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Under pressure? Take time out

17 May 2013

Two diocesan retreat houses have announced their closure this year. Are there opportunities in the autumn to support those that remain?

Restful: the approach to Wydale Hall

Restful: the approach to Wydale Hall

IT IS not too fanciful to reflect that the spirit of a former owner of Wydale Hall has some lingering influence on the peace and contentment to be found there: the pioneering aeronautical engineer Sir George Cayley ensured, out of religious conviction, that all his tenants had at least an acre of land to sustain their family well.

Tucked away in the Yorkshire countryside, between Pickering and Scarborough, the house was left to the diocese of York in 1954, provided that it was run to further the Christian ethos. It is a beautiful building, immaculately restored to a Georgian splendour most visible in the galleried landing, the comfortable library, the simple chapel, and the elegant (while unobtrusively high-tech) meeting-rooms.

Staying here is like staying in a country house - an experience due in no small part to the background of Wydale's general manager, Barry Osborne. He has had a lifetime in the hotel and hotel-inspection business; and from the latter experience he has been known to lie on carpets, and gather fluff on his clothes, in order to demonstrate to staff the importance of cleaning under beds, as well as around them.

These are challenging times for the retreat business. Hoteliers, B&B- owners, and conference organisers are all feeling the pinch, especially after a long and hard winter; but Wydale's bread and butter is the parish weekend, and it is here that numbers are noticeably smaller.

"We haven't lost any actual bookings, but numbers are right down," Mr Osborne says. "Everyone is being extra-cautious with money, and, if it comes to a choice between going on a congregation holiday or one with the family, they'll go for the family one."

The average group used to number between 35 and 40. Now, it is more likely to be between 15 and 20, and it is rare that the 29 beautifully appointed en-suite rooms are all full. Weekend bookings are healthy, but it remains a frustration that, while churches will book 18 months ahead, and advertise the weekend at that point, numbers often do not get confirmed until a couple of weeks in advance. By that time, it is too late to look elsewhere for bookings to make up any shortfall.

"We could charge them a very large loss-of-deposit, but that doesn't really help them, or build bridges for the future," Mr Osborne says. "The same groups come back year after year; so it's not passing business you're going to deal with them again. It's better to say, 'Let's find a better way of organising this next time.'"

Wydale has 29 en-suite rooms, 14 acres of grounds, a chapel, and meeting rooms, and offers value for money on a parish weekend, where £140 per head covers everything, including all meals, from tea and home-made cake on arrival on Friday afternoon to a full Sunday lunch.

"We test the market frequently to see what response we would get if we put [the price] up, but we are about as far as we could go now. Another £5 and we'd lose them," Mr Osborne says. "It means you have constantly to review what you're spending, and what you're spending it on, but without cutting quality."

Wydale was set up to be subsidised by the diocese, and was getting close to financing itself before the economic downturn.

The same is true of the adjacent Emmaus Centre, imaginatively created out of the old stables to be a self-catering operation, primarily for young people. It is just £30 per head for a weekend here, sleeping in cheerful, comfortable dormitories, and with good accommodation for disabled youngsters, but even that price is a barrier for some. And rules about health-and-safety, and child protection and safeguarding, have made potential leaders wary of taking groups away.

Sneaton Castle, in Whitby, and Rydale Hall, in Windermere, are not too far away; so Wydale has stretched its net wider to attract groups within a 150-mile radius. This is beginning to bear fruit, and clergy and diocesan training-days are still doing well.

Mr Osborne is not altogether downcast. The sun is shining; and the strains of "Spirit of the living God" are floating from the chapel, where the 27 members of a parish near Hull are having a fruitful weekend reflecting on salt and light. A tantalising aroma of lamb is coming out of the kitchens; heather is blooming in the terraced garden; and sheep are grazing on the grassland.

There is a lively programme of weekday events and quiet days coming up, too, and an autumn break on offer in what is rightly marketed as: "The perfect location to explore the Yorkshire coastline and its surrounding countryside."

Autumn retreats:

quiet day, 11 September, £25; full-board autumn break, 2-6 September, £260; clergy retreat, 7-10 October, £202.50; spiritual resource day, 17 October, £25; Advent retreat, 19-21 November, £150.


01723 859270/859777


Pat Ashworth


THE welcome at Shepherds Dene could not be lovelier: I am ushered into an elegant wood-panelled lounge by the warden, George Hepburn, and immediately offered a delicious slice of home-made carrot cake, and a much-needed cup of tea. Other new arrivals receive the same warm Shepherds Dene treatment.

A tasty three-course dinner that evening; a Continental breakfast; and homemade oat, white-chocolate, and shortcake cookies at elevenses the next day promise more of the hospitality that is wooing guests back to Shepherds Dene, after a decline in early 2000. Spotless rooms and a bank of staff who smile and chat to guests all add to the sense of being well looked after.

"The house made money in the 1990s," Mr Hepburn says. "Saga Holidays used to use the house, and social services. But it got run down through the 2000s. It lost Saga Holidays, I suspect, because it didn't have en-suites, and social services tailed off because of cuts.

"Behind all that, the parish weekend, I think, had long been in decline. In the 1990s, and even earlier, the house was struggling to attract particularly the poorer parishes. As the place got more run down, it became less attractive; people started going elsewhere, and we got into a declining cycle."

But there is no hint of decline today. In 2007, the trustees sold what was the lodge, and, in 2009, the warden's house was sold, too, to pay for en-suites to be added to eight of the 17 rooms; new bathrooms; disabled facilities; state-of-the-art meeting facilities; Wi-Fi; and general redecoration.

The maintenance, updates, and interior decoration of the past couple of years have revived the comfort of the Edwardian country house, built in the Arts and Crafts style, in 1906. It has William Morris wallpaper, wood-panelled walls, beautiful fireplaces, and leaded-light windows.

Comfy sitting-rooms with daily papers; dining tables which can be split or joined into long, refectory-style tables; and a licensed bar, open on request, help to make for a relaxed and sociable stay. And a stimulating bookshop; choice of meeting rooms; chapel; 20 acres of grounds, including woodland and meadow; a labyrinth; a prayer house; and a summer house are available for time alone.

"The strategy for revising the house's fortunes has been to improve facilities; and put prices up. By and large, that's working. It's now got a trusted reputation, and we're getting a growing group of regulars," Mr Hepburn says. Shepherds Dene was bequeathed to the diocese of Newcastle in 1946, and, befitting its location on the border of the dioceses of Newcastle and Durham, it is now a shared resource.

"The dioceses have increased their contribution to £20,000 each, as a vote of confidence in our work, and its contribution to the life of the dioceses, for the next three years," Mr Hepburn says. This, along with some staff cuts, and, more importantly, increased bookings, means that the house is set to break even in 2013 - the first time for many years. "Almost all the programmed events have been full this year. For the next few years, the strategy is to plod on. The money is getting better, and we think we've set a reasonable course."

Shepherds Dene, he says, now runs only about ten parish weekends a year, and its core business is no longer easy to identify. "The challenge is to say: how are people getting their spiritual needs met now? How can retreat houses contribute to that? As opposed to saying: we provide two-day and five-day retreats, you'd better come."

Besides hosting clergy training, marriage weekends, discipleship courses, Readers' weekends, and deanery events, and private retreats or stays, about 30 per cent of business is now from non-church bookings, such as embroidery or flower-arranging courses.

Shepherds Dene's programmed events are varied, from quiet days to film nights, rambling retreats, and holiday weeks, as well as residential retreats with retreat leaders.

The inclusion of introductions to the labyrinth and the enneagram appeals to people who are searching spiritually; and, in quiet periods, the house is available to hire for special occasions. Last year, there was even a hen party (the bridesmaid was a friend of the house).

"The idea that people can spend time together on family celeb-rations is a lovely use of the house;

I think there's a Christian witness in it. We're quite comfy with the two-thirds-one-third mix, but if it got to be half-and-half we'd start to worry," Mr Hepburn says.

A full-board stay at Shepherds Dene typically costs £50-60 for 24 hours; £140 for weekend retreats; and £250 for a week.

Autumn retreats:

God and Mammon: Slavery and Freedom, 23-27 September, £250; a rambling retreat, 2 October, £10; Your Wild and Precious Life workshop, 10 October, £25; a marriage-encounter weekend, 4-6 October, £130; an introduction to the enneagram, 14-15 October, £160; Advent with Thomas Merton, 23-24 November, £140.

Contact: 01434 682212


Christine Miles


THE tall mahogany desk by the entrance assures me that I am at Shallowford House's reception. The house's director, Simon Hudson, greets me as I arrive. A Christian group is also checking in for the weekend.

Both house and welcome feel warm. My en-suite room over- looks the garden: it is clean and fresh, its décor a soothing cream, beige, and green. The walls are unadorned, but the room does not feel bare. On the windowsill, three fresh daffodils are arranged in a vase - a nice touch.

Shallowford House was built in the 19th century. In 1938, it was bequeathed to Lichfield diocese as a retreat centre. Money was left, together with the property, to fund the conversion. In 1950, two extensive wings were added, giving the house a horseshoe structure that makes it easy to navigate.

On my meanderings, I discover meeting rooms with data projectors and whiteboards, a small library, a spacious chapel, and, in the basement, a TV room that doubles as a licensed bar.

Since their arrival in 2010, Mr Hudson and his wife, Alison, have overseen developments inside the house, and outside, in its five or so acres of grounds.

When Mr Hudson arrived, Shallowford was not breaking even; its income was down on what it had been in 2006. There is now a profit margin, although that is minimal, as resources are invested in the property to make it sustainable in the long term.

In 2010, an appeal raised money to enhance the quality of the guests' experience: 20 of the 25 bedrooms are now en suite, as opposed to seven of its former 27. "We think en-suiting has made a difference. The en-suite rooms always fill up first," Mr Hudson says.

Hosting regular Bishops' Advisory Panel (BAP) conferences used to provide about 45 per cent of the income. Today, BAP conferences account for 20 per cent, while other areas have increased.

Rather than look for new markets, Mr Hudson sought to consolidate and recover existing ones. "Some groups had stopped coming to us. We approached them to ask why, and invited them back to try us out again, now that our facilities are updated. There has been a take-up on this, and they have stayed."

Lichfield diocese does not fund Shallowford House, but it is the biggest single supporter of its work. The house's central location in the diocese also helps in establishing it as a place for diocesan-organised events and individual visits.

Mr Hudson has also worked closely with the diocese to book further ahead: "We used to get calls at less than a month's notice, but we have their 2015 dates in the diary now." Bookings for other groups and charitable groups are going well, with bookings into 2014.

Although the occasional swoosh of trains along the neighbouring railway line at night reminds me that the busy world is not so far away, the house's ambience is restful.

"We want to protect this as a distinct, holy space, and make sure that it is comfortable without being distracting, so that it offers space to meet with God," Mrs Hudson says. Ensuring that guests are well fed, warm, and comfortable, and free of tasks and expectations is the aim.

Updating the interior has been a priority, but outside is more of a work in progress. With no garden staff, volunteers on garden working-party weekends are proving vital.

In the formal gardens around the house, old, diseased trees have been cut down, and young ones planted. Wayward hedging has been pruned, making space for new flowerbeds.

But the greatest upheaval is on the extensive meadow behind the house. Network Rail is paying for the construction of six new ponds, and other features, to rehome newts that were displaced by a new line over the hillside. Work will finish over the summer, and the area will be open to the public, as well as to Shallowford's guests.

"Our strategy for the future is to continue getting things in order," Mr Hudson says. "We don't have a hard and fast plan. We know we need to be adaptable, and take some risks. I feel responsible for this place, and I want to plan productively and effectively for it to outlast me."

Autumn retreats:

Mary and Martha: A Creative and Quiet Retreat, 3-6 October, £175, including materials; an autumn garden working-party, 3-6 October, £12 per night contribution towards costs; a pre-Advent retreat,14-16 November, £120.

Contact: 01785 760233


Julia McGuinness

The Retreat House, Pleshey
Spinning and Weaving the Threads of Life retreat, 2-6 September, £138; Thomas Traherne quiet day, 10 October, £23; house retreat, 15-17 November, £138; midweek sabbath, 19-21 November, £69 per 24 hours.

Contact: 01245 237251

Rydal Hall, Cumbria
Autumn Painting and Sketching in the Lakes, 16-20 September, £325; Mountains and Majesty walking and prayer retreat, 23-27 September, £325; Celtic saints 23-27 September, £325; space and silence day for Michaelmas, 26 September, £20; space and silence day for Advent, 28 November, £20; 24-hour retreat, led by the Dean of Durham, 28-29 November, £62.50.

Contact: 015394 32050

Abbey House, Glastonbury
Knowing Me, Knowing You quiet day, 2 September, £30; simple quiet day, 16 September, £15; individual guided retreat week, 23-27 September, £240 (or £60 per 24 hours); More Spirituality from the Old Testament, 7 October, £30; From the Outer to the Inner Court, 4 November, £30; Advent retreat, 18-22 November, £235.

Contact: 01458 831112

Parcevall Hall, Yorkshire
Quiet day, 12 September, free; quiet day, 18 November, free; The Poetry of Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson, 9-11 September, £150; Autumn Rambling in the Dales, 14-17 October, £180; Madrigal Singers Weekend, 1-3 November, £160; The Newlyn Painters, 13-15 November, £155.

Contact: 01756 720213

Foxhill, Cheshire
Quiet day, 27 September, £15; quiet day, 16 October, £15; Advent retreat, 29 November, £100 in residence, or £50 day-visitor.

Contact: 01928 733777

Old Alresford Place, Hampshire
The Harvest is Plentiful quiet day, 3 October, £15; The Mindfulness of Jesus, 23-25 October, £130; a quiet day in preparation for Advent, 26 November, £15. 

Contact: 01962 737314

Bishop Woodford House, Ely
Painting and Prayer CARM retreat, 6-13 September, £400/ 450; Images of the Resurrection, 23 September, £24; Journey Into Healing residential workshop, 18-20 October, £210; The Women Who Followed Jesus, 25 October, £24; Sing to the Lord a New Song (music and prayer), 22 November, £24.

Contact: 01353 663039

Launde Abbey
Individually guided retreat, 2-6 September, £350; Walking the Walk: Companionship in crisis, 10-12 September, £175; Living With God as Grown-up Children, 17-19 September, £175; astronomy retreat, 29 September to 4 October, £425; individually guided retreat, 3-9 and 10-16 November, £420.

Contact: 01572 717254

Whalley Abbey, Lancashire
Whalley Abbey pilgrimage around the grounds, 15 September.

Contact: 01254 828400


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