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When the going gets tough, the tough retreat

Fancy a respite from the hurly-burly? Whether you're the silent type or a more social animal, Hilary Wilce knows where to go

Feeling frazzled? End-of-year stress getting you down? Longing for some time to yourself? Then help is just a phone call away. Going on a retreat might sound scarily serious and spiritual, but you don't have to be anything, or believe in anything, to feel the benefits of stepping back from the world.

Hundreds of venues offer exhausted people the chance to slow down and take stock. You can do it in the heart of a city, or on the remotest Scottish island. In silence, or with group discussions. On its own, or with added yoga, spiritual guidance, circle-dancing or painting on glass. You don't need a lot of time. Just a few hours in a completely different environment can recharge your batteries.

Martin Pick, a marriage guidance counsellor and literary agent, recently retreated from London to Amaravati, a Thai Buddhist monastery in Hertfordshire, to spend a Saturday contemplating basic Buddhist beliefs. "We had lunch with the monks and helped with chores like washing up as well as learning about the four noble truths, and how to meditate." The experience was, he says, challenging and rewarding. "I spent a similar weekend at the Rivendell Buddhist Retreat Centre, on the edge of the Ashdown Forest, in East Sussex, and returned feeling as if the two days had transformed themselves into a month away."

The routine is simple - meditation sessions, short lectures, simple chores, good vegetarian food, and time off to walk in the countryside. Accommodation was shared, but the other people were congenial. Much of the weekend was spent in silence, but when conversations started up they tended to move easily on to the bigger issues of life. One young airline steward said he'd come because his job was "making him start to hate people".

It wasn't a holiday. The difficult parts were the dawn starts, the alcohol ban, and the struggle to sit in cross-legged silence for 40 minutes, but the rewards were enormous: a quietened mind and a fresh perspective on problems that had seemed overwhelming.

Marian Johns, a caterer, has been going on weekend "withdrawals" to church conference centres with people from her Surrey church for years, and says the experience is "always different, but always worthwhile. It grounds you. You feel more in touch with God and yourself. I don't know how people manage without these sorts of windows in their lives."

The excellent Good Retreat Guide, by Stafford Whiteaker, lists more than 400 places in Britain, Ireland, France and Spain where you can find "peace and spiritual renewal". It gives details of facilities, courses, charges (usually modest) and directions. Some centres are tucked away in the countryside, but others are easily accessible on public transport. The guide also tells you exactly what you might expect when you turn up. "With no electricity," reads one entry about a centre run by the Iona community on the island of Mull, "light comes from oil lamps, wood fires, sunshine and stars."

"Retreatants," says another, about a Benedictine monastery in the Puy-de-Dome, in France, "must respect the silence and attend services if possible." While the entry for a Russian Orthodox house in Suffolk says:

"For those seeking solitude, there is a hermitage in the garden."

Entries range from a Zen monastery in Northumberland to a spiritual university in London, and always make clear how rigorous or otherwise a centre's regime is, and to what extent guests will be expected to join in.

"Highly recommended" entries are numerous, and include The Abbey, in Oxfordshire, a Christian-based centre in four acres of countryside along with an imaginative array of courses connected with the spiritual dimension of life; and Monkton Wyld Court, in Dorset, a "holistic education centre", where one-or two-week courses combine personal growth with a commitment to green issues that might include shaman dancing, body-mind centring, or Qi Gong.

If you live in a city, retreats may be surprisingly close to hand. Tyburn Convent, just opposite Hyde Park, offers the chance to find peace in the heart of London. The Roman Catholic Benedictine convent takes in women who want to make a private retreat, and leaves them alone to spend their time as they wish. For those who can't afford a whole night or two away, the convent's chapel is open all day.

Across the capital, the London Buddhist Centre, near Bethnal Green tube station, offers evening and lunchtime classes and meditation sessions - ideal refresher breaks for those weighed down by exam marking, or end-of-term drama productions.

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