• Exploring the Wild, Seasonal Living, Simply Slow

    A Slow Weekend: Autumn Retreat 2018

    08 October, 2018

    Last weekend, after months of planning and anticipation, I welcomed fifteen wonderful women to Wriggly Tin Shepherd’s Huts for my first ever slow living retreat. It was something I had been wanting to do for a very long time, and I’m so happy to be able to say that it was more than worth the wait!

    My aim was to create a haven away from the pressures and noise of everyday life; a chance for each guest to leave the responsibilities of work and home at the field gate and just be. By stripping things back to the fundamental elements of the warmth of a fire, the nourishment of good food and the comfort of a cosy bed, I hoped to make space for three simple joys that are all too often neglected: nature, creativity, companionship.

    While we may have made huge leaps in technology and digital communication over the past few decades, it seems to me that we’ve lost our way a little in terms of real life connections – to the land, to our sense of purpose, to each other. I could spend hours trying to come up with the right words to describe how I feel about this, but Passenger beat me to it so I’ll use his lyrics instead:

    We wish our weekdays away, spend our weekends in bed.
    We drink ourselves stupid and work ourselves dead.
    And all just because that’s what Mum and Dad said we should do.

    We should run through the forest, we should swim in the streams.
    We should laugh, we should cry, we should love, we should dream.
    We should stare at the stars and not just our screens,
    You should hear what I’m saying and know what it means…

    …to sing.

    Sing at the top of your voice.
    Love, without fear in your heart.
    Feel, feel like you still have a choice.
    If we all light up, we can scare away the dark.

    We wish we were happier, thinner and fitter,
    We wish we weren’t losers and liars and quitters.
    We want something more, not just nasty and bitter,
    We want something real, not just hashtags and Twitter.

    It’s the meaning of life and it’s streamed live on YouTube,
    But I bet Gangnam Style will still get more views.
    We’re scared of drowning, and flying, and shooters,
    And we’re all slowly dying in front of computers…

    …so sing.

    Sing at the top of your voice.
    Love, without fear in your heart.
    Feel, feel like you still have a choice.
    If we all light up, we can scare away the dark.

    When I first heard this song, I couldn’t speak. Tears streamed down my face and my heart filled with hope, because somebody else had expressed out loud the feelings I’d been struggling with for most of my adult life. Yes, the Internet is an incredible tool (without it, I wouldn’t be sharing this with you) but there is so much more to life than follows and likes. Our success is not defined by our salaries or job titles, Mother Nature is wiser than we’ll ever be, and you’re always going to regret the things you didn’t do far more than those you did.

    Over the past eighteen months or so, I’ve made it my mission to speak up and seek out others who feel the same; to find my tribe and revel in the absolute joy of exchanging ideas with those who see the world as I do. In going through this process, I’ve met so many women who had thought – as I did – that they were alone in their views. By sharing my story in blog posts, social media captions and podcast episodes, I’ve received so many responses of “me too!” and “I thought I was the only one!” So I can safely say that we’re not alone, yet it can seem that way because our communities exist within the confines of the digital world. Somehow they don’t feel quite real.

    I wanted to change that. To shift those relationships from on-screen likes and comments to in-person conversations. To share stories and experiences around a campfire rather than inside a text box. To gather together likeminded souls for a weekend of inspiration and meaningful connection, through a celebration of nature and the changing seasons. What I didn’t know was whether or not it would work, but within the first half hour I could see the magic starting to happen.

    Over hedgerow cocktails of homemade sloe cordial topped up with sparkling wine from Hambledon Vineyard, just over the hill from Wriggly Tin, the introductions began and the nerves subsided. Jack, running fashionably late after a few last minute errands, came striding across the field with a huge basket of seasonal blooms grown in the next village, and soon everyone was chatting and laughing as their harvest wreaths and crowns took shape.

    The setting sun cast a golden glow over the tent and, once darkness had finally fallen, we moved to the dining table for warming plates of squash and chickpea stew, followed by hard-to-believe-they’re-vegan brownies with fresh blackberries and generous spoonfuls of coconut yoghurt.

    Afterwards, around a crackling campfire, Creative Countryside’s editor, Eleanor, told us why she chooses to celebrate each season and shared a little Mabon ritual that set a beautiful mood for the evening. Then came a discussion on ethical living and the small steps we can take to make a difference, led by Sophie, the founder of A Better Place Journal. As Jack made his way round the huts, lighting their lanterns one by one and making sure the stoves were going, Lottie – otherwise known as The Wellbeing Warrior – soothed our souls and calmed our thoughts with a few moments of mindful meditation. There were mugs of steaming spiced hot chocolate and chamomile tea, and then it was time for bed.

    As I laid the table for breakfast, the following morning began with another session from Lottie – this time a wonderful yoga class that had everyone commenting on how nice it was to do sun salutations to the actual sun. (We had incredible weather all weekend, and in hindsight I’m wondering if it was all down to the collective power of my Slow Adventurers’ yoga poses?!) After bowls of creamy almond milk porridge with nuts, berries and grated cinnamon apple, it was time for an autumn aroma workshop with Laura of The Smallest Light. The scents of cedarwood, clove and juniper filled the air around the tent, as Laura explained the unique properties and benefits of an array of autumnal essential oils and guided everyone through the process of making their own seasonal blend to use at home.

    There was just time before lunch to squeeze in a quick talk by the lovely Will from Hill Farm, and to taste a variety of delicious juices pressed from apples grown just five miles across the Downs from Wriggly Tin. As I busied myself stirring a huge pot of bubbling root vegetable soup, I could hear snippets of orchard wisdom being shared – as well as a surprising amount of laughter! The sharp and tangy Cox & Bramley seemed to be the most popular of the juices, closely followed by the sweeter and more floral Discovery. A small queue formed at the side of Will’s van to stock up on bottles to take home, and conversations about the intriguing biology of apples continued well into the afternoon.

    Once the last of the soup had been mopped up with doorstop slices of corn and rye bread from the village shop, there were a few hours for everyone to do as they pleased. Some headed straight for the wood-fired hot tub, hidden away at the edge of the woods, while others chatted in the shade, took a nap or opened up a book. Some even ventured to a nearby National Trust estate – which, being very much in-keeping with the spirit of slow adventuring, I wholeheartedly approved of.

    Come five o’clock, the campfire had become more of a bonfire and was roaring so mightily that nobody could sit anywhere near it. Why? Because One Supper Club had arrived, and it was time to build up the embers for cooking. The guests began to gather again as Libby and Henry poured cocktails crafted with Winchester Distillery gin – one mixed with blackberry and rosemary syrup, the other with spiced pear purée.

    Illustrated menus by Margie of Everyday Artefacts lined the communal table, hinting at the delights of the feast to come: golden paneer, charred baby peppers, butternut dahl, Muscat poached pears. Sleeves were rolled up as everyone was assigned a job – one group chopped herbs and toasted spices to make aromatic butters, another rolled out soft dough for campfire flatbreads, and a third learnt how to make quick pickles from crunchy radishes and kohlrabi. From an onlooker’s perspective, I think this was my favourite part of the whole weekend. While I laid out plates and polished glasses, shadows lengthening across the grass as the sun dipped behind the trees, I could feel such a sense of community around me. Tools and ingredients were passed from hand to hand, stories were told, memories shared. Food has such a wonderful way of bringing people together.

    As for the feast itself, I’m not sure I can do it justice with words! Plate after plate emerged from the camp kitchen, piled high with culinary treasures: sweet and sticky homemade chutneys, jewel-like salads, bowls of steaming dahl topped with flaked almonds and handfuls of fresh coriander. Herbed and spiced butters melted into flatbreads blackened by the fire, and sweet marshmallow oozed from homemade blackberry s’mores.

    We woke on the final morning of the retreat to find the field blanketed with fog. Those of us who were up early gathered around the smouldering remains of the previous night’s campfire, chatting over tightly clasped mugs of tea and coffee, and watching puffs of smoke begin to curl from the chimneys of the huts that were still to be vacated. One by one the others joined us: another batch of porridge was made and gladly eaten, the fog receded, and the day began.

    The final workshop of the weekend was an autumn-inspired writing session with Eleanor of Creative Countryside. Still circled around the campfire, by this point re-kindled, we were encouraged to think of what the season meant to us and note down our thoughts. While I crept back to the kitchen to make a start on lunch, Eleanor led the group through a series of exercises and short walks around the field. She encouraged everyone to take in the sights and sounds of nature, picking up autumnal treasures along the way, before setting the task of crafting a piece of writing based on the experience of these small journeys. 

    As the group reconvened for one last meal, Jack’s smoky beans simmering over the fire and crisp-skinned potatoes baking among the embers, Sarah was brave enough to share her words:

    “Cast iron cooking pots nestled around the campfire are a welcoming sight that evoke comfort and a sense of home after a wander around the field with strangers who have become friends. The time has been about warmth and connection. A sense of calm has found us all. Comfortable in silence, no need to fill the space as each and every one of us takes the time to move across the path that has met a thousand different feet, all with a different story. The seasons are neither here nor there. The warmth of the sun on your face with a chill on your arm. The in-between. The green with the gold, the dry with the damp, the woollen jumper over the summer dress. We will slowly slip into the colder, shorter days but, for now, we enjoy this. The in-between.”

     

    And then, just like that, three days had flown by and the weekend had come to a close. Possessions were gathered, goodbyes were said, and our group began to dwindle. Nothing had changed and yet things no longer felt quite the same: the spell had been broken, but the magic remained.

     

    With grateful thanks to…

    Retreat contributors: Eleanor Cheetham / Creative Countryside, Laura McMahon / The Smallest Light, Libby & Henry Turner / One Supper Club, Lottie Hazel / The Wellbeing Warrior, Will Dobson / Hill Farm Juice, Sophie Caldecott / A Better Place Journal.

    Jenny King @notestothemoon for the beautiful photographs.

    Margie Jansen of Everyday Artefacts for designing such perfect tickets and menus.

    Winchester Distillery for the delicious gin.

    LA-EVA for supplying the bathrooms with luxurious handcrafted Rosēum washes and lotions.

    Gift bag contributors: Seedball (bee mix seeds), Objects of Use (hand-dipped beeswax candles), Creative Countryside (autumn issue).

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