A week down the rabbit hole ­– or how we run our writing retreat Part 1

Looking for teradactyls
Looking for teradactyls

I’ve been coming to Devon for a few years now and adore it here, as many of you know. In the film, Into the Wild, the reader is left with the unforgettable words: “happiness is only real when shared”. And that is why I wanted to share Devon first with my other immediate family members and then, inevitably, my writing buddies. I had no idea if they would love what I love, but I had a sense that they would be pleased they came whatever happened.
We planned this trip a year ago when I was still living in The Hague and a quick plane-hop over to Bristol didn’t seem a big deal for anyone. When it came round to the time to leave, it was one heck of a long way from Kuala Lumpur. Even though I knew it would be worth the effort, I was not a hundred per cent sure I could be bothered to come. It meant a train ride, a hire car, being responsible (as the only one used to driving on the left) for all the driving not to mention leaving Ian on his own in KL for yet another month. I needed to give myself some time to settle in in Malaysia and all these extended trips away was not helping.
But here we are at Watermill Cottages, run by my brilliant friend of thirty years, Christine, and her partner, John. It takes exactly five minutes to reach this miniature hamlet from the main [sic] road. You have to drive down a sloping, winding, single-track lane lined with hedgerows so high you can neither see the fields on either side nor any approaching traffic. In places the trees form a green lace wedding arch over your head and that is where I believe the ‘rabbit hole’ begins and where you start the descent into Wonderland. To get there you have to drive down a steep incline, brambles and ferns thwacking the wing mirrors on both sides and first gear screaming in your ears. But, like sunrise, just as you think the journey was surely long enough, the valley blooms before you; five cottages that snuggle round a babbling stream and bright, wide lawns greet you like a sigh. And it is here that four friends I’d written with for more than five years agreed to share two cottages and enjoy a seven-day writing retreat. Christine is also a writer and has run a retreat of her own down here so there was no way she was not going to be appliquéd onto our tight-knit group, which makes us six.
No one was sure what to expect (including me). We brought notebooks and a desire to do lots of writing and that was it. I hoped the valley would provide the rest. I know, I know, I could have made the effort to write a whole programme for the stay, including notes, but I needed a rest and an injection of inspiration as much as the next woman.  Instead, we decided to simply divide the days up between the six of us and look after one day’s exercises and evening meal each.  A simple system, but is it too simple?
There is something about this place that soothes and heals all who enter here. There is no wifi, no phone signal, no TV and it is said that the valley is one of the least electrosensitive in the UK. Is that why we all sleep so well? Or is it the favourable feng shui of the stream that runs west to east out to sea, taking all negativity with it? Or is it the fact that we cannot be distracted by technology? Or is it that the life here is so old-fashioned, with hand held whisks (both efficient and satisfying), the blue and white striped china or the fact that we are surrounded by the positive chi of nature? Adding good friends, superb local, organic food and our favourite pastime of writing to the mix and we have, I think, the perfect holiday for middle-aged, women such as ourselves who have at last admitted that we know what makes us happy.

Christine’s day
When we congregated on the lawn on Saturday Christine provided a supply of wellingtons and sensible socks and led us on a walk around their land, the lanes, the woodland walk past the wild garlic to where the Leat splits from the Gara and round the back of the cottages and up the hills and through the cricket bat willows, past the tree house, through the stream and into the open meadow where she swears there is a teradactyl’s nest. We were urged to pick grasses and flowers that spoke to us and wind them onto a stick with ivy and bindweed to create ourselves a journey stick. It was a childish activity that made us gloriously childlike. And then we lay down in the field, making grass angels and just observe.   One of the group wrote of how she felt she was shedding skins. Such simplicity, such pleasure. We just stared at the cartoon sky and listened to the grasses popping and the insects buzzing while cows lowed and birds serenaded us just as centuries of poetry have begged us to believe. We were blissing out, not just by blending into the landscape but later, from the bonus of being able to spontaneously write and then listen to the fiction, memoir, commentary and poetry we created. We were each inspired in our own way by exactly the same experiences.
We walked, we talked, we slowed down to the tangible pace of a snail, we sang round a bonfire on midsummer’s evening, joined by all the other cottage guests singing to John’s guitar while Christine handed us beige cotton and needles so we could knit dishcloths. Our first day and we had our sense of place.

My day

Investigating the memorial
Investigating the memorial

Sunday was my turn and I began with a walking meditation exercise so each could enjoy the place again, alone and silent. I wanted to see how we could be inspired by the history of the area and Christine had left plenty of books on the place Slapton played in 1944when it was evacuated so that American soldiers could practice for D Day. We visited the memorials at either end of Slapton Sands and stood on the beach that had stood in for Omaha and took in the enormity of their sacrifice for almost 800 died that April.  Wreaths of poppies, now faded by the sun and dusted with sand in the weeks since the 70th anniversary reminded us that we could write fiction based on what we’d learned and seen and be sure not to forget this bravery. Our second day we had a sense of history.

Eva’s day

Writing on the beach
Writing on the beach

We’ve already written at least three pieces a day each and had plenty of time to ‘stand and stare’ in a valley beloved by WB Yeats who wrote those well-worn lines and his painter brother, Jack. Tempted by the unbelievably constant blue sky and English summer temperature we visited a hidden beach beside Start Point lighthouse this morning and lay there, looking, simply looking and staring out to this azure sea. Instead of wellies, Christine had supplied towels, sarongs, sundresses and costumes for us all, having, as she said ‘been a variety of sizes’ and we dared ourselves to bare our sagging thighs and imperfections in order to do yoga in the shallow waves and brave the arctic water. When Eva presented us all with a pebble, collected the day before on Slapton Sands, and gave us our writing exercise, asking us to press the pebble into our palms as we wrote, it added clotted cream to a day that tasted of strawberries. Relaxed, inspired, sunbaked and together we put the ‘treat’ into ‘retreat’. Today we enjoyed the best the area has to offer and let it inspire us.
Halfway through the week and we are now addicted to the magic that is enjoyed by those fortunate to know what real life can be like ‘down the rabbit hole’. Not one of us wishes we hadn’t come.

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