I’ve just spent a very marvellous three and a half-days at the Devon writers retreat Retreats For You – courtesy of my very kind grandma – to help me crack on with book edits. I’d been there twice before but not very recently and perhaps my biggest achievement of the week was getting there at all. For the last three years I’ve suffered from especially debilitating anxiety attacks that are especially brought on by travelling. The retreat was originally offered to me as a birthday present for 2015 but travelling alone, writing books, or spending a week with a group of strangers in the middle of nowhere were all very much off the menu then. Long-term therapy has been helping with the why’s. Thankfully necessity won over anxiety – I have an Arts Council mentoring bursary and a deadline for using it. I’ve been sludging through edits over the summer and knew going away was a matter of now or never.
Retreats For You has also had a tough couple of years and is now under new management after the original owner Deborah D.’s husband died suddenly in early 2016. I was on a train back from a long run when I heard the terrible news shortly afterwards. A crowdfunder was immediately set up by writer and regular guest Angela Clarke (I blogged about it at the time, she wrote about it for City newspaper The Wharf). Like many returning guests I assumed Deborah would close shop. However, she decided to find a buyer so it could continue, and it was taken over at the end of last year, by another Deb, Deb Flint.
I’ll admit I was cautious about the idea of going back at first, not knowing whether it would be The Same without the Deborah and Bob I knew and liked. But much is still the same, and the few changes suited me well. New Deb has kept the twee and cosy spirit of the place, with a bit more of a help-yourself vibe to it. Rather than it being her family home she lives in London half the week so guests get two or three days with her to settle in and one or two days left to their own devices. Everything began in my favour: Avoiding all the train mess at Waterloo by getting on at Basingstoke, then travelling through beautiful rolling hills in heatwave sunshine with National Express by the Divine Comedy in my ears. There were five other guests when I arrived, which is as busy as it gets, plus two resident chubby and docile Labradors, Daisy and Gracie. I had the downstairs room which used to be a TV room and still has a TV, with the neighbouring bathroom virtually to myself. I can live with a single bed when it’s so comfortable. There’s also wifi throughout the house but treat it as a normal working week and you shouldn’t get too distracted; it also helps with anxiety to know I’m contactable if need be. Bob’s former workshop has been converted into a studio for extra writing space. I couldn’t use it because my laptop needs a plug to run but there’s also a huge TV and exercise machines, should you be so inclined. Deb’s helpers Linda and Wendy come in three times a day to do all the cooking and do a great job with everyone’s dietary needs whilst playing vintage music and arguing with the Alexa in the kitchen. There’s a ready supply of tea, coffee, snacks and homemade bread so delicious it’s worth the gastric consequences. Deb has cutely labelled cupboards, walls and containers with magic marker so things are easy to find, and you don’t have to spend most of your week saying: “Sorry, where’s the…?”‘Wine o clock’ is daily at six (and it is the only place in the world where the phrase ‘wine o’clock’ is acceptable to me). There are often tutors in residence for writers to get feedback and mentoring if they want it. The tutor for my week was Jayne Watson (from my hometown! I always meet someone from my hometown when I go anywhere!) I’m already getting feedback from somewhere else through my bursary so I didn’t see the need to pay extra, but from what I overheard the sessions were helpful and those who had them seemed to think so. Jayne was also lovely and told a funny story at dinner about getting pissed with a prominent Old Labour irritant…
I resolved that unlike in the past I wasn’t going to talk much to anyone about what I was writing and instead I’d adopt the Monty Python approach (“Get on with it.”). Generally fellow writers respect this and are similarly modest about their own work. I held my resolve, keeping my mouth shut and my head down. Despite Enya, lavender balm and a good sleep routine, by Day 2 I was knackered and being propped up with matches at the dinner table “You look shattered. You’re suffering, aren’t you girl?” said Jayne as I sat opposite her with my head spinning after one glass of white. I also had neck strain – my laptop stand which protects me from RSI was too bulky to bring on the train. I improvised an ice pack thanks to guest Joceyln – who was into her third week – and propped my laptop up on some big books. The neck strain receded and Day 3 was both productive and pain-free. Deb treated us to a dinner rendition of Cheek to Cheek in preparation for her daughter’s wedding. Someone spotted a Dionne Warwick CD in the hall so we put it on and all sang Do You Know The Way To San Jose. I arrived a quarter of the way into edits and by the end of Day 3 I was just over halfway through. As a last-night treat for reaching my target, me and a couple of the other writers had a movie night and watched Whip It with Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page which was funny and silly and very American. Unlike the finale of Trust Me which we’d watched on Tuesday – strewth! I chatted to writer Penny who has a blog called Great Things About Cancer, which is candid and funny with no cheesy motivational quotes Photoshopped onto sunsets – big win.
Early on Friday before I left I went for a gorgeous run in the early morning sun out to the nearby village of Totleigh, where the Arvon Foundation have a retreat. I missed the sign for the Arvon house itself and the route was much hillier than I remembered from walking it three years earlier. Thus a 5K run ended up being 8K run-walk but I’d allowed the time for it and who minds getting lost in a big bucket of fresh air and twee? My playlist featured Come Up and See Me Make Me Smile, Lorde’s Green Light, Don’t Give Up by Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel (one of my London Marathon anthems), the theme song from St Elmo’s Fire and the Todd Terry remix of Missing by Everything But The Girl (how this has only just made it onto my running playlist I do not know). The downstairs shower I was using throughout the week had no water pressure so I couldn’t rinse my hair very well and by day 3 it looked like straw. But after I came back from running everyone else had finished in the upstairs bathroom so I went in there and had the best shower and hair-wash of my entire life, with high pressured soft water. Deb’s a presenter for a shopping channel so she gets lots of divine hair and beauty freebies and puts them in the bathroom for guests to use. I emerged with swishy shampoo advert hair and smelling like an all-over Boots counter. There’s also a superb massage chair in the living room, which I availed myself of while waiting for the taxi. Apparently my voice was deeper when I’d finished. Ooh-err.
As in previous years, I was the youngest guest by quite a long way. As in, the next-youngest was 48, and most were old enough to have me as a daughter. But I held my own, and left with a feeling Retreats For You had grown with me. When I first visited seven years ago I had little more than a big set of drafted scenes and fragmented notes for a novel. I was not far over 25, financially stable but in every other respect a kid: a little unsure of myself and in need of mothering, which Deborah The First, being a mum of three twentysomethings, was more than happy to do. On my second visit in 2013 I had half a novel but ended up abandoning it a year later at 60,000 words. I arrived this time as a 33-year-old with a completed 90,000-word draft and a gritty determination to Get Shit Done. And I did. And it was lovely.