“NO PHYSICAL contact, OK?” the boys picked to play the robbers in this rendering of the Good Samaritan are instructed. Next, the victim’s face is smothered with a generous amount of red Sainsbury’s cake-icing. My six-year-old daughter, Olivia, turns to look at me, wide-eyed.
Day three of this Horrible Histories-style Bible week at Scargill House, in north Yorkshire, is turning out to be “horrible” indeed: after beginning the session by watching an animation of the robbers doing their worst, the children get on with their own re-enaction, before knuckling down to make “edible plasters” — with biscuits and even more tubes of squeezy blood-red goo. It goes down a storm with both boys and girls in this group of five-to-eight-year-olds.
The first day’s focus had been St John the Baptist. Thankfully, the all-age chapel service made mention only of his “horrible” diet of locusts and honey (later in the week, the children get the chance to make egg-box locusts). But the nine-plus age-group gets all the gore: they hear how his head was served up on a plate for Salome, on the orders of Herod Antipas.
The focus of the second day, for the five-to-eights, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, goes completely over my daughter’s head. But eight-year-old Daisy seems to have all the answers. I have not spoken to Olivia about the devil yet — a concept I had previously judged too scary for her vivid imagination. And, when they are asked to play a game exploring where their own temptations lie — at school, at home, and with their friends — she asks me, a little bewildered: “What is temptation?”
Later, the group leader, Sal, explains how their expedition into Scargill’s 90-acre estate — to float on puddles prayers that they have written — does not quite go as planned, as the prayers sink. But none of this seems to matter to the children: they are having a wonderful time.
“It’s really good fun. It’s so fun,” says Nat, who is ten. “It’s nice to meet up and get new friends. I [have] found the Bible stuff really interesting. I liked it when we had our groups and did games together.” Daisy, who is eight, says: “I really like it because it has loads of activities, and we get to go outside and have some exercise, as well as staying inside and watching some TV. It’s really fun.”
Children love the publishing phenomenon that is Horrible Histories: the irreverent take on history by the children’s writer Terry Deary which has spawned TV programmes, a game show, and other spin-offs. As there is plenty of horrible history in the Bible, it is proving its mettle as a way to open up scripture to them.
LESS than a mile from the village of Kettlewell (which features in the film Calendar Girls), Scargill is situated in the Dales valley of Wharfedale. Against this backdrop, the estate itself — complete with walled garden, playground, football pitch, and walking trails — is also a godsend for children: it provides space for a decent run-around, and a good explore.
More than that, there are only families who are staying for the half-term break; so the children have the house to themselves. Making the most of the rabbit-warren of corridors that connect the main building with other wings, and spaces such as the art room, den, and chapel, they play games such as chase and hide-and-seek with abandonment, without garnering withering looks of disapproval from anyone.
“I’ve never been on any other holiday where you get this family-community feel. I feel very welcome; I feel very at home,” Kevin Hay, from Runcorn in Cheshire, says. He has brought his boys, aged nine and ten, to Scargill, having previously stayed during a family week last year.
Simon NicholasLocation, location: the view to the front of the retreat houseVisiting the art room at will, or choosing to spend time in the library (complete with children’s books and cosy, cushioned corners), means that every night, as Olivia is tucked up for bed, she declares: “This has been my dream day.” She likes the scenery, the playground, and the estate’s rocky walking-trails, too. So it is not too much of a surprise when she asks me: “Can we move here, Mum?”
At Scargill, that is actually possible. The retreat, holiday, and conference centre is home to a resident community of about 35 people, who typically volunteer their services to live, worship, and work here for between one and three years. Community members are boosted by an army of non-resident volunteers, all of whom are also assigned to a team, according to their expertise: in the kitchen, or with administration, housekeeping, and estate management, or on the youth and children’s team, among others.
Like most retreat houses, Scargill has a continual programme of refurbishment. Since 2010, it has added eight en-suite bedrooms, two of which have linking bunk-rooms for families. Other accommodation is in rooms that have shared bathrooms, of which most have had new windows, carpets, and soft furnishings. And all are set to have new beds and bed linen before the end of the year.
We are staying in one of the very comfortable link bedrooms. Mr Hay is in an older room with a shared bathroom: “It’s not five-star accommodation, but I have no complaints whatsoever; the boys love it here,” he says.
EACH full day runs to the same format: breakfast with the community; a tale from a Horrible Histories DVD; all-age worship in the chapel; morning teaching (with the youth and children’s team for the children; for the adults with a speaker, Dave Hopwood); 11 a.m., tea and cake; late morning, teaching; lunch with the community; free time (with the option of an organised family-friendly walk to one of the surrounding villages); 4 p.m., tea and cake; afternoon workshops; dinner with the community; and evening workshops; topped off with hot chocolate at 9 p.m. For those with an under-three in tow, as I have, a crèche is available during the teaching session between 10 and 11 a.m., and there is a playroom for use all week.
Afternoon workshops are aimed at the children (with parental supervision), and on our week include pyrography (decorating wood by burning a design on the surface), gospel singing, making egg-box locusts, juggling, making sock creatures, historical dancing, and drumming. On the last night, the evening is given over to a barn-dance-style celebration — using routines from the historical-dance workshop — led by Sandy Murray, who was dance captain for the West End musical Shakespeare in Love.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Charlie Kidd, from Canterbury, says. She is here with her husband, Christopher, and their children, Poppy, nine, and Harry, six. A couple of years ago, they went on a family week at Lee Abbey, which encouraged them to try Scargill. “What’s really special is the way the children are so welcomed; everybody is so laid back. We’ve really enjoyed the relaxing time, because we get time on our own as well, which we don’t normally get.”
Louise Clark, from Preston, has come with her daughters, aged six and four. “One of my friends told me how great it was for her children. It was ‘a piece of heaven on earth’, I think she described it as. So we came last year, and then I told my friend, and she’s loved it from the minute we arrived: it’s so friendly and welcoming; nothing is too much trouble for any of the staff.
“My children go to a Church of England primary school, but here they get Sunday school with a fun approach. The children’s team love looking after the girls; so you can relax and enjoy your holiday, knowing that there is somebody safe near by to keep an eye on them.
“What else do we love? The food. But you always go away eating far too much. You are never wanting anything: there’s always another cup of tea, or another piece of cake. It’s so reasonable, as well.”
It’s true that the food is great, and that the community is very accommodating: it is no trouble for me to have mealtimes early to fit around toddler Imogen’s sleep times, and to store food and milk for her in various fridges. And, when I’m holed up in my room with her asleep, the children’s team deliver Olivia safely back to our room at the end of each session.
The fact that the invited speaker for the week is aimed at the adults, not the children, and the slightly random choice of the Bible stories, which means that there is no overall message for the children to take away, bothers me at first. “It’s a bit of a missed opportunity,” one parent tells me. Other parents, however, are happy that the words “Bible” and “fun” are being fused together in the children’s consciousness.
Alice McGregor works for Transforming Notts Together, part of the Church Urban Fund’s “Together” network. She has brought her three children, aged four to 11. They have come to Scargill five times: three times in the past year.
“I like coming,” she says, “because I feel we all get something out of it. Finding out about God and Christianity in a context that’s enjoyable builds good associations. It’s an enjoyable holiday, and the fact that it’s in the Yorkshire Dales means that there is a chance for walks as well. I think we all feel refreshed by it.”
“I never really had any church background as a child; so it’s been quite an eye-opener,” Mr Hay says. “I love the services in the chapel. And it’s very good for the children. They know the Horrible Histories books; so I think it’s brilliant. I’d like to think as they’re getting older they will still want to come on a holiday like this. This keeps them wanting to be a Christian and follow God.”
Simon NicholasFun-packed: Imogen joins in one of the after-dinner games in the sun-lounge areaFor Mr Kidd, this is why he came. He credits Lee Abbey summer camps — first as a student, then a leader — as being instrumental in his own conversion. “I think as a teenager I was really lost; so it defined my spirituality. It’s inevitable that you’re going to bring the kids, because you know it’s a happy, healthy, spiritual environment.”
I think back to my own childhood experiences of family holidays in Christian environments, and it was, indeed, the whole experience — the fun, the friendliness of people we met, an awareness of something special taking place in times of collective worship, and hearing people’s stories about God — that made a mark in my own journey towards God.
So much so, it seems, that Olivia comes back one evening asking: “Can we read a chapter of the Bible together every day?”
Besides the break from cooking, some alone-time with God, the fellowship of believers — and happy children, of course — what more could a parent ask for on a Christian family holiday?
Spiritual breaks for families
SINCE Scargill reopened, in 2010, the community has so far hosted 40 holidays for families with children — either at half-term, or for Summerfest in August.
Visiting artists, creative workshops, chat shows, late-night extras, and outdoor activities are some of the things on offer at Summerfest, in addition to the more usual chapel services, Bible teaching, and youth- and children’s-work programme. Families can stay in fully catered accommodation, or bring tents and camp in the grounds (half-board or self-catered).
Its growing popularity is reflected in the fact that, this year, there are three Summerfest weeks to choose from: 29 July-3 August; 5-10 August; and 12-17 August. Prices from £300 per adult (half board); £188 camping (half-board); and £115 camping (self-catering).
Children receive between 30-70-per-cent discount on the adult price according to age, and under-fours are free. Single parents get an extra ten-per-cent discount, and first bookings qualify for a 20-per-cent discount, too.
Half-term breaks are fully catered. This month’s will use the Narnia stories as a way into scripture; October’s will feature Mike Pilavachi, from Soul Survivor, for the adults. The February half-term in 2018 will explore what Charlie and the Chocolate Factory teaches us about God. Prices start from £257 per adult (full board), children priced as before.
THE retreat, holiday, and conference centre has been hosting holidays for families since it opened 70 years ago. It offers half-term breaks with a children’s programme of teaching and activities (in May half-term, Dave Hopwood will be bringing Horrible Histories Bible-style here), besides summer breaks. Prices from £260.
Summer family weeks run from 29 July to 2 September (including one week for single parents, and one for bereaved parents). Each week’s speaker is pitched at adults, but Lee Abbey’s youth and children’s team will provide a morning programme of teaching, besides an afternoon/evening of activities such as orienteering, zip wire, walks, quizzes, talent show, films, etc.
If a teenager is happy (or desperate) to holiday without parents, Lee Abbey also runs summer camps for teenagers aged 13-18 (12-19 August, and 19-26 August, £175pp), and camps for 18-30s.
The 280-acre estate has six miles of walking trails, through woodland, and past sheep and cattle belonging to the estate, plus its own beach to explore.
Horrible diet: inspired by John the Baptist, Bonnie and Abigail, from the under-fives group, model their locust hatsAbernethy Nethybridge
ABERNETHY Nethybridge adventure activity centre, in the Scottish Highlands, is running a summer family week from 5 to 12 August. Activities include abseiling, archery, climbing-wall, kayaking, sailing, skiing, windsurfing, and many more. In the evening, there are music, worship, games, chat, and a guest speaker. Prices are £461 for 14+; £322 for six-to-13s; £138 for two-to-fives; and under-twos are free.
It also offers a teenage summer camp for 13-16s (22-29 July); and one for pre-teenagers (29 July-5 August); the price for both is £411. There is also an all-age Hogmanay family holiday (29 December-2 January), with snow-sport activities, Bible teaching, and a New Year’s Eve ceilidh, priced at £189 for adults, £132 for six-to-13s, £57 for two-to-fives.
Spring Harvest Holidays
SPRING Harvest Le Pas Opton site, in the Vendée, France, offers Christian family holidays in a variety of accommodation: glamping, mobile homes, villas, traditional bring-your-own camping, and caravanning.
From the end of May until the children go back to school at the end of the summer holidays, it offers an optional daily children’s programme (for nought-to-threes; four-to-sixes; seven-to-nines; and ten-to-12s), and a youth programme for 13-15s and 16-18s, as well as Bible studies for adults and evening celebrations.
Facilities include swimming pools; a multi-sports arena; volleyball, boules, and 3G-football pitches; a sports field; table tennis and pool tables; children’s play areas; a bar; a shop; and a café and takeaways. Prices start from £340 for a family of four in a standard tent, including a Dover-to-Calais ferry crossing.