03 September 2013
As some of you will know, I’ve been busy moving house and doing lots (and lots and lots) of decorating, so other things have suffered, including my second novel, which is at what I call the ‘serious editing’ stage; that is, after lots of editing as I went along, I finished the first draft, read it through and did a final (ha!) edit before sending it to my agent and editor. I’m now working my way through their insightful comments. They’ve picked up on some things that I sort of knew but was ignoring and other things that I just didn’t see because I’m too close to the manuscript.
So after reading through the novel again and having a really good think, I booked myself a few days away at a retreat where I knew, having been there before, that I’d get a significant amount of work done. Mount Pleasant (still comes up on Google as Mount Pleasant Artists’ Rest Home, but don’t be put off by the name – it’s not a convalescent home!) is a beautiful house in Reigate, Surrey, owned by a charitable trust set up in the 1920s to provide a quiet place for professional creative artists to work or take a break to recharge their batteries. The terms of the trust stated that this should be open only to men but the present-day trustees were anxious to change this, so in 2012 Mount Pleasant began to welcome female guests.
The elegant house has seven large, comfortable bedrooms, and there are views over the grounds to the surrounding Surrey hills. Places are heavily subsidised by the trust, so guests pay only around £35 a night (+VAT) for full board. But the best thing (for me, anyway) is that you don’t have to even think about food. Every meals is prepared for you, served to you, and cleared away after you. And then they bring you lovely coffee! Hell, I didn’t so much as wash a cup! I’ve blogged before about the particular value of writing retreats for women who, even in 2013, still tend to take the lion (ess)’s share of domestic responsibility, so this is a particularly attractive resource for women.
So, if you’re a professional (i.e. published) writer and you’d like to stay at Mount Pleasant, what can you expect, and how does it differ from an Arvon retreat? At Arvon, you’re in the company of 15 other writers, and you’ll do a very small amount of cooking and washing up. The social side is of great importance and most evenings are spent drinking wine and chatting, with the odd informal night of readings. It’s a wonderfully nourishing creative experience, open to published and unpublished writers, and the vast majority of those who attend lament the fact that retreats and courses last a mere five days.
Mount Pleasant may not have the same creative ‘vibe’ for writers – it’s open to painters, composers and architects as well – but as well as the difference in the catering arrangements and the number of people staying (sometimes seven, sometimes none) you can book for anything from two days to three weeks. Also, there’s a television (shock horror!) although guests often do prefer to chat in the evenings, and there’s also internet access for those who want it.
Some people may be put off by the formality of meals, which are taken communally at 9am, 1pm and 7pm. Those of us used to the sort of food on offer at Arvon may find the food at Mount Pleasant a little old-fashioned, but it’s good, fresh food (some of it grown in the grounds), beautifully cooked and attractively presented. There’s a cooked breakfast every morning, a main course and pud for lunch, and a starter and main course for dinner, which is followed by cheese and fruit. You can take your own wine.
Many of the regulars have been staying there for 20, 30 or even 40+ years, and given that it’s only recently opened its doors to women, you’re quite likely to meet at least some elderly male guests. During my first stay, I was the only woman and at least three of my six fellow guests were over 80, but all were still working within the creative arts – still publishing books, still exhibiting paintings. I must confess to being somewhat daunted by the fierce intellect around the table, but I needn’t have been because everyone was extremely welcoming and I found the company both charming and fascinating.
Mount Pleasant still feels a little like an exclusive gentleman’s club, but women are gradually becoming more frequent guests – during my recent stay we even outnumbered the men at one point! And the trustees are keen for this trend to continue. I was also made very welcome by the staff – you are incredibly well looked after at Mount Pleasant. I came away feeling that I’d had a really good rest, but also that I’d achieved significantly more work than I would have done had I been at home.