The last few years had felt like walking an emotional trip-wire. After a series of events left me feeling deeply unsafe in my own body, the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) I’d been diagnosed with had left me exhausted. Every aspect of life was affected. Decision making was paralysing; sleep disrupted by toe-to-jaw-clenching. With trust levels at an all-time low, sometimes I’d be eggshell-fragile emotionally; other times my brain would slam on the brakes, leaving me with the mental clarity of a crumpled Post-it note.
As a travel journalist who’d spent the past decade exploring far-flung destinations, unfazed by the unknown, I didn’t recognise the person I’d become. On a bad day, the idea of a park walk five minutes from home could leave me overwhelmed.
While many months of therapy had been hugely beneficial, I felt it had run its course. When the opportunity arose to attend a new three-day retreat, The Dreaming, conceived and run by singer Charlotte Church, I felt I had nothing to lose. The retreat, in Mid Wales, focuses on nature-based healing and connection to the land. Before PTSD, I’d found solace in the wild – birdwatching, on countryside walks, or during sea swims. I was willing to give it a try.
I was so consumed by apprehension for the train journey that it was only after the taxi disappeared, leaving me and my baggage – literal, and emotional – outside Rhydoldog House and its 47-acre wooded grounds, that my surroundings sunk in. The elegant Victorian mansion and former home of Laura Ashley, which Church spent years transforming into a seven-bedroom wellness escape, is a vision, with a glossy cream façade, sage-green window trims and a magical wooden porch.
In front, grassy slopes cascade down to distant hills. In the other direction is spruce forest, where woodpeckers drum and waterfalls burble. Enveloped by greenery, I felt as though Mother Nature was giving me a bearhug.
Inside, Church (barefoot, in a long, flowing green dress) and her team welcomed the mostly female retreat-goers – aged from 30s to 60s, a handful with male partners in tow – with wide smiles. In a folky dining room, dried lavender posies danced above wooden tables and a hanging garden-like stairwell, with swinging plants backlit by a stained-glass window, led the way to seven soulful bedrooms.
Getting to know each other began in earnest, as a gently commanding and down-to-earth Church led a 14-strong welcome circle, comprised of attendees and volunteer staff. Sitting on Thai pillows on the floor of a light-filled “healing room” featuring a large gong, I’d braced for an awkward Blind Date-style scenario. But I was surprised at how natural it felt, as people shared their motivations for coming. Some were fans of Church’s renovation show, others seeking R&R.
The mood shifted from pleasantries to powerful, when one guest shared how grief had brought her here, and set off a domino effect, emboldening others to take off the “I’m fine” mask we so often wear. Tales of pain, love, disappointment, burnout. All were met with unflinching empathy. So much so that I felt able to share my PTSD diagnosis, something I’d not done outside my closest friends and family. It felt huge.
After the first of many nourishing communal vegan meals (such as beetroot and sweet potato puree served with hasselback potatoes slathered in wild garlic pesto, followed by a dark chocolate celeriac cake), I chatted with Church. “I’ve been very publicly betrayed and shamed […] for a long time I’ve been scared about human connection,” she said. “I’m humbled by people’s willingness to share; it’s helping me thaw out.”
It was clear that The Dreaming was as much about Church’s own healing as it was “facilitating others”. To that end, every retreat has a pay-what-you-can space, and an intentionally fluid activity roster. The fact that nothing was compulsory felt like a powerful acknowledgement that healing isn’t one-size-fits-all, and gave me the agency to take part only in what felt right for me.
That evening, back in the healing room, we lay in petal-like formation, heads facing inwards, eyes shut. Gongs echoed and chanting swelled through the air, layered with Church’s euphonic singing. During a close-to-an-hour “sound journey”, I swung through waves of emotion, uncomfortable moments accompanied by discordant crescendos. When Church sang directly above me, the haunting melody provided a calming anchor in a storm of sound.
Sound continued to surprise me. The next morning, I stirred at 5.30am to a unique wake-up call. Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy – “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return” – sung in Church’s dulcet tones echoed along the corridors. Later, I shrugged off self-consciousness and joined a ribbon-twirling, feet-stomping, bum-shaking sunrise silent disco in the grounds. Who knew that going-for-it dance moves, performed past fields full of woolly Hebridean sheep, could prove so liberating?
After Church had left for her home in Cardiff, sessions continued in the safe hands of the retreat team. I shook out limbs in a dynamic movement class, wrote a “let go” letter and tossed it into the fire, journalled by candlelight, and spent time snuggled up on the sofa in the “cwtch” (a cosy lounge; the word means “hug” in Welsh), reading side-by-side with other guests.
Tramping en masse on “the big walk” towards the end of our time together, I noticed how limb-like tree branches were doing battle with the elements. When I stumbled, an outstretched hand passed me a sturdy stick. I allowed myself to take it, and finished the trek steady-footed.
For the first time in a long time, I was happy to accept my own vulnerability and let in the healing balm found in the simple kindness of others.
Ianthe Butt was a guest of The Dreaming (01597 811648; thedreaming.co.uk) which offers a three-day retreat, including all meals and activities, from £540 based on three sharing a room. Pay what you can slots are by application.