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Holidays - Inspire June 2011 - Hayes Conference Centre anniversary

The Hayes of our lives

Set in the quiet Derbyshire village of Swanwick, The Hayes is celebrating a century as the UK’s leading Christian conference centre

Five German prisoners of war famously spent weeks tunnelling out of the place but countless thousands have also dug deep at The Hayes, Swanwick – and uncovered countless spiritual blessings.

The first major Christian conference centre in the UK and still the biggest, The Hayes is celebrating its 100th anniversary – though few know the place was requisitioned as a major prisoner of war camp in World War II.

“Our POWs may have been unwilling ‘guests’ but visit any mainstream local church, from Baptist to Anglican, Salvation Army to Pentecostal, and invariably you’ll find several people who have enjoyed a time of refreshment and renewal at The Hayes,” said Brian Cupples, general manager of The Hayes. “It is thrilling to find just how many have grown in faith and been called to lifelong ministry here.

“We have constantly developed to meet the changing needs of our visitors – a key to our success.”

And times have certainly changed. In the days before WWII, visitors in large groups would often camp out on rolling lawns. Indeed, one of the most influential bishops of the 20th century, the late Lesslie Newbigin, recalled being called to Christian ministry under canvas at The Hayes!

Reflecting the demands of 21st century consumers, the centre now offers residential and day conference facilities for up to 400 delegates, in mainly en-suite accommodation. With over 30 meeting rooms, many equipped with the latest audio-visual equipment and wireless internet, the centre has certainly kept up with the demands of today’s guests.

According to recent research, one million people in the UK each year get away on a residential Christian holiday, conference or course. With almost 40,000 people a year passing through its doors, The Hayes is able to cater for groups large and small. As part of CCT, the charity also operates High Leigh Conference Centre in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire and the newly-launched Belsey Bridge Conference Centre in Ditchingham, East Anglia.

Dozens and dozens of thankful visitors, including a dozen or so bishops, have written to The Hayes, recalling special moments.

Eric Wollaston cycled from Surbiton to Swanwick in the 1950s to attend a conference. “A dazzlingly pretty blonde entered the room … we have just celebrated our 52nd wedding anniversary!” he recalls.

Rev HP Barkham attended a Congregational Forum in 1960. “I heard the voice of God calling me distinctly to serve overseas,” he writes. “From that moment I was certain, to quote the words of Dag Hammarskjold ‘that ... my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.’”

Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams: “The Hayes has been a valuable resource for quiet reflection and recharging of batteries,” he said. “I hope it will continue to play its important role in Christian life.”

The Hayes Conference Centre:  Ideal for weekends away, retreats, conferences, meetings, away days
and group events. Full details: or call 01773 526000.


  • Built by Fitzherbert Wright in the 1860s. If the conservatory looks a bit like St Pancras station, there’s good reason. Wright built both
  • Wright’s great-great-granddaughter is Sarah Ferguson, formerly married to HRH Prince Andrew
  • Sold to the Student Christian Movement in 1910 to become the UK’s first major Christian conference centre
  • Notable early attendees at Hayes conferences include TS Eliot, Sir John Betjeman and CS Lewis
  • Requisitioned as a POW camp in WWII. Among notable POWs were Bert Trautmann, who broke his neck playing in goal for Manchester City in the 1956 FA Cup Final – and played on!
  • The growing success of the venue can be seen in the following visitor night statistics: 1949 – 30,000, 1961 – 50,000, 1980 – 80,000
  • In 2011 The Hayes is still the largest Christian conference centre in the UK – with 432 bed spaces – but can cater for groups from four to more than 400

The one that got away!

In 1940, The Hayes was requisitioned to house prisoners of war. In December 1940, five German POWs tunnelled their way to freedom, one of them being the legendary Franz von Werra. All five were recaptured but von Werra escaped again – from Canada – and made it back to Germany, the only POW to do so throughout WWII. Von Werra’s escape from The Hayes is featured in the 1950s war movie The One That Got Away. Most of the tunnel is intact.


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