Reading Retreat

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Risto's Blog

28th February 2019

We were delighted to receive this blog from one of our recent Readers, we loved that his experience recaptured wonderful childhood memories of reading and led to a true reconnection with books.

I still have the J. Finnemore book on Robin Hood on my bookshelf. It’s a book I must have read a dozen times when I was around 12. I read the book, ran outside to play Robin Hood, then ran back in to read the book all over again, bracing myself for the emotional ending - spoiler alert - in which Little John finds Robin at a monastery, betrayed by the prioress, who lets out too much blood and lets Robin bleed to death.

John picks him up and carries him to the window so that Robin can shoot one last arrow to mark where he is to be buried.


That is a beautiful, beautiful ending to a book. Try to visualize the last scene with human beings, though, and not with a bear holding a fox (thanks Disney).


But I digress.


What I meant to say was that as much as I loved Robin Hood, it was just as wonderful finding a book that I could drown in, that would take me to a new place and introduce me to new feelings. I used to be a regular at our school library even in high school, but by the time I graduated from the university, I had somehow lost my connection to books.


I still thought of myself as a reader. Yeah, I was a big reader. Hobbies? Reading. I read a book here and another there, and I read non-fiction, books that had “real value” to my work and therefore, my life. I was being a smart reader.


But I always knew something was missing.


Even when I made a career change and became a writer, I still didn’t read as much as I thought I did, or as much as I wanted to. First I had to go out with this pretty Swedish lady I met and then there was the marriage business and then the kids and the work, and well, listening to podcasts is almost like reading, amirite?


About four years ago, a friend posted on Facebook that she had read 135 books that year.


“Huh,” I said to myself. “I wonder how many books you read this year, you handsome devil.”


I counted up to eleven and rounded it up to twenty. I wasn’t happy.


“Family Meeting!” I shouted and once we were all gathered around out kitchen table (Ikea, MELLTORP), we agreed that we’d become Readers. Between the four of us, we’d read 200 books in 2016. A book a week.


We hung a big wall calendar on the wall and wrote down our books whenever we finished one.


“It’s not a competition, but I’ve read 28 books,” I could say proudly by midsummer that year.


We did reach our goal and we’ve kept at it ever since.


Last August, my wife Jessica and I were sitting outside, reading books but it was a hot summer’s day. I took a break to sip some lemonade and to glance at Twitter. And I saw somebody retweet a message from a “Reading Retreat”.


Click, click, click, click.




Pause to think whether Jessica would like it. Nod to myself.


Click. Booked.


“Hey, Jessi, we’re going to a reading retreat in January,” I said.


“What’s that?”


“It’s a place where you read and they’ll take care of you. And you eat and read.”


“Nice! Where’s that?”


“Let me see … a place called ‘East Sussex’.


Yes, I will admit it, thinking about “East Sussex” in the scorching sun in August probably gave me a misleading mental image, but since we travelled to Eastbourne from -5C Stockholm, the 8C that awaited us was almost heavenly.


As was the retreat.


Once we got back home, I’ve told everybody that it certainly exceeded all my expectations – even though I didn’t have any. I had never been to one, I didn’t know what to expect, except for some quiet time to read.


I got that, and so much more.


For three days, I was in another world where nothing was real and nothing to get hung about (to quote the Beatles). Each day began and ended with fantastic food, with snacks and lunch sprinkled in-between. The other readers were lovely people, and by the second lunch, they felt like old friends.


Sophie Hannah made the trip down to our Agatha Christie themed retreat, entertaining a roomful of Agatha fans with her stories of her Poirot books and how she’d come to write them.


Sometime in the afternoon of Day 2, I realized that I had actually forgotten my mobile phone in my room, and hadn’t noticed it for hours!


And then, on Thursday afternoon, sixteen hours before it was time to leave the bubble and re-join society, it happened.


I was reading “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” in the (silent) reading room, in one of the comfortable chairs by the window, with a cup of tea and snacks on the side table, when I got that wonderful sensation of being completely engrossed by the book.


I wasn’t reading it, I was in it.


For a brief moment, I had captured that elusive feeling I had been chasing for years.


The next morning, as Jessica and I were getting ready to leave the beautiful retreat, our new friends, and our hosts, Sara and Cressi took it up a notch.


It wasn’t as dramatic as the last chapter of Robin Hood, fortunately, and I’m not going to spoil it for you, but believe me when I say that it was a beautiful, heart-warming send-off.


A storybook ending.



New Year, New You, Old Books, New Books

New Year, New You, Old Books, New Books

22nd January 2019


Happy New Year!  It’s the month when we all start shiny new out-of-the-box resolutions, and come crashing down to the reality of our messy lives about midway through the second week.

One of this year’s trends is the 'Spark Joy' movement of Marie Kondo.  Fanatical friends are busy showing off drawers of intricately folded clothes and boasting about the amount of useless stuff they have expressed their gratitude to, before letting it go to the charity shop or the tip.

Marie Kondo is a tiny bundle of excited Japanese order who genuinely relishes folding T-shirts.  Her eyes light up when she spies clutter and she obviously really enjoys taking on disordered houses, but it’s her stance on books that’s dividing people.  Most book lovers are firmly on the side of ‘what the hell do you think you’re doing?’. Die-hard Kondo fans see all books as wasted space. I think even the most determined Book Hoarder can actually learn something from her approach. Welcome to:

The Book Hoarder’s Guide to Sparking Joy While Keeping a Large Library

Step one:  Marie Kondo asks that you pile up all your books in one place so that you can fully assess the problem .  

Ok.  You can stop laughing there at the back.  I realise this is going to be impossible. However it’s probably worth assessing your books by genre at least - or you may not realise you have five copies of the same book in five different places.

Step two: Kondo taps the books in a sparkling fairy like way to ‘wake up their energy’.

Haven’t I already told you to stop laughing?  However this does lead on to a worthwhile point.  A book on a shelf that you’ve stopped seeing or appreciating is - at best - in suspended animation.  It’s only by taking it out and really looking at it that you can see what potential it has and what future it deserves.  For the Book Hoarder version, you could at least shake the dust off them.

Step three:  Kondo would now like you to thank the books for their service and only keep those that ‘spark joy’, giving you a warm feeling of enjoyment when you look at them or hug them.  

Book lovers everywhere have exploded into a flurry of articles explaining patiently and passionately that ‘sparking joy’ is not necessarily the main point of a book. Books can unsettle, books can be there just in case, books can be kept for potential grandchildren, books can need re-reading, books can there for us when we need them - and how do we know when we’re going to need them?

I believe all of that and I have a house full of books to prove it.  BUT... come on, admit it. Not all the books you have deserve the space they take up, and in fact some may deserve a better reader than you.

Our vital Book Hoarder Step Three is identifying “Heart Sink” books.  If you stop to think about it, there are books that can make you feel bad just by looking at their covers.  They’re the book you borrowed from a friend you’re no longer in touch with, the book that you meant to read to improve yourself but you secretly suspect is really boring, the book someone gave you that just isn’t your thing.  They. Can. Go. Letting go of these books will not revoke your Book Hoarder passport.

Book Hoarder Step Four is for the “Meh” books.  They were ok-ish. You read them once. You don’t intend to re-read them.  You don’t really want to lend them to anyone. They’re perfectly FINE books but they’re just not - dare I say it - sparking…

The books from Steps Three and Four that you are prepared to get rid of deserve better than a fate of Death By Dust.  By passing them on to a charity shop or local library, there’s every chance someone will pounce on them with glee and make them part of their treasured collection.

Step Five is optional but is a great way to spend a day (and get out of other household chores):  Organising Your Books - By colour, by purchase date, by genre, by length of time they take to read, by alphabetical order by author, or even by Dewey Decimal System.  Ignore all advice and opinions. This is purely for you.

And finally, Book Hoarder Step Six is the Hidden Treasure.  Once you’ve shuffled all your books around, set free the books that don’t deserve you, and had a lovely reorganisation, time to settle down with that lovely pile of ‘I forgot I had those!’.




Guest Blog



26th October 2018

Reading Unlimited.

Ali Hunter came on our Yorkshire Reading Retreat in September 2018. Here she shares her experience.

“You can have dinner in your pyjamas if you like,” Cressida Downing says as we stand, bag-laden and out of breath at the top of the third flight of stairs. She’s helping me haul a large pile of library books to my private room at the top of Rascal Wood, the secluded Yorkshire farmhouse I’m going to be calling home for the next few days. “We’ve never had someone go on a walk in them yet, but there’s nothing stopping you. It’s perfectly acceptable to stay in them all day.”

I’ve come to a reading retreat, to take a well overdue break. It’s been a hectic year and, feeling on the edge of exhaustion, I’m hoping to have some quiet time for myself. Freelance editor, Cressida, formed the idea with business partner Sara, after a similarly stressful year when, she decided rather than the usual spa-weekend to recuperate, she wanted to get away somewhere with her books.

The concept is simple. It’s a few days dedicated to reading without distractions. Being pampered and relaxed is key. So, meals are cooked for you, cups of tea and snacks are delivered on a tray, and a blanket is provided for sofa-snuggling.

After settling in, I slope back downstairs to the reading room having changed into a baggy tracksuit and thick woolly socks. Despite Cressida’s invitation, I feel a little self-conscious meeting my fellow readers for the first time in my misshapen tartan pyjamas.

As I tip-toe through the door, I find a reader sitting in brown suede slippers and swiftly turning page after page, as if he’s on a sprint to the end of a great literary marathon. Another is stretched out on a separate sofa, wrapped in a blanket with eyes fixed on her phone. I later discover she’s switched off the wi-fi and is using the handset as an e-reader to finish a thrilling spy novel.

This cosy room is silent, apart from a fire crackling and popping in the corner, and I sink into a soft leather sofa.  No-one looks up or acknowledges me. The rules of the reading room are clear: It is a no-talking zone, and social etiquette is not required. There’s no need to smile, say hello or make polite conversation, here – concentrating on reading takes priority. It’s a relief not to have to make an effort, and I turn to page one to plunge headfirst into a dystopian world, leaving my hectic day and journey behind.

Later, the scent of home cooking starts to drift through from the kitchen, where Sara has been busy cooking dinner. A menu had been left by my bed earlier with instructions to inform her if there was anything I didn’t like or couldn’t eat. Now, the spicy aroma of middle eastern roasted sprouts and vegetable tagine tempts us to quickly finish our chapters, and we slink through to the dining room.

The table is laid with fresh flowers and candles, and Cressida has put together an anagram challenge which we puzzle over while we wait. It’s a small group of readers, and although we’ve never met before the conversation flows effortlessly between reading-related topics, like how we store our book collections and what book we’d take to a desert island. The three-course meal is delicious, but by the end, I’m itching to find out what happens next in the novel I’m reading. “If anyone wants to head off and read, feel free to go,” Cressida says while clearing the dessert plates, giving me the perfect opportunity to break away from the conversation.

The next morning, I awake early with sunlight spilling across my bed, and read another chapter before breakfast. Downstairs, Sara is already pottering around the kitchen, preparing breakfast and lunch. Over toasted crumpets with homemade raspberry jam, Cressida outlines the plan for the day. There will be free reading time until 1pm, when lunch will be served in the dining room (or on a tray if we prefer to keep reading), then an optional walk followed by more reading time, then dinner.

And so the hours unfold – a mix of reading in the garden, on the sofa, in the bath, and in bed, occasionally stopping to order a cup of peppermint tea.

It’s remarkably peaceful here in the Yorkshire countryside; birds chirruping in the trees and hares hopping about in the fields nearby. I soon become engrossed in my second book - so much so that I jump when Cressida appears with a five-minute-warning for dinner.

This time around, a glass of prosecco is slipped into my hand as I enter the dining room. Tonight is special as we’ll be joined at dinner by an acclaimed author who will talk about their own reading. So, there’s a fizz of excitement within the group.

Tom Harper sits in the middle chair, with an intriguing pile of well-read books in front of him. I feel a little nervous to meet him up close like this, and hesitate to join in at first. But, as we all dine together after his talk, the questions begin to flow. It’s not long before we’re all reminiscing about favourite books and I’m making an extensive list of ‘must-read’ recommendations.

As I scribble another title in my journal, I look down and glimpse a flash of tartan. I was so relaxed before coming in for dinner, I didn’t realise: I’m wearing my pyjamas. While dining with a famous author (!) And, I’m not even sure I’ve brushed my hair.

But, for once, I’m not self-conscious. Because this is what being on a reading retreat is all about. It is a place where it’s possible to simply relax, without judgement, and with full permission to choose comfort over style, silence over small talk, and, of course, reading over absolutely everything else.



World Cup of Books



Has the World Cup been distracting you from your reading?  Do you hate or love it? Regardless, let’s use it as an inspiration to read more internationally!  


Cressi has come up with a fiction and non-fiction book for each of the 16 teams that made it through to the knock-out stage.  Sometimes the books are set in the country, sometimes they’re by a local author, sometimes the link is a little more tenuous – but this has been a labour of love!  She's not read all of them but a few of her favourites have crept in.


There's a wide range of genres and interests so we doubt anyone will love all 32 books – let Cressi know what you think and what you would have put on the list instead.


Suite Francaise – Irene Nemirovsky written in 1942, this has a freshness about France in the Second World War, a lightness of touch.    

A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway – do we think the struggling writers in Paris in the 1960s were better off then struggling writers are now?


Labyrinths – Jorges Luis Borges – This collection of stories and essays by one of Argentina’s best known writers includes The Library of Babel

The Honorary Consul – Graham Greene is the classic story of an incompetent diplomat in a country he is failing to understand


Football in Sun and Shadow - Eduardo Galeano – ‘an unashamedly emotional history of football’ by a best-selling Uruguayan author.

The invisible mountain by Carolina de Robertis – sweeping story of a mother and her daughter, starting at the turn of the century in Uruguay.


A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson  - Murder mystery set in the Second World War and the 1990s.

Conquerors by Robert Crowley  - A comprehensive history of Portuguese exploration


Futebol Nation – David Goldblatt –  Why are Brazil so enamoured of football?  Read the history of their love for the beautiful game.

Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa – Award-winning Brazilian novelist’s book about a young girl who leaves Brazil and finds a new home in America.


Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel  - a magic realist love story with added recipes -a bestseller from the 1990s.

Bandit Roads – Richard Grant – travel writing by a reckless author dicing with the most dangerous regions in Mexico.


Sleeping Arrangements – Madeline Wickham – a summer holiday read about a double-booked Spanish holiday villa – fun and malicious.

The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston – an in-depth meticulously researched account of the Spanish Civil War.


A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – one of my favourite books recently, the gentleman is placed under house arrest in a Moscow hotel after the Revolution.  A beautiful read.

Caught in the Revolution – Helen Rappaport – Foreigners’ accounts of the events of the Revolution.


The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht – this debut novel examines the roles of doctors during the Balkan Wars.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – Rebecca West – history or travel writing or journalism or all three,  Yugoslavia during 1937.


Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow – Peter Hoeg – the original Scandi-Noir is also a keen-eyed look at Danish history.

The Year of living Danishly – Helen Russell  - what’s it like living in the happiest nation in the world?


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Steig Larsson – the first in the famous trilogy featuring the unconventional and uncompromising Lisbeth.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning – Margareta Magnusson – the latest trend in decluttering with additional planning for helping your relatives after your death.


Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is partly set in Switzerland but if this feels too tenuous a link – try the Chalet School series instead!

Swiss Watching by Diccon Bewes – I was shocked to discover the trains don’t actually always run on time…


The Lido by Libby Page – what could be more English than a threatened lido?  Set in Brixton the story makes you want to swim outdoors.

A Very English Scandal by John Preston is the staggering true story of Jeremy Thorpe’s private life and his possible involvement in a murder attempt.


The Monogram Murders – Sophie Hannah  this has made it in as new incarnation of Poirot, Belgium’s most famous son.

King Leopold’s Ghost – Adam Hochschild – away from the chocolate and the cuddly detectives is a horrific colonial history.


One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez -  the landmark original magic realist novel deeply rooted in the cultural history of Latin America.

Oblivion – Hector Abad Faciolince – a memoir of the author’s father, killed by the right-wing militia, but also a love letter between a son and his father.


The Guest cat by Takashi Hiraide – the cat that adopts and changes a freelance writer in a beautiful little novel

Geisha of Gion: The Memoir of Mineko Iwasaki – the autobiography of the subject of Memoir of a Geisha speaks for herself.

Christmas Reading

Did you have a lovely relaxing reading Christmas break?  Or did it go something like this…


There are delicious book-shaped parcels under the tree.  Some of them are even for you.  One is a box of chocolates – good – but no cigar.  One is a cunningly wrapped box of socks.  Three are books – hurrah!

You wait impatiently for the others to finish opening their presents.  You make all the right noises.  You play a game of Star Wars Top Trumps with your nephew to show willing.

Finally, the teenagers are drifting back onto their phones, your father has started ‘listening’ to the Queen’s Speech with his eyes shut, snoring gently, and you carefully, quietly, surreptitiously crack the spine on the best of the books.

‘Would anyone like a cup of tea?’

You put it down.  You talk tea.  You boil the kettle, you make one decaff, one herbal, one Earl Grey and one coffee with sweetener.

You slink back into the corner of the living room where the children aren’t and open up your book again.

‘I do think children today don’t read enough, don’t you?’

You agree with your uncle that children don’t read enough.  You look longingly at your book but he doesn’t get the hint.  He then explains why your views on the government need to be corrected.  You wonder about taking him to see The Death of Stalin.  He heads off to the loo with yesterday’s paper.

You open your book.  It’s great.  It’s as good as you were hoping it would be, you’re transported, you’re away, you’re in the fifteenth century and all around is the bustle of the marketplace and the sound of the passive-aggressive washing up and the tuts of your spouse.

You put your book down.

‘Would you like me to do the washing up?’

‘No, it’s fine.  Just keep reading.  I know how much you enjoy sitting around doing nothing at Christmas.’


You try and continue reading but there’s a wispy fog of guilt hanging over the pages now.  Maybe Boxing Day.  


A Soul Enriching Weekend

Kellie was one of our guests at our recent Suffolk retreat, and has written this lovely blog about her experiences.

A Soul Enriching Weekend

I have just returned from one of the most enjoyable, luxurious and soul enriching weekends in my life – a Reading Retreat.

If you were to climb into my mind and discover my fantasy weekend, it would be a 3-night escape to a beautiful country house where my every need would be met and all I had to do was read, and that was what I experienced at Reading Retreat.

It started on Friday afternoon where I was met by my two hosts for the weekend Sara and Cressi. They took my bags from the car, showed me to my gorgeous room and then had me settled in the kitchen nook with a mug of herbal tea while we waited for the others to arrive. They also presented me with a very well thought-out goody bag for the weekend and beyond.

I had already spoken with Cressi as she had called me before the retreat to give me my “reading prescription”. I was amazed how quickly Cressi “got me” and my reading taste with a 10-minute conversation. I also felt no judgement from Cressi about my taste in books – I am not really into highbrow literature preferring true crime novels, psychological thrillers, and a bit of chick-lit. Not once was I made to feel inferior about my tastes and Cressi gave me a great selection of books to choose from.  I chose all of them!

I was then shown around this beautiful house. They had very cleverly set aside 2 quiet reading rooms, both with very comfortable chairs and great light and one with a wood fire. The house rules were that if you were in those rooms you didn’t disturb anybody reading. It was lovely to sit around a room silently reading with like-minded people, although you could also read in your own room if you wanted. At any time, you could go into the kitchen where you would find our hosts, who were quick to offer a snack, drink, and a bit of conversation.

The food was amazing. 3 beautiful home cooked dinners, 2 lovely warm but light lunches and a hot or cold breakfast every morning and an abundance of home baked snacks whenever you got a bit peckish, including a midnight snack menu for reading into the early hours.

Dinner and prosecco with a visiting author, Guinevere Glasfurd, on the Saturday night was a major highlight. At first, I felt a little overwhelmed and shy (see above about my reading tastes) but she was lovely and made sure everybody at the dinner table was included in the conversation.

There was also some really lovely little touches that the hosts had thought of – a box of toiletries in case you had forgotten anything and little reading lights to borrow if you needed one but I think the best thing about the whole weekend was the freedom I felt to be myself and do nothing but eat, drink and read. I stayed in bed reading both Saturday and Sunday until lunchtime and on Sunday I stayed in my pyjamas all day until dinner and no-one raised an eyebrow. The hosts had very thoughtfully planned a walk for each day but had no problem with me skipping it to read in bed.

If you are a busy person who loves to read, I can recommend going on one of Sara and Cressi’s retreats. It really is the perfect way to spend 3 nights and I think I’ll be planning a once a year retreat from now on.


We're All Going on a Reading Retreat

Cressida and Sara started working together to create reading retreats after Cressida had been unsuccessful in finding one for herself. She created her own and this became the embryo of Reading Retreat.  Below is a copy of her blog about that first retreat....


We’re all going on a reading retreat.


By ‘we’ I mean me.  And by ‘reading retreat’ I really mean me and fifteen books going on a little holiday.

I have cleared a space in my work, got my home responsibilities off-loaded, and I’m going to stay in a residential library – for four days.  I’ve never been on a reading retreat before so I’m making it up as I go along.  Here are my initial rules on how to have a reading retreat:

It must be somewhere else.  A trip purely for reading.  Not a holiday where you have to squeeze precious reading time away from trivialities such as seeing the Grand Canyon and so on.

You must be able to be anti-social.  I’m going on my own and don’t intend to make any friends.

Travelling there must involve reading.  I’ll be taking a very lengthy train trip to start me off on the right track.

Someone else is going to do the adult-stuff for you.   I will not be making any of my own food for four days (or cooking for anyone else!)

Technology needs to be absent or at least reduced.  I adore my Kindle but I want to get back to reading basics and there’s something about a crisp new book that a crisp new electronic file can’t compete with.  I’m also intending to only be online for a short window each day.

Comfort is key.  We can safely say I will not be dressing to impress, I don’t want a belt digging in while I’m nose-deep into my book of choice.

Take notes – not an essay on each book but just a few quick notes to remind you when the retreat is done.

I am going to try and do a short walk once a day to refresh my reading palate too – a little bit of moving stirred in to some serious sloth.

Snacks (I have a serious reading + eating habit.)

No burn out – I often find myself crashing through work and house and admin in a desperate attempt to take a few days off, and then I sleep through those few days or come down with an exhaustion cold or fever.  Not this time.  I’m tapering off with work and leaving the washing up for someone else.



"An entire weekend of 

luxurious accommodation, gorgeous food and hospitality. Such a beautiful, soul enriching way to spend a weekend. I read constantly"





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