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In retreat

Simon Jones and Alison MacTier

Simon Jones takes some time out in East London and Alison MacTier suggests some low-cost visits.


Chartered streets

I AM on a short retreat. One of my windows looks out on to a pretty garden square, autumnally coloured, scattered with reading chairs and arresting sculpture. It's the way retreats tend to go. Gentle and relaxing, places of reflection and quiet prayer. But my other window frames a busy intersection on the A13, one of the three most polluted roads in London. Double-glazing does its job, and this is a peaceful place; but the traffic hum is a reminder that, although you may have stepped out of the city when you visit the Royal Foundation of St Katharine (RFSK), you haven't actually left it. That, believe it or not, is why it is worth coming. There are those, of course, who will come from near by to take a breather from metropolitan life. There are not many retreat centres close to a DLR station, and St Katharine's can offer a surprisingly tranquil place. But I am not here to forget the city; I'm here to experience it in a different way. Is God more easily contacted among mountains, or in green and pleasant lands? As an east London resident, I would hope not.


ST KATHARINE's has been a centre for worship, hospitality, and service since it was founded by Queen Matilda in 1147. The religious community living around the chapel provided support for the old and sick, and continued to do so until 1825, when dock building forced a relocation to Regent's Park. But this was temporary. After the Second World War, it was agreed that the East End needed St Katherine's back, and it moved to the site of St James's, Ratcliff, after the original church's destruction in the Blitz.

The foundation is now housed in the Georgian vicarage, which still stands. The complex has grown over time, but has preserved the sense of an oasis in the city. The reordered chapel gracefully connects with the Georgian house and a modern retreat and conference centre. You can elect to use the centre as a hotel, and people do - rooms can be booked with online travel-agents - but the foundation wants to connect locally, as it always has done, and to that end has built a new "well-being and enterprise space".

The most intriguing of these is a workhub residency project, where people who work for local charities are offered one day a week to escape from the office to focus both on their work and their well-being, while meeting others in the same boat. The aim is to support East End organisations that work with the community, and help them increase their effectiveness, connectivity, and employee well-being.

For the Master of St Katharine's, the Revd Mark Aitken, this is a key part of the foundation's work. "It emerges from our expanding work as a centre for retreat and reflection, and our ethos, rooted in the Christian faith, that acknowledges the value and uniqueness of every human being, the importance of work for peace and justice, and our ongoing efforts to create an atmosphere which promotes a holistic well-being and allows groups and individuals to think deeply and wisely about life."

Crucially, this isn't just about a respite for stressed workers, but a way to help them build the local community, together. In partnership with Bow Arts, RFSK is also providing affordable space to artists while also generating income to support arts-led educational projects on site. Ten artists are now counted as being in residence, and more are welcome.


MR AITKEN's enthusiasm for the local area is reflected in the pace of change at the centre. But he also has an eye on what the centre can offer people from outside town. Rather than imagining a retreat as a place to move away from the world, what about somewhere that allowed you to take in what the city had to say about that world through its museums, galleries, and shows, and experience them in the context of holy reflection?

We sit together at a pub near by, overlooking the river. "Is this, too, not a place that can inspire thought?" he asks. "Provide inspiration and renewal? Aren't these the things that people hope to experience on retreat?"

It should be said, of course, that the rooms at RFSK are well-appointed, that the food there is of a good standard (there is an excellent supper club), and that its chapel is charming. This would all be true; but to focus on it would be to miss the possibilities of the location.

For now, the foundation offers both open and led reflective days, neither of which require a stay. Services - warm and intelligent - are held daily. But the real value in St Katharine's is precisely that it is in the city; a city full of God-imaged humanity asking questions of itself, and, at its best, in pursuit of the best expression of itself.

You can have hills, if you want them - and we all do, at times. But, for a retreat that is also a re-entry, a place of connection with others as well as a temporary separation, head to the Docklands in London this year for a period of reflection.


Open reflective days at RFSK cost £15. Led ones cost £30. Both include coffee and lunch. Visit to book and enquire about a longer stay.

Escape on a budget

A SIGNIFICANT part of the retreat experience is the "getting away from it all" factor. In a different space you are free from the clutter of life, and more able to discover the restorative presence of a place that is rooted in prayer and hospitality, giving you the opportunity to explore something deep and unique within.

Retreat centres usually offer great value for money: they are often in glorious locations, offer delicious home cooking, and have facilities such as libraries, art rooms, and labyrinths.

If you are looking for a retreat in 2016, but are limited by funds, it is worth approaching retreat centres to see whether they offer a reduction for those who are unwaged, or on a low income. Many will offer reduced rates to those who would not otherwise be able to afford time away.

There are also retreat centres that consistently offer lower, or "donation"- style rates. These may not include en suite facilities, or may offer the option for self-catering rather than full board. Some centres have a bursary fund to subsidise those who cannot afford the regular rates, and this may be awarded on a case-by-case basis.

Common to all centres is a strong belief in the value of making retreat open to everyone - whatever their background or income level - and this will be evident in the care and hospitality that is so integral to retreat centres, where the needs of the guest are put first.


THE following places offer bed and breakfast for £40 a night or under:

Abbotswick, in Brentwood, Essex, is a Roman Catholic diocesan house of prayer. It is set in 16 acres of grounds in a semi-rural location, and provides hospitality to people of all denominations who are seeking day or residential retreats.

B&B £35 per night;


Tabor Carmelite Retreat House, in Preston, Lancashire, is a small Carmelite community that offers counselling and healing.

B&B £30 per night;


Whitchester Christian Guest House, in Hawick, near the Scottish borders, is a comfortable Victorian country house where peace and quiet can be found on individual or group retreats, quiet days, and holidays.

B&B £40 per night;


For those with less than £30 a night to spend, the Bamford Quaker Community, in Derbyshire, has ten acres of reclaimed woodland and organic gardens. The focus is on the spirit-led life and ecological sustainability. It offers B&B from between £15-£30 per person per night: you pay what you discern to be the right amount.


A NUMBER of retreat centres operate on a suggested-donation basis:

All Hallows' House, Norwich, offers space for a time of study, quiet, or private retreat, and also for those visiting the nearby shrine of Julian of Norwich. It has a suggested donation of £40-£45 per 24-hour full-board. Self-catering accommodation is also available for £20 per night.


Buckfast Abbey, in Buckfastleigh, Devon, is a Benedictine monastery with guest quarters. The community opens its doors to individuals who are seeking a retreat; the cost is based on whatever each person can afford.


Edenham Regional House, in Bourne, Lincolnshire, offers hospitality in the context of an Anglican vicarage and family home with retreat accommodation that is separate, quiet, and private. A suggested donation of £22 is invited for B&B, or £32 including lunch. Hawkshead Hill Baptist Church, in Ambleside, Cumbria, has one double guest-room, accessed via a staircase, with kitchen, shower room, and lavatory. Guests are free to make use of the chapel and grounds. A minimum donation of £15 per person per night is requested for this self-catering accommodation.

Katherine House, in Salford, is a small Christian conference centre owned and run by an international congregation of RC Sisters, who welcome people of all faiths and none. There is a suggested donation of £25 for B&B, and £30 for full board. Those on a reduced income are invited to contact the bursar for a further 20-per-cent reduction on rates.


SOME retreat centres can dip into bursary funds on request. It is always worth asking a retreat house if it can offer this.

Hilfield Friary, near Dorchester, Dorset, is a Franciscan community where life revolves around a daily pattern of worship and prayer in which visitors are invited to share. The community recommends a donation of £40 for a 24-hour stay with full board.


St Beuno's Jesuit Spirituality Centre, in St Asaph, North Wales, offers a wide range of Ignatian and individually guided retreats. A bursary fund, which usually represents 20 per cent of the retreat cost, is available on individual application.


Shepherd's Dene, in Riding Mill, Northumberland, is a comfortable Edwardian country house with a labyrinth, library, and places for quiet meditation. Anglican in its spirituality, it is welcoming to all, and has a discretionary bursary fund.


The Society of Mary and Martha, near Sheldon, in Devon, offers a range of accommodation in converted farm buildings, set in 45 acres on the edge of Dartmoor. It has a particular focus on those in ministry, with a 20-per-cent reduction on the cost of their stay. The Vine, at Mays Farm, in Hullavington, Wiltshire, offers a bursary fund (normally 25 per cent) for clergy and others in full-time Christian ministry. Their hope is that no one will be prevented from staying at the Vine because of cost.


Alison MacTier is the executive director of the Retreat Association. For more information on any of these centres, contact the Retreat Association: phone 01494 569056; email info@; or visit www.retreats.