I love the idea of a reflective retreat and try to set apart time to pursue a meditative, learning or development activity at least once a year. It is so healthy and centering to pull away from the regular demands of life to quietly examine one’s inner self and pay attention to the weightier matters of the soul.
This year, a simple tour of Western university during winter exam week, inspired me to organize a self-hosted writer’s retreat in London, Ontario, Canada. As my daughter guided my husband and me through the labyrinth of staircases and hallways that lead to her favourite study haunts, the campus was vibrating with studious energy. Students were everywhere and there was the quiet hum of whispers, keyboard clicks, coffee sips and general traffic. Everyone was focused on their screens or books…many wearing headphones. The eateries had clusters of students gathered talking and laughing; a well-deserved break from the solitary discipline of studying or vibrant collusions among study partners.
Everything about the atmosphere beckoned me to find a cozy nook and indulge in some writing on my iPad. Only I didn’t have my writing tools with me and this was not the time for a leisurely hour or two of composition. Oh how I longed to linger!
Then I realized that we weren’t scanning in to the buildings or through doorways to access these student areas. It had never occurred to me before that anybody would be welcome to join in the endeavours of learning…at least of the self-study variety. That was when I decided that I was going to return to this place and use the inspiring energy that permeates the Gothic buildings and beautiful surroundings to create my own stories.
Set a Strategic Date
Timing is everything. I sensed that exam week (or immediately before) was part of what created this backdrop of activity. A bit of enquiry helped me locate the perfect week for my trip: summer exam week. This would also ensure that the buildings would be freely open and campus eateries would be supplying their goods. Nothing would be more disappointing than showing up in the awkward semester lull in which education facilities operate at half-mast as the massive preparations for September classes begin. Empty hallways and closed areas would not have the same effect at all.
Find a Budget Accommodation
As one who is only protected from becoming a starving artist due to the patronage of her husband, I had to contend with the realities of choosing a week’s accommodations. I happened upon a perfect solution for my budget.
The Guest House on the Mount is a budget-friendly accommodation for those who are seeking close proximity to London’s University Hospital or to the University of Western Ontario itself. The original building dates back to the 1800’s as a nunnery, women’s college, orphanage and finally, was partially rebuilt in 2008 as a hotel. It resembles a transformed hospital ward.
Where the nurses station would be, there is a reception desk. Where the waiting room would be, there is a group living room. The hallways look like your average hospital corridor with the numbered, wide doors, only with carpet and individual key access. The rooms have the institutional hospital feel only instead of the gurney style beds, there are standard hotel issue beds, desks, nightstands and requisite artwork on the wall. Carpet covers the floors of the rooms as well.
Unlike a hospital, the rooms do not have their own washroom. Instead there are designated male and female washrooms and shower areas that everyone on the floor uses.
Prepare Food and Eat In
We were delighted with the shared kitchen and eating area that allows guests to store their food in one of two fridges with proper labelling. Your name, room number and date of checkout protect your food from being enjoyed by others but it is fair game to be eaten or thrown away after you depart. There are standard kitchen appliances and dishes available for cooking and serving food and the convenience of a dishwasher to load afterward. Hotel staff ensure the dishwasher is put on as needed and that clean dishes are returned to the shelves.
All in all this accommodation is perfect for the thrifty traveller who wants to avoid the high-priced and often nutritionally deficient option of eating out.
A writing friend and I arrived at Guest House on the Mount with a cooler full of meals that I had prepared and portioned at home along with some extra grocery supplies. I didn’t want to spend even a moment of my writing retreat preparing food or washing unnecessary dishes. Everything I brought was ready to eat out of the container I had packed. Only my makeshift espresso brewer (a glass tea steeper) was needed to brew my daily Americanos and the microwave to heat my entrees.
The two fridges were crowded due to the amount of food we brought with us. Most guests didn’t bring five days worth of meals into the guest house at once. It took some manoeuvring but we managed to fit everything in without blocking others from their modest supplies.
Harness the Vibe
The Guest House is underwhelming at first. The institutional feel, the quirks and age of the building, and the quiet, somber presence of the guests, many who are undergoing medical treatment or recovery, is in great contrast to the atmosphere of a traditional accommodation. There are no rowdy guests, room service, pool or music in a grand lobby that earmark vacation and fun. Instead, there is serene, almost melancholy hush.
Meet Other Adventurers
As the week went on, the true gem of the Guest House emerged. The shared kitchen and bathroom provided opportunities to tentatively begin discussions and learn the purpose of other guests visits. One couple was moving to London and was waiting for their home deal to close. Another couple was visiting to see a choir production that their daughter was participating in. A lady in a wheelchair was recovering from surgery. A man was having difficulty finding permanent accommodation due to rising rental fees and was biding his time at the Guest House until he found a new place to live. My writing friend and I shared our own book project activities with eager listeners.
Enjoy Natural Beauty
While the interior of our accommodations took some time to appreciate, the surrounding grounds and natural areas are the true treasure. So long as you are visiting in spring, summer or fall, there are beautiful spans of grass, trees and even a meandering river nearby. This area is meant to be enjoyed with adventurous walks and bike rides. If you are staying indoors exclusively, you are missing the best part.
Walk or Cycle
The plan was to keep my vehicle parked at the Guest House where the parking was free and to ride our bicycles or walk to the university campus every day to write. Parking at the university would become costly and it involved a lot of walking to the respective buildings anyway so driving didn’t make sense.
The weather was perfect, if not a little too sunny and hot. It was a 10-minute bike ride or a 20-minute walk through beautiful, treed streets and paths. The only unexpected challenge for us, coming from Windsor, ON, were the hills. The Windsor area is extremely flat and it’s easy to forget that other parts of Ontario have more inclines to climb. We struggled more than we should have to climb the hills of the university and the Guest House on our commutes each day.
Pack Lunch and Snacks
We set out to the university each morning, our backpacks filled with our writing supplies and a packed lunch. The active commutes helped offset the long hours of sitting in the library or cafe as we worked on our individual writing projects. We worked as we sipped beverages, heated our lunches in the communal microwaves or snacked on nuts and bars. We could buy coffee or snacks if we had wanted to, although other than the occasional coffee to warm myself from the air conditioning, I stuck with my packed snacks.
Despite my carefully planned timing, the buzz of the study areas was NOT at all as I had hoped it would be. The campus had some students and everything was open, but it still had the abandoned, summer break feeling I had hoped to avoid. I guess summer programs are not as attended as the fall, winter and spring ones…either that, or alternate study areas are used instead. This was disappointing initially, but I got over it. At least we weren’t fighting for an ideal place to sit down and work. We had our pick of locations.
Instead of throngs of students studying, we observed groups of parents and students being taken on tour, university faculty meeting with each other and the occasional student working or chatting with friends. Other than that, it was quiet. Needless to say, we got a lot of work done.
I had hoped to do more exploring of the campus but due to the physical challenges of the commutes, a few unexpected incidents during the trip and the relatively short duration of the trip, we only worked in three different locations on campus.
My favourite place to work was the Taylor library that joined onto Einstein’s Cafe. The library offered generous table space, terrific lighting and plentiful power outlets for my devices. The adjoining cafe offered hot espresso beverages when the air conditioning chill overwhelmed me and student microwaves for heating my lunch. The microwaves were scary. It appeared that no-one had taken on the responsibility to clean them and using them meant keeping the lid on my food to avoid contamination.
We happened across a special bathroom stall near our chosen study area. Initially, it looked like the graffiti you would find in any public restroom but quickly it became apparent that this graffiti was inspirational in nature. That bathroom stall became our designated facilities during our university stay.
My friend and I bunked, wrote and ate together but we each had family that we took time to visit independently in the evenings throughout the week. On our last night, I finally relented to drive to the local mall to enjoy a mini shopping trip for a much needed change of pace. It had been an intense week of writing work!
When we finally checked out of the Guest House and drove back to Windsor, we were happy to account that we had enjoyed a five-night stay in London for less than $200 each. This amount included our shared auto fuel. The room we had shared at the Guest House was $69 plus tax per night, our packed food from home made eating out unnecessary, and the five-hour round trip had used only a half tank of gas. There were no parking fees and no restaurant tabs. It was a very cost effective 6-day retreat.
While many of my readers may not aspire to a writing trip, I felt it was in keeping with my blog purpose to include the details of this adventure. Part of resting is taking time for prayer, fasting, reflection, or vacation breaks. Sometimes this can be done at home but most times it cannot. Finding an inexpensive retreat of any kind can be difficult unless you have a friend who offers you an idyllic home, cottage or cabin that they are not using. In lieu of a borrowed retreat spot, I am always on the lookout for inexpensive retreat options that I can enjoy alone or with a like-minded companion.
Do you know of a budget-friendly accommodation that is ideal for a reflective retreat? Please let me know and I will compile a list for my readers!
I finished my writing project! My new book is published and ready for purchase!
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I don’t know that I will ever host a retreat, but I love seeing behind-the-scenes and tips on things out of my comfort zone or everyday life.
I host Bible Journaling Workshops that are a few hours long, I give you lots of credit in hosting a week-long retreat! I can only image the time it takes to plan & organize one, yet the benefits are wonderful!