Entertainment & Arts

Is reading better for you than a spa?

Nynke, Helen, Nanny and Annie Image copyright Sara Noel
Image caption (left to right) Nynke, Helen, Nanny and Annie on a recent reading retreat

You've heard of yoga retreats and spa retreats, and you've probably heard of creative writing or painting retreats but could the next big thing in relaxation be a reading retreat?

I went to Thorpeness in Suffolk to join a group of people who've chosen to go on holiday with just their books.

Cressida Downing apologises that dinner's five minutes late tonight but they had to wait, she explains, for Annie to finish her chapter.

No one seems to have noticed anyway.

Helen's having an animated conversation with Nynke about the capricious style of Ali Smith and Nanny's reminiscing with Penny about how Madame Bovary changed their young lives. Robbie couldn't put his book down so he's opted for supper on a tray in his room.

Welcome to the reading retreat where guests pay around £450 for a three-night stay and a guarantee they'll be granted the privacy to shut themselves away to read in peace.

'Giving myself permission'

Co-founder Cressida, a freelance editor, said: "The idea came to me because I'd had a difficult year and my husband said, 'why don't you do a spa retreat?'. I thought, well, I could - but my books would get soggy.

"What I really needed was a reading retreat. And I couldn't find one - and I thought it can't just be me who wants this!"

So with her business partner, photographer Sara Noel, Cressida tentatively set up the Reading Retreat.

All the retreats take place in cosy seaside or countryside cottages and there's only one rule - the reading room must be kept silent at all times.

Image copyright Sara Noel
Image caption Readers can curl up with their books wherever they like - be that on the sofa or at the dining table

Annie, a university complaints officer, is already on her second reading retreat. She laughs when I suggest to her that perhaps she could save some money by simply reading quietly at home.

"This is about giving myself permission to prioritize my reading," she tells me. "If I stayed home, I'd always be thinking that I should be doing other things - seeing friends, writing, cleaning, knitting.

"Here I can sit by a roaring fire for hours and get lost in books."

Cressida has given Annie a tailor-made reading "prescription" but guests can bring any books they like, with everything from zombie fiction to Roman author, Pliny, being enjoyed.

Digital detox

Holidays devoted only to reading appear to be a growing trend in our time-starved world, with several operators offering varying levels of organisation and comfort.

Some retreats use "alone" time for personal reflection as well as reading, some offer glamorous castle settings, while others - like Alain de Botton's Life House in Wales - are in remote locations and deliberately ape monastic life.

But they all share one goal - to stop readers just snatching 20 minutes of reading time on the train home and instead to concentrate their minds on reading at length and for pleasure.

Helen, a psychotherapist and huge Agatha Christie fan, has spent most of the day in pyjama bottoms, cuddled up to a hot water bottle and only occasionally looking up from the pages of her book.

She imagined she'd just read in her bedroom but has loved reading in silence with others in the communal reading room.

Image copyright Sara Noel
Image caption Helen relaxing in the communal reading room

"It's a weekend of getting thoroughly spoiled," she laughs. "I wouldn't want to do this in a hotel though - I think I'd get lonely. Here I can ring-fence quiet reading time but I still get good company at dinner and recommendations from other readers."

A 2014 government survey suggested that 41% of 25 to 39-year-olds said they were reading for pleasure less than they used to, and that almost a quarter of all adults in the UK hadn't read a single book for pleasure in the previous year.

Leading British authors like Susan Hill and Howard Jacobson have warned recently that our digital addiction is ruining our concentration and our ability to read at length.

At the Reading Retreat, phones and tablets aren't banned but Cressida and Sara do offer to confiscate them on arrival to encourage a digital detox. A fresh air break is also advised to avoid guests becoming cross-eyed.

'Better for you than a spa'

Robbie's wife bought him his retreat as a Christmas present and he's come loaded down with the pile of books on his bedside table he's always meant to read.

"I've got Cormac McCarthy, Ray Bradbury, a book of essays by Montaigne," he says.

"But at home it would feel self-indulgent and selfish to shut myself away from my family to read. Here, it's in a different psychological bracket because I'm paying for it... and you don't have to observe the social niceties here either."

In fact you can even read at the table.

"Why not?" shrugs Cressida. "The whole point is that you're not here with friends or colleagues so you never have to say, 'I'm sorry but do you mind if I read?'. You have permission to read at all times."

At the dinner table, conversation halts briefly as the readers ponder over which of the five puddings on offer tonight they fancy. Annie slopes off early to finish her book on bees in the reading room and Helen and Sara are arguing over which was the best Agatha Christie novel.

Cressida rolls up her sleeves to start the washing up.

"Reading is not a passive thing," she says. "Reading is about engaging and connecting. And reading - as scientists have discovered - does wonderful things for your brain and longevity and health so really, we're probably better for you than a spa."

The next morning, I'm the only one down for early breakfast. Everyone else already has their nose in a book.

Hear Emma Jane Kirby's full report on BBC Radio 4's World at One programme.

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