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Making The Most Of Retirement In Whitley Bay

Posted 18 August 2023 by Helen Christie

Gillian was one of the North East’s first ordained female priests, and is now making the most of her retirement at McCarthy Stone’s Elderton Place…

Taking part in a canoe race around Coquet Island, Northumberland, and arranging a bungee-jumping event for teddy bears may seem a strange combination, but they were once all in a day’s work for one of the UK’s earliest ordained female Church of England priests.

Now 71 and a homeowner at McCarthy Stone’s Elderton Place Retirement Living Plus development in Whitley Bay, Gillian Harwood was ordained as a deacon in 1990, then as a priest in 1994 and enjoyed a highly rewarding career in the ministry having come to it in her mid- to late 30s.

Gillian grew up in Ashington and the church has been a constant part of her life, having attended as a child and with her family before getting more involved as a Sunday School teacher and youth worker. According to Gillian, the feelings that she should take this further would not leave her.

Gillian explains: “At that time, women could not become priests, only deacons, so when I became a deacon in 1990, that was as far as I thought I could go. But the Church of England changed its rules, and eventually I, along with 16 other women, was ordained as a priest in May 1994 while serving in Morpeth, the first group in the Newcastle Diocese. It was carried out by the Assistant Bishop and it was such a special occasion.”

This closely followed the first ordination of women by the Church of England in Bristol in March of that year. Gillian described the training for the priesthood: “It was rather like the Open University – lots of home study and assignments, alongside weekly meetings, summer schools and weekends away. It’s not for everyone and not something you can just decide to do, you need help and support around you. There will be lots of questions you have to answer as you discern your vocation.”

Having spent time learning the ropes in parishes in Rothbury and Morpeth, Gillian was then given her own parish in the fishing village of Amble, near Alnwick, where she spent seven highly enjoyable years: “Fundraising was a big part of my role – and it was fantastic as everything was so varied. The canoe race around Choquet Island was certainly an experience – I hadn’t been in a canoe since my school days! I’d also managed to persuade a local boatyard to lend us their crane at the time, with people paying to watch their favourite cuddly toy perform a bungee jump, which is something you don’t see every day!”

Gillian at Elderton Place (McCarthy Stone)

Gillian’s spell in Amble also saw her meet her second husband Mike, a retired company director, at a dinner. They travelled together extensively in the US, which Mike had previously visited regularly to see his daughter.

Gillian’s final role was as Chaplain to Wansbeck Hospital in Ashington, where she spent a further seven years, visiting and ministering to people in both the main hospital and other local hospitals in the county, and supporting those facing the loss of a loved one.

Her plans for a lengthy retirement with Mike were sadly cut short when Mike passed away last year. The couple had been considering downsizing to an apartment at Elderton Place for a while, and Gillian decided to press on with this plan: “It was the best thing I ever did, I had a ready-made group of friends at a time when I really needed them. I’m now part of a group who has been asked to arrange events to bring everyone together, most notably a Burns Supper Evening, which is perfect for me. I’m not greatly involved with leading any religious activities, but I was asked to say Grace at our Burns Supper!”

Having spent all her young and working life in Northumberland, Gillian finds it ironic that she has now retired just over the border in Tyne & Wear: “I always loved living in Northumberland, the people are so friendly. When I became a priest, I had the chance to go anywhere in the country for a parish, but I waited until one came up locally, and I have no regrets.”

She concludes: “Last year was really tough – as well as my husband, I also lost another constant in my life when my dog died, but the gap has at least, in part, been filled by the wonderful people here at Elderton Place.”

Tailored support packages ensure homeowners at Elderton Place enjoy maximum independence and can spend as much time as possible focusing on what they enjoy. The on-site bistro provides a range of tasty and healthy meals each day, while the communal lounge hosts regular events and provides the chance to meet the neighbours. The landscaped patio area is available to enjoy all year round and a hotel-style guest suite enables family or friends to come for an overnight stay.

Located near the beach and harbour area, the development offers easy access to attractions such as St Mary’s Lighthouse, built on its own island, with a nature reserve and wetland habitat. Northumberland National Park and the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are also beautiful places to explore.

Purchase prices for one-bedroom apartments at Elderton Place start from £262,699 with two-bedroom homes starting from £312,199. Flexible finance options are also available to make moving even easier.

View more developments currently available from McCarthy Stone


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Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear NE26
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