When I invited Pam Michell to join me for a few days at St Joseph's Retreat and Conference Centre near Malpas, not far from Chester, she jumped at the chance. I've known Pam for more than 20 years, since we performed Bacchic dances and choral odes together for the benefit of lucky south London school children. We belonged to a group, mainly teachers, attempting to spread an interest in Greek drama. Pam has a throaty laugh and did most of the comedy. She is the kind of person who will mop up tears in a crisis and produce a gourmet meal just because eating well is fun.
As head of sixth form at James Allen's Girls' School in Dulwich she has a full timetable, dispensing university admissions advice and putting on mind-broadening courses (most recently involving law and the local magistrates) for her students, as well as teaching classics. By mid-August she would be back at school sorting out post-A-level results traumas. She liked the idea of a few days to herself in the interim.
Father Hugh Hanley, casually-dressed and smiling, met us off the train at Whitchurch and drove us the few miles to St Joseph's. The main house, built by Joseph Lewis, a Victorian benefactor and "successful dealer in silks and elastics", stands confidently on an incline, its lawns and orchards falling away to the Dee Valley and the distant Welsh hills beyond. A plain oblong wing, in the same red brick, was added in 1966 to house the students at what was then a seminary. Now these rooms - simple but each with running water and a work table as well as a comfortable fold-away bed - are used by conference delegates and retreatants. The small community of Sacred Heart Fathers lives in the main house, where there is a chapel, a library and a spacious lounge, all at the disposal of visitors. The order, which works with young people, was founded in France by Father Leo Dehon in 1878 and has 2,500 members world-wide. Father Hugh is their Provincial in Britain and Ireland.
Over tea we met Christine Long, formerly a maths adviser in Yorkshire and once destined to be a nun. Hugh and Christine, bubbly and not at all sanctimonious, were leading the retreat. Six or seven people, mainly nuns, were already there, and Pam and I, a couple of Anglican sceptics in colourful clothes, felt a bit conspicuous.
Student accommodation threatened to bring out the schoolgirl in us. To begin with "retreat" was threatening to turn into regression as our thoughts wandered to indulgences of the non-papal variety. Why hadn't we packed a bottle of gin? "I'm sure I can smell smoke", said Pam, "I'm desperate for a fag..."
The funny thing is, nobody was laying down rules about such things; each room is equipped with an ashtray and both Hugh and Christine subsequently suggested we might like to try the local pub. You can make tea or coffee at any time. The only thing we got into "trouble" for was talking too much. By 10.30pm all was dark and quiet and our animated (if whispered) conversations had apparently disturbed someone's peace. Actually, the conversations got more and more pertinent. Even when we did eventually seek out the pub (indulging in half a glass of warm Liebfraumilch turned out to be more of a penance) we talked about Roman history, the spread of Christianity and the origins of Marian worship.
Talking - or the lack of it - at meals was our only real difficulty - especially for Pam for whom eating is a social pleasure. She kept threatening to bring a book, adding, "Anyway, it's not really quiet; you can hear tummy rumbles and people's gulps." And then there was the music. A tape was played at every meal to aid concentration while we munched, but some little devil had got into the selections and during one supper we found ourselves shovelling food in time to Tchaikovsky's greatest hits (including The Sugar Plum Fairy). The next day at lunch there was a bit of a Scottish reel and Ravel's Bolero. The smiling nun opposite me turned scarlet and began to shake. Still no word passed between us. Forbidden laughter is the most delicious kind, but it is no aid to digestion.
Incidentally, if your idea of a nun is a cross between Whoopi Goldberg in habit and heels and Sister Wendy's toothy guide to European painting, the calm retired teachers and community workers we met would come as a welcome surprise. One was full of classroom reminiscences (Reported comment by irritated slow reader:"Anyway, why was Mummy Bear in the middle-sized bed and not in the big bed with Father Bear, where she should have been?").
This was, despite the moments of hilarity, a time of serious contemplation and prayer for most of the participants. Christine and Hugh took us and our subversive tendencies in their stride. We were generously included in the daily Mass (if we chose to attend) and on the first evening Pam had an appointment with Christine at 8.30pm while I was invited to talk to Hugh.
We were a little apprehensive: would any pressure be put on us to join in when we didn't want to or to spend our time in prescribed ways? Would our plans for using the peace (translating Greek and reviewing a book respectively) be frowned upon? Would we be expected to reveal too much about ourselves? I think we both expected to cry, for some reason.
In the event, we need not have worried. My session with Hugh saw the first of several enjoyably argumentative conversations about everything from comparative religion and the ethics of missionary work to Irish politics and papal infallibility. I can't guarantee that all retreats will provide so unstuffy and generous an interlocutor, but there will usually be someone qualified to listen to everyday worries and grumbles as well as providing spiritual guidance. And if you don't want to talk to anyone, that's fine too - at least at St Joseph's.
Walking in the quiet grounds and the lanes around proved a significant aid to mental recuperation. In the lower orchard rabbits pop up in sufficient numbers to cast a film of Watership Down on the spot and often the only sound is the cooing of collared doves in the magnificent copper beeches and pines. The peaceful atmosphere has made the place popular for teachers' conferences and one local primary head, who has organised them, has become a frequent private visitor. Gill Thorley appreciates St Joseph's as somewhere to escape from national curriculum directives and OFSTED preparation and, as she says, for those who need it, nearby Malpas provides a quick fix of consumerism.
If you are used to hurling yourself at life, it is difficult to change pace. Pam caught up with her correspondence, did some Greek, read most of Evelyn Waugh's account of Ronald Knox (found in the library), a whole book about homeopathy and some essays from an old World's Classic bought in the local junk shop. The pleasure lay in having the time to sit down and do it all without the distractions of the telephone and other people's requirements.
When it was time to say goodbye we hugged our patient mentors. Hugh said St Joseph's might think about providing a dining area for talkers in future.
Both Pam and I felt we'd been away for more than three days and it was only when we were on the train home to London that I realised I had not heard the radio, switched on a television set or read a newspaper in all that time.
Pam wrote me a note a couple of days later: "I really enjoyed the experience. There's no doubt it lifted you out of the day-to-day grind". And so it did.
For information about St Joseph's write to The Director, St Joseph's Retreat and Conference Centre, Tilston Road, Malpas, Cheshire SY14 7DD. Lists of 200 retreats, religious and cultural, can be found in Vision, the journal of the National Retreat Association, Pounds 2.90 or Pounds 3.70 by post (The Central Hall, 256 Bermondsey Steet, London SE1 3UJ) and in the booklet, Away from it All, available from religious bookshops at Pounds 6.95