THE week before Christmas I enjoyed a wee, overnight break at Shepherds Dene retreat house in Northumbria. I’d been invited to stay as I’m holding a workshop there this year. As the trip was private I didn’t intend to write about it. But some experiences in life are so good, they deserve to be shared – my stay here was one such experience.
As retreats houses go, the standard of accommodation is the best I’ve ever stayed in.
What I didn’t realise, until I was on the coach en route, was just how frazzled I was. Perhaps it was because of all the hoopla surrounding the run-up to Christmas. Regardless, as I wasn’t driving I was able to switch off, sit back, and enjoy the ride. Contemplating the wild and rugged scenery as we weaved our way across Yorkshire and up through Durham to Northumberland, I realised I actually needed some time out to get away from everything and everyone, be alone with my thoughts, even if only for one night.
In terms of the landscape, Northumbria has long been one of my favourite parts of England. For me, the stretch of coastline from Pickering in East Yorkshire all the way up to Scotland is one of the most picturesque in the country with its castles and abbeys dotted hither and thither.
After arriving in Newcastle, I skipped across the road to the station where I caught a train to Riding Mill (the journey was less than 30 minutes). From Riding Mill, Julie, the administrator at Shepherds Dene, picked me up for the short drive to the retreat house itself. If you’re using public transport, they can pick you up, by prior arrangement, from the bus-stop or Riding Mill station for just £3. Alternatively you could make the 30-minute uphill walk.
The sprawling estate within which Shepherds Dene is located is peaceful and atmospheric. As it’s set back from the road, you could easily miss it if you’re driving. The house itself is a grand Edwardian affair built in the arts and craft style of architecture and was designed for family living and weekend house parties. The twenty acres of grounds were planned as an Edwardian garden and many of the original features of both the house and garden have been beautifully preserved.
In 1945 the house was given over to the Diocese of Newcastle by Geoffrey and Ethel Newell. It’s now shared with the Diocese of Durham and is run as an independent charity. The Newells hoped that ‘those who come to Shepherds Dene for knowledge will find it and those who come for rest will go away refreshed.’
Although a spiritual atmosphere suffuses the property, it’s not ‘in your face.’ If you wish to join in with prayer, you can. But if you wish to keep to yourself, have a private retreat, you can do that too. But there’s something to be said for retreating to a spiritually-oriented space for rest and reflection as opposed to staying in a hotel.
Although not affiliated to any religion, I’ve always enjoyed the quiet, reflective atmosphere of religious buildings and spaces. In the gardens of Shepherds Dene is a labyrinth based on the same design as that in Chartres Cathedral in France. I admit I have an affinity for labyrinths. Having never been one for meditations which require me to sit still and keep quiet, I’ve always preferred to lose myself in moving meditations. For me, labyrinths offer one of the most profound experiences you can have, whether you’re spiritually inclined or not. Before I knew it, I’d been on the thing for well over an hour before returning to the house just in time for afternoon tea.
Because the house is available for hire for retreats, conferences, team building events, and family celebrations, they have a bar. This tickled me. ‘You don’t get that in a Buddhist retreat’, I thought, when informed it had opened for the evening. But that’s the thing about this place – it’s so sociable and accommodating.
From George the warden, to Julie the administrator, to the kitchen staff – everyone’s so genuinely warm and down-to-earth. They gather you into welcoming embraces, treat you like an old friend. It’s like coming home. And the food itself was delicious – wholesome, hearty fare made with love and care, and all washed down with a glass of wine. Or two. If, like me, you’re looking for somewhere to hold an event, you couldn’t wish for a better venue.
As retreats houses go, the standard of accommodation is the best I’ve ever stayed in. I could have easily holed up in my cosy en-suite room for a week and read, wrote, and meditated on the stars (the skies out here are fabulous for stargazers). Although they invited me to stay a second night, my time was so restful and restorative, I opted only to stay for one. But it obviously did the trick as, on my return, I set straight to work on writing my book.
Although brief, my stay reminded me just how important it is to make time for ourselves – preferably in an environment conducive to inner reflection. We can spend so much time caught up in the hoi polloi of life, caught up in dramas, distracted by other people’s stuff, that we spend little time reflecting on what matters most. Sometimes we need to retreat, be alone with our thoughts for a while, and nurture the soul. And Shepherds Dene offers a delightful, heart-warming space in which to do just that.
If you’d like to hold an event – be it team building/conference/workshop – hire the house for a family celebration, or arrange a personal retreat, contact email@example.com or visit the website at shepherdsdene.co.uk
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