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Searching the hills for a shy God

24 January 2014

Not long ago, Scargill House was forced to close - but was then rescued. Malcolm Doney went to stay at the new Scargill

scargill house

Valley high: Scargill House buildings

Valley high: Scargill House buildings

THE large and noisy demonstration that I think I hear outside King's Cross Station turns out to be a handful of station cleaners protesting about pay and conditions, with the ear-splitting help of vuvuzelas.

On the train to Leeds, an animated group of travellers keeps up an argument as far as Doncaster. Then, from Leeds to Skipton, a woman maintains a monologue on her mobile, mostly about leggings.

By the time I reach Scargill House, which sits in solitary splendour in Upper Wharfedale, about a mile from the village of Kettlewell, in the Yorkshire Dales, I am more than ready for some peace and quiet. Or so I think.

I find silence difficult, and do not much like my own company. I have not been on retreat since I was ordained, in 2005, and my prayer-life is uneven, at best; but I need to try and quieten the noise in my head; so I am here to give Scargill's once-a-year foray into silence a go.

Scargill House comprises a rambling collection of buildings in the valley of the River Wharfe. The 90-acre estate includes 25 acres of ancient woodland, a quiet walled garden, and a spectacular Grade II listed chapel, designed in the 1950s by George Pace.

Our retreat (about a dozen individuals) is ably led by Becky Widdows, formerly a lay chaplain at Lee Abbey and one-time spiritual director at Trinity College, Bristol.

The theme of this individually guided retreat, appropriately enough, is "Breath". And I spend as much time as I can outdoors, taking in the fresh air, whose clarity is almost palpable.

I amble alongside the ale-coloured river, and scramble up the bleakly beautiful hills. The landscape puts me in mind of an R. S. Thomas divinity: at first slightly austere, and difficult to know.

Thomas, the gloomy poet-priest, hunted this shy God in the Welsh hills. His sense of wistful longing inhabits me in these craggy surroundings: steep ascents scarred by the silvery-grey limestone that lies just below the surface of the windblown moorland at the summit.

High on the hill opposite Scargill House, sheltering from a squall behind a boulder, I get a healthy sense of scale. I become aware of the shifting patterns of weather which have shaped this ancient land. And with my sinews complaining at the long climb, I feel tiny, mortal.

My spiritual director for the week, Duncan, encourages me to pay attention to the small details while walking, and not to drift along in my usual fog. I notice the mustard-coloured lichen on the lee side of the rock, a rabbit's skeleton, the sound of the swift River Wharfe below in the valley (a constant undertow beneath other, intermittent sounds), sheep bleating, cows moaning, a bird's thin cry.

SCARGILL was established in 1959 as a sort of Lee Abbey (which is in Devon) of the north. It was a popular destination for retreats, conferences, and holidays for the best part of 50 years, but ran out of steam and money in 2008. The community was disbanded, and the property was put up for sale.

Scargill's demise was met with public dismay, and an appeal was launched for its resurrection. With the help of its "parent", Lee Abbey, funds were raised to buy the property, a new trust was formed, and, in 2009, it was relaunched.

There is now a resident community of about 30, running on "new monastic" lines, with its own rule of life; and a shifting body of volunteers who, between them, keep the vision alive.

There is a family feel about Scargill, which its residents agree looks (after 54 years) definitely lived-in. "One of our visitors once said that coming here was like staying with your granny," Scargill's chaplain, the Revd Stephanie Couvella, says. "Meaning: it's a bit shabby, but you know that you're loved."

I can vouch for the warmth of the welcome. But the shabbiness is overplayed. I am lucky enough to stay in one of the newly completed en-suite rooms, which are elegantly simple and comfortable. In fact, comfortable is not a bad word to describe Scargill. You do not need to be on your best behaviour: it is easy to feel at home.

The centre has retained its Evangelical Anglican DNA, but would not want to be labelled that way. Its director, the Revd Phil Stone, says: "The new Scargill is open, ecumenical, and inclusive. We're trying simply to be Christian. We have so many people who come here who've been bruised by the Church: we don't want to make it worse."

IF THE natural resources for contemplating God around Scargill are impressive, then so, too, is Scargill's Scandinavian-style chapel. I had seen pictures of it before coming, and it had been another attraction.

The chapel's modernity is one of its virtues. From the outside, it is all roof; from the inside, all ceiling. It grows out of the hillside like a wedge of stone. The light pours in from the clear widows at either end. It fits in with the landscape: cool, aloof, slightly daunting.

The services I attend are, for me, a tad too homespun and prosaic. So I take to sitting in the chapel when it is empty, and plug myself in to the sacred choral works of Morten Lauridsen. There is something astringent, like meltwater, about his music, which feels right.

I hang around waiting for God, and I am not sure that we meet. But I do learn, in the silence at Scargill, that I would do better to try and inhale God as part of my daily rhythm than stalk the divine like some big-game hunter on safari.

When I get off the train at King's Cross station, on my return, it seems much quieter. But maybe that is just me.

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