Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: December, 2013

I have been blessed to work in in this special place

At the end of  the second world war , Geoffrey and Ethel Newell entertained the Bishop of Newcastle to dinner at their  home near Riding Mill. In the course of the dinner, Bishop Noel Hudson  is reported to have said “This house would make a really good retreat house” .

We may never know whether the remark really came out of the blue but shortly afterwards  Geoffrey Newell wrote to the Bishop offering the house and grounds as a gift to the Diocese. The cost of running a fine Edwardian mansion built in the arts and crafts style  and maintaining a 20 acre estate was a worry, and continues to be so to this day. The Newalls provided an annuity to ease the problem for the first few years and in 1946  Shepherds Dene opened as the retreat house for the Diocese of Newcastle.  Since the 1980s, it has been shared with the Diocese of Durham which closed its own retreat house in Low Fell.

The tradition of retreating goes back to the early days of the Christian Church when disciples spent an ascetic  life in the desert to escape the perils and temptations of city life. In the early  twentieth century    the Anglican Church  attempted  to rejuvenate the church and deepen its relation to God by setting up a network of ( usually country ) houses where guests could spend time in silence and contemplation.

 Throughout the  year, Shepherds Dene ‘goes silent’ for a weekend or a week when the retreat  group  listens to addresses from the retreat leader, joins together for worship but otherwise  spends its time, and eats meals, in silence.

At other times , Shepherds Dene is used for church weekends, clergy meetings, arts and crafts activities, professional  training and family celebrations including, earlier this month, a ninetieth birthday party.

Those who visited the house in the early days tell me that it was a rough and ready experience in which austerity was seen as a prerequisite to godliness. But after a major refurbishment in the last few years, guests can be assured of high standards of comfort and refreshment, including a licensed bar, in the belief that it is easier to find God if you are warm and well fed.

As you read this column today, I will be working my last shift as Warden.  The new Warden, Jane Easterby takes over on Thursday. After nearly five years I have fallen in love with the place. What have I learnt from my time in charge?

As someone always busy, I have been cast against type but have  found the chance to slow down and be quiet has been invaluable.  I have pinned above my desk the advice of the great twentieth century contemplative, Thomas Merton, who wrote that “ for a man who has let himself be drawn completely out of himself by his activity, nothing is more difficult than to sit still and rest, doing nothing at all. The very act of resting is the hardest and most courageous act he can perform.”

Retreating is not about  escaping to some rural idyll.  Reflection is the necessary prelude to action. Jesus only  fed the five thousand after a night alone on the mountain and then  prayed for guidance on the night  before he entered Jerusalem for the last time.

The opportunity to be more open and questioning about my faith has been refreshing. I have been part of a small group of Christians in business which meets for supper at Shepherds Dene and tries to work out how to act out faith in their working lives. I  have learned a lot from the shared experiences.

The times spent as mine host to groups painting, rambling, embroidering, or just  holidaying have been really enjoyable.  I have made good friends and been  surprised that Christians from very different backgrounds and shades of belief can enjoy what is traditionally known as  ‘fellowship’.

At other times, it has been a privilege to be a port in a storm. Over  dinner, I have  listened  to the tales of some inspirational and sometimes troubled  people who have sought solace at Shepherds Dene for a few days.

Just before Christmas, I  met a young professional couple called to work as missionaries in the Middle East. Their courage and conviction has been in my thoughts all over the holiday and I  will pray for them as they start their new life in January.

I have come to appreciate the importance of celebrating the milestones in family life such as birthdays, wedding anniversaries and even once  a funeral party held at Shepherds Dene   Beneath the razzmatazz, there is something valuable in helping families rejoice and celebrate. We should do it much more often.

I have  been amazed at the number  of people who find their way to Shepherds Dene who are not churchgoers. They quietly  walk the labyrinth or help Kim, the Gardener, in the grounds, which have been restored to their former splendour. They find  something indefinable in the woodwork that gives them peace.  Although church attendance may be declining, there is no shortage of those seeking a spiritual path.

The Warden’s lot is an all consuming  one  and I now have some idea of the working conditions in the hotel and catering industry. I have been blessed to work with a small group of dedicated  and feisty people who say prayers together each morning, work their socks off and take great pride in  welcoming and nurturing  our guests.   I hope Geoffrey Newell would be proud of what a special place his home has become.

What next for me?  I was struck by the Greenpeace activist Alexandra Harris  who said on her release from prison in Russia  last week “ I don’t regret anything I have done. I only regret the things I have not done”.  I hope to have the time to do a few more things in the year ahead. Watch this space.

George Hepburn  is Warden of Shepherds Dene



It may be a 15 minute train for you, but for me its a journey through my childhood

One of the great delights of the train journey to London is three hours uninterrupted pleasure reading a book. This  week it was Kathleen Raine’s poignant observations in ‘Findings’. But  as the train to London passes Welwyn Garden City, I put down my book and gaze out of the window.

I spot the Royal Veterinary College at Brookman’s Park where a few keen students operated on our family cat one Saturday night and saved its life after it had been hit by a car.

Then the train then  follows the  foot path  which runs for several miles north from Potters Bar, where I used to ride my bike with my father. It speeds past  the Cranbourne Industrial estate where my best friend Bob worked for a year between school and university. I envied  his experience of the real world.

On the other side of the train, Potters Bar Golf Course is as spruce  as ever. My cousin Janice lives on the far side of the golf course. You can watch the inter city trains gliding  serenely across the skyline  from her garden. We were both brought up in Potters Bar and one of the joys of my stage of life has been spending more time with different members of a now far flung family.

There was a notorious murder on the golf course in 1955 and the police  took palm prints of every adult man in the area. I still remember the smell of the ink as my father was put through this indignity with typically good grace. I could not conceive that he was in any way involved.

By now, we are passing through Potters Bar station, famous  for a fatal crash in 2007 caused my poor track  maintenance. I remember the station  from my teenage  days of travelling to school, usually running for the train and  anxiously revising French vocabulary. They were not the happiest days of my life.

At New Barnet station, I recall  an early and short lived  girl friend whom I used to meet there  and a few minutes later we are at Harringay West where I can spot the  house on Mount View Road where I lived when first married.  One day I drove home  with my wife clutching a precious  new baby in the back seat of the car. They were some of the happiest days I can remember.

My mother lived with us for a few years until she died peaceful in her armchair one afternoon. She  took great delight in coming in her wheelchair to watch me play cricket ( albeit badly ) and used to sit proudly in the middle of the team as we eat our cucumber sandwiches.  

On the other side of the train is Finsbury Park where I used to walk with the infant  Edward in his pushchair on a Saturday morning; two chaps together whilst my wife was at work. The Italian café in the middle of the park had excellent cappuchino and was an oasis miles away from the  bustle of the city around us. .

The train crosses  the Holloway Road, where we went shopping in Jones Brothers, close to where my father’s family grew up.  My Uncle Albert became the local member of parliament and so this eccentric man was held in awe. I remember him playing  a mean game of chess and appearing to give no quarter.  

On the right is a  renovated terrace of Victorian houses facing the railway tracks. My mother was brought up there. One of eight children, three of her sisters continued to live in Stock Orchard Street into their old age and I regularly visited them with my mother. Their houses  were crammed full of Victorian furniture that towered over everything and belonged to another age. They reminisced  of evenings together around the piano.

And finally Kings Cross station itself, where my father worked in the goods yard for most of his life. In those days, it was a world of its own; a rambling mass of tracks, wagons and shunting engines which fascinated me as a young boy on the rare occasions when I was allowed to go to work with my father.

Everybody belonged to the union and called each other ‘brother’. My father was branch secretary. I type this column at the  roll top desk he bought for his union work and which had pride of place in the rarely used front sitting room of my parents house.

When they talk of progress, I recall that my parents bought a new house in Potters Bar, just before the second world war, for £435, and  furnished it with two three piece suites and two sets of bedroom furniture from Maples in Tottenham Court Road. They must have saved up before they married  as they  were not well off by any other account. Few could manage that today.

My father had a heart attack and died  one Friday night on Kings Cross station on the way home from work. My mother never set foot there again, getting off at Finsbury Park to catch the tube instead. The ‘brothers’ requested that the hearse pass by the good yard  where they all turned to pay their respects. It was rumoured that many of them owed Dad a few bob.

I took a different view to my mother. To me, a lot of my life was tied up with this overawing and in those days  grimy engine shed and Dad’s spirit still seems to live on there. I have to pinch myself now as I walk through into the breath taking  new concourse which has restored the  station’s splendour and remember that all this was a long time ago.

In the space of fifteen minutes I have relived my childhood and confess the experience brings a tear to my eye. It is a special opportunity, akin to flicking through family photos albums, to remember where you come from, which for me was to have been a north London boy.

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene




Light a candle and hope some of the arguments fall into place

Did you see the dramatic sunset over Newcastle on Saturday evening? I love this time of year. There have more  than the usual tally of sharp sunny days and some clear dark evenings when nothing seems to move in the world.

I do my best to avoid the Christmas lights and jingles for another week and concentrate of the spirit of waiting and expectation that fills the season of Advent in the Christian calendar.

From ancient times anyone working the land has hoped that light might return, crops grow again and new life blossom even though the days get ever shorter. Experience tells us that one season follows another when the evidence outside points to the world continually drawing in.

In the Christian version of this winter ritual, we know that a baby will be born in precarious circumstances to save the world but try and pretend for a few weeks that you do not know  the end of the story.

 I try to stand in the shoes of the ancient prophets who did not know revelation would come in the form of a baby. Indeed, it was the last thing they expected. They just  waited patiently in the belief of forthcoming salvation when all the evidence pointed to the contrary.

There is unexpected and welcome  evidence of hope this year in  the negotiations over nuclear power in Iran and the forthcoming peace talks in Syria. It is a time to light and candle and pray for the future of the world. There has been a heart warming  public response  to the Philippines disaster and I hope that the less publicised  atrocities in the Central African Republic will attract equal support.

 We spent £22 billion on Christmas last year last year and it only needs £4billion to rebuild the typhoon ravaged communities in the Philippines. If you want to escape the commercial side of Christmas, send some money to these appeals and cut back on your presents. The CASC–aid campaign ( promotes giving half our Christmas present budget to charity.

Hope and belief may be a better guide  in some of the current debates in our own political world. I am often uncertain about how the evidence stacks up.  It is difficult to judge whether it would be better for us all if Scotland  became an independent nation; whether wind farms are an acceptable price for a sustainable energy policy or whether high speed trains are worth the money.

A recent letter to the Editor of The Journal asked for the facts to be laid out on the table so that we could make our own minds. Some of the evidence banded about by those with vested interests is hard to believe. Would we really endure 14 years of misery if the east coast main line was upgraded? Do wind farms really destroy wild life and undermine the ecological system of a peat moorland?

I have been reading Charles Loft’s ‘Last Trains’ which chronicles the transport politics of the 1950s that led up to Dr Beeching’s proposed drastic rationalisation of the railway system in the following decade.

 For several years in the early fifties there was a heated debate about the effect of withdrawing rail services from the Isle of Wight. It was impossible to prove the effect on wider rail traffic or to calculate whether the savings were worthwhile. The decision was referred to a succession of experts  and inquiries who tried in vain to sift the facts. As you may know, trains still puff away around the island today, though on a reduced scale.

I am sure that economic modelling is more sophisticated these days ( the HS2 environmental impact assessment runs to 50,000 pages)   but I wonder whether it really is possible to calculate the benefits? Would we  find  two  heavyweights like  Nick Forbes and Edward Twiddy having such diametrically opposed views on high speed trains  if we could easily run a slide rule ( to use a fifties analogy)  over the case?

My train buff friends strongly support the scheme and perhaps I should defer to their greater knowledge. I really can’t weigh up the evidence myself. If you buy me a pint and are silly enough to ask, I would confess doubts about  whether the disruption on our crowded island is worthwhile  or if  the vast amount of money is warranted.

I cannot assess the arguments about on shore wind farms either.  I fervently  believe that the planet is worth saving from global warming. Spring may not forever be around the corner unless we use all our powers  to look after God’s creation. There will more typhoons in the Philippines as well. If wind farms are part of the solution, the so called blots on the landscape may be the price we have to pay. It would not be the first time that our green and pleasant land had been disrupted to power the nation.

The English press has been scathing about all 650 pages of  Alex Salmond’s plans for an independent Scotland and even I can spot can some fanciful thinking.  Whatever the evidence, if I were a Scot, I might well vote for independence out of sheer bloody mindedness to get shot of the English and their nuclear plant at Faslane. It may or may not be the sensible thing to do but I defy the economists and statisticians to weigh these problems up to my satisfaction. I suspect that ultimately political judgement and gut instinct rule the day over the mountain of facts on the matter.

And so I head for the high ground for a few weeks to watch the dawn break and pray for good will in the world and that the kingdom come because then some of these  arguments of the day may fall into place.

I have always smiled at the line in the hymn that says that the Christmas baby  will one day return in glory  “with his angel train”. Whether  this is a high speed version and whether the Almighty travels first class does not really matter.

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene