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Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Blogging: An Inspirational Retreat at Croydon Hall, Somerset

Last month I attended a weekend blog event, the Flea Retreat, with around fifty other bloggers.  This was organised by Sally (Who's the Mummy?), founder of Tots 100 and Flea Enterprises.   The retreat was just what I've been looking for in a blogging event for many years.  Read on to find out what we got up to:

 I admit I felt anxious before the event but once I'd dropped the kids off at school and jumped on the morning train I began to relax and look forward to the residential.   It was one of those lovely train journeys where you meet new interesting people and get chatting to them so the five hour journey passed very quickly (and without me getting my planned work done!).  

 Arriving in Taunton,  I was pleased to find Sarah (Toby Goes Bananas), our designated driver (who did an amazing job driving all weekend), waiting for us train travellers by the shuttle mini-bus.  I was the first to arrive and had time to grab a sandwich and a drink.  Eventually other bloggers began to arrive and we hopped onto the bus heading for Croydon Hall, a country house venue in Minehead, Somerset.  There was lots of excited chatter along the way as we got to know each other.  When we arrived at our destination we gasped at the beauty, this was the perfect location for a retreat.

Arrival at Croydon Hall

We made our way into reception and found even more bloggers!  We had quick greetings then were handed our room numbers and made our way to put our bags in our rooms.  

I loved my room!  Croydon Hall is a great venue for residential stays and events such as weddings (it can sleep up to 80 guests with a variety of rooms available- I found out just how many rooms there are when I volunteered to check all the rooms  at the end of our weekend!).  This was my twin room above (ignore the mess!).  Sadly, my roommate Laura was unable to come.  The room was clean, bright and welcoming with an incredible view through the classic sash window.  As I quickly unpacked (read: took the wine out and put it in the fridge!) I could hear laughter and splashing as other bloggers enjoyed the outdoor pool.  I couldn't wait to head back down and join in the fun.

Downstairs I found Jo (Single Slummy Mummy) and Jane (Practically Perfect Mums) drinking champagne (Jo had just arrived back from Lisbon so had all the duty free booze including an intriguing cherry liqueur- called Ginjinha- I think!).  We decided to pool our alcohol supply together and there was a very friendly, sharing atmosphere all weekend.

As we had only just arrived we were quite happy just to sit around in the sun and catch up but we had a schedule to stick to!  Our first event was the welcome ceremony- yoga with Rachel Smithbone.  

Photo:  Kitchen Talk and Travels
Welcome Ceremony

Rachel prepared us so well for the events ahead.  She helped us to feel empowered, mindful, inspired and focused - all with  her unique blend of humour and enthusiasm (it radiated out of her).  I took away so many strategies just from this short yoga session- I've been using visualisation techniques and the superhero pose ever since.   At the end of the session I realised that there was a hoody for each of us- perfect for warming up after our cool down.  my hoody felt so cosy- like a big hug!

Photo:  Mother's Always Right

During our Yoga section we were asked to think about what we wanted to get out of the weekend.  Of course I wanted to improve practical blogging and vlogging skills but as cheesy as it sounds the most important thing I wanted for the weekend was to feel happy (sometimes I forget to embrace the happiness and really saviour the moment).  

Scavenger Hunt

Next we had a fun Photography Scavenger Hunt, I'd assumed we were going to run around taking photos of specified items but but instead we had to find clues using the photos sent to our phones.  This was great fun, I eagerly sprinted off, got my first clue, ran back to my team and then walked the rest as I was so out of breath!  With great team work we soon had all our letters which spelt out W A T E R M E L O N- a clue for the film we 'd be watching that night- can you guess what that was?  We were pipped at the post but managed to come a reasonable second.

Golden Hour Photography

Before the sun set professional photographer Tom Arber led an informal Golden Hour Photography session.  We were still enjoying catching up so I just took a couple of fun snaps of us drinking during the "golden hour" instead but I did pick up some tips to use in the future.  He taught us some great rules to use when photographing during this light- my favourite one was to remember that it's okay to break the rules.   

In true blogger style I was photographing this beautiful model above before even knowing her name (I later found out her name is Laura (Day Dreaming Foodie) and she is as lovely as she looks).  We were on quite a few sessions together so I'm glad I had the chance to get to know her more. I tend to photograph in natural light and don't have time to set up a tripod when running around taking photos of the kids but I'm definitely going to invest in a collapsible reflector and diffuser and experiment with reflecting/diffusing the sunlight- this portrait light was stunning and more flattering than direct sunlight!

A behind the scenes shot!  To reflect the light, Tom held the reflector opposite the sun and tilted and moved the reflector until he was lighting our subject.  To diffuse the sunlight he held the diffuser between the sun and subject creating a stunning soft light.

Pizza and Film

We had all worked up an appetite so were so happy when it was time for food.  Sally and the Tots Team all worked so hard and served us a feast.  There were lots of vegan options, snacks and drinks available too- we were very well catered for.

That evening there was also an impromptu Starlight Photography session which I sadly missed (I think I was too busy drinking and chatting).  I really need to improve my nighttime photography.  Croydon Hall is located in a dark sky area and both nights the sky was clear so we could see some of the best starlight in the UK.  On the second night I did go outside to watch the stars with Molly- it was beautiful!

I changed into my pyjamas ready to cosy up and watch the film, Dirty Dancing, and was looking forward to lots of us watching it together slumber party style, but instead there were only a few of us but Jane and I enjoyed singing all the songs making up for the lack of numbers!  This is the sort of thing I do with my sisters back home and these activities cemented us as a second family while away.

Sunrise Photography

As we had gone to bed so late I decided that I wasn't going to get up for Sunset Photography and would rest instead.  I'm definitely more of a night owl than an early riser!  I slept well but kept checking my clock every hour just in case.  Sure enough at 5 am I couldn't resist and jumped out of bed excited for this session (this retreat has really changed me!). 

The view all around was absolutely stunning and it felt like such a special moment all being up with the lark together.

Tom, once again was so helpful and gave individual help and support if needed.  I think the main advice that I followed was to "Keep shooting!"  

Bloggers photographing the sunset.

At one point I looked back to our home for the weekend, Croydon Hall, which looked especially warm and welcoming at this hour.

I took a quick phone snap as I wanted to capture the camera in shot.

I struggled a bit with this particular landscape, I couldn't get the composition I had in mind, but that's the beauty of real life landscape photography.

I'm definitively going to photograph a local sunrise soon and will follow more of Tom's tips.  I'll use my tripod, find a focus, play with silhouettes and work on my exposure/shutter speed and white balance.

I may not have taken the photographs I wanted to in this session but it's given me a clearer idea of where I need to improve in future- I just need to have my camera manual or google along with me as I do it!

There she blows!  There were all the feels as we watched (and photographed) the sun rise together.  It's such a privilege to watch this majestic spectacle and I will never see enough in my lifetime.

I wish I'd bought a longer lens to capture this flock of birds above the sun.

Every sunrise is a poem written on the earth with words of light, warmth, and love.
– Debasish Mridha

Every sunrise is an invitation for us to arise and brighten someone’s day.
– Jhiess Krieg

“The sunrise, of course, doesn't care 
if we watch it or not.
It will keep on being beautiful
even if no one bothers to look at it.”

Sorry for so many sunrise shots- I did cut down from hundreds I promise but I do love  watching the sunrise.

"May Every Sunrise Bring you Hope;
 May Every Sunset bring you Peace".

Morning Yoga

Next it was time for Morning Yoga with our teacher Rachel.  This time we met in the barn.  Rainbow light cast through the stain glass window.  Since university, the only yoga I have "attempted" has been through books and videos.  I have really been missing the human, spiritual approach and this is exactly what Rachel gave.  Technically she is an amazing teacher explaining and demonstrating the positions well but she is so much more than that.  

In this session she concentrated on creativity.  By the end I felt relaxed, energised, inspired and eager to put my creativity to use.  I need to pocket Rachel and bring her to Pembrokeshire (for now I will enjoy her Facebook Live Sessions).  The yoga made me feel so good, I've been doing sequences at home but really want to join a local class again now (any locals know of a good class or fancy joining me?).

Thank you Rachel!  I'm sure you helped so many of us at the weekend in more ways than you can know!

When you gaze in wonder at the stars,

Become enthralled

With the vast spaciousness between them.

Space is an incomprehensible being,
An invisible presence,
Independent, independently wealthy,
Without beginning or end, and giving.

Space bestows an unbounded theater

For suns, planets, constellations

To dance their graceful orbits.

Space offers you an infinite arena

To play, explore, and experience.

Receive this gift of freedom.

Yukti Verse #105
The Radiance Sutras

Creating Short Travel Stories on Video

Alistair Campbell from Somerset Film kicked off our session by showing us a short travel film that he made of his recent  trip to Italy.  It drew us in, brought us right into Bologna, was fast paced, interesting, showed so much of their trip and only lasted 2.50 minutes.  

I love making days out and travel videos.  I know that in years to come we'll really appreciate looking back on these but I tend to film lots and then never get around to editing the footage.

Alistair has really inspired me to get filming and editing again but with a new approach.  Firstly, I need to have the story in mind before I begin.  I need to think about what footage I really need to include.

On an equipment level I now really want a gimbal and to make more use of my tripod during filming for panning and tilting.  My kids love filming and making fun videos.  I need to embrace that and get them taking moving shots for me.  Alistair made something to put his Go-Pro on wheels and I'm sure Danny could manage it too!  I'm also adding a Go-Pro to my wishlist!  While filming on my DSLR I have finally learnt how to film without constantly going out of focus.  Alistair's tip for going Manual and using shutter speed 1/50 for filming has been a game changer.  I can't wait to go out and make a new film.

I also want to include time-lapses and different transition techniques as well as including  "talk to the camera" clips mixed with montage footage.

Video Clinic

The Video Clinic with Dan from Louder Than Words  followed on nicely from this session.  I'd somehow missed that we could send our clips in to be critiqued but learnt so much from discussing other videos and from the general advice.  

Before The Shoot

After lunch I had planned to go to "Outdoor Filming" but on arrival I met with Alistair who explained it would be very similar to the Travel Video session so instead I joined "Before the Shoot" with Richard Tomlinson, Somerset Film.  Again these sessions complemented each other well as the travel video session focused on filming outdoors and in natural surroundings whereas "Before the Shoot" looked at a studio set up.  

Richard explained how we could set up a simple studio and lighting and microphone in our own home and create a really professional looking video.  I will definitely think about investing in a backdrop and lights in the future.

I was then meant to attend a writing session but after a full day my head was starting to burst full of ideas.  I passed Sarah and she asked if we were going on the beach walk.  I explained that I wasn't booked on it but would love to if spaces were available as I needed to clear my head.  As luck would have it one space was available so I (literally) squeezed on last minute!

Beach Photography

Again Tom was on hand with lots of advice on Porlock Weir Beach.  I tried to stay with the group but as always was drawn to the sea so I ended up making my own way down to the water- I can never resist the waves, taking snaps as I walked.

The pub was tempting too!  Here are my snaps:

We were lucky with the weather- there was great light during our visit which other bloggers made good use of by having gorgeous portraits taken.  I missed having the kids with me and taking photos of them.   Porlock Weir Beach is gorgeous but very pebbly - it's also great for watersports (more of which later).

Back to Croydon Hall

Back home, I popped to my room to change my shoes and ended up quickly catching up with family at home and taking a break.

Popping back downstairs I decided to take a few snaps of the front of the house and was delighted to spot a rainbow over Croydon Hall.

The grounds really are stunning and there was a lot more left that I haven't yet had the chance to explore (this means I have to return, right?).

I rejoined the group.  More wine was opened and before we sat down together for our evening meal we had a group photo.  Jane (Northern Mum) offered another great photography tip which resulted in this:

It was our last night and caterers were bought in so the Tots team could enjoy their (very well deserved)  night off too which made the occasion even more special.

Evening Meal

The table was laid out beautifully. 

I love these candles/lights!

The butternut squash was delicious, the flavours all went so well together.

There was evening an impressive vegan pudding- chocolate torte- mmm.

Evening Fun- the last night

As it was our last night we had lots of fun- starting with an hilarious game of Cards of Humanity, which Grace, Eats Amazing won "cards down" (for a moment I thought we had drawn but then remembered I hadn't given her back her winning card-oops!  I wasn't trying to cheat, honest!).

Again it was another very, very late night (great to catch up with Lindy, Molly and Monika)  but lots and lots of fun.

Photo:  Parentshaped

Paddle Boarding and Kayaking with Exmoor Adventures (Action Camera on the Water)

Our last morning was spent Paddleboarding and Kayaking with Exmoor Adventures.  Baring in mind I'd been awake for 22 hours the previous day I decided that I'd have to give this activity a miss as I didn't think I'd wake up early enough the next morning.  Thankfully my unconscious knew best.  The action camera on the water was one of the main reasons I'd signed up for the whole retreat.  Now the kids are older I'd love for us to get out on the water more together as a family and making videos of these adventures would be great too.  I felt excited but really worried.

I came downstairs and began to get some cereal and fruit when Lindy and Sally offered me a vegan sausage bap too!  I was so grateful for this comforting food.  I very nearly cried over a sausage sandwich!

After breakfast we made our way onto the bus (thanks again Sarah!).  I hadn't realised we were going to Porlock Weir again (in our home I plan the trips and do all the driving so it was a refreshing change to have this all planned out for me).  As we were about to take off Sally came running out with a bag of snacks in case we were hungry after being on the water.  I jokingly shouted "Thanks, mum!" but we really were looked after in every way, everything had been thought of.  

I must apologise to Laura as I think I chewed her ear off with my worries on the way to water-sports (I think a spot of yoga before this activity would have done me the world of good).  I just kept getting myself more and more worked up over it and wondering what on earth I was doing.

However, something internally was still driving me on.  I had woken up and got on the bus, I had this!  We arrived and met our hosts.  The team from Exmoor Adventures were great, so friendly, welcoming and professional.  They very quickly sorted the health forms, allocated our wet-suits and told us about the activities. 

Tots had armed us with GoPros to film our adventures on the water.  The only problem was I had no idea how to use mine.  I seem to be able to work out how to use ones with an LCD screen but not the ones without.  I didn't know when I was taking a photo and when I was filming.  I'm also sure that I did the age old trick of filming pre filming and not actually filming the needed shot-I dread to think what footage I took if any!  However as I said earlier, doing these things wrong mean I've learnt more about how to use them in the future (and I know that I need to buy one with an LCD screen).  They were great though and it was amazing to have a chance to use the different kit and attachments (a GoPro floating stick is a must when filming watersports).  Thankfully other bloggers had amazing GoPro skills as you will see below.

I've been kayaking before but have never done paddle-boarding and with my (lack of) balance didn't ever think I would.  Despite my worries somehow I found myself on my knees going out to sea on a paddle board!  After my initial launch I felt scared, wobbly and then suddenly empowered- I was balancing and paddling at sea.  The sun came out, the water lapped around me.   I remembered to feel happy, to enjoy the moment.  Practically, I was useless of course, I kept forgetting which way to hold the paddle (only one of two ways was correct but for the life of my I couldn't remember which!) and I struggled with changing sides of my paddle smoothly (my short arms seem even shorter once that bulky life jacket is on), but with the encouragement of our instructor I was doing it and getting somewhere.

Whenever I've taken part in water-sports with the kids we've done raft-building or kayaking first and being tipped into the water has been a necessity- I think once you've had that fall and got back up again you have confidence and don't worry about falling in again.  I should have jumped in purely as a confidence building exercise!  It's the fun part!  

I felt happy paddling on my knees and it was time to attempt a standing position.  Our instructor explained and one by one everyone popped up- they were amazing warrior women!  I felt happy and secure on my knees and didn't want to upset that balance (literally).  Also my knees were now locked and I wasn't even sure if I'd ever stand again let alone on a paddle board at sea.  So I gave myself permission to stay on my knees, to enjoy this activity as I was, to improve my balance, paddling, to get used to phase one and to attempt to stand up during my next session (yes I will definitely do this again).  Once I'd decided this Emma (Emma and 3) kindly reassured me that this was perfectly fine for the first session.  Out at sea those words meant  a lot- thanks Emma.  

Next it was time for kayaking.  When I came off the paddle board I couldn't even walk but sitting in a kayak in a different position felt as good as a rest- it was bliss on the legs.  Again our instructor explained everything clearly and we had a lovely paddle.  Then we had a competitive game of polo which was lots of fun.  After another paddle it was time to head back for lunch.

Kayaking with Exmoor Adventures was an amazing experience that I would recommend, I'll definitely bring the family when we're next in the area.  They also offer Mountain Biking, Rock Climbing and lots more.

Take a look at our video below:

Back at Croydon Hall, it was time to pack our bags (sob) and have lunch (yay!).  

Photo:  Victoria- Verily Vicoria Vocalises

Positivity Workshop

After lunch it was time for our last session, a positivity workshop.  I thought we were going to share our happiest photos from our event but no, we had to choose a handful of fellow bloggers and write positive words about them.  I wish we'd had more time as there was so much to say about everyone.  I felt really bad that I hadn't had time to write words for all the people who had meant so much to me over the weekend, but everyone managed to have positive words written about them.  It was such an emotional experience reading them and then having our photo taken- something I never normally do!  I felt so sad when this session ended and it was time to start packing up absolutely everything and leaving.

Reflections on the Retreat

I hope you've picked up from this post that The retreat was just the most awesome, amazing experience.  I really feel as if the weekend changed me and I left feeling so inspired and full of ideas.  Now I just need the time to put everything into action.  Thank you so much to Sally and all the volunteers- Lindy, Monika, Sarah and Louise (Pink Pear Bear) for working so hard to make the weekend perfect.  The session leaders were all professionals in their field, and that made such a difference to the sessions.  They were also full of enthusiasm and super helpful- thank you!

Lots of other activities went on so please visit the Flea Retreat Linky  to see what everyone else got up to.  I didn't go to the product photography, fashion shoot or recipe filming but have learnt so many tips from the bloggers who did- and cycling with Exmoor Adventures looked amazing!

Due to choosing different sessions there were some people who I spoke to less over the weekend but thank you to everyone for being so kind and welcoming.  Each time you sat down for lunch or for a chat you knew you could sit anywhere, we were all part of a team.  Special thanks to Jo, Jane and Clare - the fellow champagne ladies (okay we were on cava once the champagne ran out...), Laura for being such a good friend, Grace, Mel, Kate, Steph and Sara-Jayne for their fun, game playing skills!  Karen for sharing a seat on the bus and a great chat!  Jane and Alina for travelling part of the way home with me.  I could go on and on-  apologies for not mentioning everyone...

So now we all went to know, when's the next one?

Have you ever been on a retreat?  How did you find your experience?



  1. It was SO lovely to meet you! Hopefully see you again at the next one :-D Your photos are stunning, and kind of making me wish I had got up for the sunrise photography session.

  2. Gorgeous setting and place
    Looks like you all had great fun


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