Milton Abbey Church was rebuilt after being burnt down in 1309. Picture: William Yeoman

It's a cold, wet Saturday morning as my wife Deborah and I drive from Salisbury down the A354 towards Milton Abbey. This is Thomas Hardy country, the green Dorset landscape unfolding before us as sheep, cows and horses seek refuge in copses and thatched-roof cottages with whitewashed walls huddle around pubs and churches.

As we draw closer to our destination I can barely contain my excitement. Think Catherine Moreland, the teenage heroine of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, trapped in the body of a balding middle-aged man possessed by fanciful romantic notions of a medieval monastery shrouded in mist.

Milton Abbey, just south-west of the market town of Blandford Forum and not all that far from Hardy's birthplace of Dorchester, has been an independent boarding school since the 1950s. It has a rich history. In about 933 the Saxon King Athelstan of Wessex - Hardy borrowed the ancient kingdom's name for the fictional world of his novels - established the original church in memory of his brother Edwin, who had perished at sea.

Benedictine monks had been living in the abbey for some centuries before the church burnt down after being struck by lighting in 1309. The construction of a new church began almost immediately, yet by the time Henry VIII dissolved the monastery in 1539 it was still incomplete.

Subsequent owners left their mark on the abbey and its estate, most notably Joseph Damer, later Baron Milton. It was Damer who, in the second half of the 18th century, not only replaced the old abbey buildings with a Neo-Gothic house but also removed the original town of Middleton and created the model village of Milton Abbas in its stead, just down the road.

We pass through Milton Abbas on our way to the abbey. More cottages with thatched roofs and whitewashed walls, this time boasting tidy lawns and fences and arranged in a row like toy soldiers turned out for muster. On the other side of the road church, pub, post office and shop.

We arrive at the abbey ahead of the others. Deborah steps out of the car right into a puddle. I narrowly avoid doing the same. Before us, Damer's house and the Abbey Church rise out of the waterlogged earth and mist like antique ships. My romantic notions weren't so fanciful after all.

Why are we here? Cultural tourism tends to be somewhat passive, comprising endless visits to museums, galleries and historic buildings. Another way is to engage actively with a centuries-old tradition, in this case English sacred choral music. So Deborah and I decided to take part in one of UK-based Choral Holidays' choral weekends, run by operatic tenor and musical director Jeff Stewart.

Aimed at singers of all levels, the weekends and holidays - there have been visits to Italy, as well as to famous English cathedral towns such as Gloucester and Hereford - are a combination of sightseeing, socialising, great food and wine, musical instruction and performing a church service, often in place of the regular choir. Although the context is liturgical, the motivation is non-religious.

"It's really about trying to get people to understand that music is a form of self-expression," Jeff tells me during a break in rehearsals. "And that we can completely free ourselves from day-to-day life. If we could get that idea into amateur singing, then it could actually change the way people think about so many things.

"That makes it sound like I'm on a mission. Which I suppose I am. I just think for most people, life can be much better than it is. And if you can teach people to express themselves through music, then a big improvement will be made."

Over the next two days, we meet people such as Bronywn from Canada and Stuart, an organist who works as a designer for Coca-Cola in the Middle East.

The schoolchildren being on holidays, we sleep in their slender dormitory beds while enjoying the same excellent food they eat in the Abbot's Hall. We rehearse in the splendidly decorated King's Room. Despite the weather, we explore the abbey's landscaped grounds. Finally, on Sunday night, we sing Evensong: Charles Villiers Stanford's beautiful Service in B-flat, Antonio Lotti's challenging, ethereal Crucifixus and more.

Rather than drive back, Deborah and I stay overnight at Woodland Views, a cosy B&B in Catherine's Well, Milton Abbas, run by Aliya and John Payne. My final memory before falling asleep is of trudging through the mud the night before to chant evening prayers in the freezing church - just as the monks of Milton Abbey had done centuries before.

FACT FILE

For more about Choral Holidays, visit choralholidays.com.

The Milton Abbey School website includes much historical information about the abbey and its former occupants, miltonabbey.co.uk.

Milton Abbas has a modest website containing photographs of the village and childhood reminiscences from some of its older residents, miltonabbas.org.uk.

More on Woodland Views at woodland-views.co.uk.

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