The benefit of residential writing retreats on the wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers

Clear your head, set your goals and walk the talk…

We asked one of our recent postgraduate cohorts to reflect on the benefits of participating in one of the Writing Retreats at Chaplegarth. Annika Coughlin, a sociologist studying for her PhD at UCL Institute of Education, gave us her thoughts. She is our guest blogger this month.

When you suffer from anxiety it can sometimes be difficult to think clearly, make plans and stick to them. It can be difficult to go to bed, or to get up, as you lie there paralysed by the work you have to do. It can be difficult to plan your (nutritious) meals for the day/week, let alone go shopping and cook. The day seems to whizz by so quickly that it feels wrong to factor in rest, exercise, fresh air and social time. Every second needs to be spent working – especially if you have achieved nothing all day – that’s what evenings and the early hours of the morning are for aren’t they?

After reading this you probably can feel a tightness in your chest and want to shout: ‘Stop! This isn’t good for you!’ And of course, those of us who worry a lot are already fully aware that this pattern of behaviour is damaging to our bodies and our minds – let alone to the state of our PhD thesis.

So how can a residential writing retreat help combat some of these negative behaviours and help with student success? Well, first of all, at a retreat other people are taking away some of the daily burdens. Someone is cooking for you, someone creates a timetable, someone schedules in the break-times and most importantly enforces them. Secondly, there are other people there for whom you can share goals and mutually motivate and spur on. When I attended the residential writing retreat at Chapelgarth Estate in May 2019, I deliberately chose to tackle the part of my chapter I have been avoiding for weeks. It is easier to do these scary or more demanding tasks in the company of others because you are not alone with your mind that is always screaming negative comments at you. It shuts up for a bit and lets you focus.

Sometimes you have to experience something to fully understand the benefits, but I would say the retreats make you realise at the time, as well as when the retreat is over, that you can achieve a lot during a working day when you follow the structure. A structure that others have thought out for you, tested and refined (another thing you don’t have to worry about!).

In conclusion, I would highly recommend the residential writing retreat at Chapelgarth Estate because it gave me the boost I needed at a time when I was particularly struggling with my anxiety. My anxiety will never go away, but by attending retreats, and then following the structure alone or with my PhD colleagues, I know that I can manage my time better and not let my anxiety get in the way of my thesis.

To find out more about our Writing Retreats please see

https://www.chapelgarth-estate.co.uk/retreats

https://www.chapelgarth-estate.co.uk/retreats

Writing Retreats at Chapelgarth (WRC) – May

With Writing Retreats at Chapelgarth (WRC) steadily becoming a monthly event and, knowing how popular acronyms are amongst academics and HE institutions , I have decided to adopt an acronym – WRC! Acronym it may be, but WRC comes with a purposeful Mission Statement: to provide PGRs, ECRs (and academics in general) a restorative, rural haven, where busy academics may escape the pressures of work and home to devote time to writing in a social and supportive environment in the company of like-minded individuals.

With May being chosen as ‘Mental Health Awareness Month’ and with the Mental Health and Wellbeing of academics gradually rising in the list of priorities of UK HE institutions, the focus on the stresses of academic life has sharpened. An article from BBC News education and social affairs correspondent, Hannah Richardson, reported how ‘Stressed out academics are inundating university counselling services as they grapple with heavy workloads and oppressive management’.

And the problem is not limited to those in the academic profession. It is becoming increasingly clear that PhD students are equally in need of more support in the context of Mental Health and Wellbeing, with international students in particular most recently being identified as a group which greatly suffers from isolation and study-related stress (See Vitae Report). This state of affairs feeds back into international students’ own Supervisors’ experiences, as they find themselves on the front line when providing support to doctoral candidates who have ‘poor levels of psychological wellbeing’.

As the debate on mental health in HE institutions is steadily rolled out and solutions are sought to address the most urgent questions, we feel quietly reassured to know that in our own small way we are providing a safe haven for PGRs, ECRs and Supervisors alike, in the non-hierarchical, interdisciplinary and supportive environment that WRC participants enjoy once they arrive to spend a few days on a residential writing retreat in rural North Yorkshire.

Facilitator, Dr Elsbeth Robson (University of Hull), surrounded by participants.

Our May cohort was small in numbers but striking for the passion and enthusiasm for own research which exuded from all participants.  I knew from the onset that this was going to be a group of very stimulating individuals: one of them was flying in from Addis Ababa, armed with steely will power to make the few days of the academic writing retreat an experience which would ‘turbo-charge’ her productivity. As is often the case, this was an all-women academic writing retreat which had a global feel about it. Chapelgarth Estate was providing the writing hub which connected women who had travelled from all corners: a lecturer from Scotland, a PGR from the South of England,  a Dutch Early Career Researcher, a Russian PhD student from Scotland, a Loughborough University PhD based in Ethiopia and an Aussi writer in the process of leaving Finland!

The group’s intention to make the most of the North York Moor setting when taking a break from the intense writing slots was evident from the start: equipped with sensible shoes if not jogging gear, they were often to be seen perusing the grounds and the surrounding woodland – often providing an impressive photographic record of the tranquillity of the rural landscape.

The North York Moors seen from Chapelgarth Estate
Stepping stones across our woodland beck.

As the participants became more familiar with the estate and gradually more intrepid, they set off to explore our small wood, negotiating the stepping stones along the way.. each of those steps resembling a step towards the writing goals that they had set out for each session.

Breaks were also an opportunity to ‘talk the walk’ and share the range of academic topics which were being drafted and redrafted, edited and polished. The interdisciplinary range of topics researched was fascinating and the passionate drive of each participant infectious: conversations flowed in a whirlwind of academic discussion, which ranged from analysing how power relations are reproduced in the discourse and practices of a large food charity on one hand, to the role of water, sanitation and hygiene in the context of pastoralism and climate change on the other hand.

As it became clear that all participants were committed to making their WRC experience an opportunity for de-stressing as well as for writers’ empowerment and productivity boosting, it was agreed to turn the evening break into a relaxing Yoga session. Luck would have it that one of the participants was also a Yoga teacher, so we were all able to benefit from a teacher – led restorative Yoga session at the end of the day.. and we did not hold back!

Yoga Group Session in one of the Common Rooms

As the third day came to an end and we regrouped for the final feedback session, the overwhelming feeling was that everyone had felt well ‘looked after’ and that the rural tranquillity, the healthy food and the companionship of other academics had all helped participants make excellent progress on their writing, and in some cases, overcome the dreaded ‘writer’s block’. It was sad to say goodbye to everyone as the academics boarded the minibus that took participants back to the station – everyone had written so much and offloaded possibly more – and that gave me heart. Who knows? Some of them may return another time, to edit or polish that tricky chapter, should it crop up again!

We will be delighted to welcome them back!

For more information on Writing Retreats at Chapelgarth visit: https://www.chapelgarth-estate.co.uk/retreats

https://www.chapelgarth-estate.co.uk/retreats

Academic Writing Retreat – April

There is so much about Structured Academic Writing Retreats that still is quite unfamiliar amongst academics that I sometimes feel like taking a step back and unveiling the ‘arcane’ to all neophytes.. After all the practice of Residential Structured Academic Writing Retreats is still the reserve of a few academics ‘in the know’.. But why should it be?

Our retreats are for everyone who has a writing deadline – generally while working in HE or completing an assignment. This recently took the shape of an NQT teacher and a senior lecturer both working on completing their portfolios! But more frequently, it is focused writing that gets done, no matter the discipline.


Residential Academic Writing Retreat – April 2019

Take our latest April cohort: it was as interdisciplinary as they come – it always is – bringing together expertise from the Social Sciences, the Humanities and Language Learning. Participants did not know each other and had come from far and wide: there were some lucky ones who were only a drive away, having come from Newcastle University, Leeds University and Keele University; but others had travelled by train from Exeter and Sussex. Hull University was well represented, thanks also to the Facilitator running the sessions, Dr Elsbeth Robson. We did have one participant who had flown in from Dublin – Maynooth University. Irish participants are becoming a regular feature at our retreats – and we love them! – We are very lucky with Leeds Airport serving the area very well.

Checking put the Schedule before a new Session commences

The cohort was an all-women group and it was a pleasure to see how well everybody jelled right from the first ‘sharing goals session’. It is one of the requirements and strengths of our retreats that everyone contributes towards establishing a cohesive and supportive environment in which everyone can feel relaxed and able to focus… this way productivity flows and everyone thrives!

Time to share thoughts..

Breaks are factored into our Structured Retreats and they are an important element of the day: whether participants feel like going for a jog, taking a leisurely walk or relaxing by giving our lawn croquet a go, there is something for everyone’s taste.

Who says you need a team to play croquet?
Breathe..
if it’s a simple leg-stretch you need, you can take yourself away by walking our fields

For the most intrepid and energetic participants there are a number of options.. whether it is bonding with our llamas while jogging or reaching for the sky while bouncing on our sunken trampoline!

Feeling refreshed and ready to tackle another PhD chapter!

Whatever type of ‘fun and games’ our participants choose during their Academic Writing Retreat, this is no laughing matter. Indeed, it is no coincidence that next month – which is #mentalhealthawareness month and will see the UK hosting mental health awareness week https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week

a partnership of universities – The University of Sussex and the University of Portsmouth – will be holding the First International Conference of the Mental Health and Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers

We feel that in a small way we are also making our contribution to the #Wellbeing of the #Postgraduate Community, as PhDs constitute an important element of our cohort. We are looking forward to welcoming more participants in May – there are still a couple of places available – so we will be back with more updates in a month’s time!

Forthcoming dates: 7th-9th May; 4th-6th June; 25th-27th June

To find out more or register your interest see https://www.chapelgarth-estate.co.uk/retreats

Academic Writing Retreat – March

Last week I said good-bye to our latest Academic Writing Retreat. It was our first one in 2019 – others having taken place in 2017 and 2018 under the firm guidance of Prof. Rowena Murray and, more recently, Dr Elsbeth Robson.

Elsbeth, who is conveniently based at the University of Hull is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography in the Department of Geography, Geology and Environment and this may explain why there was an unusually high number of PhD students and postdocs within the social sciences. Lunch breaks conversations were fascinating, enlightening me on the latest field projects currently being carried out in the Arctic – as a historian I am fascinated to delve in the world of science – much talk about the latest discoveries on the composition of volcanic magma..

If there is one thing I love about hosting our academic writing retreats is the informal conversations over our homemade supper. As a previous Fellow at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, I enjoy creating new opportunities for interdisciplinary exchanges – they are illuminating for both sides and they are a wonderful way to relax and think about other people’s research other than one’s own.. All happened in our homely breakfast room which hosted all our main meals due to this cohort being quite a small group.

Our Breakfast Room was put to work as the main space for all meals




It was the first time we hosted such an intimate group of Academic Writing Retreaters. On other occasions we have had over a dozen participants and I was curious to see how the day and the dynamics would roll out.

In fact there was a brilliant atmosphere. Everyone felt relaxed and happy to contribute what they could to the group. Focus and productivity was of course paramount – and already by the first evening participants had clarified their goals and were feeling energised. By Day Two they were on a roll.. one wonderful participant, who is a Yoga teacher, was generous enough to offer us all a Yoga session during the evening break – absolute bliss. I had read about the benefits of Yoga and Relaxation in conjunction to Writing – after all these Writing retreats are good for productivity as well as well-being! – but it was great to experience this first hand.

Homemade Healthy Breakfast for the Brain Cells!

The meals were a relaxed and healthy affair – As usual they were all vegetarian, but we did introduce some new Healthy Recipes which went down very well – we will repeat! I was also delighted to see that the Italian pasta – which had come especially from an Italian Pastificio was a real hit – clean bowls galore! This is what you get in North Yorkshire..!

It was sad to wave good-bye to everyone, but satisfying to know that GOOD PROGRESS had been made by all. And as always.. this is never good-bye, but Arriverderci!

A weekend away.. at our house!

Staycation, staycation staycation! Well, last weekend we took this new trend to the limit and decided to have a holiday at Chapelgarth Estate. We invited old friends to enjoy our house, gardens and surrounding North York moors – and with the help of our three grown-ups kids we had a ball 🙂
So now we know even better why our guests enjoy it so much here – a bit of market research which was not only pain less but actually enjoyable..!
So thank you to all our wonderful friends that made this possible..
We should do more of this!

The programme on Day 1

Walking on the moors

 

Making our way to Ingleby church – with our llamas following us

A visit to Kildale church

The waterfall

An edible mushroom?

Ingleby church – Sunday service

Sheep eyeing us up on the moor

Sheep showing us the Cleveland Way

Hurray! It’s only a 5 minute train journey back!

Time to relax!

Stargazing Event

An Evening with the Stars

We always knew we were in a dark spot of the earth at Chapelgarth. Regardless of the season, we would creep out in the middle of the night and marvel at the sky with our three young children: a full moon one night, falling stars another, whatever the programme up there, we knew we had VIP seats at Chapelgarth Estate. These family late-night outings were our best-kept secret..

Fast-forward to 2018 and moon-gazing and star-gazing is all the craze. With the North York Moors backing the recently inaugurated ‘Dark Skies Festival’, it is possibly no surprise that our venue has ended up on the star-gazing events’ calendar this February. We decided to go ‘traditional’, embracing the custom of late Victorian and Edwardian amateur astronomical societies, which used to gather to observe the wonders of the stars.. Thanks to the help of two wonderful astronomers, Richard Darn and Neil Saunders, and their amazing telescopes, all our star-gazers were literally blown away!

We had a full house: 60 amateur stargazers, who had travelled as far as Hull, got into the spirit of the evening, cheered by Prosecco and pulled pork kindly provided by The Mill on the Move..

Missed this appointment?

Watch this space… We’ll do it again!