A Planning Retreat: A Retreat with a difference!

Jigsaw is a harmony among the group will not be impossible.

As the academic year drew to an end, I was approached by Dr Georgina Brewis, (UCL Institute of Education) who was keen to organise a  closed Academic Retreat which would bring together scholars working on the same ESRC-funded project (https://discoursesofvoluntaryaction.wordpress.com /).

The aim of the five academics involved (Georgina Brewis (UCL), Irene Hardill (University of Northumbria) , Angela Ellis Paine (University of Birmingham), Rose Lindsey (University of Southampton) and Rob Macmillan (Sheffield Hallam University))  was for participants to convene in a rural residential space – away from it all! – put their heads together and flesh out ideas which had been explored mostly remotely. A lot of work had already been done, individual papers had been presented at conferences, but the overwhelming feeling was that in order to deliver two co-authored papers and put together a viable, strong book proposal, something more was needed.  The physicality of being together and the opportunity to focus in a quiet rural location, where all the practicalities of the daily routine would be taken care of, and the day was structured and guided by an external facilitator, seemed like the best way forward.

Would we take on the challenge?

Our experience until now had been in delivering Academic Writing Retreats https://www.chapelgarth-estate.co.uk/retreats ). As the name suggests, such retreats are all about writing – the process of all sitting around the table, writing in social spaces, with individuals focusing on delivering the work during the writing slots. It is customary in many such retreats (particularly those following Rowena Murray’s Writing Retreat model), to measure the success of a Retreat on the number of words written. Goals are often numerically measured in words; productivity has a word count. This retreat would be different, as the aim was more on engaging in interdisciplinary discussions, planning, allocating tasks and coming away with an agreed sense of direction and timeline. As far as WRC (Writing Retreats at Chapelgarth https://www.chapelgarth-estate.co.uk/retreats ) were concerned, clearly we would be navigating unchartered waters, but we were heartened by the knowledge that we were dealing with seasoned and experienced academics with a sound vision about their project.

Planning the book chapters

From Day 1 it was clear that ‘rule one’  of the Academic Writing Retreat ‘Rule Book’ – effectively ‘shut up and write’ during the writing slots – needed to be re-written. Planning a co-authored paper could not be confined to the customary fifteen minutes ‘writing warm up’ prior to the one-and -a- half hour writing slots: goals for the sessions would be set, but discussion-flowing was a vital element of this retreat. Team work was of essence. Some of the tools we provided proved strategic. The flip board shared around a round table and post-it notes were essential for breaking down the different thought processes and for navigating agreed perspectives on a common narrative and approach for the paper. The choice of journal for the paper for submission was an equally sensitive task which needed to be weighed up carefully in view of the interdisciplinary nature of the group and the project.

Pooling ideas

On Day 2, which focused on the book proposal, combining flip-charts and post-it notes seemed to yield results. Participants collated individual flip-charts by using post-it notes with specific ideas. Each flip-chart was then compared and, as ideas converged, post-it notes were moved and arranged in a communal reflective poster. Once each poster was collated, each poster was given a title: each poster, as it turned out, was the makings of a chapter of the book.

Co-writing a draft for the book proposal

Once the planning was completed and the structure of the book emerged, it was time to do some writing. Again, this process could not neatly follow the conventions of our regular Academic Writing Retreats. ‘Rule two’ – avoid using the internet! – also had to be broken: the need to work on a common, shared document meant that all participants needed to access a shared Dropbox File, where the relevant initial draft of chapter to the book had previously been stored. It was clearly worth accessing the Wi-Fi for this shared project.

The Book Project File, containing the different chapters, could now be allocated for reworking to each member of the group.  Following an intense writing session, participants sent colleagues their draft chapter to review at home. Other tasks allocated around the book proposal included editing, addressing competition analysis and target audience.

Day 3 was about revising a second paper abstract. After some discussion, roles were allocated and the group was divided into two sub-groups working in different rooms on separate tasks. The outcome of the discussions showed the importance of being flexible with the approach and with the allocation of the space – hosting a Planning Retreat is all about keeping an open mind! The main outcome is that progress is made.. 


It was clear at feedback and round-up time that such progress had been ‘exponential’, as the PI of the project, Irene Hardill, revealed to me, as she reflected on the outcomes of the Planning Retreat.. ‘The retreat also strengthened us as a team’, she later added.. what more could I wish for?

I was delighted to receive the following confirmatory emails a couple of days after the retreat:

The retreat was especially timely for the project, we had outline plans for each academic output, but being co-located at Chapelgarth enabled us to have the time for combining deep thinking and lively debate, which resulted in exponential progress with our writing plans (IH)

We had a wonderful and very productive time at Chapelgarth. In fact, we submitted our full book proposal exactly one week after leaving the retreat, which is really great news! (Georgina Brewis, UCL).

Great News Indeed!

If you are planning a collaborative project – whether a co-authored book or a joint grant proposal – and feel the need to convene in a quiet, homely environment where groups’ ideas can take shape, grow and translate into words, do get in touch.


A Doctoral Training Programme in Residence

June saw a cohort of 16 postgraduate students convene at Chapelgarth Estate for two days of writing and training: time slots were predominantly allocated to writing, with some dedicated time focused on questions related to academic writing. The students were all part of the White Rose Doctoral Training Programme – which brings together postgraduates from the University of Hull , the University of York, the University of Sheffield, University of Bradford and the University of Leeds https://wrdtp.ac.uk/ .

The garden on our June retreat.

Facilitated by Dr Elsbeth Robson, the cohort gathered students from the Social Sciences, mostly in the later stage of their PhD – typically at the writing up stages of their project – but also students who were at an earlier stage intheir research, including a couple of MA students. The cohort was selected and organised by the Dr Matthew Bishop, Director of the Pathway, Civil Society, Development and Democracy etc https://wrdtp.ac.uk/who-we-are/civil-society-development-and-democracy-cdd/

A training session was allocated to the analysis and review of Academic Writing Literature

The students – who were a mix of young and mature students – were asked to give feedback on their experience. Most revealing were the answers to the following prompt:

‘The best aspect of the retreat for my writing was…’

What I found particularly fascinating about the responses to this question was the sheer variety of answers. Here they are!

  • ‘the sense of writing community’
  • ‘concentration on what I write’
  • ‘increased fluency through the writing sessions’
  • ‘the discipline of setting short-term goals and the discipline of taking breaks’
  • ‘being able to get a lot of writing done!!!’
  • ‘exclusive writing time without gadgets’
  • the ability to focus safely on writing’
  • the social aspect/exchange opportunities’
  • the location and structure, which were both very helpful’
  • the quiet concentrated writing periods’
  • the amount of work achieved’
  • having the right environment to promote writing’
  • the capacity to concentrate’
  • the ability to improve my concentration’

I found it very helpful to read and compare the answers given – each one captured one of the many vital elements of a residential academic writing retreat; some answers highlighted the uniqueness of the ‘environment’ and the ‘location’. Most of the attendants were on their first writing retreat experience, and those who had previously attended a residential retreat were definitely the minority.

Feedback session

There was great enthusiasm for the shared experience, which came across vividly during our feedback session. Our retreat was an opportunity to write, but it was also much more: some third year PhD students felt that this event was the only one organised by their Doctoral Training Programme where they had felt really connected with their peers, genuinely part of a community of practice. Other day-events, unlike the residential experience, had not delivered this for them.. There’s certainly a case for getting away from it all.. it brings out the best in everyone and hopefully new and lasting connections will have been made.


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


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?
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!