Midweek Musing. On retreat.

Early in June I attended a writing retreat with School of Divinity postgrads. It was one of my favourite weekends yet, in this Scottish Sojourn of mine.

Friday morning 14 students gather at the foot of The Mound in Edinburgh to board a bus that will take us north of the city. As we load our bags and await the last few arrivals, we chat with those we already know. We're a diverse bunch, some Masters students, some PhDs – and among them, first, second, and third years. We are from Ecclesiastical History, Religious Studies, Science and Religion, World Religion, Biblical Studies, and Theology programs. We are from various countries in Europe, from India, Australia, the USA, and the UK. We are women and men of various ages, dispositions, and vocations. It is a wonderfully and effortlessly diverse group of people, all grateful for this weekend away.

I love driving through the Scottish countryside; in fact, I find journeys of any kind to generally be a joyful space in which to be. On the road, the track, in the air: on the move. We had a big bus, and we spread out, close enough to chat, room enough to stretch. Two and a half hours north of the city.

The Burn is off the main road, in between little villages, and the bus was directed around the back to a long drive, through the grounds a way, past the wall and the sheds, around the corner to the front porch on a vine-covered Georgian facade.

Actually it's not entirely Georgian, but I'll get to that.

The sun was out, and so was our host, so we unloaded our bags and stretched our legs with a short wander across the grass, before stretching out on the grass in that sunshine. Someone found the croquet gear, and the satisfying sound of mallet on ball accompanied our lazy waiting for the host to return from offering hospitality to a walking group who were being introduced to the house and the grounds.

my room was as big as my studio flat! 
Then we got the story, of the Georgian house built by a successful soldier who had no children; bought by an entrepreneur who owned two thousand people in the West Indies (a shadow on the history of the house), and fathered not quite that many more; then sold again to another entrepreneur who knocked down walls and built a large extension in the 1930s, so that the house is now a blend of two of my favourite styles and I was in heaven.

The house became less than heaven for the family whose son did not return from war and so his inheritance, or the house at least, was given to the Goodenough colleges in London as a retreat centre for postgraduate students. That's its main purpose still, more than 80 years later, and they do it very well. 'The house is yours while you're here,' David said, the latest in a line of retired colonels who have managed The Burn (a couple of managers were not colonels, but their stints were less than successful). We'll sound the gong when the meals are ready, serve tea and coffee between times; we'll open the bar at 6 pm, and keep it open as long as you're drinking. Use the sports equipment, walk along the river, we've plenty of space for you to explore and enjoy the fresh air; plenty of spaces inside for your work as well, make use of it and we'll keep out of your way.

So we had late (for some) breakfast at 9am, found places to work in drawing room or library or tv room (which had no tv, but a couple of long tables), or outside. Those who were in need of a break went for walks or played croquet and left those still working in peace to crack on: there was a generous spirit of respect for each other, the various ways we all work, and the need to not work for a a while. Sammy had set a gentle structure for the weekend, which had us working from about 10 until 6 with an hour for lunch. On Friday afternoon after tea and pancakes and our introduction to the house, we gathered together for introductions, and shared our goals for the weekend. I found that helpful for my own work, to name what I wanted to achieve with this time we had set aside. It was also helpful for inquiring of each other - how's your chapter going, your thesis outline, your conference paper or book review? A little accountability, some shared interest, and solidarity in the task of writing.

I set three goals: write the abstract for the thesis; finish Chapter One; review Chapter Six. I finished the weekend with an abstract I liked (subsequently tweaked with help from supervisor); Chapter One pretty much finished (I've since addressed the fiddly ends that needed tying); and Chapter Six cut down to a much more manageable size thanks to the notes from a friend who had read it through the week before.

It rained a little on Saturday, but even that was lovely, bringing smells and sounds of life and freshness, and even a peel or two of thunder (another of my favourite things).

The meals were wonderful and plentiful, and we sat in different groupings wherever we gathered, on lawn, around table, or in that drawing room straight out of a Jane Austen novel. In the evenings, over drinks, we talked writing and politics, discussed the merits and theory of Myers Briggs personality inventory, and debated Hogwarts house designations. Friday night we sat outside on the lawn, enjoying the sun and the long twilight. Saturday we were inside, the grass still wet or rain still falling, I forget.

On the walks, people found Salmon sleeping or leaping upstream, greeted the donkeys and cows, and found the blue door that gives its name to that particular walk along the river. My walk on Saturday before breakfast was a slow meander, as I stopped to take photos of interesting flowers and tree roots, and the river bed of jagged red and grey rock visible through the clear, clear water.

Strangers became friends, as the New College community stretched like a tree in the sun and the rain, and grew a little stronger, a little healthier, over three days at The Burn in Glenesk.


Heather said…
How utterly wonderful. :-)

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