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
"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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
A full-board stay at
Shepherds Dene typically costs £50-60 for 24 hours; £140 for
weekend retreats; and £250 for a week.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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,
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
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
Quiet day, 27 September, £15; quiet day, 16 October, £15;
Advent retreat, 29 November, £100 in residence, or £50
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
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
Contact: 01254 828400