Retreat 3: St Ethelwold’s House, Abingdon

At the weekend I went to St Ethelwold’s House in Abingdon, Oxfordshire – the third of my twelve retreats.

The house is a beautiful old building in Abingdon town centre with a pretty garden that leads down to the river Thames. It provides bed and breakfast for guests of all kinds – those who are on retreat and need space for quiet and reflection, and for those who simply need a bed for the night. The house dates back to the 14th century and is full of character and charm.

I arrived feeling as I often do at the start of these retreats – a bit out of sorts and thoughts scattered. I was in between things with work and had struggled this month to carve out time for a weekend retreat, so decided to tag a night’s retreat at St Ethelwold’s onto a conference I had been at in Oxford.

St Ethelwold’s is a centre for personal and spiritual growth rooted in the contemplative tradition of Christianity. The house is owned by the Fellowship of St Ethelwold, a charitable trust that was founded in 1971 by a woman called Dorothea Pickering, a visionary Christian who dedicated her life to furthering understanding between people of different faith traditions.

An art exhibition was being held at the house that day showcasing the works of local artists, so the place was probably a lot busier than usual with people coming and going. Paintings, many of Oxford and Abingdon, were hung up on walls throughout most of the downstairs – along the corridor, in the kitchen and in the front living room.

There was no one around when I rang the bell so I made my own way to my room. The door was ajar the keys on the dressing table.

I find it always takes a bit of time to unwind on a retreat – coming to stop can be really hard particularly if you’ve spent the week rushing around (as I had). I was thinking about emails I needed to reply to as I hadn’t had internet access for a couple of days, and was a bit disappointed that a friend who was going to join me couldn’t make it after all.

I strolled around the pretty gardens and spent some time in the Sanctuary room – the simplicity and peacefulness of the room providing space for my thoughts to de-clutter. Lined up on a small bookshelf was a diverse collection of religious books – the Book of Common Prayer, The Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads to name a few.

As I sat in the Sanctuary the only sounds I could hear were those of birds – they seemed louder than usual – and a couple of women digging outside. I think they were digging up an allotment, preparing the earth for spring – which reminded me that at night-time we would be turning the clocks forward. What a relief – a long, bitter winter finally coming to an end! The sound of the digging was somehow reassuring.

I found that the time and space gave rise to thoughts and ideas I might not have had if I’d stayed at home in London. I thought of friendships I’d let slip, and wrote down the names so that I’d remember to get in touch, along with books I had been meaning to read and conversations I needed to have.

I was expecting the time to drag that day but it actually sped by. I started to feel grateful that I had the time to myself after all, and I wondered when I’d next have time for quiet and stillness.

In the morning I was served a continental breakfast of cereals and fresh croissants in the dining room by one of the house wardens, a polite, quietly spoken man in his mid fifties. He told me a bit about the history of the house and some of the activities going on at St Ethelwold’s – yoga classes, relaxation workshops, meditation, a ‘carbon cutters’ group for people interested in vegetable growing.

I had to checkout of my room by 10am that day so the room could be made ready for the next guests, but I was invited to stay on longer in the house if I wanted to – and use the Sanctuary or Garden Room.

My retreat was roughly 24 hours and I came away from it feeling calmer than I when I arrived. I really liked the homely feel of the house, its quaintness, its openness and the serenity of the Sanctuary space.

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