The Sharpham Trust, England
Mindfulness retreats in a barn, woodland and a hilltop mansion above the River Dart
Best for: Stressed-out city dwellers, burnt-out caring, teaching and giving professionals, people living with emotional or physical pain, or anyone new to, curious and open-minded about the value of meditation.
Not for: Anyone in need of room service or luxury, and couples.
The Sharpham Trust is a charity connecting people with nature and themselves in order to build a more mindful, compassionate and environmentally-sustainable world. It runs mindfulness and meditation retreats throughout the year on its inspirational 550-acre estate alongside a three-mile stretch of the River Dart near Totnes in Devon, aimed at people with a range of meditation experience – from those completely new to mindfulness to people with a deeper practice or experience. Choose secular retreats in a gorgeous Palladian-style mansion, nature retreats under canvas in the woodland or Buddhist retreats at The Barn. Whatever stage of meditation or mindfulness practice you’re at, everyone will benefit from the utter peace and sheer beauty of the Sharpham Estate.
You’ll be in safe and experienced hands here, for The Sharpham Trust has been offering meditation and mindfulness learning for more than 30 years – long before mindfulness hit the mainstream. It uses qualified and highly experienced retreat leaders, many of whom are skilled at helping you apply mindfulness in your daily life – after you’ve left the ‘retreat zone’. Although mindfulness was developed from Buddhist traditions, Sharpham House and woodland retreats are secular – you do not have to adhere to a faith or belief system to benefit from the calming effects of mindful meditation or mindful awareness.
Because Sharpham House is a Grade 1-listed mansion (with limits to the changes they can make to the building), few bedrooms come with an ensuite bathroom and toilet, and those that do are understandably reserved for those with a medical condition needing proximity to a loo.
Come for 3 to 6-night retreats offering a range of meditation experiences in three amazing locations, from those for beginners through to dharma-based retreats in the Buddhist tradition. Sharpham House retreats offer mindfulness for beginners or blend mindfulness with themes including creative writing, conscious cookery, singing, walking and yoga. Retreats in Sharpham’s woodland take place under canvas and offer the chance for experiencing mindful awareness in nature. Retreats at The Barn are communal and in the Buddhist tradition, with longer daily meditation periods and where you live, cook and work together in the organic gardens.
The three-night secular Mindfulness for Beginners retreats at Sharpham House are perfect for those who wish to investigate mindfulness for the first time and develop their own practice, but they are also useful for refreshing or deepening an existing practice. The Trust also runs courses, including the 8-week programme originally developed by mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn (and recognized by the UK’s National Institute of Clinical Excellence).
On the 3 night retreats, there are three half-hour sessions of meditation a day, which you are expected to attend, plus an optional half hour of yoga stretching before breakfast and yoga nidra or relaxation in the evening. An early session is devoted to posture for meditation – how best to sit – a crucial consideration when you are quite still for 30 minutes at a time. Other sessions include group meetings for discussion and questions and guided walks – we also had one outdoor lesson on walking meditation and one excellent silent walk along the river.
Sharpham House offers a range of well put together secular retreats that mix mindfulness with a creative theme such as creative writing, conscious cooking and singing. All retreats feature three guided meditation sessions each day, yoga and movement and periods of silence.
Like all these retreats, Mindfulness through Singing is open to everyone – even complete beginner singers can experience beautiful harmony as meditation.
Creative Writing in Nature blends writing, meditation and nature connection as a stimulus for your writing – and as a mirror to your habitual patterns of thinking. No previous experience of creative writing or meditation is necessary, and retreat leaders have a background in wilderness training, foraging and wild food and medicine knowledge, mindfulness in nature and creative writing.
Moments to Savour is the conscious cooking and mindful eating retreat, which explores mindful awareness with the food that you’ll harvest, cook and eat on retreat in beautiful and historic Sharpham House. You’ll harvest, prepare and eat delicious healthy food whilst developing mindfulness techniques that you’ll digest long after the retreat is done.
Sharpham House offers a range of well put together secular retreats that mix mindfulness with a wellbeing theme such as walking, yoga, creating space for busy women and de-stressing for the community-minded. All retreats feature three guided meditation sessions each day, yoga and movement and periods of silence.
Mindfulness and Walking enables you to explore mindfulness and connect with yourself as you experience the incredible landscape of Devon. Mindfulness and Yoga guides you through movements, postures and breathing practices to facilitate moment-by-moment mindful awareness.
If have experienced burn-out and are driven by a strong sense of purpose to make the world a better place, you might also like the 4 night Sustaining Ourselves Through Mindfulness retreat, which is aimed at, by way of example, social or environmental activists or campaigners, care-givers or people in the helping professions in the service of others.
Staying in fully-furnished, cosy bell tents pitched in Sharpham’s tranquil woodland, these secular retreats combine mindfulness with connection to the Great Outdoors and time away from the frantic pace of everyday life. The benefits of connecting with nature and spending time in the natural world are well documented, as are those of developing a mindfulness practice. Based close to the River Dart in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, you’ll experience both and will probably emerge with a greater sense of gratitude, wonder, calm, self-insight and positive emotions.
The Barn Retreat Centre on the Sharpham Estate is set in a stunning hillside location overlooking the River Dart. It has been a popular retreat centre since 1986, offering six-night communal retreats every week of the year in the Buddhist tradition. A maximum of ten participants stay at The Barn, living, cooking, organic gardening and working in communal fellowship. This retreat is best suited to those with some experience of meditation.
Based on the three pillars of meditation, community and connection to the land, Barn retreats help develop a mindful approach to our lives, work and relationships. The retreat structure there includes three 40-minute meditation sessions a day, outdoor walking meditation, meditation and mindfulness guidance and support from teachers and staff, mindful work in the organic garden and woods, daily periods of silence and one full day of silence.
As well as the regular 6-night retreats, there are also retreats with live-in teachers, offering the chance to learn alongside an inspirational leader. There are retreats for men, retreats for women and even work retreats that enable you to give dana – the ancient Buddhist word for generosity or donation – through your actions.
Whichever retreat you choose, Sharpham is a wonderful place to be in nature. There are guided walks, outdoor lessons on walking meditation and excellent silent walks along the River Dart included on most retreats. In personal time, which usually amounts to a couple of hours a day, you can explore the Estate, which is within the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with breath-taking views across parkland thought to have been laid out by Capability Brown. If you’re at Sharpham House or woodland, you can stroll down to the charming Bathing House by the river – built at the same time as Sharpham House.
Gardening is also something you can help out with during a retreat at Sharpham.
Chunks of time, including some meals, are conducted in silence on most retreats, as a way of deepening your mindful awareness. If you are new to spending time in silence in the company of other people, it can feel awkward to begin with, but people usually find this to be a useful experience and you’re encouraged to explore the silent periods with a spirit of openness and curiosity. Retreats at Sharpham House, the woodland and The Barn move into silence each evening from 9pm.
This is the perfect place for a total digital detox. There’s poor mobile phone coverage on Sharpham Estate – which they rightly see as a virtue, and while there is wi-fi in Sharpham House, you are encouraged to disconnect from ‘the network’ so you can fully retreat. At The Barn, they ask all participants to turn off mobile phones and electronic devices for the whole of your retreat. This helps you and everyone else to disengage from daily life and live fully in the simplicity and quietude of a Buddhist retreat.
The vibe is very friendly and relaxed, and 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 to get lost in. Spend time reading or chatting in the well-stocked library. On our retreat in Sharpham House, the hosts thoughtfully provided colouring-in sheets for those who wanted to indulge in a nostalgic mindful occupation.
Bring your own body lotions, shampoo and other toiletries (Sharpham encourages you to bring eco-friendly stuff) as there is only liquid soap provided – albeit environmentally-friendly.
The estate shop sells the renowned Sharpham cheese and award-winning wine if you want to take some home – the estate boasts 12,000 vines. Sharpham House, woodland and The Barn are accessible via National Cycle Track 28 from Totnes to Ashprington. Walking time 1 hour approximately. Cycling time 35 minutes approximately. It’s unlikely you’ll have the time or inclination to go into the nearest town of Totnes, famous for its Transition Town movement, during a retreat, but it’s a fun place to explore before or after.
When to Go
Retreats at Sharpham House and The Barn run regularly all year round. In Spring the grounds are awash with primroses and flowering trees, in Summer wild flowers that have been encouraged to flourish attract bird and insect life (look out for the aerobatic swallows and house martins).
You really notice the trees that hug Sharpham House and The Barn in Autumn, with leaf-colours ranging from egg-yolk yellow to deep green. Whilst in Winter, the undulating landscape is revealed and coated by the sheen of the frost. Woodland retreats take place from May to September, where you’ll be close up to nature in Spring & Summer.
In line with sustainable practices across the Sharpham Estate, Sharpham’s cooks produce very high quality seasonal, vegetarian food for retreat guests, sourcing food whenever possible from the kitchen garden and supporting local food suppliers. Alcohol is not served nor encouraged at any of Sharpham’s retreat venues.
In Sharpham House, you eat in the dining room, which is a little utilitarian in feel compared to the homely feel of the rest of the house, but who cares when the food eaten there is this good. You’ll get three proper meals a day, all vegetarian, with gluten-, dairy- and wheat-free options, and food sourced either locally or from the estate, including their delicious Sharpham cheese from their own dairy furnished with milk from their herd of Jersey cows (but not the award-winning wine!).
At breakfast, there are fresh juices (including apple juice from Sharpham’s organic orchards), cereals (including gluten-free options), eggs, locally-sourced breads, spreads and fresh fruit.
At both lunch and dinner there’s usually homemade soup and proper main courses like chickpea tagine and vegetable curry with rice and scrumptious salads. Look out for a variety of roast vegetable hummus (the beetroot one’s particularly lovely), vegetable pilaf and a range of excellent home-made dressings and condiments. Desserts include cakes, tarts and lemon posset – with gluten and dairy-free options here too. A nice touch in Sharpham House is the 24-hour availability of tea (all kinds), coffee and biscuits in the Toasting Room adjoining the dining room.
The woodland retreats are serviced by the same Sharpham House kitchen and you eat beneath a generous, covered outdoor dining area with its own hob and sink. The Camp Manager assists with serving the food.
At The Barn, you prepare and create your own organic, vegetarian food in the fully-stocked kitchen there. If you’re into cooking – great! If you’re not such a cookery whizz, don’t fret. You’ll get help to make some of the delicious vegetarian and vegan recipes in The Barn’s cookbooks (also available for sale there). The main meal is at lunch time. Everyone takes a turn to prepare this meal in pairs (this will be organised at the Sunday welcome meeting). You’ll also have access to 24-hour hot teas, coffee & infusions in The Barn kitchen. The Barn’s water is provided from their own spring, UV-treated and filtered.
The Sharpham Trust vision is to build a more mindful, compassionate and environmentally-sustainable world and works towards connecting people with nature and fostering mindfulness and well-being. The Trust encourages an understanding of the interconnection of life, a deep respect for the natural world, a belief in learning through experience, creative engagement and enquiry and an acknowledgement of the value of stillness and awareness.
Sustainability is taken seriously here. All of the hot water and heating in Sharpham House is produced by a state-of-the-art biomass woodchip boiler and they have two large photo-voltaic solar panel arrays on barn rooftops. Heating and hot water in The Barn is run from a log furnace and solar thermal panels.
The gardens are managed organically – and they source as much food as possible from them. They also use bio-degradable cleaning products.
Transfer Time: 50 minutes from airport or 10 minutes in taxi from Totnes