End of era for Dales spiritual retreat

One of the most famous Christian retreats in northern England is closing after almost half a century. Roger Ratcliffe visits Scargill House, set in idyllic Upper Wharfedale.

IF you want to escape from the world, it's hard to think of a better sanctuary than the tree-mantled slopes overlooking the most beautiful of all the Yorkshire Dales.

From here, over the moors lead several good footpaths – appropriately first established in medieval times by monks from the great northern abbeys which once owned all the land roundabout – and people can confidently expect to climb up there and avoid meeting another soul all day.

However, if the comfort they seek is more spiritual than earthly, then Scargill House, near Kettlewell, is also just the place, with its own ordained priests on call and perhaps the finest rural chapel to have been built in England over the last 50 years.

For nearly a half century that's what the retreat has offered, and thousands have benefited from the Scargill House experience. They have come for weekends, whole weeks or fortnights, with some visitors even deciding to stay much longer to work as volunteers.

For most of its existence just about the only reminders of the harsh realities of the world in this peaceful haven have been provided by the RAF fighter jets that sometimes scream over Upper Wharfedale on training exercise.

But now Scargill House has been forced to confront a new reality. The increased fuel costs and downturn in the economy have meant fewer people signing up to visit.

The church charity which runs the house initially made the books balance with money from its "Friends of" organisation known as Scargill Partners, and also by the use of some legacies. It then began to borrow money from the bank to keep going, until finally running out of options. So this summer's programme of courses has now been abandoned, Scargill House will close its wrought iron gates to visitors on Sunday, July 20, and the whole place is being put up for sale.

There is no doubting the sadness felt by the chair of trustees, David Baker, when he says that Scargill might be turned into a country house hotel, a health farm or even sold for a housing development – although the shops and tradesmen of Upper Wharfedale will be relieved that the income they got from having such a large residential centre on their doorstep will eventually be replaced.

Baker adds hopefully that at least the community's distinctive chapel – a Grade 1 listed building, and its use therefore strictly controlled by English Heritage – might be hard to convert for any other purpose.

When full, Scargill House could accommodate 80 people and was run by a team of 30. One of its mainstays was weekend courses for visiting church choirs. Other groups or individuals came to engage in activities like walking, painting and embroidery, although some of the annual programme was dictated by the Christian calendar, offering Easter and Advent retreats. The house was also extensively used by school groups on field trips.

One of the most attractive features in the 100-acre grounds is the large broadleaved woodland which is Forestry Stewardship Council accredited and used by local schools and students for nature study.

Back inside the house, New Year had become a special time to welcome asylum seekers. In fact, Scargill House had deliberately changed its emphasis in recent years from appealing mainly to white, English middle-class Anglicans to drawing in people of many different backgrounds, especially those of diverse nationalities and faiths.

Central to this has been its "MythBusters" programme for breaking down barriers between faiths and social classes. It takes groups of children from widely different backgrounds and involves them in activities like circus skills while encouraging them to discuss how they're really

not very different from each other.

This work is set to continue, and David Baker's sorrow at selling up is at least tempered by some optimism for the future. The money that will be raised from the sale – possibly as much as 5m, although the final valuation has not been made – will be used to set up a Christian foundation.

"I see it as turning ourselves inside-out," he says. "Instead of people coming to Scargill House for help, the new Foundation will go out into communities and fund projects, perhaps even pay for groups to stay at residential centres. So our work will definitely continue, it just won't be here at Scargill.

"In terms of spirituality, the spirituality of the generation that came through two world wars was very much of the mind, well, the world's in such a mess so let's find

some space to get away from that turmoil and go to Scargill House.

"But today, despite the credit crunch, I think we are now better off than we've ever been, and there doesn't seem to be that need to escape to a retreat any more. There is more of a need for us go into communities and do our work."

The Scargill House story

The oldest part of the house dates back 200 years, and in 1900 it became a shooting lodge purchased by the wealthy Halifax mill owner Clement Holdsworth for entertaining friends who came to shoot and fish.

By the 1940s, the family business was in decline and Scargill House had been badly neglected. To cover death duties, the family sold it to the Holdsworth textile company, which they still controlled, but in 1957 they were forced to put the estate up for sale because of losses incurred by the mills.

In their sale catalogue at the time the estate agents, Jackson-Stops & Staff, said the "invigorating air and completely unspoilt grandeur of the surroundings make the Property a most attractive and healthy resort."

However, it was bought by the Church of England to be used as a Christian holiday and conference centre.

Almost at once work began on its now-famous chapel. Designed by York-based George Pace – who was also responsible for the King George VI Memorial Chapel at Windsor – it was built in a Scandinavian style to reflect the fact that the Yorkshire Dales' most significant settlers were Viking farmers.

Since then, the house itself has been reconstructed and extended. The grouse moors and riverbanks for trout fishing were sold off, and the grounds are now mostly high-grade woodland.