Sharpham House review | Meditation retreats England
The quick read: Sharpham House meditation retreats are secular, open to everyone and held on set dates throughout the year at in a gorgeous Grade 1 listed house in the South Hams, Devon. We tested the three day Mindfulness Meditation for Beginners retreat which does exactly what it says on the tin, allowing newbies to investigate mindfulness and develop their own practice. It would also be perfect if you wanted to refresh or deepen an existing practice. You can also go on meditation retreats themed with walking, yoga, singing, qi-gong and connecting with nature. The house is set in 550 acres of sustainably farmed land alongside a three mile stretch of the River Dart and part of the Sharpham Trust, an education and conservation charity, which sounds dour but don’t be deceived: the place exudes genteel graciousness and the food is beyond divine. It’s very special.
Who it’s best for: Sharpham House meditation retreat are perfect for stressed out city dwellers and people living with either emotional or physical pain will benefit from the utter peace and beauty of Sharpham on these secular meditation retreats. The beginners meditation retreats would suit anyone curious and open-minded about the value of meditation. Groups are kept to a manageable maximum of 15, with women routinely outnumbering men, and there is a considerable age range. Apparently, there is always a sprinkling of healthcare professionals. The vibe is very friendly and relaxed; group bonding happens quickly through frequent meetings and at mealtimes, though if you don’t feel like socialising, nobody’s going to judge you and there’s lots of space in which to get lost.
What you can do: There are three formal half hour sessions of meditation a day which you are expected to attend, plus an optional half hour of yoga stretching before breakfast. Mindfulness is conducted in a downstairs drawing room, with meditation cushions and benches as well as ordinary chairs provided. An early session is devoted to posture for meditation – how best to sit – a crucial consideration when you need to sit quite still for 30 minutes at a time. Other sessions include group meetings for discussion and questions, and guided walks. There is also an outdoor lesson on walking meditation (an acquired taste), and an excellent silent walk along the river. In the evening you lie down for periods of Yoga Nidra – a deep relaxation practice – or a meditative Body Scan.
Chunks of time, including some meals, are conducted in silence. In personal time, which usually amounts to a couple of hours a day, most choose to explore the grounds which in April, when we visited, were stunning, awash with primroses and flowering trees, or stroll down to the charming boathouse by the river. Or you can spend time reading or chatting in the well-stocked library. Colouring-in sheets – the new nostalgic adult mindful occupation – are also provided. When we visited, nobody had the time or inclination to go into the nearest town (Totnes) but one or two found their way to the estate shop selling the renowned Sharpham cheese from their own dairy furnished with milk from their herd of Jersey cows, and award-winning wine – the estate boasts 12,000 vines. The constant availability of tea (all kinds), coffee and biscuits in a small room adjoining the dining room is a welcome touch.
Where you stay: Sharpham House is a magnificent 18th century Grade 1 listed property which was put in trust in 1982 by Maurice and Ruth Ash, the last family to own it. Maurice was an environmentalist and writer who had long been interested in Wittgenstein’s philosophy and its similarities with Buddhism. He put this interest into practice by seeking secular Buddhist practitioners to start a community who tended the walled vegetable garden, practised communal living and meditation and hosted a public programme of talks and workshops.
Today, The Barn Retreat at the western end of the estate remains a place for short stays where these core features of communal living take place. Ruth was a craftswoman and the daughter of the social entrepreneurs Leonard and Dorothy Elmhurst of nearby Dartington Hall. Their spirit of enquiry into better ways of living and a mindful ethos lives on in the house which is liberally adorned with contemporary art – mostly the work of their friend the Polish painter, Zdzislaw Ruszkowski – other artefacts and framed poems. From the octagonal entrance hall, you come into a splendid pink atrium with a fabulous cantilevered spiral staircase of Portland stone winding its way up two floors to the glass cupola.
The bedrooms are all individual, spacious, warm and comfortable with big sash windows, great views, and nice old fashioned furniture. All have kettles and teabags etc. but only a few have their own bathrooms and there is a bit of a scramble for the use of the communal bathrooms – something to note if you have bladder issues. There are five notably grander rooms with four poster beds named Ruth Ash; Philemon Pownal; Thomas de-Sharpham; Walnut and Lime. None have lockable doors so as to preserve the family atmosphere.
The music room on the first floor where meetings are held is particularly lovely, pale blue walls with ornate mouldings, huge windows and comfortable sofas. So too is the octagonal yoga room at the front, and the square library at the back of the house overlooking the gardens. The dining room is more utilitarian but who cares when the food eaten there is so awesome. Despite its grandeur, the house is by no means show-off smart – more shabby genteel like a traditional boarding school perhaps – and it still has the welcoming feel of a family house.
How was it for us? The beauty and peace and the generosity of spirit in which the Ashes endowed Sharpham lives on today in the people who continue to run it today. It really is a very special place. Everything from the glorious formal gardens and the informal banks of primroses outside, to the worn rugs and well-thumbed books and pictures inside, draws you in and tells you that here is a much-loved place in which caring people have lived and worked and done their best to make the world a better place. Inspirational is not too strong a word to describe the atmosphere. I can see why it attracts artists and poets – both Brian Patten and Alice Oswald have spent time here.
As a rank beginner, I found meditating itself difficult and not immediately transformational. It’s true that I hadn’t had time to read the recommended books beforehand but, as a novice, I would still have liked a bit more guidance at the start of the course, in the form of a talk about mindfulness – what it is, what it can do, how it works, and a bit about the science behind it. Instead, we plunged straight into actually doing it. However everything around me felt completely right – and that brought its own reward.
I found the silent periods disconcerting at first, especially at breakfast the first morning when listening to strangers chew beside you rather than chatting felt almost embarrassing, but I got used to it and finally embraced it. One of the nicest things we did as a group was a silent hour-long walk in the sunshine along the river just as the bluebells were coming out and the birds were at their most vocal.
Finally, a charming custom of the house was the ringing of a handbell to wake everyone up and at various times throughout the day to signal the beginning of a session. Members of the group volunteered for this duty and some found this a bit of a highlight.
What we took home: I loved the whole experience of bonding with people I didn’t know and will probably never see again over a shared pursuit, and discovered that it is possible, even enjoyable – and certainly beneficial – to sit perfectly still for half an hour at a time listening only to my own breath.
Would we go back: I certainly would – perhaps to the Barn retreat on the Sharpham estate to practise my newly acquired though shaky mindfulness skills in daily tasks and rural activity.
People watch: On our beginners’ retreat the facilitators were Patti Summerville and Mark Ovland. Mark is a particularly experienced teacher (he was Patti’s teacher originally) and does a lot of work in prisons and schools. He was very forthcoming and illuminating in the Q & A sessions and a shining example of someone for whom mindfulness is a total way of life.
Food watch: Without exception, everyone raved about the food. Three proper meals a day, all vegetarian with gluten-free options and food either from the estate, including the delicious cheese (but not the wine!), or locally sourced. We were anxious about being wrenched from our breakfast ritual of porridge with various seed, yoghurt and fruit mixtures but needn’t have worried – everything was there. Crumpets were a popular choice with people less concerned about their waistlines! Lunch and dinner tend to comprise home-made soup followed by a proper main course such as chickpea tagine or vegetable curry with rice as well as salads and puddings.
What’s lowly: The half hour sessions of yoga were little more than warm-up stretches which was fine early in the morning but at least one proper 1-1.5 hour long yoga class scheduled into the three day period would have been good. After all, yoga is meditation when done mindfully.
Insider tip: Bring your own body lotions, shampoo, soap and so forth as only standard liquid soap is provided. Request one of the two rooms with en-suite bathrooms if you’re worried about not getting a shower when you want one, or walking along the corridor at night.
Price with a companion: Sharing is not encouraged, the view being that part of the retreat experience is spending time in solitude. If couples want to come, it’s recommended that they book into separate rooms.
Price going solo: £275 per person for 3 nights at present, but from September 2015 the rate for a standard room will be £295, or £345 for a larger room with views over the river.
Value for money: Hard to beat.
Sister retreats: The Sharpham Trust programme is designed to help people to reconnect with themselves and nature through mindfulness, outdoor learning and the arts and they run lots of different events and courses throughout the year. The Trust is also home to the renowned Barn Retreat Centre, which has been offering mindfulness retreats for the last 25 years based on the Buddhist tradition, suitable for experienced meditators and anyone who can commit to undertaking the 5 Buddhist precepts for the duration of each retreat, as well as living communally, working in the gardens and preparing food together.
Reviewed by Carla McKay
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