Othona Radical Writing Retreat

It was early April when Essex Book Festival hosted their inaugural Radical Writing Retreat in partnership with The University of Essex and Radical Essex at the remote Othona Community in Bradwell-on-Sea. It attracted a vibrant mix of people who were treated to an equally vibrant mix of inspirational and experimental workshops, readings, walks, performances and critiques, to broaden their writing. Afterwards they were invited to submit up to 200 words each, inspired by their retreat experience. The results include poetry, prose and song lyrics – a reflection of the eclectic sessions. Contributors are Claire Pearson (CP), Josie Jones (JJ), Judith Wolton (JW), Larry Mindel (LM), Namita Elizabeth Chakrabarty (NEC), Ruth Raymer (RR), Sandra Neill (SN), Wendy Constance (WC). Photos by Wendy Constance

Othona 1

Othona – Retreat and Advance

On approach, Othona opens its arms,
wrapping them gently around me as I enter the gate.
I welcome everyone,
share out beds, towels, sheets; repeat.
Grey-backed notebooks open and fill with the colours of poetry and prose,
incited by the place,
and the common purpose,
which concentrates efforts.
Food is shared,
badgers interlope,
birds are watched,
swimming in the sea is wild.
In the chapel where a child once counted 42 panes
Later to be the answer to the meaning of life,
Stories are told.
Thursday comes, I await important news.
The group is a community that comforts me,
shares in my disappointment when the news arrives.
I feel humbled.
I need to hide and lick my wounds.
I leave quietly as music plays inside Othona’s arms.


Othona 2

A Terrible Beauty

Othona, Bradwell.

Behind me the marsh mud
spittles and whispers, breathes
as the tide recedes. The cockle beach
chatters and dries in the sun.

Sun warms my back,
gleams on fields of green wheat,
clouds of white blossom,
with leaf buds just breaking.

My sudden eye is caught –
two intruders glare out –
stark cubes shrink-wrapped in silver,
giant larvae mothballed for now.

They shadow the light and music of spring.

Only the peregrine can call them home.


Othona 3

Othona is a secret retreat near the chapel of St Peter-on-the- Wall. The buildings are hidden behind the sea wall at Bradwell-on-Sea. Residents from Othona can pray or meditate inside the simple, ancient chapel made up of some stones from the Roman fort.

I felt apprehensive when I arrived. What would the other people be like? At first I sat on my own to drink a cup of coffee, it seemed everyone belonged to a group. However, after the delicious dinner served by friendly, kitchen volunteers and a glass of wine provided from a fellow guest I felt very relaxed.

It was good to be with other writers of all ages, who all loved the Essex countryside. The talks and workshops were interesting and well researched by the enthusiastic speakers.

I have to confess that during writing periods I wandered off to Chapel Cottage. There I rested, in the unkempt garden, caressed by the welcome sun as I listened to chirping birds. Many of these birds fed from the hanging feeders. The most spectacular were the Great and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers that I saw and heard tapping in the surrounding trees.

Here the spirits of the early Christians embraced me.


Othona 4

Shingle beach                     Thirsty marsh                       Bleached shells
Dry sand
Roman fort                          Saxon church                       Unearthed gifts
Enduring land
Salted breeze                       Noisy trees                             Russet sail
Thirsty bee

Trill and bubble
Of ancient teeth
Stretching out to sea
Waymarking stories

Shared ground                    Unearthed church                   Enduring peace
Quiet Othona


 Othona 5

DOWN (lyrics with link to sound below)

White blossom                   on a blackthorn tree
Red admiral                        sitting on the breeze
I”m going down, I’m going down

Marsh harrier                     twists and spins
A dog on the dune              is digging in
I’m going down, I’m going down

Down to the sunken quay
I’m going down to the hidden sea

Anchors slip                        through the Mayland clay
Blackwater drips                in and out the bay
I’m going down, I’m going down

Down to the sunken quay
I’m going down to the hidden sea
Down, down

Heads up                             hands around
past is breathing                water sounds
I’m going down, someday I’m going down

The moon will shine          The sun will burn
The marram grow             And the mud will churn
We’re going down, always down

Down through the sunken quay
We become the hidden sea
Down, down, down


 Othona 6

Wrinkled sand                    mottled mudflats                             eroded saltmarsh
shifting patterns
Cockle-shell beach             sunken barges                                  barnacled driftwood
wind-scoured strandline
Nocturnal badgers             tunnelling underground                 gnarled trees
Roman remains

On the horizon
the old chapel
stark, solitary
forget-me-not sky
soaringsoaring skylarks
heavenly songsters

Seeking wisdom                  finding friendship                             freeing imagination
telling stories

 Othona 7

Writing in Essex

After years – at Othona in a quiet room – I wrote a poem about racism.

But first the group worked on a poem together – of birds and crosses –
Near the ancient chapel, in wild green Essex;
But even then it was me who said, ‘Unloved birds’, and saw a ‘prayer mat’,
Where others saw loved birds and a carpet.

Between my poem about race – really just a list of horrific racism experienced
Over the years – and the world, a bridge grew in the quiet countryside,
Radical retreaters absorbing the brutal hate spent.
To listen is to love.

Back home, the Shard towers above me, but the metal and glass pyramid vanishes
As I turn, gazing down to the river Thames, then up
Into the glorious sky, happy,
Wondering whether you’re gazing too.

A week later, in Essex again, walking through Wivenhoe, taking her dog for a drive,
A familiar Othona face, calls out, ‘I thought it was you!’
In London friends walk their dogs and don’t drive, but there too I bought cut
Flowers, to bring to the Essex countryside, for you.

Waiting, flowers in my arms, and then you, a poem grows in my heart, about love.


 Othona 8


True to the line on the map the road to Othona
wound for ten miles. Soon after the town we found
the little community. Simple and safe, it welcomed us
smilingly, drawing us in like the smell of warm bread.

We observed the plain lines of the chapel, standing alone,
guarding the land; and the broad horizontal lines
of this seascape of Essex: Dutch-made dyke, the stony
beach and grey North Sea curving round to be
joined by the Blackwater estuary. Starkly marking
the sun-sparkled scene the black-painted barges lay –
carefully placed like printers’ blocks on the shore.
Invisible skylarks called in a vastness of sky.

Various lines of enquiry were gently suggested:
we were encouraged to ponder the history of landscape
and urged to start digging for tales, like the badgers who nightly
excavate stones from the crumbling Roman wall.

At Othona I found myself moved – to observe and to listen,
to pause and to breathe, in the space between the lines.


Othona 9

The Dengie peninsula, a meeting place of vast skies, green fields, river mouths and sea. It’s here you will find a group of dwellings beside a startling shingle beach. Powered by sun and wind, the Othona community runs on group endeavour. It grew from a desire to offer healing to a world ravaged by wars. Rooted in a deep faith, it’s mission remains to offer sanctuary, connection and fellowship to all visitors. Birds swoop the marshes, butterflies and insects weave busily through pungent angelica. Putting self aside to simply be, put pencil to page, grow stories, this is radical Essex.


Othona 10


The Romans came ready for battle, to defend the land they’d claimed as theirs.
The monks came for peace and prayer, to spread the word of their god.
We came for myriad reasons, unsure what to expect, looking for escape, for change, for something different – all of which we found.
We also found:
Peace and solitude, but companionship and shared experiences too
A place to be re-energized, but also for reflection
Somewhere to engage with nature – little egrets, badgers, skylarks,
Seclusion from the outside world – albeit fleetingly – to walk alone along a shell                 beach
But there were also towering wind turbines; grey blocks of the nuclear power station and monochrome photographs of dark times
Radically, we found the time and means to unleash our creativity – to discover our own stories; how to look for other stories; and to find the universal story within all of us.


Othona 11

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1 Response to Othona Radical Writing Retreat

  1. jcanto2012 says:

    Fond memories of a wonderful few days at Othona on this inaugural Radical Essex Writing retreat. These pieces are full of the collective spirit felt by all who gathered to write and share words. Thank you.

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