Shepherds Dene - Special Feature (December/January 2009/2010)

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Welcome to the life of Shepherds Dene

Shepherds Dene was built in 1906 for one of the Directors of Armstrongs. Visitors sometimes compared it to the much larger Cragside which was build for Lord Armstrong himself. It is a fine example of an Edwardian country house in the Arts and Crafts style with over 20 acres of grounds just outside Riding Mill in the Tyne Valley.

The house was given to the Diocese of Newcastle by the Newall family in 1946 and has been a Retreat House for over 60 years. Since 1974 it has also been the Retreat House for the Durham Diocese and is used by other denominations as well.

Shepherds Dene was closed for refurbishment for the first four months of 2009 and now boasts a number of ensuite bedrooms. It can sleep up to 30 guests and is heavily booked by church groups and charities for away days and residential meetings.

Shepherds Dene is an independent charity which has to pay its way and so prices have increased after being kept down for the last two years. Trustees are keen not to exclude anyone and will always try and find a way of providing a bursary for guests who cannot meet the cost of courses and retreats.


The art and photography weekend was fully booked this year, in 2010 the Revd. Paul Judson leads an art and photography week in July and a retreat with art and photography in October. For details visit



A bench made by the Revd. Christopher Lewis stands in a quiet corner of the grounds at Shepherds Dene. Christopher leads a retreat using some of his carvings at Shepherds Dene next June.




Many parishes book Shepherds Dene for weekends, overnight stays or full-day meetings. It’s a chance to relax, get together, share meals and worship.






Shepherds Dene is often used for diocesan meetings, including Bishop Martin’s annual senior staff residential in November.



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Taking of my shoes…

If you’ve ever wondered what it is like to go on a retreat, here’s the story of one of the participants, Jill, who attended her first retreat “Take off your shoes: A retreat to explore the practice of prayer” led by the Revd Alison White at Shepherds Dene this autumn:

‘I was brought up in a Christian household and have been a believer all my life. In the last few years, I’ve wanted to take my faith more seriously and move off ‘that plateau’. I’d visited Shepherds Dene and so knew I would be very comfortable and well looked after. Going on this Retreat seemed a good next step for me. This is my diary…


We meet for tea with home made cakes and sink into the deep sofas of the Front Hall. I feel apprehensive in case I am out of my depth. Twelve of us will spend the week together. I am used to my own company but what it will be like to be with company but “not allowed to talk”!

Alison puts us at ease and explains the ground rules. There is no requirement to attend all the talks or worship. We are encouraged to relax and to find our own path through the week.

A one-to-one session with Alison can be arranged by ticking one’s preferred slot on the timetable placed on the notice board. There is no need to write one’s name so confidentiality is retained. After dinner, Alison gives her opening talk. We say Compline together and then are asked to be silent.


I look around and wonder if everyone else is further forward in their Christian journey than I am. At least my lack of theological knowledge may not be so obvious as we are not
talking to each other! We are encouraged to spread out around the house and there are lots of books about to read.

The talks are given in the Chapel in the morning and afternoon. Today we focus on why we resist saying prayers. I can organise the rest of my life so why do I find it difficult to make time for God?

Over lunch and dinner, Alison plays quiet music. The mood of contemplation continues and it is also an opportunity to be aware of other people’s needs – do water glasses need refilling or would someone like to be offered more vegetables etc?


We are encouraged to take exercise – are the effects of eating sticky toffee pudding and lemon cream dessert already visible? Some of the group take country walks and I slip off to my local swimming pool for an hour.

There is no sense of having to spend the time in any prescribed way. One of the group appears to be doing some gardening The atmosphere is calmer now that we have put a wedge between our usual environments and commitments. However, I keep the timetable handy so as not to miss anything as there seems to be lots to do.

In the afternoon, Alison gives a talk on intercessory prayer and in the evening, there is an optional session for sharing and listening to each other. Slightly to my surprise, I find myself joining in and talking about my experiences so far. People are inspired by the natural beauty of the surroundings - watching a woodpecker for half an hour and glimpsing a deer on one of Shepherds Dene footpaths.


I come to appreciate the routine of the day which starts with Morning Prayer and follows a regular pattern. The time slips by and I enjoy the chance to read and reflect. I take my book to the walled garden and sit outside the potting shed, soaking up the sunshine along with the bees and butterflies in the lavender bushes and buddleia tree.

The talk this afternoon is about how to maintain a regular prayer life which I find especially helpful. I make some resolutions for when I return home. I’m intrigued to find out more about my fellow ‘retreatants’. They look interesting and I feel supported by them even though we are not talking to each other.


There is a final early morning Eucharist and then the silence is broken and we are free to talk to each other at last! There is a real buzz around the breakfast table as we share our experiences not only of the week but what brought us to Shepherds Dene. It becomes clear too that each of us has benefited in his or her way from participating in the Retreat. I feel refreshed, exhilarated and full of enthusiasm. I’ll be lucky if I can keep this up and hope my good resolutions do not go the same way as so many New Year ones, but the week has been well worthwhile and helps me take a few steps forwards in my spiritual life. I go away clutching the Shepherds Dene programme for next year.

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Susan joins the staff

Susan Degnan is the new Assistant Director at Shepherds Dene. Sue has been living in the Newcastle Diocese since 2002, when she moved to Newcastle to write up her MPhil with Newcastle University looking at Religious Life. Sue had spent the previous six months living with a Religious Community of Sisters in South Africa, helping in the running of their Retreat House.

Sue has had a very varied career, for many years working as an archaeologist in the South of England and also as a tour guide and resort rep in Europe. She spent 11 years in York, worshipping at St Michael le Belfrey, while doing a variety of jobs. For the last five years, she has been working for Newcastle City Council as a Conservation Officer, dealing with listed building applications. She recently completed a course in faith accompaniment and spiritual direction at Ushaw College and is very happy to be once again working in a Retreat Centre.

Sue says: “ Shepherds Dene has more of a family feeling than other Retreat Houses. I love the atmosphere in the house and the grounds and hope it allows our guests to feel at home. As a conservationist, I also really like the vernacular style of Arts and Crafts architecture and admire the standard of the craftsmanship when the house was built.”

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Quest for Meaning

“There were some extraordinary writers after the second world war,” says John Batchelor, who leads a reading week at Shepherds Dene in June. “ They tried to find a new meaning for a devastated society and their work seems just as relevant as we seek a new direction today”.

John cites Evelyn Waugh whose famous novel Brideshead Revisited looks back to a previous era to resurrect meaning, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which uses intellectual comedy to ask profound moral questions, and William Golding’s Lord of
the Flies, which he describes as ‘a post apocalyptic romance’ in which a few survivors hold on to their values for the future.

The poetry of W H Auden and Ted Hughes ( especially Crow ), will also be discussed over the four days. It will be a relaxed ‘house party’, with time for reading, walks and spiritual reflection. John has chosen familiar texts that are not too long or difficult to read and he hopes participants will have read the novels beforehand.

Professor Batchelor is a member of All Saints Gosforth, well known for his biographies of Joseph Conrad, John Ruskin and Lady Trevelyan, and much admired by generations of students at Newcastle University for bringing literary texts to life in his lectures.

The Quest for Meaning is a residential course with full board from 1st – 4th June and costs £225. It is one of a series of retreats and events run by Shepherds Dene during 2010.

Picture of John Batchelor courtesy of Brown’s Photography

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Power of Protest

A weekend about passion and protest brings Dilly Baker and Geoff Weaver to Shepherds Dene in February. " I believe we've lost the power of protest in our worship", says Dilly. " The people of the Old Testament would protest about the state of the world and had the courage to wave their fists at God. We need to recover some of that passion".

Geoff Weaver will draw on his travels to Christian communities in Africa and Central America that express their protest and suffering in song. He will lead singing throughout the weekend using material from his book 'In Every Corner Sing' whilst Dilly will provide the reflections to broaden our awareness of God.

Not a quiet weekend but an opportunity to understand how Moses, Job and the Psalmists turned their travails into worshipping God. There will be lots of opportunities to join in singing. Enthusiasm is a must but musical ability is not required. Geoff Weaver is a musician who organised the music at the last

Lambeth Conference and Dilly Baker was formerly Warden of Scargill House. Passion and Protest is from Friday supper, 19th February to Sunday afternoon, 21st February and costs £125 full board. It is one of a series of retreats and courses run at Shepherds Dene during 2010.

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Shepherds Dene launches new programme

A wider range of courses and retreats will be on offer at Shepherds Dene in the New Year.

“ The trustees wanted us mount a more ambitious programme” says director, George Hepburn. “ We hope there is something for everyone – from traditional retreats to activity based weeks.”

The programme published in an attractive new format last month starts with a silent retreat led Bishop Stephen Pedley on the Benedictine rule and includes a 24 hour retreat on the life of St Wilfrid in May. There are more active courses on art and photography, a walking week in the Autumn and the popular Northern Saints Pilgrimage to the holy sites of Northumberland in August.

One of the innovations this year is a Holy Week Programme which runs from Maundy Thursday to Easter Day. “ The idea came from my own experience of spending Easter with the Iona Community” George explains. “ It was a much more profound way of entering into the Passion story sharing the experience with a group of fellow Christians from different churches and backgrounds without all the interruptions of domestic life”

There are also Lent Days for people unable to get away for a longer time and plans still being developed to offer quiet times on Sunday evenings in the Spring.

The full programme can be viewed online at or obtained by contacting Kathryn Hope on 01434 682 212 any weekday morning.

Shepherds Dene still continues to be available for church retreats and meetings and also for individuals guests seeking a few days peace and quiet and is already heavily booked in the first half of 2010.

January – June 2010

Monday 11th – Thursday 14th January
The Right Revd Stephen Pedley:
An Epiphany silent retreat (e.g. giving and receiving) exploring how the Benedictine and Anglican tradition responds to the gifting of God - £225

Friday 19th – Sunday 21st February
The Revd Dilly Baker and Geoff Weaver
Using both traditional and contemporary songs from the world church this retreat explores the prayer of passion and protest . - £125

Tuesday 23rd February, Wednesday 3rd March, Thursday 11th March
Wednesday 17th March
QUIET DAYS IN LENT - £15 each day

Maundy Thursday 1st April – Easter Sunday 4th April
The Revd Dr Stephen Barton
Enter into the events of the Passion, through Bible study, worship and times of quiet, woven around meal times and gatherings for worship using resources from the Holy Week liturgy. £195

Monday 24th – Tuesday 25th May
The Revd Canon Graham Usher and the Revd Joanna Anderson
Make a pilgrimage to meet the dynamic, flawed yet inspiring Anglo-Saxon saint Wilfrid, with the second day as pilgrim guests of Hexham Abbey (and beyond) and his continuing relevance to contemporary issues of faith and life.- £75

Tuesday 1st – Friday 4th June
Prof John Batchelor
This four day course studies work by three poets, Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin, and three novelists, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark and William Golding., who sought meaning for a spiritually bankrupt nation - £225

Monday 21st – Thursday 24th June
The Revd Canon Christopher Lewis
An opportunity to reflect on some of life’s big questions, with woodcarvings and music providing the stimulus. - £195

More details and retreats and courses for the second half of the year are available in the programme brochure available from Kathryn Hope on 01434 682 12 any weekend morning or downloaded from  

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