Is reading better for you than a spa?

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Sara Noel

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(left to right) Nynka, Helen, Nonny and Annie on a recent reading retreat

You've heard of yoga retreats and spa retreats, and you've probably not heard of creative writing or painting retreats but could the next big thing be relaxed in a reading?

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

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


Helen's having an animated conversation with Nynka about the capricious style of Ali Smith and Nonny's reminiscing with Penny about how Madame Bovary changed his young lives.

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

'Giving myself permission'

Co-founder Cressida, a freelance editor, said: “The idea came to me, because I had a difficult year and my husband said, I thought, well, I could – but my books will get soggy.

“What I really needed was a reading retreat. And I can not find one! “

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

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

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Sara Noel

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Readers can curl up with their books Where they like – be on the sofa or at the dining table

Annie, a university complaint officer, is already on her second reading retreat. She said, “She 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 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 enjoy.

Digital detox

Holidays devoted only to Some retreats use “single” time for personal reflection as well as reading, some offer glamorous castle settings, while some are retreats. 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 l

Helen, a psychotherapist and a great friend of Christa, has spent most of the day in pajama bottoms, cuddled up to a hot water bottle and only occasionally looking up her pages of books.

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

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Sara Noel

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Helen relaxed in the communal reading room

“It's a weekend of getting completely spoiled,” she laughs. “I would not want to do 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 that they were reading for pleasure less than they used to, and that almost a quarter of all adults in the UK did not read a book year.

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

At the Reading Retreat, phones and tablets are not banned but Cressida and Sara do offer to confiscate them on 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 as his retreat as a Christmas present and he's come loaded down with the pile of books on his bedside table.

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

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

In fact you can also read at the table.

“Why not?” shrugs cressida “The whole point is that you are not here with friends or colleagues so you never have to say, 'I am sorry but do you mind if I read?', You have read all the 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 Sarah are arguing over which are 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 not really work, we're probably better for you than a spa.”

The next morning, m the only one down for 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 program.

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