I spent all of last weekend, from Friday afternoon through to Monday lunch time, at the magnificent Cumberland Lodge. It really is the most beautiful building, once occupied by the Ranger of Windsor Great Park, a grace-and-favour appointment that’s been held by some well-known names from English aristocracy. And just to remind you who the boss is, there’s a clear view from a spot in the grounds all the way to Windsor Castle, nine miles away. In 1947, the lodge was given to an education foundation established by Amy Buller. Click on the link and read about the book she authored, Darkness Over Germany. Strangely, the only available Wikipedia link is to the German site.
When we arrived on Friday afternoon, the fires were lit, and it was like something straight out of Gosford Park. Someone, who shall remain nameless, described the accommodation as ‘nursing home chic’. Here’s a picture of my room. You decide. It did get bloody cold at night, though (single glazed windows, high ceilings, what can you expect?) which of course wouldn’t be tolerated in most nursing homes.
There were eight of us students, accompanied by Professor Susan Halford and Dr Mark Weal. The focus, of course, was writing. For most of us, that was writing a chapter or section of our PhDs, although a couple of people were writing a paper for publication. We were free to write anywhere, but most people chose to stay sitting around the huge table that was provided for us in a library, although on Sunday afternoon and Monday I chose to go down to one of the drawing rooms and stretch out on a sofa.
We also had two mentors with us for part of the stay – ex-students who had completed their PhDs – to answer any of our questions and talk to use about the last stages of qualifying, including the dreaded viva.
The final attraction was a visit from Jen McCall, representing Emerald Publishing, to talk about converting our PhDs into books or monograms, which isn’t as easy as it sounds! Nevertheless, I think many PhDs could be re-written successfully for a broader audience, and in spite of the work (think another year at least of re-writing and adding new material) I really feel as if I could do this with mine. Time will tell….
The real benefit of all this, though, was the opportunity to write in a quiet, relaxed atmosphere, away from all the usual distractions (dogs, children, washing up, take your pick). I forgot to make a note of how many words my chapter started out with, and so couldn’t tell you how much I wrote. It was a lot, though. And I made several pages worth of notes as I went along; notes to check things, find things, do extra things…. I find that whenever I start writing I think of lots of other things as I’m getting the words down on the page. I’m hoping this means I’ve done enough preparation that my mind is free to wander and doesn’t have to pay too much attention to writing any more.
It was also a benefit beyond words to have Susan and Mark with us. As any PhD student knows, getting face time with your supervisor when you most need it is practically impossible. They’re busy people. Also, by the time you do get to see them, the problem has either been resolved, or there are now a whole set of problems that need addressing, few of which you’ll have time to address in your meeting. The fact that they were there, happy to talk through whatever was an issue was priceless. Thank you.
As a result of this weekend, I’ve booked myself in to as many other writing retreats organised by the Digital Economy Network as I can. They’re an organisation funded by the Research Councils UK to support post-grad and research students; all the retreats run over two days, and are free. As well as the chance to write in a purposeful atmosphere, they are also held in different locations across the UK so there’s the added bonus of seeing somewhere new.
I’m going to miss this in September.