Was it just a dream?
Updated: Feb 22
It's Friday, 3rd February 2023 at 9.30am, and I'm sat on my bed waiting for my tea to cool down before I drink it and contemplating the weekend ahead. I’d shared a post last night on Facebook saying I was going to The Dreaming retreat - I can’t believe the day is finally here after it being postponed from two weeks ago. Apparently we’re the first intake of retreat guests so it’s probably going to be as much of a new discovery to them as it will be to me.
‘Them’ being the incredible human that is Charlotte Church, the revered voice of an Angel, turned earth-mother/goddess who bought this former Laura Ashley owned mansion in Mid Wales and spent the last 2-3 years lovingly renovating it. As seen on the insightful ‘Really’ Dream Build programme with an army of trades and crafts-folk, artisans and volunteers, including her beloved ‘dadda’, plus a worrying mountain of debt and local council obstacles, the offering is finally ready to welcome its first paying guests, which incredulously includes my good self.
I'd been following Charlotte on social media for a while because in 2017, I started working on my ideas for which became Mindarium Magazine and looked into well known Welsh people with similar values to mine, who might be willing to share their openness around mental health issues and thought about Charlotte Church who at the time had just announced her sad miscarriage on her socials. I'd reached out to her, explaining about my crazy magazine idea and she was really supportive, however it took me ages to get things sorted and by the time I published in 2018, we had lost the momentum of our connection so it didn’t happen. However, I've continued to follow her as I have admired her outspoken and socialist views and also she did a really good documentary called Inside My Brain which she investigated the issues around her and her mother's mental health and emerging science with the National Centre for Mental Health which I thought was really interesting at the time.
So yeah, when Charlotte started the retreat project I kept updated with things on her Facebook posts and when she announced the ‘pay what you can' concept I jumped straight on her website and applied before I'd even watched the programme, and now here I am on the morning before I set off in a couple of hours. I’m feeling a mixture of anxiety and excitement which comes from a rational fear of the unknown and the usual dread of painful movement that accompanies me on all pursuits these days. I’ve already advised the lovely manager Lukas of my knee issues and dreadful snoring for the sanity of other guests and I think I will be in a room on my own on the first floor. I am worried about how I will get around the grounds but I m determined to push myself to engage in as many of the activities as I can.
I am hoping this trip will put me as far out of my comfort zone as possible so that it will kick start a new healthier lifestyle for me when I get back home. For the last few years, and no thanks to the lockdowns, I have pretty much become a hermit in my now accommodating ground-floor flat, and have mostly given in to the severe pain in my osteoarthritic knees so have become mostly immobile and the highest weight I’ve ever been. So hopefully with new food ideas, plunge pools and re-engaging in nature and being social again I will be able to reignite that flame inside me that’s almost gone out. High hopes perhaps but that’s never stopped my crazy ideas before!!
I suppose I’d better stop writing and start getting ready - it’s now half ten and I’m aiming to leave by 1pm as check in as 3, and I’ve still got some last minute things to pack, get ready and do last minute cleaning jobs including the lovely cat tray. I will no doubt be writing more for my blog as I will have no wifi up there and probably scant 4g, and in a way I’m relishing the disconnection experience so that I can be free of ‘outer’ distractions and focus on myself and my own well-being. Something I preach but rarely do for myself… so I guess I’ll see you on the other side …. Xxx
I arrived at Rhydoldog about half three on Friday afternoon, via on a long single track lane that opened up all of a sudden to see the house I’d seen on telly was there in the distance like something from a painting. I’m going to say surreal a lot I think because after seeing so much of this beautiful place on the website and on the telly - everything felt so familiar but I also felt very emotional seeing it with my own eyes. As I drove slowly up the road wanting to take everything in but not too slow as I was half an hour later than I’d hoped to get here. I pulled up to the familiar facade and wasn’t sure where to park until I saw some other cars and instinctively parked alongside. As I pulled up in awe of this sprawling mansion, I was greeted by a young man I recognised as the manager, Lukas, and introduced myself. He eagerly helped me with my bags as my old woman knees and stick carried me through the main door which looks like a church or hobbit door. I found out later it’s lovingly called the fairy door.
So much to take in, but I’ve decided to try and pace myself, as I’m led through the magical doorway and through a hallway to the bottom of those pesky stairs that caused them some issues in the renovation. I saw some familiar faces from the program but also some new ones as a lovely lady volunteer called Marie helped me up the stairs to my room with my bags. I thought I caught a glimpse of Charlotte on the way through some doors but wasn’t sure. I got to my room - The Dawn with all it’s golden and orange furnishings and immediately noticed the balcony and the spectacular view outside.
As soon as Marie left the room I went out onto the wooden decking and spent a few moments soaking up this incredible vista - my god, I was really here at this amazing place and I struggled to believe I was really awake. Not wanting to miss anything downstairs, I came back inside and made my way back down the stairs to what is the Refectory and was encouraged to help myself to a cuppa. I actually made Charlotte a small self care box as a little thank you for giving me this opportunity to experience this amazing place and shyly gave it to her and scurried away!! I know you’re reading this thinking that isn’t the ballsy bird you know but honestly I was little star struck seeing this woman I’d followed for so long. She was every bit as gracious and lovely as she appeared on the programme as she lounged on the sofa breastfeeding her beautiful baby girl Freda.
So I made a cuppa and started introducing myself to some of the newly arriving guests that were there. One lady had traveled from Warrington and another from Bristol and another lady from just up the road from me in Llantrisant. Guests, staff and volunteers all intermingled and I felt immediately at ease, it was a very welcoming and relaxed environment albeit being in total wonder of the familiar rooms I'd seen on telly that I was now sat in. As more people slowly entered this lush room, amongst familiar faces to some and new to others, the room was aglow with anticipation and warmth.
Eventually we were all directed into the Healing Room for the ‘official’ welcome and introductions took place on the lush green Thai healing mats, though I opted for the ease of a chair. When it got to my turn which was last, I just started to say my name and all of a sudden the fire alarm went off and interrupted me! A little ripple of concern erupted between Charlotte and Lukas and they went off to sort that out while we all sat bemused. If it had of been a fire we couldn’t have given a toss as we all stayed put until they returned to the welcome peace that was restored again. I then got my chance to introduce myself and said that I was there to indulge myself in the self-care I recommended to others but rarely did for myself which was greeted with knowledgable nods from my peers, and then we were told what to expect over the next few days including that the offerings/programme planned was optional. I’d already decided that I wanted to do everything as I don’t want to miss out on anything - even the bloody hills!
So after a short break and a quick change into more suitable clothes, our next pursuit was 'Sensing Place' so we had to walk up to the area they call the Court of the Holly King - a woodland area with a fire pit and natural wood and stone seats. I have to say at this point that the hosts and even the guests were all really caring and patiently assisted me getting around as they could see my mobility wasn’t good. Of course I was stubborn enough to refuse most offers except where I didn’t have enough hands to carry extra things such as the cute lanterns and sheepskin rugs to make our outdoor experience more lush. We were treated to a poem and a beautiful song by the talented Artist in Residence Carys Eleri and some mindful exploring took place and we shared our thoughts and observations. It was emotional and ethereal and I expressed my gratitude for being able to be here. Eventually we wandered back down to the house in the dusk that had fallen during our short expedition - our paths lit by the fullish moon, our lanterns and the sweet strings of lights that were rocking gently in the breeze.
Back through the magical fairy door and I decided to stay downstairs and grab a cuppa before our evening feast in the Refractory. Two new faces had joined us for food who are the forestry man Bubsy and a very knowledgeable horticulturist (I think that's right!) called Paul who shared their knowledge and insights from their work on the estate. Time disappeared into light conversations and gentle laughter and before we know it our food is served. A vegan offering involving mushrooms, creamy sauce and rice that looked like spaghetti, I think he said spelt, when the beret-headed chef, explained about the food and introduced himself as Peter aka Chippy, but I was so engrossed in eating that the details flew through my brain and out the other side - needless to say it was delicious and devoured with more gratitude. A little break and more banter and then our dessert which was a yummy baked pear in vegan cream and some homemade syrup - again I can’t remember the details only to say it was all very lovely and tasty. I had noted that when Chippy was detailing the food he explained some of the health benefits including the digestive properties which is particularly interesting given my IBS/D.
I want to write about the sound therapy session we had next and the end of the evening which had me in bed by 10pm and writing this, but it’s now 11.50pm and I need my last loo stop and then I’m coming back to go straight to sleep. I need at least an hour to fully write and do that last part justice so maybe I’ll try tomorrow at some point. Thats if I’m not immersing myself fully in this whole process. Setting my alarm for 6am for 6.30am - might even see the sunrise…
I actually forgot to set my alarm, but little did I know what the next morning had in store when I was roused by the soft but unmistakable dulcet tones of Charlotte's voice - I still can't believe that I'm here and that's THE Charlotte Church outside my door at 6.3oam - had it have been anyone else I might have objected but hell, what a wake up call - literally!
So, now I'm sat in the healing room I say sat, I kind of feel like a Buddha, comfortably wedged into a cool green cushion thing on the floor although I'm not sure where to lean my journal for writing - hey ho I managed to scrawl in my make do note book. I'm back in the same room as last night - this time, lit by candle lanterns and soft lights and the warm glow of the newly lit wood fire in the hearth. It’s about 6.30am now and I can see outside is misty but getting lighter as although there is no sun visible, the sky is becoming lighter grey by the moment. It’s the journalling by candlelight session and I still feel like I’m in a dream, maybe half asleep still, as in the background some beautiful wistfully gentle music plays alongside the crackling of the fire.
I haven't really slept that well because I think I'm still too giddy and I'm still getting used to being here and probably a bit overwhelmed. Being woken up by the purity of Charlottes voice singing gently is the most surreal and magical thing I think I've ever heard. Apart from last nights sound healing session which absolutely blew my mind.
It’s now very different to last night’s offering which was described a Sound Healing but the name doesn’t really do it justice. So, after our evening meal we were invited in to the Healing room again and this time I chose to lay on the cushions on the floor. I was of course a bit stiff and in pain getting down there but really wanted to benefit from the session so took my place alongside the newly familiar faces either side. I lay on my back with my hands relaxed on my chest and my head propped on the comfy pillow with a blanket laid over my body. I’ve done mediation and had a sound bath before so I wasn’t nervous and thought I knew what to expect. Charlotte was in the room with a few people we recognised as staff and volunteers including Lukas and was advised that the session would take about an hour and that some of us may find it emotional as there were going to be loud bits around the 20 minutes mark.
So nicely informed and relaxed my eyes closed with the light sounds of tinkling bells began and other instruments sounded like we were in a warm forest and before I knew it I was relaxing into a light meditative state. It’s hard to describe all the sounds that came after only for me to describe as a carefully orchestrated journey, which at first I thought might have been a recording as I had experienced before. Sounded like birds chirping and trees rustling and water gently trickling which felt like I was floating through the forest, weightless and pain-free. I followed where the sounds took me and soon I could hear that things were close by, there was a gradual but distinct immersion which steadily gathered momentum as if the light rain and gentle wind was turning into more of a storm. As pace and sounds increased in intensity, I felt the storm approach but felt safe and warm as if I was in some sort of cocoon while all the crescendo of sounds crashed around me, like it was against the rocks in the stormiest of seas. It felt magnificent and I think I must have been in deep meditation by this point - I was neither scared or upset but felt a level of emotion that was like all of my senses had been lit up and I was no longer alive - perhaps in a trancendial place where my body no longer existed and only my mind, perhaps just my soul was held in that beautiful space.
I wasn’t really aware of my physical self only the ebbing and flowing of the cacophony of sounds which were now the other side of the ‘storm’ and weaving back through the forest where I could hear the birds tweeting and bells ringing gently and rustling around the harmonising voices - rising and falling, winding though notes like a slow motion snake seeking space to fill. It’s hard for me to find the right words to describe this truly spiritual journey and how special it felt - unlike anything I’d ever experienced before that moment. I felt so safe and at tremendous peace as if I’d literally died and gone to heaven - no other thoughts, just a feeling of lightness and deep gratitude. At some point I thought I felt Charlotte standing above me singing my actual name - Maaagggggiiiiieeee, Maaagggggiiieeeee - I wasn’t sure if I had actually died and gone to heaven at this point but I was assured by my fellow travellers after the session that she indeed sang to us all during the experience. And then as more gentle sounds and whirring and scratching and light tinkling intertwined around my ears I knew the journey was coming to it’s end. Eventually the flow of sound gradually withered away and at last my mind was reunited with my heavy body laid on the cushions on the floor of this big old beautiful mansion.
Slowly I became aware of the other’s breathing and shuffling and consciously entered the room again, back to the human plain and this room full of wonder of where our minds had travelled. Gradually we all came around, there was light chatter but I think we were all a bit in awe - for once I was pretty lost for words. As I saw all the strange instruments lying around and being tidied up I then realised that this had not been recorded and all the helpers were there to participate and contribute to the sound healing experience - one that as long as I live, I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
Although I was more than ready for my bed, I went up to my room and the pain in my legs made it impossible to drop off to sleep so I gave in and started typing up the blog of my first day here at the Dreaming. As I finish this piece now, our journalling session is coming to an end and I feel absolutely shattered as I head to the Refractory for my first breakfast here. With plenty of choice, I enjoyed the various mueslis and porridge with ample forest fruits and avoided the safe and easy route of toast, but drank endless cups of tea with oat milk as we all shared our feelings about last night’s experience. I think the Refractory was my favourite room of this lush house as we all sat chatting to each other and getting to know snippets of each other’s stories. I even sat and chatted to Charlotte about mental health things and she was as down to earth and genuine as she had come across on my telly. It was hard to believe that this beautiful and gifted being had sung for heads of state across the world and yet it I felt like I'd known her forever.
After breakfast, the next offering was Nature Crafting in the Potting Shed but by now the loss of last night's sleep had hit me for six as I quietly climbed the stairs to my room and and got back into that comfy bed. I wasn't long before I nodded off again as the last 24 hours awesomeness swam round in my tired brain. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh.............
I woke up about an hour before lunch time and decided to take a shower in the adjacent cute cubicle across from my room and dressed in fresh comfy clothes in readiness for the afternoon's offerings after lunch. When I came down, lunch was served and I noticed Charlotte and baby Freda had left, but the vibe of wonderment continued. Sadly I can't remember what vegan deliciousness we had for lunch but suffice to say it went down a treat. After a little rest in between it wasn't long before we met at the Fairy Door again for our excursion back into the forest for our Singing to the Land session. I was still quite tired and in a lot of pain from the day before so after making it up to the Court of the Holly King, I decided to hang back and allow my fellow retreaters to explore further up the forest without me. I knew my limits and the next set of steps were definitely it! So I took advantage of the time alone to take some pictures - the first time I'd had my phone out since I arrived.
I found one of the plunge pools and was very tempted to take a dip, except my kit was back in my room. Also, as I was alone and not the best under foot, I thought it sensible that I probably shouldn't go in unaccompanied as by now the rest of the party had disappeared into the heights of the magnificent forest and despite there being at least 20 people on site, I couldn't hear anything but the sound of the waterfalls and the rustling of the trees and maybe the odd tweet from some birds. This really was somewhere to relax and just breathe and I was certainly getting in to that flow by now.
I had a little mooch around, and eventually made it down to the other side of the house where I noticed I had 4g signal on my phone for the first time since I landed, so I made a couple of phone calls back home, mainly to make sure my Ollie was being fed and watered and then carried on with my gentle exploration of the grounds. I wished I wasn't in so much pain otherwise I would have ventured further, but I decided there and then that this wasn't going to be my last visit and that hopefully by the next visit I would be a bit more mobile and could be a bit more adventurous - especially if I come when the weather's a bit better and not as 'nesh' about the wild dipping that I had hoped to do.
It was a lovely afternoon, spent totally solitary, not thinking about work, or anything in particular and just enjoyed being present in the here and now. When I got back to the house, I made myself another cuppa and explored more of the downstairs and ended up in the Print Room which a little study-like room with custom made Laura Ashley wallpaper made especially for that room. I sat in there and browsed through some of the books on the shelves and even contemplated the possibility of cooking vegan food when I got back home thanks to Matt Pritchards' Dirty Vegan cook book. I liked the look of the some the recipes but would I really get into all that faffing when I got back home? Who knows?
Before long I could hear people milling around who had come back from their Singing expedition and joined them again in the Refractory for the evening meal. Another culinary masterpiece that I honestly appreciated but can't bloody remember a thing other than a lovely little blessing that Carys gave before we tucked in. I wished we could have had a copy of the menus and music that was played so that I might be able to try and recreate some of the magic when I get back home.
After our meal, most of us hung around the Refractory and chatted to each other. I love getting to know other people and diversity of backgrounds that I found intriguing. It was a joy to be in the company of such diverse and creative minds. One lovely couple was on the precipice of their first child and was such a beautiful thing to see them enjoying each other's company and chilling out before the unbeknownst change that lay ahead. As I write this now I wonder whether the little one that was tucked safely away has entered our crazy world by now. It reminded me of the days before my Cole entered my world and how mentally unprepared I was for his arrival - my god what a treat they have in store!
I think a couple of the younger girls ended up going in the spa tub on the rooftop, but I didn't make it up there and instead was in bed by 10pm and this time dropped straight off to sleep. I didn't even look at my phone to play games I was so enraptured with my surroundings that I think I'd forgotten about the outside world and it's chaos. I was in such a chilled zone that I even decided not to set my alarm for the next morning's Celestial Blessings. If I woke up and felt like joining in I would but I wouldn't say no to sleep in either.
I did hear the gong around 6.30am and heard some footsteps going downstairs, but I was so ruddy comfy I just laid there dozing. I actually decided to forego breakfast too and while I saw snippets of the mornings glorious sun rising through my bedroom's drapes - I just watched in between dozes and eventually fell back to sleep once the excitement from the other's watching outside had died down. Today, I decided, I was having a JOMO day - the Joy of Missing Out - after breakfast there was a Yoga session planned and I really didn't want to hold the rest of the group back who all looked like they practiced yoga regularly. My previous experiences of yoga usually ended up with me farting and causing uproar in the class so I felt as if I was sparing them that shenanigan. Plus with my mobility issues I knew I'd be completely limited as to what I could do and this bed was so much more comfy!
I did hear Lukas come up to check on me that I was ok but after answering him comatose, I quickly fell back to sleep again - I reckon I had over 10-12 hours sleep by the time I got up for another quick shower and then went down for lunch. This time we were treated to a lovely array of cold salad as the evening meal promised a roast. It was lush and as always can't remember anything other than it was cold! I'd brought a book down to read so after lunch I planted myself on the huge sofa in the Cwtch which is in the adjoining room to the Refractory and just chilled out there for the whole afternoon. I probably looked like Jabba the Hut, firmly planted there just drinking tea all afternoon and reading bits from my book about the Cosmos which seemed quite appropriate.
Sunday became a blur of ultimate relaxation and it felt amazing. From wanting to be pushed out of my comfort zone, I'd made a complete about turn was embracing the zone of bliss and doing absolutely bloody nothing. No cat litter tray, no dog to take out, no teen to cook or clean for, no email to answer, no mindless box set bingeing, just self-centred total relaxed ME time. Mission accomplished I reckon.
The evening's feast of roast whatever it was, I think a mushroom of some speciality (no not magic sadly!), but again it was delicious and filling and some sort of pudding with vegan cream after - my god I could get used to this! I have to say that in fear that I wouldn't like some of the food or that it wouldn't be enough, I had brought a little stash of protein bars and biscuits but delighted to admit that the only little munch I had was a couple of fig rolls in the whole time I was there. I was also really impressed that my bowel felt so good - I suffer terrible IBS/D usually and I know the chef kept mentioning the digestive properties of the food so was pleasantly surprised to find this food really suited me. Although I don't think I'll ever be totally vegan, it's definitely been something I've taken away from this time and hopeful of implementing healthier food choices in my diet at home,
After food we were eventually invited back in to the Healing room where Carys promised us some Feminist Medieval Filth. She certainly didn't disappoint when she retold the story of her discovery of a once forgotten (or maybe ignored by the patriarchy) female poet from Wales called Gwerful Mechain who responded to Dafydd ap Gwilym's Ode to a Penis with her offering Ode to a Vagina. I fully recommend clicking on the link and listening to Carys tell the fascinating story in full from her perspective which was as highly entertaining as it was of historical interest and yes, eye-wateringly obscene - which of course was right up my street!
Afterwards we were invited to watch a movie but it was already 9pm and I had begun to feel ready for bed once again and as everyone else dispersed I headed up to my room for the last evening's restful night and this time I went straight off to sleep within minutes, despite me wanting to savour the minutes of this last evening. The morning came with the softness of the gong around 6.30am and another rising sun peeping through my drapes and windows. It must have known I needed another opportunity to capture this on my camera as I opened my door onto my wooden balcony and just stood agape at the wondrous view that was unfolding as I watched.
A truly magnificent view across the Elan Valley.
So, yeah that was well worth getting up for, I wondered whether I might carry on getting up a bit earlier when I get back home as it was a nice way to start the day for sure although probably wouldn't have the same magic back in the Valley!
We had our final breakfast in the Refractory together - today I opted for the lovely looking rustic brown toast with marmalade and yet in between the light laughter and gentle chit-chat, there seemed to be a subtle air of sadness, maybe? Or was it just me; perhaps the dread of leaving this amazing place and thoughts of going back to our real lives that we'd had some temporary respite from these past few days. I wandered outside onto the patio as the sun was actually becoming visible now and took the following video so I can play this back and step back into this moment whenever I need to reconnect to this valuable time in the future - which I'm sure will be quite often.
My room with the view.
We were then invited for the last time on this visit, to the Healing Room where we each got to share our final thoughts and what we felt we'd got from this special treat. It was lovely to hear what each other had gained in way of inner peace and how we all had felt supported and held in a place of true sanctuary that we all gave thanks for. It was also shared how we'd all arrived as strangers and yet now felt a special shared connection to each other and this amazing place in the Welsh hills. Of course I got all emotional when it came to my turn to share as I still couldn't believe that I'd been allowed to share this experience and maybe because we were the first paying guests it felt like even more of an honour to be welcomed and treated like gods and goddesses. We then each wrote one sentence on a piece of paper that was then arranged in the middle of our circle and created a unique poem of each of our contributions. Again because we had forgotten the use of our phones we forgot to take a picture of the finished result but I think the most wonderful sentence that captured our ambience was that we were now bonded as a family of strangers.
And then as soon as it had begun, it was our time to leave through the Fairy door we had entered only 3 long days before. A family of strangers indeed, bonded by the tranquility and gratitude of this incredible magical weekend in February 2023 which I'm sure not one of us will forget in a very long time to come.
My eternal thanks to Charlotte, Freda, Eleri, Lukas, Marie, Izzy, Chippy and all the other great providers for their care, passion and talents that they lovingly shared.
After an amazing drive home over the Brecon Beacons, it was lovely to get back home although it seems I picked up a certain Ms Church's cold so within a short time home I lost voice which then moved on to my chest. I didn't mind as I felt almost honoured to share her lurgy! However, whether it was the lurgy or just post-retreat blues it took me quite a while to get my head back in to gear to do anything useful like work. I'm now spending each minute trying to catch up so if you're one of the people I've said 'yes' to doing something for, please cut me some slack while I come back down to planet earth!
I would also like to mention a new book that one of the fellow guests Kerry had written - though I am only a few pages in, it has already been a very interesting and helpful read. I understand she also offers health and wellbeing sessions in the Llantrisant area which I intend to check out once I'm up to date with my work.
Needless to say if you thought the pictures looked nice, please don't think twice about booking this experience for yourself. You absolutely deserve it and hopefully so will I once again in the not too distant future.... XXX
THINGS I TOOK HOME:
Sunsets are worth getting up for and early starts to the day are quite nice actually.
Vegan food is really delicious and filling - particularly when someone else cooks for me! It's also very kind to IBS. I didn't lose any weight but I reckon I could if I carried on for a month or more I would have - I had the best poos ever up there!
I need to walk and move more - nature is good for the soul.
Carys' laughter should be canned and sold as an anti-depressant.
Self-care is essential and I am worthy - and need to find a way to integrate this into my chaotic life when I'm back home.
Charlotte Church is going to have a special space on my icon's wall next to her Madge. She is a beautiful, insanely talented, compassionate and genuinely kind human who I admire greatly and have so much respect for what's she achieved up at that incredible place.
No internet connection is pure bliss - JOMO more.
I should have gone for the plunge - that's my one regret that I didn't go in the outdoor pools but like Arnie, I will be back!