The Sharpham Trust, England
Mindfulness retreats in a barn, woodland and a hilltop mansion above the River Dart
Stressed-out city dwellers, burnt-out caring, teaching and giving professionals, people living with emotional or physical pain, nature-starved people, or anyone new to, curious and open-minded about the value of meditation.
Anyone in need of room service or luxury, and couples.
A more mindful, compassionate and environmentally-sustainable world is the vision of The Sharpham Trust. And it is working towards that goal, one retreat at a time. The charity runs a variety of mindfulness and meditation retreats throughout the year in different venues on its inspirational 550-acre estate, which borders the River Dart near Totnes in Devon, UK. Sharpham’s retreats are aimed at people with a range of meditation experience – from meditation newbies to those with a deeper practice. Choose secular retreats in a gorgeous Palladian mansion, nature retreats under canvas in woodland or Buddhist retreats at The Barn. Retreatants stay full-board, dining on delicious vegetarian & vegan food, much of it grown in Sharpham’s organic gardens. 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), only 8 of the 24 bedrooms come with an ensuite bathroom and toilet.
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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 stress-management, 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.
Offering mindfulness as a tool for everyday life is a principle that underpins Sharpham Trust themed retreats.
Mindfulness and Walking enables you to explore mindfulness and connect with yourself as you experience the incredible Sharpham Estate & the 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 stress, the 4-night Sustaining Ourselves Through Mindfulness retreat is for you. You’ll be held by experienced and supportive leaders on a programme specifically designed to offer mindful techniques to relieve overwhelm and pressure.
All retreats feature three guided meditation sessions each day, movement, personal time and periods of silence.
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.
Some of Sharpham’s Woodland Retreats are themed. There are woodland retreats for women, there is foraging for wild food and medicines, and even canoeing – the calm waters of the River Dart, paddled with mindful awareness, provides an outstanding meditative experience.
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.
Bedrooms in Sharpham House: The bedrooms are all individual, warm and comfortable with big sash windows and nice old fashioned furniture. Many have great views to the countryside. All have kettles and teabags to use.
There are five notably grander rooms named Ruth Ash, Philemon Pownoll, Thomas de Sharpham, Walnut and Lime, as well as smaller, more cosy rooms. None have lockable doors so as to preserve the family atmosphere.
A few are ensuite, and you’ll pay a higher price for that. Mostly you share (super-clean) communal bathrooms which are on every floor. Bring a sarong or gown for walking along the corridor.
Bedrooms in The Barn: All rooms are simple, comfortable single rooms, with a shared loo and bathroom. Hot drinks are available 24 hours for you to get for yourself in the kitchen.
Bell Tents in Sharpham woodland: Accommodation is in comfortable and spacious bell tents, which each include a foam mattress, a warm 13.5 tog duvet and bedding, a small table and a solar light. There is a covered fire hearth area for wet weather, and a timber-frame shower and toilet block at the campsite with four hot showers and three flushing loos.
Other spaces to be: The Sharpham Estate is a perfect place to explore and find your own meditation ‘sit-spot’ in nature. If you’re in Sharpham House and woodland, you can explore the immediate grounds, which include Grade 2*-listed gardens laid out by Percy Cane, the Georgian walled garden, space under the Poet Tree, sit-spots amid the shrubs along Ladies’ Walk and plenty of spaces for repose in the formal gardens. At the woodland campsite, the covered fireside hearth offers a chance to contemplate whilst watching the meditative flames.
The Barn has a library for quiet rest and reading, as well as a circular patio outside with benches. Its gardens also offer plenty of sit-spots for meditation and rest, with easy access to woodland and peaceful views down the River Dart Valley. Sharpham staff have maps of routes and places perfect for quiet contemplation on the wider Estate.
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). Christmas and New Year retreats take place in Sharpham House and The Barn.
In line with sustainable practices across the Sharpham Estate, Sharpham’s cooks produce very high quality seasonal, vegetarian & vegan 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 vegan, 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