the vaults of the Abbey of Saint-Ferme itself.
Instead of rebuffing my curiosity, as well he might have done, the Commander of the Knights welcomed us in with wonderful hospitality. We were introduced to the various Commanders and other knights, who embraced us into their “fraternité”. They even presented us with small gifts. It wasn’t long before we were sharing a glass of wine (a Bordeaux from the Chateau of Saint-Ferme) and being regaled by stories of their history. We were even given a private tour of the secret corners of the Abbey. Without doubt, a fascinating and memorable afternoon.