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.
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.
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!
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