I switched Airbnb to map view, maxed the price at £50 per night, and panned hopefully right from London.
For some reason one of the few remaining markers on the map caught my eye — click — and up popped a photo of an peculiar turret-like building captioned “Ballingdon Mill Retreat; LDN 1hr20” .
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I realised I was looking at the base of an old windmill. Pretty cool. And it wasn’t too far away. But why was it so modestly priced?
I skim-read the description. It was “off grid”.
What did that mean though?
In short: no heating other than a wood-burning stove, with bathroom and kitchen facilities in the adjacent cottage where the owner lived, and a bucket (“military campaign loo”) for emergencies in the middle of the night.
The idea of living with a few less creature comforts for a while appealed. And I desperately wanted to escape the melee of London.
So I booked myself in for a fortnight and began to assemble some belongings for the trip.
I don’t know why I abandoned my usual “pack light” principles. I guess I didn’t want to be struck by the sudden desire to do or create something and not have what I wanted to hand.
My gear ended up including a guitar, a large midi keyboard, and a huge stack of books like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: Or, Life in the Woods which I still haven’t gotten around to reading. It was more stuff than I could carry on the bike I was taking with me, so I had to cram it all and my bike into a taxi, and make multiple trips between platforms when I changed train en route. But in just a few hours I was out of London and in the Suffolk countryside.</p>
A new routine
I settled in for my stay at the windmill.
The wood burning stove required regular feeding but when it got going, it kept the place surprisingly snug.
There wasn’t much to do.
I took long walks into the surrounding countryside.
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I drank lots of tea out of a tin mug which was always threatening to burn me.
I’d hoped to go on long bike rides but it was bitterly cold, and by the second week what rain there was had turned to soft, powdery snow.
Sleep. So much sleep. Luxurious eight or ten hour stretches of the stuff, instead of the four or five I’d been grabbing in the weeks previously.
In the morning I would wake up and rebuild the fire, dressed head to toe in thermals. On days where I had got my fire-building technique just right there would still be a tiny pulsating ember, like the sleep light of a MacBook, buried in the pile of ash to greet me.
The books I had planned to read had become less appealing. (Tip: don’t burden yourself with any expectations for your retreat. If you go with the intention of solving a particular problem or re-finding your purpose in the universe, you most likely won’t)
I started to work systematically through the output of James Altucher, which I’d just discovered.
When I got to the first sentence of his Twitter profile — “For some reason, I’ve turned myself inside out and all my guts have spilled onto my blog” — something clicked.
I realised what had been wrong with my previous attempts at writing. I hadn’t been honest: with myself, or about myself. I needed to write stories, not “blog posts”.
Armed with these thoughts, I sat down beside the warmth of the stove with a mug of tea, and scanned back through my life for something to write about it. Words flowed out of my head and into sentences. I even began to enjoy the writing process.
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The seed of a writing habit that was born on my retreat has since germinated. Looking back, this has been the lasting benefit of my time out. I wrote half of this article early this morning before breakfast, bashing out 500 words without realising it. Last Saturday I wrote close to 1500. I’ve started logging my daily word count to a public spreadsheet, for accountability’s sake. (Yesterday’s tally was 0, in case you’re wondering).
How to go on retreat
The next time you are stuck, try physically relocating yourself, and you might find yourself relocated mentally also.
Jesus went to the desert. Buddhists go and sit in silence in purpose-built retreat centres.
You don’t have to take things to such extremes though (unless you want to).
- Invest in a week away. Find somewhere basic to stay (whether through Airbnb or elsewhere), explain to your partner that you want some "me time", and go hang out with yourself for a while.
- You are taking a break from your everyday life and situation: so don't try to take it all along with you. Ditch the baggage. Physical and emotional. Pack light.
- Make plans to do nothing. Literally, block it off in your schedule.
- Turn off your phone. Even better: leave it behind.
- Log out of email for a day or two to see how it feels. (I managed to stay offline for 48 hours before easing back into my usual inbox checking pattern).
- Get active. Long walks are a good place to start. If I was a yoga nut I would probably tell you to do yoga. Whatever physical activity it is that you enjoy, go do it, and leave your phone behind when you do if possible..
Can’t get away? No problem… just take a mini retreat.
Take your laptop to a coffee shop on the far side of town.
Take a notebook and pen to the park.
Take your mind somewhere else and see what happens.
Posted to life in 2013.