The best of Dorset in words and pictures

‘Rejoice and Do Well’

This translation of the motto of St Antony’s Leweston, near Sherborne, is especially appropriate for a school in a beautiful setting, with a strong ethos and a high reputation. Lucie Dillistone has visited it.

The Palladian Manor,St Anthony's Lewston
The Palladian manor house from the parkland

St Antony’s Leweston is tucked away near Longburton, just south of Sherborne. One passes orchards and pasture before descending over a picturesque stone bridge, soon catching a glimpse of the trademark cedars and the Manor beyond.

The Sisters of Religious Instruction founded St Antony’s in 1891. These founders were essentially a group of Sacred Heart nuns from Belgium who adopted the Jesuit principles of St Ignatius. The main tenets of their belief included a Christian optimism and humanism which are still part of the school ethos today. The order’s Sherborne establishment was their first venture in the United Kingdom and at first they occupied premises at Westbury, in Sherborne itself. They offered two schools; St Antony’s was for girl boarders, while St Joseph’s gave free education to non-Catholic local children, a manifestation of the openness which was also key to the Sisters’ way of working.

Two chapels: the Trinity Chapel in the foreground contrasts with the angular architecture of the modern chapel, St Anthony's Lewston
Two chapels: the Trinity Chapel in the foreground contrasts with the angular architecture of the modern chapel, built in the late 1960s

In 1948, the Sisters bought Leweston Manor and moved the senior school there, so next year marks the diamond anniversary of the school at the site. The preparatory section stayed in Sherborne until later, but the schools have since been reunited, with the preparatory section occupying the converted coach houses in the grounds near the senior school. This allows a sense of continuity from age three to eighteen. In the preparatory section Mary Allen nurtures the girls (and boys to the age of 7) with an openness and positivity which seems entirely in accordance with the founders’ ideals. She is also keen that girls contribute to the democratic running of the school and ensures that school life brings them both responsibilities and the ability to bring about change.

The Leweston Manor estate dates back to the Middle Ages, when the now defunct Leweston family owned it. Around 1774, a Palladian manor house was built for William Gordon. This two-storeyed house, with its fine ashlar masonry, is characterised by large, round-headed windows on all sides. During the 1920s, the house was purchased by the Rose family. The Roses were renowned for the manufacture of lime cordial, after Lauchline Rose patented a process to preserve the citrus juice without the addition of alcohol.

Inside the Manor, those expecting a classic Georgian interior are surprised by the Art Deco styling favoured by the Roses, complete with frescoes and angular door frames and even a Lalique glass handrail on the main staircase. Old Antonians who were the first to move there in 1948 have recalled glamorous bathrooms with features including a mirrored ceiling, a sunken bath and, it was rumoured, a shower of solid silver. Clearly the previous owners had been accustomed to a degree of decadence inappropriate for a convent and more sober fittings soon appeared!

Of course the modern school is not housed solely in the Manor; juniors board there, while older girls are accommodated in separate wings. There are further additions for teaching as well as purpose-built blocks, for example the Norfolk Centre for art and design, science laboratories and the Health Centre. These modern buildings lend the grounds around the Manor a campus-like feel and remind us that this is not just an idyllic location but a centre for teaching and learning.

In the 1990s, the Sisters of Christian Instruction sold the freehold and the school ceased to be a convent. Some of the Sisters still lived at Leweston until recently, however, and even now, two Sherborne nuns play a supportive role in the life of the school, visiting for musical performances or other key events in the school calendar. The ethos at St Antony’s may be similar to that quoted by many schools, but here, the Catholic foundations of the school underpin that ethos and make it ring true. Yet well under half of the girls here today are Catholic and staff may vary in faith or denomination, but all support the Catholicism of the school because it is so entwined with the values which they uphold.

Inside the Trinity Chapel St Anthony's Lewston
Inside the Trinity Chapel

One would expect a Catholic school to have a chapel; Leweston has two. Built in 1616 by Sir John Fitzjames, the beautiful Trinity Chapel was one of the first post-Reformation churches in the country. It is still used for the celebration of Mass and for events such as retreats. Its simple form is charming and contrasts strongly with the bold, modern design of the new School Chapel, built between 1968 and 1970, which is able to accommodate the whole school for daily use. The new chapel, with its tower of triangular plan, may not be to everyone’s taste, but the nuns’ choice of design is now a listed building and ultimately finds harmony with its surroundings. The striking outline conceals a bright, peaceful place which benefits from excellent acoustics.

The peacefulness continues outside. St Antony’s is set in grounds of forty-six acres including parkland peppered with magnificent ancient cedars along with more formal features such as an Italian garden. There is also a nuns’ garden, which even today is out of bounds to pupils. The cedars were immortalised on film in the 1969 version of Goodbye Mr Chips, some of which was shot on location at nearby Sherborne School. While the cedars are the obvious glory of these grounds, the hidden gem is the Belvedere, from which the view is a breathtaking expanse of gentle North Dorset farmland.

The view from the Belvedere St Anthony's Lewston
The view from the Belvedere

After Sir Eric Rose purchased Leweston Manor, he sought to improve the water supply on the estate by having a water tower built. He gave the job of designing the tower to Maxwell Ayrton, one-half of the architectural team responsible for both the original Wembley Stadium and the British Empire Exhibition of 1924. It is a little-known fact that it was 2002 winner in the Mature Structures category of the Concrete Society! The timber-topped ferro-concrete structure today contributes to the quirkiness and variety of these grounds, in which there is something to see from so many different phases in the life of the estate.

For Adrian Aylward, who has been in post as Headmaster for a year, the environment at Leweston is important in fostering creativity at the school. It is easy to see why. These quiet, safe, inspiring spaces would enrich any education and the school makes good use of them, for example for outdoor theatrical productions.

To see the school as an isolated enclave would be quite wrong, though. A collaborative mood prevails, with productive ties to other schools and not merely those within the local sphere, as demonstrated by a recent joint trip to Venice with Winchester College. Furthermore, although it is a strong community in itself, St Antony’s has established firm links, both religious and social, with the wider community. For example, the regular congregation at the School Chapel is over one hundred, with Mass celebrated every Sunday whether or not the school is in session. The school is also an important venue as an apostolic centre.

An outdoor production during last term's Arts Festival St Anthony's Lewston
An outdoor production during last term’s Arts Festival is an example of how the grounds are used to the full

Mr Aylward has instigated the Leweston Lectures, a series of academic lectures with a spiritual slant, held two to three times a term, open to the public and already popular. The programme includes speakers such as Clare Asquith, a Dorset author whose controversial book, Shadowplay, explored the idea that Shakespeare embedded secret codes within his texts, revealing both his Catholicism and his subversive nature as a political activist. The Leweston Lectures promise to offer regular food for thought.

Mr Aylward came to Leweston from Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit school in Lancashire. One of his aims is to find a balance between retaining identity and making progress. Another is to guard against complacency, ensuring, for example, that sixth-form life is as rich as possible both culturally and intellectually. A key plan is to extend the already flexible boarding arrangements. ICT will also be consolidated and there will be a new Chaplaincy team, with greater parental involvement. New staff posts are being created to support these aims where needed. The very fabric of daily school life will also be transformed over the next few years, as general classroom provision will be totally replaced at a cost of some £2½ million. With a new library and dining room both already a great success, much has altered since the first incumbents were bussed in from Westbury, but it seems clear that the place is not so different in spirit.

The prep school occupies the old coach houses St Anthony's Lewston
The prep school occupies the old coach houses

Dorset Directory