A Place to Hear God Speak; It's a College, a Conference Centre and a Retreat House. Most of All Its a Home. This Year Marks the 100th Anniversary of the Unique Institution That Is Woodbrooke. Jo Ind Reports

The Birmingham Post (England), November 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

A Place to Hear God Speak; It's a College, a Conference Centre and a Retreat House. Most of All Its a Home. This Year Marks the 100th Anniversary of the Unique Institution That Is Woodbrooke. Jo Ind Reports


Byline: Jo Ind

It is one of those glorious mornings that only November can do. The delicate sunshine is kissing the reds, oranges and yellows of the yews, willows, oaks, alders and beech around the lawn.

A copper carpet covers the pathways and a brook gurgles through the crunchy woodland while the still lake mirrors the wedding-cake home.

Were it not for the buzz of the traffic it would be hard to believe we are in Birmingham; but that is where we are -in the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, just before the congested A38 becomes the Bristol Road South.

It is hard to define exactly what Woodbrooke is. The term 'Quaker Study Centre' sounds about as dry as the coppiced logs after a summer free of rain.

If libraries and books were what it is all about, why would there be a walled garden with beds for cut flowers and fruit and vegetables for the kitchen?

Why would the woodland be a conservation area, encouraging as wide a variety of native plants, fungi and animals as possible? Inside the grand 1830s house, three women are drinking tea, one with her legs curled up on a chair. They are saying what Woodbrooke means to them.

'It's a unique place,' says Kirsten Richardson, aged 42, who is from the US but studying for a PhD at the University of Bath. 'There are many conference centres. There are many retreat centres. There are many places where you can do a course, but it's the unique combination of all of those that makes it.

'It's a place where Friends (Quakers, who are also known as The Religious Society of Friends) and people associated with Friends can come together and learn together.

'I don't really have a home so when I come here even if it's just for two weeks, in a sense it is coming home. It's the ambience of it.'

When Lizzie Evans, aged 53, comes down to Birmingham from Harrogate, she loves that moment when she can see Woodbrooke as she walks from the station.

'As I walk down the hill I can feel my heart lifting,' she says. 'I ring the bell and when the door opens and someone says, 'Oh hello', it's like coming home.'

Marjorie Bell, aged 58, from Lancaster says: 'We just love it to bits.'

The director of Woodbrooke, Jennifer Barraclough, says: 'It's a complex and unique institution. As its director I'm a cross between a manager of a theological college and a hotel.

'People have a great deal of affection for Woodbrooke. When people come they say, 'Gosh this is nice'. There is a great sense of place here. It has made a difference to people's lives. My role is holding that together.'

Woodbrooke is a college with a permanent teaching team and world class library.

It is the only centre for Quaker teaching in Europe, offering postgraduate study in conjunction with Birmingham University and running a two year study programme for people wanting to know more about Quakerism.

It also offers weekend course on art, spirituality, ethics or history from a Quaker perspective.

But unlike some academic institutions, Woodbrooke is always open, which is perhaps an important aspect of its feeling like a home.

'We're here 24/7,' says director Jennifer Barraclough. 'We don't shut at five.'

It employs 40 members of staff, including a gardener, four chefs, two people in marketing and an IT consultant.

And because it is a lovely building set in beautiful, organically cared for grounds, it is also used as a conference centre with more than 130 meetings and conferences taking place there each year.

In addition, various organisations are based at Woodbrooke. The international not-for-profit agency called Responding to Conflict, is one, offering advice and crosscultural training to people working in violent situations like the Middle East.

There has always been an international dimension to Woodbrooke. Overseas students stay there and Quakers from all over the world visit. …

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