Retreat in a retreat

Over the Easter weekend (April 2022) I went on a walking and mindfulness retreat at Sharpham house. On the final whole day there, we spent the morning and most of the afternoon in silence and we each went on a solo walk. At the end of my walk, I sat in a field and wrote about my day

We were asked to think about a question or intention that felt important to us right now, for us to have on our minds during the day. I thought about how I could take mindfulness practices back to my regular life. I thought about where I might like to live, after I leave London. I also thought about being curious but felt irritated by the overuse of that word in my life, so instead thought about being nosy. Nosy in nature. I’d be on an adventure and I wouldn’t put pressure on myself to do anything in particular. And, I’d nose around into things.

Lucy, the facilitator of my group, said we could go into any field we wanted on the estate, including the parts that said ‘no entry’ as they were tenants of Sharpham. If we came to a gate that required a code to open the lock, we could just hop over it. When she said that, I imagined I’d just stick to paths, but actually I really went for it with the gate jumping.

So, this morning after morning movement, meditation and breakfast, all in silence, I went back up to my bedroom to get ready. I really wanted to lie down, so I did. I told myself it was part of the day – doing what I felt like without being critical or being chased by a sneaky ‘should’. I snuggled down into the white bedding in the pleasantly simple room. I dozed for a while and then gradually got up, telling myself I could take it slowly, there was no rush. A headache that had started earlier, was still there, but had lessened.

I went down to the Toasting Room to fill up my water bottle, make some Earl Grey in my thermos and pinch a second flapjack. Then, I headed out. I first wandered over to the tree to look for the fish sculpture that someone had told me about. I was pleased that you could walk right up to it. The tree was big and I remembered what Lucy had said about a previous participant who had spent their silent solo day climbing trees. I climbed up into the biggest, lowest branch and sat there. If someone had looked out of a window of the house, they might have seen me. I felt a bit self-conscious. I thought about climbing higher but the footing was slippy and I felt unsure about how I’d get back down again. I touched part of the tree bark. Then I got down.

I walked back across the lawn and admired the house. I remembered Lucy’s suggestion to not take photos during this day if we had been on other days, so I sat on the grass to draw the house instead. I don’t usually draw things from real life, in part because I’m not very interested in it, but also because I’m not very good at it. I spent a few minutes drawing and found it slightly irritating. I then tried doing a version where I didn’t care about perspective. I liked this version even less.

I headed off towards the River Dart. I wanted to get to the quay that Ramiro had taken us to. I went through a very steep orchard, enjoying the apple blossom. I reached a path, alongside a marshy bit. There were big stone objects, taller than me, one of them very phallic, with carvings on them. I wanted to get closer but there was too much vegetation. I continued walking, taking the woodland path along the river. Somewhere around here, I realised I hadn’t gone the right way for the quay, but I didn’t mind much.

I walked along, really enjoying being on my own, compared to the large group the day before (which I also enjoyed). Without being in a line of people, I realised how much better I could see the shape of the path ahead. I saw a huge tree which had fallen down towards the river, its branches reaching down into the water, the clay root system facing up at me on the path above. Upturned tree roots have meant one important thing to me since I was a child; the possibility of finding flint arrowheads (never with any success). I scrambled through the wild garlic, down to the roots and the clay.

Some rowers went past, each boat with a shouting coxswain. I wanted them to see me in my spot in the roots but unsurprisingly they didn’t. Funnily, I didn’t really want someone else from the retreat to walk past and see me down there and think I was being weird.

I found some sharp bits of rock, maybe flint, covered in clay. They sort of reminded me of when you see a mountain range drawn as a silhouette. I wondered about whether I ‘should’ take them away with me, home. I had the voice in my head “well if everyone did that, Jo, there wouldn’t be any left..” I settled on taking them. It just shows that mindfulness doesn’t stop you being a dick. I took a couple of photos too.

I rejoined the path and soon came across a big stone pillar thing. It looked old. I guess all stone is old! On one side was a carving of a hand and the other side, a face. I did a rubbing with pencil and paper, of the hand, but it didn’t turn out very well so I took a photo.

When I continued walking, a memory struck me, of walks with my parents and sisters where my dad would go ahead and lay arrows or crosses, made out of sticks, for us to follow/not follow and eventually find him. I loved that so much. So, I started leaving big stick arrows behind me, even though there wasn’t really another path to take and no-one was looking for me. I liked the idea of someone in our group finding it and later asking who had done it.

A saw a Jay flying above and felt glad I could identify a bird. I remembered how much I like shadowy, dappled woodland, wet clay earth soft underfoot and smelling good. Even better with the wild garlic smell mixed in. I saw a soft little creature, maybe a shrew or a vole or a mouse. I stayed as still as I could but it still ran up and off the path.

I got to the tree-felling area that I had wanted to look at more the day before. I furtively did a wee behind a tree. Then, I headed into the cow field. Finally, I could get down to the river. The tide meant the water was low. I was surprised at how squelchy and muddy it was. I was glad I hadn’t bothered wearing my swimming costume or carrying a towel as it was very unappealing close-up. I sat down in the long grass and drank some tea. I thought about eating my lunch but decided to wait until I’d climbed the hill ahead of me.

I walked up the field, heading towards the gate. Unfortunately, for me, I wasn’t the only one with that idea. About 30 young bullocks, all hanging out by my exit. I stopped and watched them, a few of them stared right back. I thought about walking towards them but I guess my mum’s warnings about cow tramplings overrode that notion. I didn’t want to walk all the way back so I decided to climb over a barbed-wire fence, with the help of a tree. I managed it without ripping skin or clothes and ended up in a woodland with a lot of nettles and stickyweed and brambles and no path. Then I was in a sort of ditch, possibly an old drovers’ road, then the nettles got even higher so I followed a narrowed path of flattened vegetation. I thought a deer might have made it.

I got back to the gate – this time on the other side to all the bulls. I think they had heard me stomping through the undergrowth. When I jumped down onto the path they startled. I guess they don’t see that every day.

I walked up to the gate and spoke gently to them, accidentally breaking my silence in my enthusiasm to win them over. Two gradually came closer. They sniffed towards me. So many flies, all around them, their eyes, their nostrils. A bit reluctantly, I went on my way. I paused again shortly after, to watch some sheep and big lambs. We were interested in each other but didn’t make any approach. A ewe walked over to a gate to lean against it and scratch herself. It didn’t seem to hit the spot. Despite her thick, dirty wool, I wanted to give her a good scratch.

After that, I walked for a long time not recognising anything, despite following the path from the day before. I couldn’t tell if it was because I’d been talking the whole time and not paying attention to my surroundings, or whether I’d gone a different way. It turned out to be the former. It amazed me, how unaware I’d been of everything around me, whilst I had been chatting.

I tried to find the place we had lunch the day before, but took a wrong turn as I suddenly found myself back at the main house! I was a bit disappointed that my adventure had been cut short, until I found a little meadow with a lovely view of the river snaking towards Totnes. So I stopped and ate my packed lunch and wrote this.

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