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Retreat to the chartered streets

29 January 2016

Simon Jones takes some time out on retreat in east London

An oasis in the city: St Katharine’s retreats are held in an elegant Georgian vicarage

An oasis in the city: St Katharine’s retreats are held in an elegant Georgian vicarage

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 to 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 rfsk.org.uk/retreat to book and enquire about a longer stay.

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