For the past couple of summers I have taken myself off to the wonderful Retreats for You for some dedicated writing time. Here I was given a room, a writing desk, good food, drink and company.
This year, however, I decided to do something different. Instead of a communal writers’ retreat, I would escape into complete isolation and silence. My decision was in part influenced by two books: one was ‘Into The Wild’ by Jon Krakauer about Chris McCandless’ ill-fated sojourn into the Alaskan outback and the other was Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence, in which the author’s investigation into the experience of silence, its psychological, physical and spiritual effects, culminates in her building a house for herself in a remote Scottish landscape.
Yes, that was how I wanted to live, well, for a week at least. Before I could talk myself out of it, I booked the remotest dwelling I could find: a two-bedroom cottage in the Cairngorms. No neighbours for miles, no mobile phone signal, no internet reception, no TV. Just woods and mountains, deer, red squirrels and birds.
I took with me two dogs and, along with a small suitcase, a rucksack stuffed with books, some old diaries of mine I’d found in the loft and my laptop. I didn’t know if I’d actually manage to read or write anything and it didn’t matter. I didn’t go with any agenda other than to spend some time with myself.
I consulted the map the night before and discovered I would be driving no fewer than 550 miles. Some trepidation crept in. How will I manage the journey? How will the dogs manage? How will I feel on my own in the cottage? Will I miss my children? Will I be frightened? What will it be like?’
The eight and a half hour journey ended up taking nearly twelve hours with breaks for the dogs factored in. I left at 6 am and I arrived at 5 pm. The last part, off the main highways, took the longest, but the spectacular scenery spurred me on. Soon I was unpacked and had got the wood burner going, albeit mid-July.
The owner had kindly left me some homemade fudge, shortbread, ginger cake and a bottle of white wine. Three months before, I had given up alcohol and now the last thing I wanted was to waste my evenings here in a maudlin stupor in front of the fire. So I popped the wine away and cracked open the Highland Spring Water I’d brought with me.
It took a long time for darkness to fall. I hadn’t appreciated how the light lingers this far north. It was still only dusk at half past ten. I let the dogs out and, as soon as they were outside, they began barking and staring rigidly at a fixed point in the dark woods beyond. Thanks, girls. Naturally, I assumed an axe murderer was making his way towards me. I called the dogs in, locked the door and took a kitchen knife and a pair of sharp scissors to bed.
I awoke to find myself alive and well the next morning and still in ‘mum’ mode, trying, and failing, to call my son to check he was up for his paper round. But a walk in the countryside soon knocked that nonsense out of me. Actually, ‘countryside’ is too twee a word for it. This was wilderness. As I took a steep narrow track up a local low mountain, pheasants flew out from the dense heather all around, a bird of prey wheeled above and the clouds cast fleeting patterns on the desolate hillsides.
I thought I must strike an incongruous figure: a poorly equipped woman from the south east roaming the Cairngorms with two dogs and an old SLR camera slung around her neck.
I had decided I would take proper photos on this trip, on film, like. Normally, I snap away with my mobile and upload the results within seconds to my computer and/or Facebook without much care for quality. Here, I wanted to pay attention to matters such as depth of field and composition and light.
After lunch back at the cottage, I felt tired from my journey the day before, but was reluctant to give into an afternoon snooze. Already, I was beginning to worry about how little time I had left.
I needn’t have worried. I soon discovered how expansive time becomes when there is nothing – nothing – to interrupt your day. And it’s not just the not being interrupted: it’s the not anticipating any interruption. It made me realise how much this anticipation lurks in the back of my mind at home all the time. I’m always half expecting something to break into my concentration, be it the children, the telephone, the dishwasher cycle, some outside disturbance, or whatever. I realised how distracting this sense of anticipation is.
Here, in clear open time and space I could get truly lost in what I was doing. I might decide to make a cup of tea and then find a couple of hours later that I hadn’t made a move towards the kettle. The longevity of each moment was a most precious discovery.
And the silence itself. On that first day sitting in the easy chair of the living room, all I could hear was the blood pulsing in my head.
Such profound peace and quiet is something I imagine lots of people would cherish, but for a writer, it’s especially blissful. It gave me a chance, not only to become deeply involved in my work, but, conversely, to change from one task to another without fear of losing the thread. When I picked up the writing after a break, no junk had infested my mind. It was like that mental freshness you have first thing in the morning extending right up until bedtime.
I found the life of the mind, combined with bracing walks, gave me an appetite for a particular kind of food: the good old heart warming, comforting kind. I wanted none of your bistro frippery. I cooked my frozen steak and kidney pies and baked beans whilst eyeing the leftover balsamic vinegar from a previous occupant with deep suspicion.
The only human contact I had was at the checkout in the local Co-op (12 miles away) and the few other walkers I passed by. Whilst hiking up Cairn Gorm towards the end of the week, I came across a couple of families all kitted out in full outdoor regalia. I felt envious of these children whose parents were initiating them so early in the great outdoors and then I felt guilty because I wasn’t one of those parents.
I received my one and only phone call half way up Cairn Gorm. My mobile reception suddenly kicked in to allow my youngest son to get through and ask me about putting out the bins!
On one occasion I thought I’d lost my mobile. Normally this would send me into paroxysms of panic and despair. Was I bothered? Not remotely. All week the only thing I used my mobile phone for was to time the pies in the oven.
Did I get lonely? No. I loved being on my own. Except for one time immediately after I’d finished reading the first novel I’d taken with me. I realised then how a good book can become such a close companion. But I soon found a new friend in the next one.
I did, however, at times feel low. But then, this wasn’t meant to be a holiday. I’d come in part to think about some personal stuff and there was no reason why this would be a comfortable experience. It did help though.
‘Longer,’ I wrote in my logbook at the end of the week, ‘I really need longer.’ I avoided totting up how many books I’d read or how many words I’d written (a lot). I didn’t want to look upon the week in terms what I had ‘achieved.’ I wrote effusive thanks in the visitors’ book, left the keys in the shed and began the long journey home.
Half an hour in, I couldn’t work out what was wrong with the sat nav. A tangle of confusing gridlines and signs appeared on the screen. What did it all mean? Sadly, it meant I had hit civilization. All week, wherever I’d gone, the screen had shown just one meandering line: a solitary road surrounded by green.
Back home, I wasn’t able to rush straight to the computer screen to remind myself of where I’d been. I had to wait for my photos to be developed and posted back to me. Can you imagine? When they arrived, the memories were all the sweeter for having waited.
Meanwhile, I ploughed through hundreds of emails. Unbelievably, there wasn’t a single one from a literary agent offering representation for my novel. How strange.
Oh well, sometimes all you need is a bed, a book and a running burn in the woods nearby to gain a real sense of affirmation.