I first went to Woodbrooke in 1981 for a job interview. The post was assistant cook to Elizabeth Holmgard. At the time I was with Community Service Volunteers on a year’s placement in Edinburgh in a community for people with learning disabilities, unsure what I might do next, but cooking for 20 people twice a week and enjoying living in a community setting.
I didn’t get the job, but that didn’t matter at all. The visit to Woodbrooke was a formative experience. I was invited to stay overnight because of the travelling distance and encouraged to join in what was going on while I was there. That included a talk and slide show about somebody’s trip abroad (I forget where) on the evening I’d arrived. It made me feel very much part of the ‘extended family’ of Friends, being so similar to what my own family would do, but for a bigger group.
More significantly, the next morning I was able to join a group of students on the, then, term-time programme. The topic for the ‘seminar’ was industrial relations. It was something that had been on my degree syllabus only a year or two before. But this was so different to the way we studied at university. There, the lecturer told us what to think. Here the tutor sat in a circle with the students and listened to their views and experiences, even mine. Everyone was genuinely treated as an equal. I was really amazed at the difference, and this insight into the Quaker way has stayed with me. It is, to me, the essence of the Woodbrooke experience.
I went to Woodbrooke several more times in the early 1980s and then had a long gap while bringing up a family, returning with a MM weekend in 2003. Since then I have been on many courses and completed Equipping for Ministry. Occasionally I have the privilege of being ‘tutor’, though I am still learning whatever my role.
Over the years there have been many changes at Woodbrooke. Meals are now self-service, whereas we used to all sit down at the same time, but we still pause for a few moments of grateful silence together. Bedrooms are nearly all en-suite, though there are still some additional, spacious, bathrooms. We are no longer asked to change the beds ready for the next guests, though I still like to leave a prayer for their comfortable rest as I depart my room. The garden lounge is a very obvious change, and a delight – to be able to enjoy the garden whatever the weather; to sit and chat over coffee or knitting; to see small groups having informal meetings, or cheerful, trivial (or very earnest) discussions; to read the paper or wait for a friend.
Other more important things have not changed. The day is still framed by meeting for worship in the morning and epilogue at night. The welcome, from staff, Friends in Residence, and other course members and guests, remains as warm. And the attitude towards learning, that we are all learning together and all have a contribution to make, that so struck me on that first visit, continues as strongly as ever. I was at Woodbrooke very recently with Ben Pink Dandelion, Doug Gwyn and Tim Peat Ashworth providing most of the input and leading our course. It was delightful that they were all also full participants in the course, sharing their uncertainties as well as their knowledge.
As a friend said to me, back in 1980, ‘if you have the opportunity to go to Woodbrooke, do go.’