Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: April, 2013

Follow in ancient footsteps for labyrinthine tranquility

I am walking round in circles. The circles in question form an eleven ring medieval labyrinth in the grounds of Shepherds Dene. For the past two weeks I have slipped out of the office each day to unwind in the labyrinth and see what I discover.

You may be confusing a labyrinth with a maze so let me clarify. A maze is a puzzle which involves frequent decisions about whether to turn left or right to find the correct path to the middle. Typically, the path in a maze will be marked by high privet hedges that prevent you seeing over. I remember the fun of walking the maze at Hampton Court Palace as a child and also of trying the new fangled corn mazes in farmers’  fields in the summer.

A labyrinth has only one path with no junctions or intercessions until you reach the middle, where you turn round and return by the same way. Labyrinths are usually marked by low dividing ridges, stones or patterns on the ground so the path is open for all to see. A labyrinth seems tame sport in comparison to a maze.

The difference is that you lose yourself in a maze and you find yourself in a labyrinth. And labyrinths are popping up everywhere – in schools, hospitals and community parks as well as in churches and retreat houses.

I am still recovering from Labrinthfest, our annual weekend for labyrinth enthusiasts two weeks ago, when a group of people gathered from all over the country to walk the labyrinth, singly, together, at night and in the rain. We learned about the history of labyrinths and reflected on our experiences with a gifted  labyrinth teacher, The Revd Di Williams.  

The labyrinth at Shepherds Dene was built by a group of volunteers eleven years ago in a neglected area of the grounds   and is regularly walked by our guests and neighbours. Our labyrinth is an exact copy of the famous labyrinth on the floor of  Chartres Cathedral which was built in about  1220. The new gothic architecture gave the space to create labyrinths which were fashionable at the time though few survive today.

There is evidence of labyrinths on different continents going back 4000 years in the original ‘ancient’ design; of labyrinth mosaics in Roman villas and then of the more sophisticated – and arguably more satisfying – medieval labyrinths that are most common  today. In this country, there are over 100 labyrinths including historic ones in at Saffron Walden and Winchester and an exciting new one at Walltown, in the shadow of Hadrian s Wall. Enthusiasts tick them off rather like mountaineers bag Munros.

If there is not a labyrinth near you, ( and consult to check first), it is very easy to build your own.  Once you know the parameters, it just a matter of joining up the dots. We have had labyrinths made of pine cones and daffodils on the lawn at Shepherds Dene. One sunny morning, we found that an especially talented guest had marked out a labyrinth in the early morning frost. Kim, the gardener, disapproved so please don’t try this at home.

The labyrinth appears to be an archetypal form whose origins are shrouded in mystery but  which appears in widely different cultures. Fishermen in Finland used to make a labyrinth of stones on the beach and jump straight from the labyrinth into their boat and sail away as a good luck charm.

So why build a folk charm in a Christian retreat house and encourage guests to dally with it? Well, all I can say is that you have to try it for yourself. Certainly Christians, Buddhists and people of no particular faith find walking the labyrinth a calming and peaceful experience that helps them reflect and gives them insights about themselves. As Di Williams would put it, “the labyrinth is a well spring for the soul”.

But you know me. I like things to be clear and matter of fact. Despite having hosted two labyrinth weekends and sat in on other talks and workshops at Shepherds Dene, I have yet to be given the definitive guide on how to walk the labyrinth in order to achieve the maximum benefit in the most efficient way. “The walk is the walk” as they say.

So what do I discover in the labyrinth?  There is a feeling of containment whilst being enclosed in the labyrinth. There is both amusement and frustration as the path takes me almost to the centre and then back to the edge again. There is enjoyment of striding out over the long curved paths around the outside followed by the concentration of treading carefully around the tight twists and turns nearer the centre.

There is something extremely relaxing about the momentum of a walk where you do not need to worry about your direction or destination.  There is invariably surprise and delight at arriving at the centre without realizing it. And  there is a time of serenity at the middle of the labyrinth when you stand still.

Some people walk with a purpose; to ponder a particular issue or to hold a loved one in mind. Others symbolically leave their troubles in the labyrinth and walk away from them. Many experience a sense of letting go in the labyrinth and a few tell me of their insights. You cannot force such moments, according to Di; you just put one foot in front of another and see what happens.

The growing popularity of labyrinths  is because they help relieve stress and calm people down.  Their use with troubled children and prisoners is well documented. And now Mark Wallinger is installing  labyrinth wall tiles in every station on the London Underground as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations because “the seeming chaos of the rush hour is really just the mass of individuals following the thread of their lives home”.

But excuse me, it is time for my daily walk. “ Stand at the cross roads and look and ask for ancient paths where the good way lies” the prophet Jeremiah proclaims,” walk in it and find rest for your souls”. You are welcome to call in at Shepherds Dene and try for yourself.

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene



We are losing our sense of when it is time to resign in public life.

Should Martin O Neill have been sacked? No. The idea that a new face can work wonders is fanciful. Even the great Alan Shearer failed to turn round a failing team with eight games to go in very similar circumstances in 2009. There is little loyalty in football.

Should David Miliband have resigned? Yes. As every columnist on this paper has already said, it is a disgraceful appointment for a club that has prided itself on community involvement. Rightly or wrongly, footballers are important role models.

Should David Miliband have accepted the appointment of Deputy Chair in the first place? Pass. I doubt that members of Parliament should take lucrative external appointments. It does not enamour me to  a man whom I still remember making a brilliant speech at a Community Foundation AGM in 2007, and in whom I had high hopes.

Should Neil Warnock, my favourite football manager, have fallen on his sword and resigned when he could not get Leeds United into a position to be promoted? Yes. That was the deal and Neil  stood by his word. Football will be the poorer without his self-disparaging humour.

Football lives in an outrageous world  of its own with too  much money and too little morality  Are things any different in the real world?

Should Lin Homer have been promoted to run Revenue and Customs after what a select committee describes as her “catastrophic leadership failure” at the Border Agency ? No. Ms Homer denies the accusation, but someone ought to put their foot in the revolving doors in Whitehall as much in our corporate boardrooms.

Should Sir David Nicholson resign as Chief Executive of the National Health Service.  Without a doubt.  He is supposed to be indispensable in implementing the NHS reforms,  he should do the decent thing and go. Somebody has to carry the can for the tragedy of failed care in Mid Staffordshire hospitals which were Sir David’s responsibility in a previous job.

And now the Commission on Banking Standards calls for the top men responsible for collapse of HBOS to be banished from the City. Hurrah! Someone to pin the blame on. Let them be hung, drawn and quartered.

Just a moment. Some of the people I knew at the top of Northern Rock at the time of the crash were deeply hurt by what happened around them and nursed a great sense of responsibility.

In his Easter sermon in Canterbury Cathedral, Archbishop Justin took a more charitable view. He warned against the “hero worship culture” in public life – the belief that one man or woman can turn around a team or an organisation. “ Setting people or institutions up to heights where they cannot but fail is mere cruelty” he said.

An opinion poll the previous Friday had found that only 40% of people in the pews thought the Archbishop could resolve the problems in the Church of England. That might well be a  reflection of the perceived difficulties facing a church that prides itself on keeping everyone in the communion. Most major political leaders would settle for a rating of 40%. According to You Gov, Cameron currently stands at 36% and Miliband ( the other one) at 31% .

Welby warns against putting our trust “ in new leaders, better systems, new organisations or regulatory reorganisation. They may be good and necessary” he says “ but will to some degree fail.”

Justin Welby’s meteoric rise in the church has all the hallmarks of a story from  the Boys Own Paper. Based on an evening he spent at Shepherds Dene with business leaders, I have no doubt in his ability and negotiating skills. Perhaps he is warning  us not to be too starry eyed about the difference a new Archbishop can make. Trust in God alone, was the punch line in his Easter sermon.

If we accept fallibility in our leaders, should we be more understanding and supportive of them and not hurl abuse at them from the terraces, as happened to poor old Neil Warnock as his team lost again. We all should take responsibility when an organisation is failing and we should all play a part in turning it around.

Fans should cheer on a struggling side and help them raise their game. Managers should not be dismissed out of hand. Civil servants struggling with enormous responsibilities should have our sympathy.

I still have a nagging doubt in this cotton wool theory. Good leadership matters. A new head teacher can turn round a school in special measures. Poor leadership can demoralize. It is also no wonder that  good and honest people working for Barclays Bank are dispirited because of the antics and attitudes of their bosses.

An honest  leader owns up to personal shortcomings and does not play down the scale of the task in hand.  Welby spoke of “fear and trembling” as he banged on the door of Canterbury Cathedral before his enthronement. An honest leader has the courage to take on a challenge and engage others in doing so with him. As Woodrow Wilson so nicely put it,” I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.”

An honest leader also knows when his or her performance is impeding the organisation or bringing it into disrepute. Then it is time to go and, to my mind, we are losing our sense of when it is time to resign in public life.

Of course, my faith in a football team, in the Anglican church or the NHS does not necessarily come from my confidence in its leadership or its regulation. I fear for nursing if undue regulation is now required on the wards. My faith comes from my own experience of attending church or going to St James Park.

When the last minute goal secured victory over Chelsea a few weeks ago, my son and I completely forget that this great club had sold its soul to some loan sharks. When I sing my favourite hymn, I lose my indignation that the Anglican has not yet ordained women Bishops. When a gifted surgeon operates on my sister in law’s back so that she can walk again following an accident, I think it is a miracle. It happened a fortnight ago in a modern trauma centre in Staffordshire.

So will we all keep quiet about Paolo di Canio’s politics if he wins our hearts by keeping  the Black Cats in the Premiership?

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene