Have you heard the definition of English hospitality? According to a peculiarly honest American who once stayed with us, it’s – Making people feel at home when you wish they were. It made us laugh, then it made us think. Then we wondered if he was trying to tell us something…
I would defy that man to visit Mays Farm in Wiltshire and maintain his position. It is run by the loveliest English couple, Kim and Penelope Swithinbank, who moved from Muswell Hill in July 2013 to open it as a Retreat House. Arriving by bus at the tiny village of Hullavington, my friend and I were eager to see if the house was as elegant as the website suggested. It was. We, in jeans and smeared with train juice and crisps, rolled up the drive – my friend in her rucksack and me puddle-jumping my wheelie case – as the house reared up before us, all mellow stone and silence. A pair of crumpled teachers with dreams, the sight of it made us sigh with anticipation. We were in the country, surrounded by beauty, for a whole weekend. To write.
Penelope welcomed us in the back courtyard and showed us our rooms. On the way through the house there were glimpses of lamps and rugs and wood burning stoves. A door to the spiral staircase led us past the dining room – book-lined walls with chandelier – up curving stairs to our writers’ haunts. Views, space, the smell of wood. Perfect.
Our hostess was lovely – warm and elegant matching the ambience of her beautiful home (think Joanna Lumley meets Princess Di). As the weekend progressed I marvelled at her ability to produce perfect meals for seven, manage seamless conversation and remain apparently unruffled and calm. But everyone has their story, and when interviewed for this post, Penelope explained that her dream of running a retreat house was years in the making.
After working in America and London as a member of the clergy, with three married children and six grand-children, Penelope’s longing had always been to open her home as a place for tired people to relax and recharge in inspiring surroundings. But life as a rector, then as a chaplain in her husband’s large London church made this impossible. Until tragedy struck and she was forced to re-think her life in the most challenging circumstances.
In September 2010 Penelope’s mother was run over and killed, before her very eyes. The horror of this experience and its aftermath meant she was unable to work for two years. To make matters worse, they lived in a church flat on the main route for the police and fire services. Sirens blasted 24/7, making the road to recovery impassable. Advised to move away, Penelope and Kim had a sense that this might be the time to pursue the Retreat House idea.
Penelope visited Wiltshire in August 2012 as London was bulging at the seams with Olympic fever. An idle google on a property website announced an Open Day for the sale of a large property in the village of Hullavington known as Mays Farm. Penelope believes in God-nudges. She had one then. The house had not been lived in for three years and before he died, the old man hadn’t been upstairs for ten. The place was crumbling but as Penelope walked through the door, she was Gnudged again, this time more strongly than ever, “This is the place…”
They had a tiny flat in Vauxhall which they put on the market, and they made an offer on Mays Farm. Against all the odds (it was the lowest of three) it was accepted, they completed in February 2013 and the builders moved in. Penelope’s dream became reality in mid -July when the first retreat-hunters arrived.
Running a retreat house is clearly hard work but for Penelope the rewards are in seeing burnt out, tired people relax, sleep, read, walk and just “be”. It is a great joy, she says, to help people feel pampered. Sometimes they ask for spiritual direction, making it possible for Penelope to reuse her pastoral skills. Sometimes they simply want to escape. There’s so much choice in the world, says Penelope. It’s exhausting.
My friend and I had a particular agenda in mind. We planned to write all day, walk a bit and spend the evenings in the local pub. But once we arrived and the house drew us in like a hug, neither one of us had any inclination to go anywhere. With beautiful home cooked food (and wine) around the table and interesting conversation with Kim and Penelope and the other visitors – a vicar, an administrator, a manager – why would we want to go out? After supper we sat by the fire in the drawing room and chatted, and sort of wrote a bit on our lap-tops. Firelight, company, a big country house – the perfect escape. Like Cluedo, without the murder.
Other highlights of the weekend were steaming bowls of soup, a cream tea and breakfast in bed. Not that my friend and I are gluttons or anything…We also loved the stillness, the walk across fields and through the village and of course the writing. It was my perfect writing place – beamed ceilings, filter coffee, a view of fields and old stone. And silence.
When we left, replete with stories and with a new perspective on the week ahead, I thought of the American. He’s not wrong. We Brits don’t have a great tradition of hospitality. But people like the Swithinbanks, they break the mould. The ultimate hosts are surely people who provide the perfect atmosphere and space in which to rest and dream, and spend time with God if wanted. Unwittingly perhaps, Penelope has built the kind of haven she once desperately needed and was unable to find at the time. But it’s clear that she takes great pleasure in seeing others blessed by it.
Recycling at its best I would say…
The Vine at Mays Farm is a Christian Retreat House. Rooms are from £65 per night (full board). Details are at http://www.thevine-at-maysfarm.com/