In fact, it is a very specific part of Devon - The Sharpham Barn Retreat Centre
. I have done the whole retreat thing several times before but this was my first trip to Sharpham. I have abandoned group retreats in recent years with their cheery bonhomie in favour of solitary retreats and Sharpham Barn offers the use of a "Kuti" - small comfy hut in the woods wth big windows - as a place for those seeking solitude. It gives you the best of all worlds as you have the simplicity of the Henry Thoreau experience but with the back up of people who feed you and are on hand in case things take a turn for the worse - solitude can do that. Sharpham is a Buddhist retreat centre so meditation is the at the heart of the experience. They teach it, they do it - it is central to the life there.
Frazzled after seven hours on a not very comfortable coach from London (next time I'll definitely do London to Totnes by train) I arrived at this oasis of calm where I was welcomed with warmth and smiles by Paul who lives there. I was shown around the place and then taken to my cabin in the woods where I would spend most of my time for the next five days.
First impressions boded well: in the main centre they have great showers and as much food as you can eat - I have a deep seated fear of going hungry based on goodness only knows what and which no amount of meditation seems to rid one of.
The Kuti itself is perfect in its design and simplicity. You walk down a private path, for the next week no-one will venture into your acre of woodland, to a small hay bale structure built into the bank. You walk up steps onto a verandah that looks out onto trees -just trees (there is a small gap in the trees that gives you a view of Totnes across the valley). It is as peaceful a place as you will find anywhere on earth. Your only distractions are a pair of omniprescent wrens, the occasional blackbird and thrush; the changing formation of the clouds, sometimes rain; and wind that tinkles the windchimes - bringing you back to the present moment. Inside there is a stove, a very comfy bed, crockery, cutlery, a gas cooking rings and meditation mats and cushions. You want for none of the basics. The previous occupant will have left flowers, and two gallon canisters of water - you will fill these each day from the tap.
The challenge of course does not lie in dealing with the external environment but with the inner landscape. As I am not in the confessional I will not burden you with the trials and anguish of my week - except to say that it was for the most part very peaceful. I spent a huge amount of time on the verandah just looking at those trees my heart brimming with love for the world. And I missed nothing from my usual life - not Facebook, my phone, emails, friends or even my husband (sorry Ian). The chance to enjoy this solitude and beauty is a precious gift not to be squandered.
I did leave my nest sometimes: to work in the gardens each day (I was supposed to do 2 hours of daily tasks but was let off with just an hour's weeding sometimes); to go for a good shower and of course to collect my lunch. The food is vegetarian and absolutely delicious, the ingredients coming mainly from the kitchen gardens at the centre. It is prepared by the group retreatants and is put in a tiffin tin and left on the wall outside for you to pick up. These were the only things that gave structure to my day - though this was primarily of my own choosing - others I'm sure take a more disciplined approach.
I also sang, walked the length of the meditation path (pictured) in front of the kuti 100 times each day, and read a little each day from Simon Parke's wonderful book "Solitude" which sums up better than I ever could the very compelling reasons for doing this. There are hundreds of uplifting (and challenging) quotations in it including Pascal's "All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit quiet in a room alone".
The earth toilet which had not appealed in the abstract was in fact fine, it doesn't smell at all, and has the most wonderful view (the same trees but from a different angle). At night I could hear rodents burying into the walls occasionally or running along the roof. One night it freaked me out and I had to sit with the light on talking myself back to a state of calm but apart from that it was fine.
The group of retreatants in the main house partied round the fire on their last night with home baked biscuits - and I did have a twinge of envy - I am naturally quite a sociable person. Maybe next time I'll go to Sharpham on a group retreat, as there is not doubt at all I will be returning. Well once you've found heaven - why wouldn't you go back?