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 www.shepherdsdene.co.uk