Good place for a getaway

by
28 June 2011

The Hayes, the conference centre at Swanwick, is 100 years old this year. Pat Ashworth digs into its rich history

THERE are no longer vines in the vinery, just as there are no longer stables, or pigsties, or dairy buildings at the Hayes, a Victorian country house in Swanwick, Derbyshire, which looked every inch a Cluedo board. It was built by the Wright family, and sold in 1911 to the Student Christian Movement (SCM).

But the vinery’s original ironwork is still in place, and if, as one visitor observed, “You fully expect to pick up the 11.53 to Rugby in here,” it is because the Butterley Company, owned by the Wright family, also built St Pancras Station.

History is part of the fabric here. Sometimes, it collides with the present — the Derbyshire clay that provided fertile ground for prisoners of war tunnelling out of the Hayes in 1940 has also facilitated the creation of a 21st-century lake.

Tributes have been flowing in for the centenary year of this, the first Christian conference centre of its kind in Britain. Its popularity grew steadily, peaking in the ’60s and ’70s. By 1980, annual visitor numbers reached 80,000.

Everyone has their early memories: the laden conker tree; the communal kettles for early morning tea; and the goose-pimpling outdoor swimming-pool. Mine include the sight of Cardinal Basil Hume hitching up his cassock to play football on the lawn.

The timber Garden House, head­quarters of the audaciously named “Swanwick Tiefbau A.G.” (Swanwick Construction Company) was finally pulled down last year, though not before yielding up some more of its secrets. The Hayes was requisitioned as a prisoner-of-war camp in the Second World War.

Its best-known inmate, Franz von Werra, dug his way out from the Garden House with four others, and bluffed his way into RAF Hucknall, only to be arrested in the cockpit of the light aircraft he was trying to hijack. He later made a successful escape from a POW camp in Canada, and was celebrated in the 1957 film The One That Got Away.

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At Swanwick, you can lift the heavy metal cover and still see the tunnel entrance, neatly surrounded by bark chippings, on a sloping bank on the former Garden House site. It looks impossibly small, at two-foot square and without the tin ducting and reciprocating air-pump that enabled the escapees to survive.

IT IS unlikely to have been the regime that drove them to escape. The pilot Heinz Mollenbrok, who was shot down in the Battle of Britain and spent 18 months in the camp, recorded in the 1990s that it had been “the best place. . . Everyone had a single room, we learned English, planted flowers, and played sport.” He came back in 1991, and on many subsequent occasions, with nothing but praise for his captors.

IT IS unlikely to have been the regime that drove them to escape. The pilot Heinz Mollenbrok, who was shot down in the Battle of Britain and spent 18 months in the camp, recorded in the 1990s that it had been “the best place. . . Everyone had a single room, we learned English, planted flowers, and played sport.” He came back in 1991, and on many subsequent occasions, with nothing but praise for his captors.

“He wrote regular letters, and loved coming back,” said the Hayes manager, Peter Anderson, who has been here for 23 years. “He used to sit on the lawn with me, and tell me what a fantastic time he’d had here. It would reduce me to tears.”

He does not think it is fanciful to believe that the inherent spirituality of the place might have had some­thing to do with the ethos it had as Camp 13, although eyebrows are al­ways raised at a surviving photograph of the chapel as an officers’ mess, com­plete with swastika.

John Wing, who has been in charge of sport and recreation at the Hayes since 1994, has never managed to get his uncle, a German POW who mar­ried a local girl, and remained here after the war, to talk about his experience. “He comes here to see me, and I say: ‘Do you want to have a walk round?’ He always says no.

“He rarely goes back to Germany, but the bizarre thing is that he still sounds as German as German could be, watches German television, and buys everything from Aldi.”

TREASURES from the wartime era are now on exhibition in the extended bar area, which was once, I remember, a claustrophobic bookshop where you negotiated a perilously slopping path at coffee time. Now, it is all opened up and modernised, with a glass screen that affords a view of the gardens from as far back as the re­ception area.

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TREASURES from the wartime era are now on exhibition in the extended bar area, which was once, I remember, a claustrophobic bookshop where you negotiated a perilously slopping path at coffee time. Now, it is all opened up and modernised, with a glass screen that affords a view of the gardens from as far back as the re­ception area.

The Butterley fireplace remains, from the original house, a perfect back­ground for the display of tunnel­ling tools, ink pots, photographs, and trinkets, many of them discovered in the walls of the Garden House. “It still makes me tingle just thinking about it,” Mr Anderson said.

He is even more awed by the people who have passed through the doors of the Hayes in the past 100 years. Sir John Betjeman, T. S. Eliot, and C. S. Lewis all came to SCM conferences here before the Second World War; and the German theo­logian Jürgen Moltmann was invited to the first post-war conference in 1947. The author Sir Terry Pratchett is among recent visitors.

In 1987, the Swanwick Declaration gave birth to the ecumenical in­strument Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

Many of those who have sent in their memories speak of sitting at the feet of great teachers or others, who were to have a profound influence on their lives. The Bishop of Birkenhead, the Rt Revd Keith Sinclair, said: “My earliest memories include the delight­ful welcome, the invitation to order a newspaper and our host’s capacity to intuitively understand how many of each copy would be required, and the superb preaching and teaching of such as Eric Alexander, Alec Motyer, Jon­athan Lamb, and countless others.”

Brian Frost recalled that, in the 1960s, “the Revd Edwin Robert­son, a distinguished Baptist scholar and expert on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was so brilliant that he was applauded vigorously. It is the only time in my life I have heard applause after a Bible study.”

Brian Pavitt remembered, from visits in the ’70s: “When all was quiet, a Welshman would stand on a chair, pitch a note, and 200 or so men would sing ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’ to Crimond. It raises the emotions just thinking about it. All the cooks would emerge from their duties and stand in awe.”

OTHERS found lasting romance: the Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Price, met his wife, Dee, at an Inter-Varsity Fellowship Conference in 1965, “in the old entrance hall, when she was representing the colleges of Ireland, and I of the West of England. We have been married since 1967.”

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OTHERS found lasting romance: the Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Price, met his wife, Dee, at an Inter-Varsity Fellowship Conference in 1965, “in the old entrance hall, when she was representing the colleges of Ireland, and I of the West of England. We have been married since 1967.”

Eric Wollason was even more ardent in the ’50s. “In 1952, I cycled [to Swanwick] and back from my home in Surbiton, in Surrey. In 1955, a dazzlingly pretty blonde entered the room. . . We have just celebrated our 52nd anniversary.”

The personal history within the walls fascinates Mr Anderson as much as the factual history. “There’s been a lot of life here; a lot of lives changed.”

The Hayes has a staff of 100, which makes it one of the main employers in the area, using people drawn from within a three- or four-mile radius of Swanwick. It is a former mining community, where the family nucleus has remained largely intact, and “aunts and nieces, mums and daughters” are a continuing part of the employment pattern.

When Mr Anderson came, in 1988, the facilities comprised the main house, the Garden House, and the dining room. Now, customer-expect­a­tion levels have risen: it is a long while since, as the Bishop of Stafford, the Rt Revd Geoff Annas, recalled, “you had to chip the ice off the inside of the window.”

Keeping up to date for the 40,000 and more visitors who come to Swanwick each year has necessitated ex­tensive development and new build­ing, notably en-suite accom­moda­tion, a multi-purpose sports hall, and new conference halls — the latest opened just weeks ago. Plans for another 60 single en-suite rooms and a replacement main conference hall are a “significant and necessary in­vest­­ment”, Bishop Annas believes.

The spoil from the building work went to create a second lake, a favourite haunt of most of the 350 groups who come each year, but particularly of the ornithologists and other non-Christian groups who make up 20 per cent of the visitors. “They often comment on the nature of the place, though they wouldn’t spiritualise it. Physically, it’s a little haven off the M1,” Mr Anderson said.

“Fifty or 60 per cent of the groups who come here are repeat business. They all feel it’s theirs. Some come every year, and forget to tell us what they’re doing because they know they’re going to do it. That says it all, really.”

www.cct.org.uk/the-hayes

www.cct.org.uk/the-hayes

 

 

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