Serial retreater Alastair McIver takes a look at the wide range of UK retreats on offer for both individuals and families
When I was growing up, the word ‘Retreat’ brought one thing and only one thing to mind; silence.
Now don’t get me wrong. I like silence. It becomes ever more attractive as the years roll on.
But silence back in the day seemed boring to me in my teenage years and it was never a vacation option in our house anyway. So fast forward a few years to when my own children became teenagers, and it was with some horror that my wife suggested that – for our summer break – we consider heading off to a Retreat centre, kids and all!
What could she be thinking? What’s wrong with the coast, the Cotswolds, Scotland, or Ireland; abroad even?
Nothing, of course, but as usual, my wife – not for the first time in our 30 odd years of married life – was right.
Not only that, she was ‘visionary right’. She saw it. She got it. Perspective.
Family time is family time. Time with God is important. Nature is nurture, certainly for our children growing up. And silence, as they say, is golden.
For us, as a family, we have learnt perspective on life from retreat centres. We have discovered that many fascinating people go to retreats. And you don’t have to be wholly silent on a retreat, of course. Some of my best conversations, and teachings have come from my time at retreat centres.
I wonder what the word Retreat conjures up for you these days?
As a serial retreat goer, I can assure you that retreats and retreat houses (we favour Christian run ones in our family) can offer more than enough for you to warrant pencilling them into your family calendar on an annual basis. Indeed, we are blessed to have such a great choice here in the UK.
Our family, for example, has grown to love Ffald-y-Brenin, in Cwm Gwaun, Pembrokeshire, West Wales. For it was to there that we first ventured for our first family retreat more than twenty years ago with our then young children. And it is to there that we still go, for our special space and to spend quality time with God.
Space is a rare commodity in life these days, and we have found that a visit to Ffald-y-Brenin, with its monastic accommodation, rare wi-fi access, no television, and limited mobile signal, is the perfect antidote to the pressures of life.
Ffald-y-Brenin, like so many retreats, was set up for people like us, you and me.
It was founded by visionary Phyllida Mould, after buying a book called ‘How then shall we live’ by Francis Schaeffer. She never actually read that book but its title challenged her, so she set off for a day of prayer and retreat. God spoke to her powerfully about setting up a retreat centre. She had no clue how to do this, of course but she wrote the vision down on an egg-shaped piece of paper and placed it in an old Bible, whilst she prayed about it over many years before her vision came to pass in 1985.
An optional rhythm of prayer throughout the day creates time with God; a small, circular, stone chapel allows for space with God; a writing and reading room allows us to explore our creative gifts with God; and a community kitchen allows for companionship with His people. No wonder they call Ffald-y-Brenin a ‘thin place’, between heaven and earth.
Outside of the retreat accommodation are the Preseli mountains, both spectacular and walkable. The sheep in the surrounding fields remind us that He is the lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world.
No trip to Ffald-y-Brenin would be complete without time spent at the large wooden cross, overlooking the valley, where so many have met with Him.
And when day is done, there is the silence. No noise from trains, or boats or planes to disturb our sleep.
What’s not to like, I wonder?
Of course, this isn’t the only retreat centre in the UK. There are many.
Lee Abbey, set in spectacular countryside in north Devon, has been another family favourite for us over the years. It runs wide-ranging themed weeks for its guests, including families. I asked my daughter, Jessica, now 28, if she could recall our time there. I was amazed that she remembered its impact upon her.
“Visiting Lee Abbey as a teenager was great for my faith,” she said. “The activities were really fun, the area was beautiful and the conversations with other teenagers and the Youth Leaders really encouraged me in my relationship with God.”
I guess we should never underestimate the power of retreat for our children, let alone for ourselves.
Penhurst Retreat Centre
Continuing our journey east to Sussex, we find Penhurst, located in the High Weald within an ‘area of outstanding natural beauty.’ The Retreat centre is in the 17th Century Jacobean Manor House, next door to a renovated 14th Century church. You will find tranquillity here, as well as a wide range of specialist weeks, many of them with a missional feel.
Heading north, you will discover both peace and quiet in the rugged Yorkshire Dales with a visit to Scargill House, set in a beautiful 90-acre estate in Kettlewell. Visitors here are encouraged to ‘find breathing and thinking space, not to mention a greater closeness to God’. Breathing, thinking, closeness… peace. A recipe for survival in a chaotic world full of instant opinion and noise.
Whitchester Christian Centre
Moving further north, just over the border in fact, you will find the Whitchester Christian Guest House in Hawick, in the southern uplands of Scotland. This is a non-denominational holiday and retreat centre located in a 19th century house in three acres of grounds, including woodlands. Here you can feast on home-grown fruit and vegetables cultivated within its very own walled garden.
The Retreat Association
The Retreat Association might be worth an online visit to explore a wealth of other retreat opportunities. This umbrella organisation’s director, Alison MacTier, says, “Retreats are for everyday people, people like you and I, with all our faults and difficulties, who just need some time out and some space.”
It doesn’t matter whether you are a rambler, a walker, a bird-watcher, a parent, a writer, a painter, a church leader, single, divorced or bereaved. There is somewhere set aside for you to withdraw to and a listening ear if you need it.
“I think that sometimes people worry about the amount of silence they might encounter on retreat,” says Alison, “but I would say it’s less about silence and more about stillness, and without that stillness we can’t really hear that still small voice…”
Which, depending on whether you go as a family or individual, might just be your two year old…
Six reasons to visit a Retreat:
Family time – whether you have children, siblings, parents or grand-parents, time is precious. Lack of time can get in the way of living out our relationships with family to the full. A retreat can give you back that lost time and create memories for the future.
Healthy time – most Christian retreats are located in the countryside, away from towns and cities. Escaping the humdrum of daily noise through fresh air and walking can be both rewarding and stimulating.
Time with God – how often have we made excuses not to pray, or read the Bible, or meditate on His Word? On a retreat, there is time for all three… and more.
Perspective – stepping back from the world can, I have found, offer a timely perspective which the distractions of 21st century life can easily crowd out.
Peace and quiet – “Be still and know that I am God…”
Silence – when is your peace time in your busy week? If you struggle to find it, or if you have never experienced it, then a retreat really can help.
‘Retreats R Us’ was first published in Woman Alive magazine, May 2020