A North Yorkshire Writing Retreat for postgraduates from Nottingham University

Our September retreat saw a substantial presence of postgraduate students from Nottingham University. The cohort was an interdisciplinary group – students did not necessary know each other when they set off, but they were part of the same Doctoral Training Centre. Thanks to the postgraduate student representative and group leader Cerys Gibson, all necessary organisational aspects were addressed and the Nottingham University cohort arrived promptly at our door at the end of the month. We received Cery’s blog post which we are delighted to publish.

As a PhD student, and a representative for my funding body’s year group at the University of Nottingham, I am all too aware of the difficulties that this stage of an academic career brings. My cohort had reported a lack of research community, wanting more support for their mental health
and wellbeing and more structured writing time. I thought that a Writing Retreat organised exclusively for Postgraduate Research students funded by the same body across disciplines, would be the perfect way to address these three concerns.
I chose Chapelgarth Estate as it combined dedicated, structured writing time with wellbeing activities and the space to unwind and get to know other participants. Marcella was very welcoming and encouraging and we soon had a group of 8 of us from different PhD stages and disciplines, Law,
Politics, Education, Geography, Psychology, Linguistics and Health Sciences on the minibus to the Estate that was to be our home for the next 3 days.

And what a home it was! As our minibus drew up to the drive, we were excited to see such a beautiful house nestled in the countryside. We were greeted by our friendly host and shown the airy, comfortable writing room where we would be working, overlooking the garden. And although it
of course was not a priority, we were shown the break activities we could be engaged in- table tennis, tennis, boules, trampolining, let alone going for a walk in the countryside to see the llamas!

What followed was three well-structured days of solid writing time; I managed to rewrite my methodology chapter that I had been putting off for some time. Although I worked fewer hours than I would have done in the office, I worked a lot better. Distractions were not permitted in the writing
room and so my mobile sat upstairs, and my laptop could not connect to the wi-fi at the other side of the house. Instead I worked hard for hour and a half segments, long enough to make good progress with my writing plan, without getting side-tracked with replying to e-mails or following
twitter. This dedicated writing time was separated with well-planned breaks, always with a cup of tea and homemade cake, but then with a choice of yoga, forest bathing or any of the activities
scattered around. The important thing was to take a proper break- to get up and move and talk to others and not to stare at the computer screen. This meant that we returned to work refreshed, with a target for our next session and enough caffeine and fresh air to feel that we could meet it.
The food helped the productivity too. Marcella had a chef who served up compote from the orchard, porridge, freshly baked bread and poached eggs and mushrooms. Lunch was at least 5 different serving trays of spicy rice dishes, vegetable lasagne, butter bean salad and other dishes we passed
around the warm kitchen. Dinner was served in the dining hall by candlelight with jazz music playing softly in the background. We had three course meals of delicious, healthy vegetarian food. We asked
the chef for her secret ingredient, and though she said it was love, we soon found out it was butter!

Eating well for three days, without a bowl of Celebrations to graze through, without having to think about what to eat and when (and how!) to cook it meant that we could concentrate on writing and
enjoy our free time.
This meant that while I had an incredibly productive three days, rewriting my methodology chapter, I also felt relaxed and refreshed. I had chatted with my colleagues from different disciplines and we gave each other advice, and perspective, on some of the research issues we were facing as early stage academics. We were all delighted to be on the Retreat, that although we had to work hard and Marcella made sure we stuck to our writing schedule, we also felt very spoilt by the end of the week and did not want to leave!

The Retreat was therefore a success in the three objectives and it had given us a clear structure for self-guiding our own work in the future. I’m not sure how well I will stick to it without Marcella’s encouraging discipline or Roma’s warm lunches, but the idea of the Retreat, and the support of my
new colleagues across the DTC will put us in good stead for the future, or at least until we go on our next Retreat as a reminder!
With many thanks to the ESRC for funding the Retreat and to Marcella Sutcliffe.

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Mothers in Academia: Encountering a Residential Academic Writing Retreat

The summer brought a few surprises: our August Academic Writing Retreat had a high contingent of mothers in academia. While the kids were on holiday it was probably the most challenging time to carve out space to write… our residential writing retreat provided some mums with the solution. One of our participants, Katarzyna Fleming who is an Associate Lecturer, a part-time PhD student at Sheffield Hallam University and a mum, agreed to share her experience.

Juggling motherhood and academic commitments

As life goes by, one seems to understand one’s individual needs slightly better and one starts recognising the calling of one’s inner voice whispering: ‘slow down’, ‘look after yourself’ or ‘be kind to yourself’. It may sound like a cliché, but my experience is that listening to this ‘inner voice’ can be particularly challenging for mothers juggling academic commitments with the hurly-burly existence that motherhood often entails.

Since I entered the wonderful world of motherhood, going to work has become a different kind of enjoyment. Calm descends on me once the school run has been accomplished and I enter a new zone: I leave behind the practicalities of the school run, often involving (as for many working parents) pre-work multitasking, including getting up the children, supervising teeth-brushing, ensuring the breakfast is eaten, negotiating tantrums, getting packed lunches ready, and on it goes..

Once I enter the ‘work zone’ I am thrilled to be preparing and delivering power points and discussing reflective tools with my students who don’t want to sing nursery rhymes on loop… There is so much I enjoy during my working day as a teacher (including having warm cups of tea and coffee which I remember I made), but  if there is one thing that I really cherish as an academic it is engaging with writing. There are many benefits to this: academic writing supports the conceptualisation of one’s ideas, helps one synthesise concepts, theories and data and ultimately supports one’s own understanding and learning process. In order for this to be effective, however, academic writing requires structured periods of reading, thinking and ‘putting words on paper’. This proves hard to achieve when the many roles pull us in so many different directions.

Attending the writing retreat at Chapelgarth made me realise that I needed to create protected space for my writing: this would only be possible by putting on hold my other responsibilities. The space that the retreat provided was invaluable. I particularly benefited from having daily and sessional goals (which I secretly competed with myself on!); opportunities to discuss experiences and interests with other academics and postgraduate students; and being absolutely spoilt by the setting and the care which was put into making us feel at home at Chapelgarth! (The surroundings were stunning, guided walks before lunch were a real treat, meals were scrumptious and delicious cake during breaks was the cherry on the top!).

I prepared for the retreat diligently with all my documents, with previous writings safely stored on the USB stick and laptop and I managed to edit/write 4/5 of one of my doctoral thesis chapter. I set out to complete 2/3 of the chapter, but following what I would term as my ‘productivity awakening’, my goal was substantially exceeded. The academic writing retreat made me realise that the real value lies in the detachment from the everyday, usual surroundings and familiar structures; by being somewhere else, a place and space dedicated to writing only, I was able to keep my focus undeterred by other commitments.

Thank you to Marcella and Ed for being such wonderful hosts and welcoming us at Chapelgarth Estate – and thank you to Roma (https://www.facebook.com/AromaDiningAtHome/ )for her excellent cooking that just made it more of a ‘home from home’ experience. I will definitely be bringing my next chapter to North Yorkshire soon!

For more information on our Residential Academic Writing Retreats see https://www.chapelgarth-estate.co.uk/retreats

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