BURFORD Priory in Oxfordshire, the home of an Anglican Benedictine community of monks and nuns, was sold this week. Scargill House, the retreat centre in Yorkshire, is also on the market.
Grade-I listed Burford Priory was placed on the market in June. It dates from the 13th century, and was valued at £6.5 million. Rupert Sweeting, of estate agents Knight Frank, which oversaw the sale, confirmed that contracts were exchanged this week, but could not reveal the identity of the buyer.
The Benedictine community grew from an order of nuns who bought the property in 1948, but currently houses just four monks and three nuns, who welcome visitors on retreat. The community wishes to downsize to smaller premises.
The sale of Scargill House, set in a 100-acre estate in the Yorkshire Dales, was announced last month. Opened in 1959, it was Anglican in its origins, but has become an ecumenical retreat and conference centre.
The trustees plan to use the proceeds of the sale, which are expected to be in excess of £2 million, to set up a foundation run by a “virtual” group of members to provide grants to projects that share the community’s original vision, celebrating diversity and the care of the environment.
The chairman of the trustees of Scargill House, David Baker, said the decision to sell the centre was taken with great sadness. He explained that the closure had been considered for some time, ever since a report they commissioned in 2000 questioned the centre’s long-term future.
“Unfortunately, we’ve not been able to make a sustainable business case to continue: we’ve been running at a deficit for a number of years now. We’ve been hit hard by the credit crunch, and fewer people are coming.
“But there is the positive step from the sale of the site and continuing with the foundation. We want to embed the concept of the community in the foundation, through engaging with projects in both urban and rural areas.”
The centre is expected to close by the end of July, and about 20 staff are expected to lose their jobs.
The Bishop of Bolton, the Rt Revd Chris Edmondson, a Scargill partner for the past 25 years and a former warden of Lee Abbey, the retreat centre in Devon, said that the sale of the community would be a “severe loss”.
He challenged the Scargill trustees’ view that the community’s values could be best expressed in 21st-century Britain through engaging with projects rather than providing a place for retreat.
“My experience over five-and-a-half years at Lee Abbey, where we saw guest numbers of all ages steadily increase, was that in our stress-filled, hurry-sick world, it has never been more important that people have places where they can step back and be refreshed in body, mind, and spirit, ready then to engage with the challenges of post-modern living.”
Liz Palin, who chairs the retreat house wardens’ association, Archway, and is residential director of Glenfall House, the retreat centre of the diocese of Gloucester, said larger houses are struggling to survive.
“It’s sad, but they won’t be the last to close. Everybody is feeling the pinch, and places the size of Burford and Scargill will struggle as costs go up, as their incomes are not huge.
“Many houses have been affected by complying with new regulations such as health and safety, and becoming all-access, and the increase in fuel costs on heating bills is a factor.
“However, there is hope for smaller retreat houses, with lots springing up all over the place in recent years.”