When is a retreat not a retreat?

When it’s a pilgrimage that encompasses over 200 miles of travelling; includes three churches, one ruined Abbey and one minster; and eight separate acts of worship – all in the space of 48 hours.

Pilgrimage Places of WorshipPickering Parish Church, Lastingham, Old Bydale, Rievaulx Abbey & York Minster.

Retreats are meant to give you space away from the rigours of ordinary life. Often, they involve extended periods of silence; time in prayer; meditation; focusing on icons or Bible passages; and generally getting away from it all. But not this one!

Each year, as part of the vicar school programme, we get to choose a retreat. In my first year, I went ‘fingerpainting for God’ [my title, not theirs] and inadvertently created a pair of heavenly orbs. Last year, I was on the only retreat that wasn’t cancelled by snow, a retreat in daily life that lasted the whole of lent. This year, partly owing to some epic diary clashes (all my own fault and largely theatre related), I was prompted to go for the mid-week retreat, rather than a weekend. Plus, this particular retreat looked right up my street. It would be a return to Wydale Hall near Scarborough (where we got creative 2 years ago), which is in a stunning location. And, it involved travelling around North Yorkshire, visiting churches and learning lots of history – basically, what all Clutterbuck family holidays were made of.

There wasn’t much time for sitting quietly, reading and meditating – but there were a lot of other things that you wouldn’t necessarily find on a typical retreat…

1) Steam trains
Sitting in the parish church of Pickering, listening to a talk on its historic wall paintings, I heard the unmistakable “peeeeep” of a steam train whistle. A moment later, I noticed the friend next to me checking the map on their iPhone and  wondered if they were checking to see where the train line was. As we left the church for a short break, it emerged I was correct in my wondering – so we set off to locate the train. Turns out, Pickering has a gorgeous old-school station for the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. ‘School’ was the operative word, as it looked like a location for many of the school stories I hold dear.

Pickering Station

2) Lambs
You know you’re not in London any more when you find sheep in a church graveyard. You’re definitely outside any kind of urban environment when you find a farm next to a vicarage! Up in the tiny village (hamlet, possibly) of Old Bydale, we met brand new lambs, some just minutes old. (In fact, we met a few lamb placentas too, but I decided they didn’t need photographing.)

Lambing

3) Lectures on the history of spirituality in north-eastern England. As I sat upon the ruins of Riveaux Abbey’s Chapter House, listening to our Assistant Dean tell the story of St Aelread, I reflected that twenty years earlier, I would have strongly rebelled at such behaviour. In fact, I might have stropped back to the family car in protest of my Dad’s (because it is always our Dad who reads aloud from guide books in this way) über embarrassing actions!

4) Ruins
I love a good ruin. Especially on a sunny day and with 90 minutes to spend amongst the stones. (This was the most meditative point of the retreat. I spent a lot of time sitting on stones.)

Reivaulx Abbey

Reivaulx Abbey

5) Actual saints. Some of our contemporaries spent time contemplating icons. We spent a morning taking communion in the crypt of a church built upon the tomb of St Cedd. You can’t get much closer to an actual saint than that…

Lastingham Crypt

All in all, it was an excellent experience – albeit one that I’ve come away from realising that in my life I need both interesting, historical pilgrimages and space to meditate and reflect. At the end of the 48 hours I could have done with a retreat from the retreat!

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