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Half a century of welcome for young people

In the village of Horstead, just on the edge of the Norfolk Broads, is something quite unique. Celebrating its 50th year, the Horstead Centre is based in the beautiful Old Rectory and is the only Church of England children’s residential activity centre in the country. Josie Barnett, Centre Manager, charts its history over the past half-century.

The Horstead Centre provides a wonderful place for young people to develop their spiritual, physical, intellectual and social capacities within a caring Christian community. For 50 years the Centre has been providing these extraordinary life-changing experiences for young people. At its essence is the heart it has for young people, reflecting God’s love for each of them, their development, their spiritual nourishment and their agenda. Horstead is needed as much today as it was 50 years ago when a true visionary, Canon Arthur Gillion, set it aside as a special place for young people. What a wonderful legacy to have influenced the development of what we estimate to be 300,000 young lives!

Back in 1964, it was simply a Rectory, recalls the Revd Ron Ingamells, Diocesan Youth Officer from then until 1979. He remembers Bishop Launcelot Fleming asking him and Canon Gillion to further explore Arthur’s vision of a Christian residential youth centre.

From the early 70s, with the Revd John Towler as Warden of the Centre and Rector of Horstead, many parish youth groups came for weekends with the emphasis on preparation for confirmation. There were school groups and international groups – particularly from Germany and the USSR.

The outdoor activities began to be developed and the Centre as we know it today began to take shape during the Revd Richard Woodham’s 10-year tenure as Rector and Warden until 1987.

The first full-time Warden signalled a significant change of emphasis with the arrival of Neville and Val Khambatta. Changes in the school curriculum required schools to demonstrate delivery of adventurous activities and Horstead responded. Activities developed: open canoeing, archery, and orienteering. Extra staff arrived in the form of volunteers taking a year out between school and university. Multi-activity summer holiday weeks grew from a small start to fill all the spare summer weeks.

School groups, which had arrived late on Monday and left on Friday morning, discovered they could double-up by arriving early on Monday morning, then changing over at lunchtime on Wednesday and doing it all again before leaving late on Friday afternoon. Sometimes the weekend group arriving crossed over with the school group leaving! It was chaotic at times, demanding, challenging but nearly always FUN.

Val says: “There are still times when Neville and I are shopping in Norwich and the person at the checkout looks at us and the name on the card and says: ‘Did you run that place that our school took us away too? It was great!’ It’s heartening to know that over ten years later they still remember what they got from the Horstead Centre.”

Val and the Trustees addressed the challenges of taking an old rectory and redeveloping it. It no longer needed to house a vicar, so it became possible for the whole building to be used for a residential activity centre.

Neville recalls a time when a group of very young primary school children were having fun in the river. “One little girl climbed out dripping and shivering with cold but stated: ‘I’ll be alright when I get home and have a shower.’ Her friend replied: ‘But we aren’t going home for a long time yet!’ She responded: ‘No, home, where the man and the lady live’. For that little girl, first time away from home on a school trip, home was Horstead. For us, that is the magic of the place!”

A Diocesan report into the value to young people of the work the Horstead Centre was made in 1994 and exceeded all our expectations. The fundraising for future development began in earnest.

The building re-development was completed in March 2001 – just in time for the arrival of the first group of the new season in March 2001… and we do mean just! But that is another story.

I took up the reins in 2011, new to the Church of England and to Centre life, working with a new board of trustees, ably chaired by Christopher Lawrence, to rekindle the flame that had been ignited 40 years previously. With a dedicated and professional staff team, the Centre is a busy hive of activity throughout the year.

During term-time, the Centre is filled with primary-aged children on their school residentials. School holidays see the pre-confirmation youngsters from our twinned Swedish Diocese, Lulea, and visiting choristers giving the Cathedral choir a break. At weekends we welcome our lovely church youth groups of every denomination, as our God loves wondrous variety.

The Horstead Centre is still meeting the need in young people today, helping them on their journey through life to become the unique and wonderful person God wants them to be.

“I have been to the Horstead Centre many times, both as a young person and as an adult leading youth groups, and I have so many happy memories from that wonderful place. Just last year our youth group spent a day with a group of young people from Sweden who were staying for a pre-confirmation retreat. We had a fantastic time canoeing, eating, and worshipping together. There were also some great cross-cultural friendships formed between the young people (and the leaders) that continue to flourish long after the event. We enjoyed it so much we hope to do the same thing again this summer!”

The Revd Jack Branford, Assistant Curate, Aylsham & District Team Ministry

“As a school, we have continued to return to the Horstead Centre year after year because of the great experiences our children have had. The warm welcome from the friendly staff and the supportive encouragement given to the pupils to develop their resilience, stretch themselves and try something new or outside of their comfort zone is also a key reason for our return each year. We’ve got nothing but positive praise for our experiences of the Horstead Centre. Keep up the great work, we can’t wait to visit again later this year!”

Kate Copeland, Headteacher at St Edmund’s Primary School

This article first appeared in The Magazine Summer 2019. See more articles here.

Related links:

The Horstead Centre’s website