Obituary of Fr George Atkinson – Parish Priest of Ambleside

Obituary by Bishop T B Pearson

Father George died in La Sagesse Hospital, Blackpool, on Tuesday, 9th January, 1973, after being bedridden for three years.
Father Atkinson became a Catholic Boys Association (C.B.A.) enthusiast whilst he was with me as a fellow curate at St. Cuthbert's Parish Blackpol,1937-38. In 1938 he was given the parish of Ambleside and I approached him in August 1939 about the use of the old tin church as a camp hall for the C.B.A. About 40 of us went, and it was the blazing hot summer which saw the outbreak of war. Wansfell Towers Hotel, which was built as a Premonstratensian Monastery, formed the background for his ever famous ghost story of the mad monk of Wansfell, which was so realistically told that even when the moonbeam fell on the open coffin it did not break the suspense.

After the outbreak of war, we went back to the camp in greater strength, and in 1940 we celebrated the first ever summit Mass on the top of Scafell Pike on July 16th, the feast of Our Lady of Carmel. This Mass was celebrated at England's darkest hour, when France had fallen and we were alone. During that camp I had been narrating my exploits as a member of the Italian Alpine Club, and the adventurous overnight stops in the club huts. Johnny Schofield, a boarder at St Joseph's College, Blackpool, asked why we could not have a hut of our own. “Because it was impossible”, I replied. “But you said that in the bright lexicon of youth there is no such word as can't” riposted John. I put the dilemma to Fr. Atkinson and within a week he had the magnificent 'hut' – a lounge, a kitchen and a huge barn-like dormitory looking right up the waterfalls of Mill Beck just behind the Dungeon Ghyll New Hotel. The rent was £25 per annum. Father Atkinson himself made the wooden beds; he did not have to sleep on them! They were so tough that they never wore out, but the members did! He joined me enthusiastically informing the C.B.A.C.C. and trained innumerable kids on Scout, on Pavey, on Broad Stand, on Scafell Chimney and on the Napes. The boys wandered every high peak within reach.

Father Atkinson hated the thought of climbing but acted as father figure, as spurer onto the rocks and hills and as carpenter, maintenance man etc, at the Langdale Hut. As a fellow ex-student of Oscot College, he was delighted to act as host to Cardinal Griffin, who made a visit in October 1948 to the A.R.C.C. headquarters in Langdale.

It was Fr Atkinson who got to know Mrs Wright from Bolton-by-Bowland who came to the Lakes to escape the bombing and bought the old isolation hospital on Dunmail Raise. Father Atkinson suggested that we buy it but we had no money, so I approached Jack Doherty, a provision agent of Blackpool, who gave me on the spot about £600 in obsolete £5 notes, on interest free loan. We eventually bought the old isolation hospital for £999, excluding the trees. Since then Mrs Wright and her agent, Captain Pinkerton, have died and the embargo no longer stands. The first time we went to Dunmail, there was a cow in the bedroom and the other rooms were full of sheep sheltering from the snow and wind. Fr Atkinson removed the cow and I the sheep. We got a loan from the Diocese to convert it to its present use.

In the meantime I persuaded Fr Atkinson that the Mecca of the C.B.A.C.C was to have a hut in Wasdale. He had never been to Wasdale but he started making frequent excursions, in search of premises, getting his car over the gravel road over Birker Moor by going up the hill by the Travellers Rest in reverse, until on about the tenth journey, he met Mr Gass spreading muck in a field. Mr Gass took to him at once and gave us Buckbarrow for £50 per annum, which we have held ever since. It was furnished by Fr Atkinson getting all the furniture from Miss O'Dowd's cottage when he found a place for her in the home run by the Little Sisters in Carlisle. We had a notice up over the door on opening day in Fr Atkinson's bold script, 'Endowed by O'Dowd'. Miss O'Dowd did not settle in Carlisle and we had to whip some blankets and a bed out again!

About this time Fr Atkinson got a fine vision of a scheme for a national Catholic Youth Centre with central block and ancillary services, camps etc. This idea was conceived because we had the chance of buying Hollens (the hotel), the cottages and all the land from the Swan to Dove Cottage, Grasmere, which still comprise that magnificent property, all for £8,000. Bishop Flynn supported the scheme but the Chapter looked on youth work as 'crackers' and even though they could not spend any money on ordinary diocesan needs in wartime, they turned it down.

It was about this time that Arnold Lunn came to see us. One day whilst we were walking over to Wasdale from Langdale with him, he suggested that we dropped the C.B.A. and formed a properly constituted climbing club. The A.R.C.C. came into being almost immediately, I think in 1948.

All time Fr. Atkinson was never at home but visiting farms, cottages and casual workers around Grisedale on the far side of Windermere, at Coniston, Langdale and Grasmere and as a result set up Mass centres at Newby Bridge, Hawkshead and Grasmere. During the war years and after, in the days of the C.B.A., camps from all over Lancashire were in session in the old tin church in Ambleside,  from June to September, the forerunner of Dunmail. We had over a hundred at one time. The nuisance and the noise on his doorstep must have been almost unbearable, yet all over the world today, in every profession, men remember Fr. Atkinson with affection and as their concept of a priest.

Yet few would know that it was not natural energy or enthusiasm which kept him going. He had months of black despair, but he never waivered in his faith and trust in Our Lady. He refused promotion because he knew his limitations and knew that he could get by at Ambleside.

It wasn't that he didn't like recognition. I think he did but the recognition he wanted was that which would further his projects in Lakeland and not remove him from the place he loved. It is true that the funds and the drive for the A.R.C.C came mainly from Blackpool and from Brother Joseph and the Xavarian boys. But without the Ambleside base provided by Fr. Atkinson and his conviction that it was Apostolic work, it could never have come into being. In that sense he is truly a co-founder of the Achille Ratti Climbing Club.

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