How one man came to love the mountain that also captivated the Prince of Wales

Dr Graham Speake at the summit of Mount AthosDr Graham Speake at the summit of Mount Athos
Dr Graham Speake at the summit of Mount Athos

But Dr Graham Speake of Ironstone Farmhouse in Milton says it’s thanks to the Holy Mountain of Athos that he has reaped such rich rewards.

The retired classicist – who holds a doctorate in Greek from Oxford – is founder and chairman of the Friends of Mount Athos who are celebrating their silver jubilee.

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Their patron, the Prince of Wales, used to go on annual retreats to its monasteries. And although his visits are less frequent nowadays he’s still very active as supporter and patron.

It was academic research coupled with an innate sense of curiosity that took Dr Speake, 69, to the self-governing Greek peninsula for the first time in 1988.

He was keen to see some rare Byzantine manuscripts that were housed in its libraries for a paper he was writing.

Athos is the centre of spirituality for all the Eastern Orthodox churches. For the past 1,100 years or so it has been devoted exclusively to male monasticism. There is no other population apart from the monks and the people who work for them.

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“It seemed incredibly alluring, amazing and strange,” Dr Speake said.

And he will never forget his first glimpse of its rocky coastline.

“I was bewildered, fascinated and captivated by its beauty,” he recalled. “I was also repulsed by some of the accommodation and food. Many of the monasteries were in total disrepair. It was a lovely place but it looked as if it was falling down.

“That was 30 years ago and there’s been a huge change with the monastic revival that took place in the 1990s.

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“But even during that period of decline they always managed to survive. There were a number of particularly charismatic monks, interesting men to talk to, and many people wanted to go and listen to them – that’s how the revival started.

“The only places to stay are monasteries because anyone who goes there is by definition a pilgrim.

“The permit is usually for three nights and you need to book it and reserve accommodation several months in advance as entry is on a quota system. It’s free – you can make a donation but it’s not expected.”

Access is by boat – a good way of controlling numbers – and each of the 20 monasteries has its own jetty. The nearest town is aptly named Ouranoupoli, the City of Heaven.

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Since his first visit, Dr Speake has been a regular visitor. He’s embraced Orthodoxy and written Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise, an illustrated history, which won the Criticos Prize in 2002.

The former academic publisher and his wife Jennifer also acquired an honorary family when a young American visiting Athos asked if he could be his godson.

“Yes, I’ve had many blessings from the Mountain,” he smiled. “Over the years I’ve got to know the place better and made real friends of one or two of the monks.”

“It’s a great privilege to go there and I regard it as my spiritual home. I always return revived and refreshed.”

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> The Friends of Mount Athos, who number more than 900 worldwide, meet about four times a year and raise money when required to repair and refurbish monasteries.

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