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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.