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Environmental retreats: Care for guests, care for creation

10 May 2024

Retreat houses and conference centres are enrolling in a scheme to support endangered wildlife and its habitats. Christine Miles looks at a sample

Othona Bradwell, in Essex

Othona Bradwell, in Essex

The Othona Community, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex

THE Othona Community is a Christian community established in 1946 by an RAF chaplain, as a place to promote peace and reconciliation after the Second World War. Today, there are two centres, located on the Essex and Dorset coasts, which welcome people to stay and join in their daily rhythm.

Othona Bradwell enjoys a stunning location overlooking the Blackwater estuary, and close to the seventh-century Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, which the community uses twice a day for prayer. The site features 18 guest bedrooms, a camping field, and five yurts (each with a wood-burning stove and two single beds, plus space for up to three children on futons or camping beds).

The community seeks to live in harmony with creation. To that end, the retreat house is off-grid, with solar panels, a wind turbine, and a biomass boiler. The community keeps a herb garden and polytunnel to grow some of its food, and maintains its grounds to promote wildlife. All meals are prepared and eaten communally.

Caring for creation: Othona Bradwell joined A Rocha UK as one of its Partners in Action in 2022, and much of the community’s work encouraging A Rocha UK’s Target 25 habitats and wildlife is centred on land acquired a few years ago, which is being developed from the arable land that it once was into a diverse wildlife habitat.

Some areas have been sown with a proprietary wildflower-seed mixture; others are developing on their own. The community is also collecting seed from existing wildflower areas to sow, especially yellow-rattle seed, which helps to stop grasses out-competing flowers.

Another area of the new land is becoming a haven for voles and other small mammals. Although these are not often seen, their presence has encouraged predators such as kestrel, barn owl, stoat, and weasel, which guests regularly spot. Retreat guests also enjoy the rich birdlife evident at Othona and on the neighbouring salt marshes and mudflats.

Book a stay: “Nature Chronicles”, 26-30 August, offers a chance to reconnect with nature and to journal these encounters (£200 per adult; discounts for children). “Autumn Retreat”, 18-20 October, is all about restocking stores in preparation for winter (£100 per adult). “Winter Watch”, 11-14 November, focuses on wildlife-watching on the Dengie Peninsula, particularly the abundant birdlife (£150 per adult).

Phone 01621 776564, or visit: othonaessex.org.uk


The Christian Conference Trust

THE Christian Conference Trust has been serving the Church since 1910. It is the largest provider of Christian residential ministry facilities in the UK, with three conferences centres: The Hayes, Derbyshire; High Leigh, Hertfordshire; and Highgate House, Northamptonshire.

At each centre, churches and youth groups run their church weekends or retreats, while charities typically host leadership conferences, stays, or days. Facilities include conference, meeting, and breakout rooms, lounges, a games room, an indoor gym, a dining room, and a licensed bar. Stays at all centres are fully catered. Food is increasingly sourced sustainably, locally, and seasonally.

Between them, the centres feature almost 500 en-suite bedrooms, catering for up to 900 people (247 at The Hayes; 168 at High Leigh; 83 at Highgate). The estates run to about 200 acres combined.

The Hayes, Derbyshire

“There’s plenty of space at our centres just to be,” the chief executive, John Heasman, says. Centres’ grounds feature a mix of formal gardens, parkland, farmland, woodlands, and ponds, or small lakes.

In 2019, A Rocha UK undertook an environmental survey that transformed the Trust’s approach to prioritise environmental and biodiversity investment. This included a carbon-footprint survey, on the basis of which to set targets.

Changes have since been made to land management, composting, recycling, kitchen and housekeeping cleaning chemicals, guest soaps and shampoo, energy reduction, renewable energy sources, and catering.

“We see ourselves as custodians of these estates. We recognise our responsibility to steward them wisely, and to showcase to our groups what is possible. It’s the right thing to do. And, increasingly, delegates within our groups expect this from us,” Mr Heasman says.

The Christian Conference Trust is non-denominational and not for profit.

Caring for creation: Inspired by A Rocha UK’s Target 25, the Trust is working with particular focus on encouraging grassland, hedgerows, freshwater and woodland habitats, and encouraging native wild flowers, bees, bats, and house martins.

Planting of indigenous tree species is under way at each centre, and stock fencing is being systematically replaced with hedgerows, to increase wildlife habitats. Ponds and small lakes are being managed to increase light and movement for water, bees, and birds.

Instead of mowing everywhere, the introduction of wild areas with mown paths has given space for native wildflower planting. Bat boxes have been installed throughout each centre’s woods, and dozens of house-martin boxes have been put up.

Two colonies of bees introduced at The Hayes are now supplying guests with jars of honey (and helping local farmers with pollination). Guests at High Leigh and The Hayes can order gin made with home-grown botanicals, produced by Hawkridge Distillers.

Book a stay: A minimum group booking is 12 people (30 for special offers), priced from £89 per person per night, all-inclusive.

Phone 0300 111 4444, or visit: cct.org.uk


Tinhay Retreats, Tinhay, West Devon

TINHAY RETREATS is an eight-acre smallholding run as a retreat centre and campsite, featuring a one-acre garden, one-acre site for tents, caravans, and motorhomes (bell tents also available); two-acre wildflower meadow, and four acres of sheep-grazing land.

It was founded seven years ago by Rob Weston, a United Reformed Church minister, and his wife, Suzy, who welcome guests alongside their small flock of sheep, a few chickens, a springer spaniel, a cat, Mr Pickles, and hive of bees (which make Tinhay honey).

A bell tent at Tinhay Retreats, Devon

Caring for creation: Tinhay’s main Target 25 habitat is meadow, in which the Westons are encouraging a wide range of flowering plants to help the pollinators. There is a small stream running through the meadow, with an established boggy area supporting marsh marigolds, water mint, and yellow flag iris; there are plans to develop a pond.

Guests can walk round the meadow, as it has a mown pathway, past the logpiles, the stream, marsh areas, and hedgerows. Families staying at the campsite can help to feed the chickens and the sheep.

There are many bird species to spot at Tinhay, and bats that dart about as the sun begins to set. Visitors are welcome to borrow Tinhay’s bat detector.

Book a stay: Tinhay runs eco-focused day retreats, on themes such as “Eco spirituality” (10 October), “Caring for creation” (7 November), and “Creative journalling” (5 December). Tinhay also offers space for individuals to come for a self-guided retreat, and for groups to come for the day to explore their own theme. Spiritual direction is available. Organised day retreats, £30 (including lunch and refreshments); self-directed retreat day, £27.50 (including lunch and refreshments).

Phone 01566 784990, or visit: tinhayretreats.com



Scargill House, Upper Wharfedale, Yorkshire Dales

A MULTINATIONAL, resident, “new monastic” community looks after Scargill House, its 90-acre estate in the spectacular Yorkshire Dales, and those who book holidays, retreats, and conferences there.

The retreat house caters for up to 80 guests at any one time. Facilities include conference rooms, a Grade II listed chapel (a base for the community’s daily rhythm of prayer, into which guests can enter), several lounges, an art room, and a playground. Room options include two en-suite accessible twin rooms; four en-suite doubles; four en-suite twins; and 34 rooms with shared bathrooms.

Scargill House, Yorkshire Dales

Scargill’s estate contains 25 acres of ancient woodland, featuring ash, beech, larch, hawthorn, hazel, oak, and sycamore. Guests can wander its woodland trails, two native-wildflower meadows, a small orchard, and a half-acre walled garden, linked to the Quiet Garden Trust. A sensory garden encourages visitors to use all five of their senses to encounter creation, and features a pond, a bug hotel, fruit trees, and a bee hive.

Scargill is located near the village of Kettlewell, featured in the film Calendar Girls. Organised retreats often feature guided walks in the surrounding areas.

Caring for creation: As part of Target 25, wildlife meadows are managed to encourage moths, butterflies, and bees, and nesting boxes have encouraged a population of house martins, swallows, swifts, and bats to return every year to breed.

The pond in the sensory garden provides a water source for mammals and amphibians, and a tranquil spot for guests to relax, contemplate, enjoy the birdsong, and savour the sights and scents of nature.

During family weeks, the community encourages children and young people to get out on the estate as much as possible to pond-dip, play, and enjoy creation.

A sightings board for guests to write down the flora, fauna, and wildlife that they spot encourages them to become more creation-aware.

Book a stay: “Who’s the King of the Jungle?”, a family-friendly, half-term-holiday week run in partnership with A Rocha, 28 October to 1 November (£266 adult standard room, discounts for children); “Red Squirrels of the Yorkshire Dales”, 18-20 October (£163.50 adult standard room); and “Changing Seasons”, an outdoor experiential retreat, 9-13 September (£316 adult standard room).

Phone 01756 760500, or visit: scargillmovement.org


Drumalis Retreat and Conference Centre, Country Antrim, Northern Ireland

THE Conference Centre sits on an elevated site in spacious grounds in Larne, Northern Ireland, overlooking the sea at the gateway to the famous Antrim Coast Road. It has been owned, managed, and run as a retreat centre by the Sisters of the Cross and Passion since 1930.

In the Middle Ages, the site was occupied by a Premonstratensian monastery. The house was built as a family home in 1872 by the Presbyterian industrialist and philanthropist Sir Hugh Smiley.

The Victorian country house retains the grandeur of its original setting, with inlaid woodwork and stained glass. In 2007, the Sisters replaced the 1960s retreat wing with a custom-built retreat and conference facility, offering additional en-suite accommodation, conference space, and a new kitchen and dining room. Other facilities include a library, a craft room, and various prayer rooms.

April sunshine at Drumalis, in Northern Ireland

The work of Drumalis is threefold: spirituality, ecumenism, and ecology. Apart from the in-house programme of retreats and adult faith-development programmes, groups and individuals can use the centre for their own programmes, retreats, and workshops.

At Drumalis, the environment is considered at every level, whether it is recycling in the centre, renewable energy through the installation of solar panels, or the maintenance and development of the grounds as a habitat for flora and fauna.

Drumalis is still under the Sister’s trustees, but there are no longer Sisters on the resident team.

Caring for creation: Retreat guests enjoy walking and finding quiet spots in the grounds. Through involvement with A Rocha UK, new projects have been undertaken to enrich grasslands, hedgerows, and woodland.

This year, a small area of lawn have been sown with yellow-rattle seeds, to prepare it for better growing of meadow wild flowers. In addition, 1000 saplings from the Woodland Trust have been planted throughout the estate for future visitors and wildlife to enjoy.

Book a stay: Between 1-10 July and 13-22 August, Drumalis offers a choice of four-, six-, or eight-day individually guided retreats (IGRs). These are silent retreats with daily one-to-one meetings with a retreat director (£450 four-day; £650 six-day; £850 eight-day). The “Mending the Gaps” guided retreat, 14-20 July, focuses on wholeness, and is led by Sister Joann Heinritz CSJ, a spiritual director, retreat director, and instructor (£600pp). An “Advent Retreat” runs 13-15 December.

Phone (028) 2827 2196, or visit drumalis.co.uk


Lee Abbey, near Lynton, North Devon

LEE ABBEY is home to a Christian community that hosts retreats, holidays, and conferences in an estate on the dramatic North Devon coast, in the Exmoor National Park.

The Grade II listed retreat house is set in a 280-acre estate, providing space to walk, breathe, and reflect.

As well as wildflower lawns, fields, woodland, and a private beach, the grounds include the Beacon activity centre for children and youth-group stays (zip wire, climbing wall, orienteering, archery, low ropes, bushcraft); a tea cottage (open May to September); and a working farm raising Devon Red cattle, Gloucester Old Spot pigs, and Lleyn and Devon Closewool sheep.

Guests can join guided walks around the estate, a farm visit, or just spend time outdoors. Garden areas are managed both to encourage biodiversity and to look beautiful. Special attention has been paid to the Tea Cottage garden, to become a garden of encounter and healing.

Lee Abbey woodland path

At the dinner table, Lee Abbey uses Fairtrade ingredients whenever possible, and meals are served using its own reared meat, which has only a ten-mile journey from field to plate. Water comes from local springs.

Lee Abbey recycles as much of the rubbish produced on site as possible. Currently, water from streams in the forest on the estate powers a hydro-electric turbine, generating some electricity for the retreat house, as will hot-water solar panels.

Caring for creation: As part of an SSSI, with coastal, woodland, heathland, and pasture habitats, Lee Abbey enjoys significant geology and ecology. The estate features temperate rainforest and rare species of lichen, plants, and wildlife, including peregrine falcons, early purple orchids, and silver-washed fritillary butterflies.

Thanks to ongoing work as part of Target 25, bird boxes for kestrels, owls, and smaller species have been put up to create much-needed habitats. There are now resident colonies of house martins, and greater and lesser horseshoe bats, as well as pipistrelle bats. This year, 1100 new oak trees were planted. Another 1000 will follow early in 2025.

Guests are encouraged to borrow binoculars and record what they see.

Book a stay: Get your hands dirty on an estate working party, 3-7 June (£280pp; £370 ensuite) or 14-18 October (£300pp; £400 en-suite). Working-party guests work five-hours per day on the estate, with their late afternoons and evenings free. “Summer Encounter” for families,10-16 August, features activities for all, communal meal times, Big Tent worship, and teaching (£540pp; £675 en-suite; group-friendly bunk rooms at the Beacon £360). “Walk and Talk”, 15-21 July, features a daily mix of worship and a biblical reflection, followed by a choice of three walks: long (six to 12 miles), medium (six to eight miles), or short (four to five miles). Lee Abbey’s estate also has self-catering accommodation (beach cabin for up to 12; cottage for two; cabin for four).

Phone 01598 752621, or visit: leeabbeydevon.org.uk


Ashburnham Place, East Sussex

A FORMER stately home, Ashburnham Place retreat and conference centre has 220 acres of grounds landscaped by Capability Brown, who devised the original vision for its mixture of woodland, three lakes, lawns, and formal gardens.

The main house has conference and retreat facilities for up to 250 people. A relatively recent addition is the Orangery Tea Room, set in the 18th-century orangery, which has one of the oldest camellias in the country. At the centre of the estate is St Peter’s, which has weekly services. Other facilities include lounges, library, a games room, a labyrinth, a wild-food foraging trail, and a playground.

Accommodation is spread across Penhurst Wing, in the main house (up to 26 in en-suite twin and quad rooms); Ashbourne House (up to 50 guests in 22 twin en-suites and two triple en-suites); the Blue Doors self-catering cottage (up to five people); Tent Hill House (up to 117 in twin, triple, and quad rooms); and Patmos Lodge (36 guests in double and twin rooms).

A four-acre walled kitchen garden grows food for guests in the main house and the tea room. The garden also serves as a place of activity and recovery for people with mental-health challenges, through caring for the land, growing, and harvesting. Schoolchildren from the surrounding area also visit, to learn where their food comes from and to get their hands into the soil.

Part of the old stable block is set apart as a prayer centre, which offers retreat-house visitors space that they can book for prayer. It also serves as the Westminster Theological Centre Hub for East Sussex, offering theological study up to Master’s-degree level.

Ashburnham Place is run by a resident community, stewarded by the Ashburnham Christian Trust.

Caring for creation: In response to A Rocha UK’s Target 25, the community works to maintain and improve habitats for the rare or threatened species such as: swifts, house martins, the fen raft spider, lesser spotted woodpeckers, the red kite, ravens, glow worms, and slow worms. Ashburnham Place is a “no-spray” site (no weedkiller), and surveys as much as possible of what grows, crawls, and swims, to track biodiversity.

With A Rocha’s guidance, a climate resistant “food forest” has been planted, based on permaculture growing of trees, plants, and fruit. Those who walk the grounds now enjoy more meadow areas and increased bird and butterfly life, enriched by new swift, spotted-fly-catcher, and house-martin boxes.

Book a stay: “Rural Hub”: gather together for the day with other Christians undertaking rural mission, 27 June (£10 including lunch). “Fields and Walking”: a creative writing retreat, 24-27 September, dedicates time to experience Ashburnham’s natural environment as a muse (£336pp single occupancy; £291pp shared). “Honesty Over Silence: It’s OK not to be OK”, 26-29 November, Patrick Regan considers how to find meaning in life’s toughest moments, and move forward (£321pp single occupancy; £276pp shared).

Phone 01424 894201, or visit: ashburnham.org.uk



Partners in Action

A Rocha UK’s Partners in Action is a growing network of Christian land managers (on church land, schools, youth activity centres, and more), working to boost biodiversity on their land through a commitment to increase 25 target places and species affected by climate change, habitat loss, and pollution.

Habitats: grassland; hedgerows; freshwater; woodland; coastal.

Groups: native wildflowers; farmland and garden birds; dragonflies and damselflies; butterflies; bees; bats; grassland fungi; macro moths; amphibians; small mammals.

Species: house martin; common toad; spotted flycatcher; lesser/greater horseshoe bat; red squirrel; common oak; common swift; bullfinch; hedgehog; marsh tit.



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