I first discovered Retreats for You in late-2010 after a relatively minor career setback, and had the most wonderful, rejuvenating few days working on my novel. My career and the novel perked up immediately and for about 6-8 months everything ticked along quite decently thank you. Then in mid-2011 All The Things happened and life crashed down around me like some dreadful medieval morality play with no end, to the point where I was close to kneeling on the floor praying to unspecified higher powers to PLEASE JUST STOP SHITTING ON MY HEAD. My holiday experiences in the last two years have set the bar pretty low. A girls’ week in Greece with my mum last year began with me being revived by Athenian pensioners after fainting from heat exhaustion at the ferry port, and ended with her berating me progressively more loudly over personal aspects of my life until the English guests eating next to us at the restaurant got up and left. Among the many things I nearly gave up on after 2011 (My novel. Journalism. Life…) was hope of ever going back to Retreats For You. Then, earlier this year, as part of a gradual realisation process that there’s only so long you can spend entire mornings listening to Back To Black on repeat in pyjamas, I started reworking the pre-2011 novel, keeping many of the characters and themes but changing some of the emphasis. I entered a screenplay based on the reworking to the BBC Writers Room, which made the longlist from nearly 3,000 entries, and gave me the confidence boost I needed to come back to the novel in earnest. At which point, my grandmother and mum very kindly clubbed together to buy me a week at Retreats For You as a present.
The retreat, owned by the lovely Deborah and Bob, is situated at a picture-postcard thatched cottage in the North Devon village of Sheepwash, Beaworthy. It’s a writing retreat rather than a writing course, and other than set meal times where people normally eat together (you can request meals be brought to your room if you’re feeling particularly unsociable/ill/industrious) you’re free to do as you please. Great if you’re like me (yes, I may seem like an over-open-hearted gobshite here but I’m quite a fragile old girl really and not a fan of forced socialising, preferring to get to know people at my own pace). There are no beanbags chairs, no exercises, or prolonged sessions of fannying about talking about The Craft. It’s simply somewhere to Write The Damn Thing free of distractions. Cooking or doing chores is vehemently banned (so no blitzing the laundry or baking a cake because it suddenly looks preferable to a few more hundred words….). I set myself what felt like an ambitious a target of 10,000 words in four days, taking me up to 30,000 altogether. And I achieved it. For context, 10,000 words is probably more than I wrote in the whole of 2011, let alone four days. And I wrote the 15,000 word Dissertation for my undergraduate degree in 2.5 weeks and literally broke down. To think I can write 10,000 and have a very nice, sociable, wine-fuelled, music-fuelled time doing it was something of a revelation.
The weather, an abrupt plunge into autumn after circa three months of writing in beachwear and flip flops, left much to be desired at first. It was colder than the last time I stayed, in late-October (at one point I had four layers on – including a borrowed wooly jumper with a probable baked-bean stain on the front – and had resigned myself to never feeling the touch of another’s hand for the rest of my life). However, I managed one virtuous morning run in the drizzle (Verdict: Oww). A couple of days and a few thousand words down the line it had cheered up enough for me to take a couple of lovely walks round to the nearby village of Totleigh, home to a residential writing course run by the Arvon Foundation. I took a tonne of photos, mostly of cottages, skies, streams and amusing signposts.
Writing retreats can be expensive – this isn’t, and comes out at tremendously good value. Hairdryers, towels, dressing gowns, wellies and many other amenities are provided, the guest bathroom is stocked with enough beauty products and pharmaceuticals to kit out a branch of Boots, and Deborah’s – vegetarian-friendly – food is so delicious there’s a Retreats For You cookbook in the offing. If I were tied to a chair and forced to find a niggle it would be the lack of full-length mirror in my room (after three days of solid indoor writing I took a selfie in the middle of a trafficless country road and realised I physically resembled someone whose entire family had just perished in a fire…). There’s also no indoor mobile phone signal, so if long, intense phone conversations are your cuppa you’ll need to Skype (there’s wifi in every room and Deborah and Bob rely on it like oxygen, so internet access isn’t a problem – as my social media followers will attest…).
To sum up: I spent five amazingly productive days in great company with hosts who treated me like a good friend even though it had been three – largely hideous – years since I was last there. I made nice new friends too. The full house of guests included two academic writers, a playwright, a flash-fiction writer, and a published novelist/creative writing mentor who’s the sister of a very famous and revered stage actor. I was the baby of the bunch but I’m well used to being that and held my own after a while. Two of them were a very lively, lovely couple: A woman on her second marriage and her husband, a forthright film buff (no, I didn’t nab them for research purposes …). We all talked about everything from indigenous Canadian politics to coping with adult ADHD, to the challenges of having a famous relative, to leaving your husband for a woman. Whilst drinking a lot of wine (at one point I likened it to “a middle-aged Freshers Week” – Deborah wasn’t so keen on having that in her marketing literature oddly enough…). On my last evening, having reached my word target, everyone drank champagne in my honour, which was incredibly touching and sweet. While under the influence of said champagne I was brave enough to briefly read from my novel. It’s largely about a difficult marriage between a Lib Dem MP and her Tory-voting husband, and the segments I read included an early scene set in a Lib Dem constituency office on the night of the 2010 election (apparently the most difficult thing about hearing it was remembering a time when people liked Nick Clegg…)
When I go back next time (which there will be, subject to £££) I hope it will be to edit the first draft of my first ever completed, full-length novel. Or to work on many of the other creative writing ideas knocking around my brain (namely a play for the Verity Bargate award next summer, and a short story). I came to Retreats For You having reached some of the cruddiest points you can reach in life without being homeless or going to war. I left feeling recharged and determined, as though I had something to aim for. Which, in my line of business, such as it is, is probably the most important feeling you can have. All being well during the next few months (i.e no-one dies and I don’t sleep with anyone inappropriate…) I should have a completed first draft by around late-January, ready for editing and querying in the spring.
Lastly, a few tips for getting the most out of your stay…
- Know what you want to work on The more you know where you’re going with your work, the more you’ll get from the time. Last time I worked on a synopsis and opening chapters, this time I’m further in so my time felt a lot more productive.
- Bring woolies Due to the age and size of the house it can feel cold, especially when you’re sitting still.
- Have a computer doctor you can call in I.T emergencies especially if you’re coming from far away and not by car. I recently discovered the excellent Mac Doctor in Marylebone, who provide free out-of-hours support over the phone, and wrote their number down in about sixteen different places. Thankfully I didn’t need them during the week, but knowing that if something went wrong I wasn’t doomed to a wasted week staring at a malfunctioning laptop hugely put my mind at rest.
- Embrace the motivational power of flapjacks and a glass of wine at 6pm on the dot Enough said.
- Explore the local area Being there only a short time I had to make the most of every minute, but still found time for regular walks. Sheepwash has gorgeous surrounding countryside. If you’re staying longer/with a car, make the most of it.
- Just be you People often imagine writing retreats are full of David Starkeys or old hippies. People had their idiosyncrasies but there were no mad dons/people who insisted on bathing in the sink to save water. Guests vary hugely in their age, interests, career stage, writing stage, level of openness and drinking capacity. There’s no pressure to be anything you’re not or do anything you don’t want to do, just an atmosphere that’s gently conducive to working hard and doing your best. A writer couldn’t ask for anything nicer…