I studied English Literature at University, but, boy, was it wasted on me at the time. I was too busy trying to make friends, fall in love and party to recognise the incredible luxury of having three years to just… read. I’ve often said since that if anyone gave me that time now, it would be the most precious gift in the world. So I jumped at the chance to join a three-day reading retreat; what could be lovelier than an extended time to savour books, with no distractions?
Friends Cressida Downing and Sara Noël set up Reading Retreat in 2017, after Cressida went on a reading trip to Gladstone’s Library. In love with the idea of the residential reading holiday, but unimpressed by the accommodation and food there, she discussed the idea of a luxury retreat with Sara over a glass of wine. And so their vision was born. Cressida (favourite book: Vanity Fair) is an editor and Literary Consultant, and is in charge of the books: she gives bespoke ‘reading prescriptions’, based on a comprehensive questionnaire, to anyone coming on retreats, and is happy to chat literature at all hours. Sara (favourite book: The Magic Faraway Tree), meanwhile, is a photographer and avid cook; she is the House Manager, in charge of guests’ comfort and feeding.
The retreat I join is down a winding lane in the Somerset Levels, in a charming cottage that perches above a river and has views over fields and waterways to the distant Quantocks and Mendips. There are four other guests: mother-and-daughter Liz (favourite book: The Secret Garden) and Gillie (Rebecca) come from Herefordshire; their friend Mo (Killing Dragons) from Northamptonshire; and Caroline (The Sealwoman’s Gift) has travelled all the way from Orkney. We settle in with tea and fruit cake, then drift off to read for a couple of hours before supper. Sara and Cressida go out of their way to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome: there is a goody bag on every bed, containing a bookmark, mug, scented candle and snuggly blanket. Copies of Slightly Foxed – Reading Retreat’s partner – are tastefully strewn around. There are mini reading lights to borrow, piles of delectable-looking books everywhere, and a silent room entirely dedicated to reading. After a delicious supper of tarragon chicken, sweet potato and broccoli, followed by rhubarb crumble – and all accompanied by lively chatter about favourite books – we slope off to bed.
I wake up early the next morning, overexcited, and go outside for the most exquisite dawn chorus I have ever heard. The day is spent curled up on a sofa, ploughing through books at an amazing speed, interspersed with more of Sara’s fabulous food. She is careful to give a good balance: satisfying and filling meals – soup, quiche, salmon, lots of veg – rather than slump-over-your-seat piles of pasta. If you’re still hungry, elevenses and afternoon tea are on offer, and you can also tick off items on a snack list (popcorn, chocolate, crisps, olives, carrot sticks) and have a tray delivered to you. Cressida leads an afternoon walk every day, but no activity is compulsory: you can even have all your meals on a tray, if you’re feeling particularly engrossed in a book (or shy).
What is compulsory is Sara and Cressida’ ‘don’t touch the kettle’ rule: every single cup of tea is prepared for you, every plate washed up, every spill mopped. This is the ultimate luxury: at home, reading would always take second place to doing the dishes, cleaning up or making supper. Sara and Cressida aim to give people ‘the space and time to read,’ and say that the retreat is ‘perfect for someone who has everything but time.’ My group is very convivial. By our second evening, when crime writer Chris Ewan comes over for supper as ‘guest author’ we are all merrily swapping email addresses and book recommendations. ‘Readers tend to be pleasant people,’ says Cressida. The no-judgement atmosphere also helps: Cressida and Sara aren’t in the least snooty about what you read, so long as it helps bring back the joy of reading to you.
Cressida and Sara are on to something: reading is back in fashion. The UK book market is in its fourth consecutive year of growth, according to Nielsen BookScan, with print books managing to hold the top spot against the tide of Kindle and Audible. Some 190.9 million physical books were sold in 2018. The notion of ‘book therapy’ has taken off, too. Gideon’s Bible – found in hotel rooms worldwide – has always suggested passages for times of strife. Now The School of Life in London provides Bibliotherapy services, and William Sieghart’s book The Poetry Pharmacy is based on over 1000 real-life prescriptions he has signed off since 2014. ‘This is not a poetry anthology, it’s a self-help book for life,’ Sieghart told the BBC. Meanwhile the reading-for-pleasure experience is increasingly bespoke: smart London bookshops like Lutyens & Rubinstein and Heywood Hill offer a range of services from wedding lists to reading prescriptions. Reading Retreat is, of course, the apotheosis of this made-to-measure service.
Back in Somerset, we all say a fond farewell. The retreat has given me the space and time to indulge in reading, totally guilt-free. More than that, it has reminded me why I love books – they impart a serenity that I carry around with me for days. I’ve made new friends, both literal and literary, and I’ve gained peace of mind in the process.
Violet Hudson was a guest of Reading Retreat. They offer 12 retreats per year, as well as themed retreats, from £500 for three nights, all-inclusive. Visit www.readingretreat.co.uk for more information.