A POTTED HISTORY OF CASTLEWELLAN HOLIDAY WEEK Abridged from “Wellie Boots & Bibles” – by Bert Montgomery
What kind of event, in rainy unpredictable Ireland, can it be that children and teens plead with their parents not to go to Florida or tour Europe if the trip runs into August?
What kind of camping event, with a history of mud and flood, can it be that has people returning to it year after year? Castlewellan Holiday Week!
In the Beginning
For over fifty years The Irish Methodist Missionary Summer School, provided a faith-teaching holiday with a strong World Mission emphasis for up to 130 young people. It came to an end in 1975. By the early 80’s in Great Britain, Spring Harvest was drawing thousands each Easter to its venues and Rob Frost had established Easter People. Out of this context a group felt the call to establish a larger Irish event. They were Revs Denis Bambrick and Ken Wilson, with Mr Norman Coates, a Council of Reference was established to which the Organizing Committee reported each year and invitations were issued through the Connexion.
The opening was planned for the last week of August 1985 as “Castlewellan Youth and Family Week.” A marquee was acquired from Rev. Sam Workman for the morning meetings and set up under the direction of a Presbyterian minister, Rev Jim McCormick. It was old and could get cold and dark when the sun didn’t shine. That first year the sun didn’t shine very much and the tent was erected in pouring rain.
The organizing committee earmarked people for jobs as the bookings came in. Volunteers brought chairs and tables borrowed from Belfast churches but the first some folk knew about a job was when they arrived! Rev Cecil and Mrs Sylvia Newell were asked (in advance) to be host and hostess. Peter Murray looked after the teens programme and along with teaching and discussion introduced them to Boulder Running up the Bloody Bridge River. Daphne Twinem co-ordinated a programme for primary school children and Mrs Heather Hewitt cared for the under fours in the crèche.
The first speaker was Rev. Dr. Bill Davies, the Principal of Cliff College, who spoke each morning on ‘Witnessing’. As already mentioned the weather was particularly unkind. Howling gales flapped the tent and made the talks difficult to hear. It was a miracle that the marquee did not become airborne. At least the chairs were unlikely to follow as they sank into the ground!
Each evening, following a series by Rev George Good on the ‘Lord’s Prayer’, the adults crammed into the castle lounge to watch videos of Dr Bill Dobson teaching about Christian family life, while, depending on age, the younger generations watched ‘Joni’ or ‘Herbie goes Bananas’.
Over 200 adults and children attended the first year and were accommodated in the Castle, in caravans and tents and at Ballywillwill House, the home of Wilson and Shirley Doran.
In the first few years the campsite was in the field where the Peace Maze is but parts of the site were damp and when it rained the place flooded. That year a number of tents were washed out in the night and the occupants had to seek refuge in caravans and in the castle. Caravans bogged down and were moved to the Dovecote Yard. It is rumoured that there were so many vans in the Yard that at meal times a single saltcellar was passed from van to van through the windows!
Recreation has always been part of The Holiday Week but in the first year it was limited. Pony trekking was arranged at the Mount Pleasant Centre and thanks to Bill Colvin, water skiing on a County Down lough. Canoes were borrowed from The Boys’ Model School in Belfast and table tennis tables from Ballynahinch Methodist Church. Fun bouncers came from Bangor and David and Amy Barry brought drums from Limerick for the raft race on the lake. We don’t know who brought the Sqeezy for the water slide! There were opportunities to go orienteering and on Tuesday an ‘It’s a Knockout’ competition was held. Golf was organized for Downpatrick and Newcastle. By Thursday everyone needed a good wash, so swimming was planned for Downpatrick.
Come Saturday morning and everything had to be dismantled and prayers were offered that the marquee could be packed away dry.
The first Week was hardly over before plans were being made for 1986. Much had been learnt by experience in 1985 that needed to be discussed and improvements implemented. Early planning for each area of the Family Week was essential and leaders were appointed with appropriate teams. The Host and Hostess were Osmond and Sylvia Mulligan and the speaker was Rev John Horner.
The Youth and Children’s programme continued under the leadership of those who had led in 1985 but their teams were augmented. A youth tent was provided, hired from Knocknamuckley Boys Brigade Company, and sited close to the main tent. The Youth theme was “The Church and Young People.”
Thirty to thirty five teenagers were expected but approximately fifty turned up! In fact the total attendance in 1986 rose by fifty per cent from the previous year.
The 1986 Week began on Saturday 2nd August, earlier by three weeks than 1985, to facilitate families getting ready for the new school year. From 1986 Bill Patterson got us all mixing in a Barn Dance and Barbecue.
‘Joining in’ is a major part of the success of the week. Although the week is made up of meetings, it is in the recreation and free time that people get to know one another. One contributor recalled how “On a short walk between the marquee and the Castle two strangers went from a casual hello , through discovery of friends and acquaintances in common to longstanding friendship –“ a story that could be repeated with different details for so many.
A New Name
1987 saw a change of name to Castlewellan Holiday Week. Some single people felt the original name meant the week was for families. Since the majority of those coming to Castlewellan each year come in families, special attention has been given to those who come on their own. One single Mum, in the aftermath of a disastrous and violent marriage, wrote this about her experience of Castlewellan 2001. “Looking back on the week I felt I was lifted and carried and the load taken from me for a few days. I have often cried to the Lord for just that, because of the difficulties of single parenting. The highlights were the friendships, seeing God’s beauty in others, having someone to talk to all the time, discussing parenting with other parents and discovering that I’m not doing a bad job of it…… feeling included and connected and loved by a six hundred strong family”
The Youth programme in 1986 had been very successful but it had raised a number of issues which resulted that the Youth marquee was moved away from the main marquee as the adult programme was too easily heard and disturbed the teen talk. The teen programme divided into two age groups with a corresponding increase in leaders. This split would facilitate getting one group completely housed in the marquee and the other in a room in the courtyard.
For 1988 it was decided to hire caravans to make it possible for more people to come at a reasonable cost. Again a team of volunteers was called on to tow the vans to Castlewellan and to return them at the week’s end. The practice continued for a number of years but was dogged by the variable quality of the caravans.
The marquee was changed in 1988 but was not floored till after 2000. Further improvements in accommodation were made at the Youth Camp. The Youth and Children’s teams had grown and needed to be fed and housed. Caravans and tents were provided and these have been added to over the years.
The speaker in 1988 was Paul Smith for his first visit. (He returned in 1997) Paul and Audrey Kingston acted as host and hostess. Norman Coates, who was one of the trio with the vision for the Holiday Week, had given dedicated service as secretary and treasurer, and which also involved taking the bookings, retired from the end of the ’88 Week. He continued to serve on the Committee. Ken and Lilian Bradley agreed to serve in his place.
Castle and Campsite
In the castle grounds and on the campsite, there were two Sean’s (not many people know that), one the chief forester who lived at the gate and the one we all knew, Sean, the warden. Both became good friends and wise guides. Sean, the warden, liaises, with our camp security and those planning recreational activities, for our safety and enjoyment. Over the early years he patiently coped with ever increasing demands for camping space but when in 1990 the total on the site rose to 700 the facilities were stretched to the limit. The organizers realised a ceiling had been reached and much as they wanted Castlewellan to grow, the attendance was capped at 500 with a cushion of 50 but as the Forestry improved and expanded the facilities it was raised to 600. Site managers have tried to keep campers safe and in order.
At this point a word needs to be said about the weather. Rain. There, I’ve said it. There two essentials for The Holiday Week, Your Bible and your Wellies. Here is a comment from a camper with many years experience of the Holiday Week. “Some things never change at Castlewellan; the water slide, the rain, the rain, and the rain.” Who cared, we all came back anyway? One last comment – can anyone remember a rainy Open Day?
The Local Community
Bringing such large numbers into the proximity of a small town has its plusses and minuses. The Forest Park is open to the public and many who come in during the week enjoy watching our activities or join with us on the Open Days but unfortunately it can also be an opportunity for mischief and security has been an ongoing issue.
The Committee has worked hard to promote good relationships with the local community and we have benefited from the involvement of local talent in the Concert and at the Barn Dances. In 1997 when a lad from the town was brutally murdered, a small group from the Holiday Week called with his parents to offer sympathy and prayer.
Over the years the Week has been blessed by marvellous speakers in both the adult and youth programmes and a list is given at the end of this history along with those who have been hosts and hostesses and link people on the Campsite. Some have so touched the lives of the members that they have been invited back. It is not possible in this short volume to record the contribution made by each speaker. On the basis of a comment by a past Castlewellanite. “I can’t remember what he said, but it was impressive,” we shall not try to go into detail, we will mention a few. Steve Chalke was such a hit with our young people that some of them arrived at the main tent pleading with the sound team to come down and record him! Rob Frost was a nightmare to record as he and Jackie got folk on stage to do little dramas and no one was near the mike but the challenge of the message got across. Andy Hickford, who on his second visit, expounded the book of Esther with the challenge to us all that in whatever situation we found ourselves, God had placed us there “for such a as time as this.”
The evening meetings moved from video lectures in the first two years to a wide range of speakers addressing issues of significance to the church and our community. We were challenged to give short-term service overseas or become involved in the Lay Witness Movement. We have been challenged about the environment, informed about the New Age Movement, and heard from the founders of ECONI, now the Centre for Contemporary Christianity. A most memorable night was when we were addressed by Fr. Gerry Reynolds from Clonard Monastery. His gracious manner and sincerity won over some who were unsure about him coming. Time has regularly been allocated to hear of the World Church and groups from Ghana, Japan, Brazil, Germany, Russia and France have attended.
Ask the regulars to Castlewellan what brings them back each year and Praise will rank high in the replies. Praise ranks high because by it we are carried into the presence of God. Castlewellan Week has been blessed by gifted musicians and praise leaders. Amy Barry, Alan Cunningham, Marie Lacy, Paul Good, Wesley Stirling, Alan McCartney, Robin Mark and Band, Simple Truth, Ross Harte and Soul Purpose are names recorded in the minutes but we must not forget the musicians who joined them from the Holiday Week. The youth programme has also been blessed by great worship leaders for their other sessions. We were introduced to contemporary worship and others gained the opportunity to use their instruments not always afforded in their home churches. We all learnt new songs year after year and revelled in the favourites of years past. Most fundamentally praise fulfils the purpose of the Holiday Week, to bring people nearer to God. Our meetings are arranged in such a way that praise precedes the teaching of God’s word and prepares us to receive it but so often He meets us profoundly in our praise before a word of teaching is spoken.
In the review of each year by the committee the comment is often made. “The praise wasn’t long enough”
Hosts and Hostesses
Key to the welcome given at Castlewellan is those who have served as hosts and hostesses each year. Initially, a couple were Host and Hostess to the Castle and the Camp but as numbers increased and with the physical separation of the Campsite from the Castle it was necessary to have Link Persons in the Campsite who were effectively another Host and Hostess. Apart from the obvious role of meeting folk as they arrived at registration there was an ongoing duty to keep an eye out for anyone who was feeling isolated. Hosts and Hostesses were the point of contact for help, whether practical or spiritual.
Youth and Children’s Programme.
The Youth and Children’s Programme could provide a history in itself. Some aspects of its beginnings have been recounted but the programme has developed in response to its popularity. The young people of our Church and beyond want to come to Castlewellan because of the fun they have but they also meet God in the praise, in the teaching and in each other. The love of God is made evident in the lives of those who care for them and lead them. From the Crèche to the Twenty’s Group the programme has been blessed by gifted leaders.
The employment of a qualified person became necessary to comply with Child Care Law in 1995 though a rota of helpers continued and someone from the Holiday Week remained as the link person for parents and the crèche.
Concerning the Children’s Programme for the first few years the programme was homegrown but in 1991 Holiday Club Material was introduced. This eased some of the burden on the teams but there was still a lot of work to do to keep the children’s interest.
With the Youth Programme from 1994 Youth Speakers were invited. Some of the main speakers like Steve Chalke, Andy Hickford and Rob Frost also contributed to the Youth Programme. One needs to be patient and not ask too many questions if you want to hear from a teen what their programme was like. We know they were good because we see the fruit in changed and rescued lives.
None of this would have taken place if it had not been for the vision of Ken and Denis and Norman. It would not have continued without the work of those who faithfully serve on the committee.
It has already been said that getting things right is a constant struggle for the committee. During the ‘90’s questionnaires were circulated and the feedback used to make improvements. In 2000-2001 a SWOT analysis was carried out and the findings discussed under the guidance of an independent chairperson. The implementation of that discussion endeavours to keep the vision for the Week fresh. All the planning is surrounded by prayer – prayer for specific parts of the programme and prayer through the year for all who will come to the next Holiday Week. A sign of the success of Castlewellan Holiday Week is that after 28 years the leadership of the Week has moved to the next generation. For those of us who started in 1985 it is good to know we did something our children are pleased to continue.
Where do we go from here?
Jane McKendry wrote in an article. “God has a busy week at Castlewellan!” “The success of Castlewellan Holiday Week is that year after year God is busy meeting us.”
What of the future? A recent speaker left a challenge for the future of The Holiday Week when he said we had“…..something very special at Castlewellan Holiday Week and needed to give it away to the wider church in Ireland.”
In the years ahead will we let the dream come true?
Castlewellan Holiday Week List of Speakers:
1985 Bill Davies George Good (pm)
1986 John Horner
1987 Brian Hoare
1988 Paul Smith
1989 Rob Frost
1990 Alan Broadbent
1991 Martin Turner
1992 Leo Osborn
1993 Rob & Jackie Frost
1994 Steve Chalke Youth Speakers
1995 Derrick Bingham Dave Martin
1996 Andy Hickford
1997 Paul Smith
1998 Gordon McDade
1999 Andy Hickford
2000 Michael Cassidy Gordon McDade
2001 David Wilkinson Dave Hitchcock
2002 Ajith Fernando Philip Jinadu
2003 Harold Miller Dave Hitchcock
2004 Ken Blue Mike Williams
2005 Paul & Priscilla Reid Claire Hill
2006 Grace Imathiu Dave Clawson
2007 Jon Middendorf Andy Frost
2008 Heather Morris Adrian Eagleson
2009 Jeff Lucas Patrick Regan
2010 Stephen Cave Brian Heasley
2011 David & Mairisine Stanfield Dot Tyler
2012 Jon Middendorf Andy Gibson
2013 Andy McCourt Stuart Hawthorne
2014 Neil Hudson Various speakers
2015 Brian Heasley Rick Preston
2016 Andy Flannagan Jonny Hampton
2017 Michael & Belinda Briggs
2018 Gunta Grina-Sologuba
2019 Sean & Anna Mullan Nigel Mackey
2020 Jon Middendorf
Castlewellan Holiday Week Hosts:
1985 Cecil & Sylvia Newell
1986 Osmond & Sylvia Mulligan
1987 Alan & Martha Hamilton
1988 Paul & Audrey Kingston
1989 Wilfred & Norma Stafford
1990 Wallace & Jean Lambert
1991 Desmond & Daphne Hamilton
1992 Dermot & Val Fitzgerald
1993 Stephen & Hazel Baird
1994 George & Dorothy Harrison
1995 Oliver & Karen Hetherington
1996 Ken & Patricia Lindsay
1997 Brian & Joanna Surgenor
1998 Bill & Gwen Patterson
1999 Maurice & Margaret McCann
2000 Brian & Margaret Sweeney
Campsite Hosts Castle Hosts
2002 Sean & Liz Cunningham Tom & Isabel Kerr
2003 Malcolm & Joy McQueen Keith & Norma Irvine
2004 Alan & Helen Shiel Keith & Norma Irvine
2005 Alan & Helen Shiel Andrew & Jean Kingston
2006 John & Mabel Warren Brian & Laura Griffith
2007 John & Patricia Stothers Brian & Laura Griffith
2008 John & Patricia Stothers Pauline Simpson
2009 Mervyn & Claudette Kilpatrick Patricia Donald
2010 John & Gillian Stephens Patricia Donald, Joanne Young & Betty Hunter
2011 Mervyn & Eileen Stevenson Joanne Young, Leah & Benny Abbott
2012 Mervyn & Eileen Stevenson Mavis Barclay & Lorraine Hall
2013 David & Joanne Rock Mavis Barclay