Leighton Buzzard Working Retreat, October 2019
Leighton Buzzard, a small town in Bedfordshire, is where a group of six volunteers, including myself, and two or three local Friends joined together for a gardening retreat based within the grounds of Leighton Buzzard Meeting House for five days. As volunteers we came from all over the UK, from Glasgow, to Welwyn Garden City, to Derbyshire, but together we created what became both an oasis from the busyness of the town outside and our own hubbub of activity.
At first we found the garden full of long grass, overgrown with nettles and creeping ivy, low hanging trees, and damp leaves in every corner. But together we would transform it into a tidy lawn with a spiral meditation walk, with new herb and wildflower gardens, leaf storage, tamed shrubs, and a completely relayed path – it felt a different garden entirely.
I slept each night of the retreat on the floor of the Meeting House, on my foam roll mat, sleeping bag, all my thick autumn clothes stuffed beneath me as a comfy pillow, curled up next to the radiator which felt like a lovely refuge from the often wet nights outside. It was the perfect choice and it had actually been the most difficult choice to make before coming on the retreat – unsure of whether to take the opportunity to stay at a local Friends’ house and take the opportunity of that new connection. It turned out perfect and gave me the privacy, and quiet, and space I found I wanted in order to think and reflect on each day and happened to be tucked up next to the library. I enjoyed looking over the books each night, taking down a handful, with a joy that comes from looking at books you’ve never discovered before. I even found a very old Quaker joke book – I didn’t even know such things existed! Safe to say I didn’t crack any of the jokes over any shared meals, but it was an amusing little thing to find.
Food was something of great joy to share with others as we took it in turns to prepare lunch and dinners and tea breaks for one another. It felt lovely and almost meditative to spend time preparing a salad for everyone one afternoon, full of colour – radishes, lettuce, peppers, cheese, eaten with wraps, and hummus, and freshly baked bread. One evening we even ate a squash gifted from the garden of a local Friend and figs one of the volunteers had foraged from a path nearby the river running through the town. It felt like rediscovering food all over again, to be eating so fresh and simply, some of it grown nearby or plucked direct from nature itself. Food was a glue for us and I have such good memories of drinking fresh coffee, eating bourbon biscuits, huddled together with everyone, in the drizzle, around a tea tray, as we took pause from work one afternoon in the garden.
Our days weren’t just full of eating and gardening but also great moments of silence. One morning before Meeting for Worship, which we held just for our volunteers before we began our work for the day, I was asked by the facilitator of the retreat if I could perhaps choose and read aloud a passage from “Advices and Queries” during the meeting. I flicked through the book and knew almost immediately which one I felt drawn to share which captured so much for me the feeling of the entire retreat: “Live adventurously. When choices arise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community? Let your life speak. When decisions have to be made, are you ready to join with others in seeking clearness, asking for God’s guidance and offering counsel to one another?”
Another significant moment was a conversation I had in the last couple of nights of the retreat was with another young volunteer before bed. We talked together about the idea of community and depth of connection with others, and that there is almost a very natural human need or craving for this. We both felt we had found this amongst spaces with other young people involved with, or interested in Quakers. This conversation felt like a meaningful affirment of why I personally felt drawn here, to Leighton Buzzard, to this retreat – for a sense of connection and community I knew it would help me form with others.
Parting from everyone on the last day felt bittersweet, saying goodbye to this little community of people where we had our lives so closely intertwined for a short period of time – living, eating, working together, sleeping near one another, there was a sadness for the people I’d grown to care for and genuinely miss, but a happiness that it had all happened at all, and a happiness for living adventurously. Maybe living adventurously – by its nature – can just never have a permanence to it – and that’s okay.