Thursday, 17 May 2007

First impressions

This is the story of my year at Scargill House, which is a Christian retreat house and holiday centre in the Yorkshire Dales, in the north of England.

I’m a volunteer at Scargill; I’ve only been here a few weeks. Most of the volunteers are young: students or on gap years, some from South America, others local to northern England. I’m at the other end of my career, though – after 25 years of being “another brick in the wall” I thought it was time to pause, make some space to reflect on where I am and where I want to be, and find some useful work which would put a roof over my head but not be so pressurised it left no time for thinking.

Scargill does this and, in addition, it’s a stunningly beautiful place. Wharfedale is a flat bottomed valley with steep sides and we’re part way up the eastern side, which means that our main sitting area has a grandstand view of the opposite hillside. There are no buildings to be seen on that side, only trees and drystone walls and the moorland rising above. The clouds sometimes make very dramatic patterns over there, and the guests often just stand at the window, soaking up the view. Behind the house the hillside rises steeply, so that from my bedroom window I can’t see any sky unless I go right up to the glass; my whole vista is filled with the wooded slope. At the centre of the Scargill buildings is a rambling country house. We’re still using some of the bedrooms, which are fitted out in grand style like some sort of luxurious pre-war caravan, with concealed washbasins, hidden linen boxes and hideaway upholstered chairs. This is one place that really deserves to be called a rabbit warren: it has long corridors with many turns, and narrow flights of stairs that take you to unexpected places. I found a flight in a dark corner by the larder a few days ago, went up it and to my surprise found myself stepping through a cupboard door – what I’d thought was a cupboard door – into one of the upstairs lounges; originally provided no doubt so some Edwardian lackey could bring more Scotch to the gents in the house party.

A terrific chapel constructed with stone, glass and huge pine beams was added in the sixties along with more accommodation; and more bedrooms, lounges and other bits and pieces in the seventies and eighties. Elsewhere on the site are stone houses of various eras for the community, some sound, some incurably leaky (the houses, that is). Some of the community get (modest) salaries, others like me get their keep and a small allowance. The community is very small, and fortunately there are also good hearted folk – a sort of Scargill extended family – who come in when we’re especially short staffed to clean sinks and hoover floors for nothing at all apart from a warm glow and a cup of coffee. It really is a labour of love here, and I really do love it.

The volunteers do lots of cleaning and dining room duties and help welcome and look after guests, and I’ve also led worship once so far. It turns out that I like leading worship – it’s like teaching with no disruptive kids (if there are any, their parents take them out – I think schools should try this), very docile students, lots of opportunities for me to read aloud to a captive audience, and you get to set your own curriculum. Hmm, I suspect I wasn’t really cut out for teaching.

Some visitors are private guests or come with church groups, others come on courses or themed holidays. In the last few weeks we’ve done Easter retreats, courses in creative embroidery and watercolour painting, Dales walking holidays, weekends for church groups, school groups on our ‘mythbusters’ programme (bringing together children from different communities) as well private guests on holiday and working guests helping with maintenance tasks. The special themes of Scargill are ecology, giving urban communities access to the countryside (e.g. school groups, events for asylum seekers) contemporary spirituality, and inclusiveness. Occasionally there have been clashes – some guests from more traditional evangelical church backgrounds don’t like the way Scargill has developed, don’t like the emphases on ecology and inclusiveness, and apparently haven’t read those bits of the bible that tell us to care for the stranger and the alien – but there is a core of supporters who love the place and support the philosophy passionately.

And it’s the guests and supporters who make Scargill. We have a group in this weekend walking labyrinths, which is, I am told, a powerful way of being prayerful or contemplative, not specific to any religion, but as helpful for Christian prayer as for Buddhist meditation or humanist pondering! The house has ninety acres of woodland rising steeply up the rocky hillside behind it, and apart from a lot of trees (and huge numbers of primroses, violets and bluebells, half a dozen roe deer, and some hooting owls, burbling curlews and tumbling lapwings – these are all mine – this is where I live) – apart from a lot of trees, there are also a lot of rocks of various sizes, some of which were used to lay out a labyrinth a couple of years ago, and tonight a group is off to the woods to walk the labyrinth by candlelight, while at the same time elsewhere in the building a big and very cheerful Salvation Army contingent is having an enthusiastic and musical teaching and worship session in one of the meeting rooms. Nope, never a dull moment here.

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