venue

Making these walls ring with music and silence

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Our latest speaking attender… helping to make more of the venue with music

Just over a year ago we acquired a piano with the help of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Sustainable Development Fund.  Perfectly normal for a venue of course but something of a departure for a Meeting House that has been host to silent gatherings for nearly 4 centuries.

Silence is a valued commodity for Quakers, so what was the appeal of a piano for the small group that regularly meets here?  After all, we don’t make much use of the instrument ourselves – a fine thing though it is.

In the past year we’ve been treated to a wide range of work – jazz, new compositions, spiritual songs and stories, solo and chamber choir recitals, as well as drama and monologue – some private, some public.  From the notes in the visitors’ book, the occasional tourist scratches a musical itch by playing the piano as well.

players from the Vacation Chamber Orchestra bringing old and new music to the Meeting House

For me, music is part of the fabric of living: woven into heartbeat and breath, available to help express instantly the desires, elations, traumas, rages and reliefs of the soul.  Growing up as a piano student, my piano quickly became confidante and mouthpiece: a prosthetic emotional sounding board.  The immense value of this particularly to young people can’t be overstated and it saddens me greatly that music has been one of the first casualties of cuts in education budgets.

The 19th century Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the verses which included words that would become the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ – somewhat ironically as it would turn out – as an entreaty to people to ditch elaborate ceremonies and noisy hymns in favour of the benefits of quiet reflection.  But the experience of listening to or participating in music is such a richly rewarding one, so why would anyone want to exclude it from the heart of community life?

I don’t have an answer either for Mr. Whittier or for anyone who finds Quakers’ aversion to music in worship odd.  But I do know what music can do and what at best it represents.  As with all the arts, music somehow expresses truth more eloquently than a whole library of words.  Melody, harmony, rhythm and texture all speak to the soul, giving voice to inner longings, joys and regrets, grounding the listener’s experience in the shared humanity of composer and performer.  A well-crafted piece of music appeals across cultures and throughout time, dissolving perceived boundaries of place or people; and when performers join together to create music, it demonstrates the heights to which people in co-operation can rise.

Music to set the heart racing – this gig played to a packed house!

And that would perhaps be all, except for one component of music that’s often forgotten.  The truly heart-stopping moments in music often come when the instruments stop playing, if only for an instant.  Every great performance is framed by silence, permeated by musical silences and in fact at its most translucent when silence is part of its texture.  Those silences are the canvas on which the piece is painted, the questions it attempts to answer and the material out of which it is carved.

Cello ensembles are particularly resonant in these walls…

So amidst all the beautiful, inspiring and uplifting music of religions from around the world, perhaps there is after all a place for a kind of faith that is expressed in silence: one which offers an uncrowded space, in which the music of the soul can flow unconstrained and in which we are all performers regardless of the instrumentation of our lives.

Memories recalled – Airton’s welcome then and now

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Saturday 28th September was a day of memories and reflection.  Our ‘Young Friends’ reunion brought together former guests who had spent many a magical weekend at Airton Friends Meeting House and Barn from the 1950s onwards.  Laying out fascinating old photos, they shared their stories of games by the river, muddy walks and evenings of camaraderie.
John Gilham recalls ‘…between 1995 and 2004 the young persons’ Link Group had an annual mountain-biking weekend at the Quaker “bunk barn” attached to Airton Meeting House. Conditions were Spartan, if not primitive, the cycling exhausting, exhilarating and incredibly muddy, yet many participated multiple times.

The barn had been stayed in by groups of, particularly, Young Friends since the 1950s but by 2005 was almost unusable, failing to comply with standards of health, hygiene and fire safety.  It was totally renovated and enlarged thanks to the efforts of local and regional Friends and re-opened in 2011.  On 28 September this year, Bone Jones and I attended a re-union of some of the people who had used the barn from the 1960s on.  What a contrast!  Clean, warm and spacious with modern kitchens well kitted out, comfortable-looking bunk beds and places to relax.  It can sleep up to 18 people in dormitory accommodation but also welcomes families to stay…

Of course, even more wonderful is the adjoining historic Meeting House, used for Quaker worship continuously since the early 1650s, always open.  Meeting for Worship on 2nd and 4th Sundays at 3pm.  And if that’s not enough there’s some of the most beautiful scenery in Yorkshire right on the doorstep!’

The evening gave a different take on recollection in the form of Debbie Cook’s wonderful rendition of two monologues from Alan Bennett’s canon of ‘Talking Heads’.  A feat of memory in itself, the performance brought two beautifully scripted characters to life and reminded a rapt audience why these pieces and their author are so warmly and widely loved.

Abolition – an idea whose time needs to come again

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On four Sunday afternoons from mid-September to late October this year, Airton Friends will be hosting a series of moving and informative events exploring the lives both of people experiencing slavery and those who worked towards it abolition, sometimes in spectacular fashion.  However, whilst abolition may have been a great historic achievement, it’s work is far from finished, as we will hear from speakers later in the series.

The events begin on September 17th with a performance by Leeds Heritage Corner (http://heritagecornerleeds.wixsite.com/heritage-corner) of Meet the Crafts – a two handed play based on the biographical work Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom by escaped slave William Craft, published in 1860 by William Tweedie of London.  This harrowing story charts the flight of William and Ellen from slavery in the southern US, passage across the Atlantic and their reception in this country.  150 years after publication, the written narrative, available online at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/craft/craft.html, is as gripping as any contemporary adventure, all the more intense through its being the real story of a man and woman struggling for freedom.  Meet the Crafts brings this story back to life as well as giving voice to other transatlantic voices of the time.

On October 1st, we explore the life of Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) in a dramatised reading by Arthur Pritchard and Mike Casey of Plain Quakers Theatre Projects (PQTP).  In Nine Parts a Quaker – Unfinished Business, the duo ask ‘If slavery was abolished in the nineteenth century, why are more than 20 million people enslaved today?’  The title refers to the fact that Clarkson was a sympathiser to Quaker values but was not himself a Quaker – an apt reminder that movements for change are most effective as coalitions rather than as single interest groups.  Follow PQTP on twitter @PlainQuakers.

The third event is part answer to the question posed by Nine Parts a Quaker.  Returning to the present day, in Here and Now, we will hear short talks and engage in discussion about contemporary slavery with contributions from someone who has experienced the sharp end of trafficking and domestic servitude; a former chair of Anti-Slavery International Andrew Clark; Cristina Talens of the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation (University of Hull); and Sheila Mosley of Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network.  Between them, these four speakers will shed light on the continued persistence of slavery both internationally and within the UK.  Abolitionists faced the challenges of their time with courage and determination; facing present reality is the beginning of change – so if you can only make one event in this series, this is the one to attend.

In the final event of the series, on October 29th, we travel back three centuries to explore the life and times of abolitionist Benjamin Lay (1682-1759).  Despite his small stature, he worked as a sailor, travelling to Barbados, where he was appalled by slavery.  Arriving in Philadelphia – where many of his fellow Quakers owned slaves – he provoked and annoyed them with incessant and sometimes extravagant campaigning, eventually being disowned by the Quaker meeting.  Yet his protests inspired subsequent Quaker abolitionists Anthony Benezet and John Woolman, helping to turn the movement wholesale against slavery.  This story will be unfolded for us by historian Marcus Rediker of the University of Pittsburgh, with an illustrated talk based on his book The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist (Beacon Press/Verso, 2017).

We warmly invite you to join us at any or all of these events.  Each begins at 3.30pm.  Entrance will be free and a collection will be taken to cover costs, with the surplus donated to a relevant charity by Airton Friends Meeting.

Keep updated over the next few weeks by visiting this site, including our news page.

Simon Watkins and Laurel Phillipson, 17th July 2017.

When first impressions cover an extraordinary story

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It’s easy when encountering a place for the first time to imagine that everything there is as it has always been, even when you already know that the place concerned has only recently been changed and refreshed.

Barn dormitory today
Barn dormitory today

On my first visit to Airton Meeting House and Barn I was sold on the idea of living here as warden almost instantly as much by the attractive, tranquil and well-ordered nature of the complex as by the wonderful welcome of the people who interviewed me and the potential to grow the programme of events and activities on the site.  I knew that both the Meeting House and the Barn had in recent years been refurbished and was impressed with the result but remained unaware of the depth of the transformation – particularly where the Barn was concerned – until some of the members of the Meeting showed me photographs of the interior prior to the alterations.

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one of three former upper floor dormitories (photograph Laurel Phillispon)

The images were a revelation.  I was looking at pictures of tired, dishevelled rooms of a character with which anyone who frequents old church halls or Victorian community buildings up and down the country would be familiar.  Looking at these photos, dank, musty aromas almost reach out of the images and the cold air seems to fill with footsteps and voices echoing off hard, dreary walls, floors and ceilings.  In the old photos of the Barn, those ceilings appear low – too low to correspond with the comfortable spaces I’d first encountered – and contribute to a desultory atmosphere of unreconstructed gloom.

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the upper ground floor entrance before re-ordering (photograph Laurel Phillipson)

This was the first indication that the refurbishment had been more substantial than the refit and decorate that I had imagined – albeit a thorough one.  After checking the location of the old photos and standing as close to the equivalent spot as possible, the real nature of the changes became clear.  Walls had been removed, floors lowered, staircases re-oriented.  None of the new fixtures and fittings stood in the same place as their predecessors, so that to effect the changes, the entire building had been rewired and re-plumbed.

from the same location with stairs reoriented and floor flush with outdoor ground level
from the same location with stairs reoriented and floor flush with outdoor ground level

In short, none of the former spaces seemed to map onto what I knew.  ‘Before and after’ photos tell the story: dingy corners are replaced with light-filled rooms, care having been taken to ensure access to windows from all directions wherever possible; clutter is exchanged for simplicity and order, patchy surfaces of multiple dismal shades superseded by a simple palette of warm colours, cleanly applied.

A glance at the plans revealed how space had been gained by incorporating the former garage of the Nook (now the warden’s residence) and two rooms above it into the Barn – as would have originally have been the case, since the division between these distinct building structures always lay where the join is today.

the kitchen in the lower floor before the re-ordering (photograph Laurel Phillipson)
the kitchen in the lower floor before the re-ordering (photograph Laurel Phillipson)

These alterations must have involved extraordinary technical challenges and in my view the incredible transformation of the Barn, carried out by builder Colin Atkins under the direction of architect James Innerdale,  is if anything more spectacular than the excellent refurbishment of the Meeting House.  Taken together, the two projects represent an exceptional achievement on the part of a few committed individuals, Airton Meeting’s current clerk Laurel Phillipson and the late and much loved Kevin Berry being particularly instrumental.  Their efforts – not least in raising the £300,000 required within the constraints of Quakers’ principled opposition to the use of lottery funding – ensured not only the buildings’ conservation and ongoing use but the continued presence of a living Quaker heritage in Airton, one of Quakerism’s oldest heartlands.  May it be so for many years to come.

the lower floor in the Barn today
the lower floor in the Barn today

Hello from the new Friend in Residence at Airton Quaker Meeting!

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The Dales have been familiar to me since childhood as a place of adventurous day trips with my Yorkshire grandparents (based near Barnsley) and escapes with rambling groups whilst at university in York.  But although I always thought I would eventually move to Yorkshire, I imagined the move as a sideways step from my home city of Coventry into one of the region’s metropolises – not through any particular love of cities but because that’s what I knew and because statistically speaking, the chances of a ‘Volunteer Resident Friend’ (VRF) position coming up in a small village in the heart of the landscape I’d grown up captivated by is much less likely than finding a job in Leeds or Sheffield.

I’m completely thrilled to be here.  Never mind that I’ll miss countless friends, my small suburban garden, the amateur orchestra that until last week I conducted, the choir of Holy Trinity in which I sang Bass, Coventry Quaker Meeting, the community farm at Ryton Organic Gardens from which I collected fresh vegetables every week, etc.  Coventry was good to me but I know already that life in Malhamdale will be just as rich.

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As the VRF at Airton Barn I will enjoy welcoming visitors from far and wide.  One of the attractions of the position was the opportunity to meet new people as they travel through.  As well as residential visits the Barn is a great venue suited to a wide range of creative activities including courses, retreats, away days and exhibitions – a programme I hope to continue to facilitate, having been looked after so well by my predecessor Floe for four years.  In the short term however I’m taking time to explore the country lanes & fill my lungs with the Dales air as well as getting confused over the names of the neighbours (my apologies if that includes you…)

Drop in at Airton Barn soon!