Being Great in Northumberland

By John Ellis


Shepherds Dene Retreat House

I was glad to spend the weekend with the United Reformed Church History Society at the binennial Study Conference and to lead the conference Sunday service. This year the conference was based at the Diocese of Newcastle’s Retreat House at Riding Mill, a hamlet 15 miles west of Newcastle along the Tyne Valley which retains its own railway station.

As is usually the case, erudite papers were read on a wide variety of topics with particular significance for Christians of our tradition. For example, Professor Stephen Orchard gave an illustrated tour of the nineteenth century temperance movement, the Revd Nigel Lemon reminded us of the group of former Lay Pastors who became Ministers by Assembly Resolution in the early years of the URC and Dr John Thompson analysed enticing extracts from the coverage of the First World War by the weekly paper The Christian World.

There was local colour too. The Revd James Breslin, well known as our previous Clerk of the Assembly but also a minister who has devoted more than 30 years of his ministry to pastorates in the North East, turned historian (or was it detective?) to unravel the complex story of Presbyterianism in Northumberland. Scottish influences and disputes interwove with the English context.


Great Bavington URC

For practical work, the Conference saw something of this context in a rural tour on the Saturday afternoon. If some thought Riding Mill remote, it was nothing compared with Great Bavington United Reformed Church. “Great” was a surprising adjective for a cluster of farm buildings and cottages at the end of a long single track road. One really needed a horse rather than a car for the remainder of the journey, until down a rocky path and at the end of a grassy walk one was confronted with a pair of donkeys in a field on the left and Bavington Chapel on the right. The latter dates from 1725 and is the oldest surviving Presbyterian cause in Northumberland. It was good to know that God is still worshipped there regularly.

The History Society deserves to be better known as the Church grapples with how its distinctive traditions can enrich contemporary discipleship and mission. Any enquiries would doubtless be welcomed by the new Secretary, Mrs Margaret Thompson, at


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *