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!

If you go down to the woods today…

…you’d better be well prepared.

One of the many marvellous things about London is that fact that you can take a short tube journey (20 minutes in fact) and travel from the urban East End to the edge of Epping Forest – a proper forest in which it is very possible to get well and truly lost.

I fully accept that I’m an out and out urbanite. However, I love a good ramble (in the truest Chalet School sense of the word) and quite honestly, is there any better way of spending a damp, chilly May Bank Holiday than tramping through mud with friends and an assortment of children?

As far as I was concerned, I was fairly well prepared – there was water, fruit, biscuits, sweets, an extra jumper & an umbrella in my backpack. I was wearing decent footwear – it was a toss up between wellies or new boots, boots won as the Hunters aren’t great for long treks up hill – but I had forgotten my waterproof. Though it seems my sister was still concerned. I quote her tweet at the end of the day:
“Why in god’s name did you wear your brand new, expensive boots? Didn’t want to get the Hunters dirty? *Bangs head on desk*”

Left, clean shoes on the tube (mine are the mahogany beauties on the top.)
Right, when the day ended.

However, I was thoroughly ill-prepared in comparison with our walking companions – the Jordan clan and friends. In total, we had 10 adults and 8 children (aged 2-14), that’s quite a pack. All the children were clad head to toe in waterproof material; they had rope with which to make a rope swing while having lunch; heck, they even had lunch with them (we invested in sausage/bacon rolls at a bikers’ cafe – I think we won on that score). They also had technology.

Our friend Rachel isn’t known for being terribly proficient with her Android telephonic device. She’s had it since Christmas and it still regularly foxes her, so it was with surprise that I discovered that she was using Google Latitude to track her father. Her Dad possesses a trait in common with my own father – the ability to disappear without a trace on family outings. Arriving at our lunch venue minus one adult and one small child, Rachel took out her phone and tracked him down, giving directions in repeated phone calls. It was really quite genius. I’d suggest my parents invest in the same technology, but it wouldn’t work as:
(i) My Dad doesn’t own a smart phone.
(ii) He has yet to fully embrace the concept of a mobile phone being ‘mobile’.

We had technology too. The rather rubbish official Epping Forest map was supplemented with Google maps and a remarkable number of phone compass uses. Yet still we managed to get lost repeatedly – our main map reader would claim that this was because no one listened to him. He may have been right…

The joys of map reading.
(If you look closely, you’ll spot Andy behind the others. The reason? He’s checking Google maps again.)

Ultimately, you know what you need when walking in Epping Forest? A good old Ordnance Survey map and an unlimited supply of plain chocolate digestives.

Some of life’s lessons

Two lessons have been learned while on my spa getaway:

1. In rural England, you can walk a long way to find simple sustenance (water, a sandwich…). On Wednesday I managed to walk 6 miles before finding such a thing – a loop involving a large chunk of Windsor Great Park, its closed Village Shop (to which I’d been following signs for the first 3 miles, arriving 15 minutes after it shut) and a walk practically all the way back to the train station I’d got a cab from the day before. Not quite the relaxing trip I’d anticipated…

2. Spa treatments, though relaxing, involve the setting aside of normal decency levels.
My massage [2011 First ticked off the list] required the stripping off of clothes down to hip level – bearable, given as I was to spend the session lying on my front. But the body polish (exfoliation, followed by moisturising) was a different kettle of fish entirely…

It was the words “if you just take off all your clothes and pop these paper knickers one” that began to worry me. I’m not stupid, I realised that the treatment would involve the taking off of clothes, but I’d not really thought about how this would work out practically. I’m no prude (ok, I may be a bit of a prude) but I’ve had a full leg wax and just two days previously I’d been perfectly happy with the massage, but paper knickers? Never. Oh, and they’re not ‘knickers’ in the M&S sense – they’re basically a thong.

For the first few minutes I coped admirably – as if there was nothing more normal than lying virtually naked in a room with an almost-stranger. [I realise that this constitutes a fun Friday night for many of my contemporaries.] There was a moment when I nearly giggled when she said “turn over & cover your chest area with this small towel” – I’m sorry, ‘small’ towel – I’d need something more than a folded tea-towel to maintain a degree of modesty; but generally it was going well and I was behaving like it wasn’t a big deal. Thing is, with a body polish you get through the exfoliating and then have to shower before it starts all over again with the moisturising – quite an ordeal.

Finally it finished and I felt very proud of myself. In fact, I was metaphorically patting myself on the back when I looked down and realised that I’d put the paper knickers on back-to-front.

Humiliated. 

Inappropriate clothing

When packing for Christmas in the shire, I contemplated including my terribly attractive paisley wellies. Sadly, presents, practical clothing and the limitations of train travel prohibited it, but I figured I’d make do with my day to day boots. After all, they’re Doc Martens (and flat) so aren’t utterly impractical.

Day one of holiday: Liz gets stuck in mud whilst on a walk with the dog. Turns out the icy bridal path was hiding some pretty thick mud…Liz freaks out slightly at possible damage to (second) favourite boots and refuses to go any further. [The photo below was taken whilst trapped and awaiting rescue.]

Boxing Day: Liz meets old school chums on top of a hill overlooking the shire, clad in what she thinks is ‘practical’ clothing for such an outing: jacket (Gap); hoodie (Yale); jumper; long-sleeved tee; jeans; boots (as above)… She realises she might be under-dressed when two chums take hiking boots and outdoorsy jackets out of their car boots. She spends most of the walk going down hills and through mud very hesitantly, missing out on large chunks of conversation as being ten or twenty feet behind rendered her deaf.

Honestly, I knew I was a proper townie the moment Sian and Katie appeared clad in North Face & Berghaus respectively – they clearly know how to do things properly. I own hiking boots, but they live in Belfast (not sure why, there was probably a logic to that decision five years ago). So now I’m looking at the Blacks’ sale with a view to purchasing a sensible outdoor jacket that’s waterproof, windproof and hopefully just a little bit aesthetically pleasing.

And the footwear? Well, my DMs need a little bit of TLC and waxing, but they’ll survive. I’m probably not a hard-core enough walker to justify buying a second, English based pair of walking shoes – wouldn’t really need them on Oxford Street after all. But perhaps on my next trip to the Emerald Isle I could bring them back…

Ultimately, this week I have had to face up to the fact that however much I like to pretend that I’m happy communing with nature, I am an utter townie, a total urbanite – and nothing reflects this more than my clothing. Oh well, I will continue to make a good humoured attempt at it and enjoy it when I can…

Cold tootsies

Liz in the countryside

Liz: “So, what animals has this farm got then?”
Dad: “Well, you see those white woolly things out in that field, they’re called sheep…”

Liz: “What do you mean, there’s no wifi and your dongle’s not working?!?”

Liz: “Why is it ok for the dog to lie on the rug in front of the log stove and not me? It’s the only warm place in the whole room and the dog’s absorbing all the heat before it can get to us!”

Liz: “I’m sorry, I have to stand right next to the fridge, it’s the only place my phone gets signal and I’m waiting for a call…”

The above reflects just a few of the challenges of a rural Christmas, Clutterbuck style. It’s a gorgeous cottage in idyllic countryside, with Christmas card style white fields and a view of the Malverns – but it’s chilly, miles from the nearest town and cut-off from modern communication. (The last bastion of which was my mother’s iPhone, which this afternoon met its death on the tiled floor. RIP iPhone.) Elizabeth, you are most definitely not in Bermondsey any more.

I don’t have a car and don’t drive (I’m beginning to realise why my driving lessons are now so important) and am therefore either stuck where I am, or at the mercy of my parents (and sometimes my sister). I feel like I’m a teenager dependent upon the parent taxi all over again. I miss my independence…

But it’s Christmas and there is (much) extended family about, plenty of presents under the tree and a hell of a lot of good food around – the next few days will be fun, despite whatever challenges the extended family might choose to throw at my mother!

I hope that you all manage to get to wherever it is you’re intending to spend Christmas and that it passes peacefully, with few arguments and absolutely no crockery thrown in anger!