It might sound like a cliché, but on this occasion it happens to be true.
Stepping inside the Keswick Convention’s Derwent Project really is like entering Doctor Who’s Tardis. Not only does it appear to be much bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside, but it is big – in fact, enormous. Indeed, the space seems to go on and on and on… To paraphrase the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, if you thought it was a long way to the local shops, think again…
No wonder the Convention’s Head of Operations, Simon Overend, has a face which seems to crinkle perpetually into a broad and infectious smile. He greets a small deputation from Evangelicals Now with warmth and generosity of time, despite being hugely busy in the run-up to this year’s Virtual Keswick Convention online.
Progress during lockdown
Even during lockdown ‘there has been progress,’ he says, speaking of the multi-million pound project which should secure the event’s future for another generation. ‘Contractors realised they could comply with Covid-19 guidelines and continue to work, so work has been done, which is good,’ he says. ‘The building has now been essentially gutted.’
By Summer 2021 it is hoped work on the ground floor of the landmark former Pencil Factory will be fully completed, and all the mechanical engineering and infrastructure work finished throughout the whole building. Some of the unfinished empty spaces on higher floors may also be used for children’s and young people’s work next year.
All on one site
A hired tent will accommodate the main adult meetings on the same site, so for the first time all ages will be in the same part of town. The three-storey Pencil Factory will accommodate not only children and youth activities, but new toilets, and a year-round facility for a wide range of Christian and other activities. ‘We want to be good stewards of that asset. It will be hired out all year round – school groups, walking groups and so on.’
‘At the moment we will retain the Skiddaw site as well, because it is well used,’ he says, referring to the existing location in Keswick where the Convention has historically met. ‘It provides accommodation, which is important for volunteers during the Convention and for church groups throughout the year. Meanwhile Cumbria Rivers has just taken a lease on the office space on the ground floor.’
Footing the bill
The overall cost of the Derwent Project is £10.5 million. Most has been funded thus far from supporters – ‘small amounts from lots of people’ – plus some larger donations. More recently the Convention has been approaching trusts to help as well. The fact that so many ordinary Keswick supporters have been donating has made trusts much more amenable to help top up the finances further.
There will be a café during the Convention each year – and there is a suggestion that lifts in the building could go up to the roof, so people could take their coffees and teas up there and enjoy the view.
Keswick as a town is well known for its propensity towards flooding. The Derwent Project has been planned on the basis that flooding will remain a possibility. The floor level on the ground floor will be raised, and electrical wiring come down from the top of the building rather than the other way up. ‘It’s planned with flood-resilience rather than flood prevention,’ Mr Overend says. ‘The water has to go somewhere!’ Asked about disability access, he says: ‘We want it to be useable by everyone. There will be two lifts in.’
‘The overall vision for the centre is that it’s the home of the Convention, that it’s used for our growing year-round ministry here, and that it can be a resource for the Christian community not just in the north of England but the south of Scotland. Beyond that it can be used by others who wants to use it. It will pay for itself through hiring and donations. It needs to be self-sustaining and we believe it will be. Cumbria Tourism are saying it has potential for so many different uses.’
A blessing for all of Keswick
Another goal is to make the facility available for local and community groups to use, as the Convention wants to continue to be a source of benefit for the town.
David Sawday, Chief Operating Officer for the Convention, added: ‘We desire through the Derwent Project to build on our support and service to local churches. One way we want to do this is as a venue for church holidays, either through church groups using the Convention as a platform for their church holiday, or for Keswick Ministries to host and help facilitate holidays for groups of churches at other times of the year.’
The Keswick Convention has been meeting since 1875. In recent years it has enjoyed a renaissance, a newly-revitalised feel, and increasing attendance. Now it is evolving further for the future.
But some things never change. As we leave, the sunshine is giving way to low clouds, a light drizzle is settling in… It’s time to retreat to one of Keswick’s many coffee shops…
What is the Keswick Convention?
The Keswick Convention was established in 1875, and from the beginning its aim was ‘to help those wanting to know God better and to live godly Christian lives,’ its website says. ‘That remains true today. The event has developed over the years and is known for many other things as well – a commitment to mission, seeing Christians from different denominations working together, a continued emphasis on the exposition of scripture that is applied to people’s lives, year-round teaching and training opportunities and many Keswick Fellowship events around the country and indeed the world.’
The Derwent Project in a nutshell
1. To secure the future of the three-week summer Convention on an integrated site in the centre of the town of Keswick.
2. To establish a new centre of operations for Keswick Ministries’ team
3. To expand the scope of Keswick Ministries by providing a conference facility for a range of activities at other times of the year, including training programmes and Bible-teaching events.
4. To make the conference facility available to churches in the UK and beyond, particularly serving Cumbria and the North (including Scotland).