Escape from virtual reality

There's no bar, no beach. Not a lot of anything really, except precious time. Michael Bouchier goes on retreat
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The Independent Travel
No radio, no telephone or fax machine, no TV, no newspapers. If you wish, no conversation - however, I find talking to the monks one of the delights of any visit. Friends have that look of polite incomprehension in their eyes when they learn of my impending departure to Quarr Abbey every year or so. Why would anyone want to spend a few days in retreat? Yet I find my irregular visits to the Benedictine monastery just outside Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, the only time when, for a prolonged period, I can pause and think. It is like an escape into reality.

Quarr Abbey was founded in 1132 by Baldwin de Redvers, Earl of Devon. It must once have been a considerable place: as well as many local worthies and the founder, his countess, Cecily, the daughter of Edward IV, is buried here among the ruins of the original foundation. In July 1536, the abbey was destroyed in the first wave of the "Dissolution of the Monasteries" - a euphemistic phrase for one of the greatest acts of vandalism, pillage and judicial murder this country has ever seen. Local men pleaded that Quarr Abbey was "of great refuge and comfort to all the inhabitants of the island and to strangers travelling on the seas", but to no effect.

Then, in 1901, Benedictines returned to the Isle of Wight. They were French monks from Solesmes, near Le Mans, who were having problems with the anti-clerical movement in France at the time. After some years in temporary accommodation, they moved into a new red-brick abbey built next to the ruins of the old one.

Today, visits to Quarr are easily arranged by a letter or telephone call to the Brother Guestmaster. The community lives by the rule of St Benedict, instituted more than 1,400 years ago, and this involves clear guidelines regarding hospitality. I have met guests in the abbey who have literally come in off the road - hardly anyone is turned away.

The guests pay what they can afford. No one is asked for money. Men (women are not permitted) in employment will, hopefully, pay the going rate for bed, breakfast and evening meal, (between pounds 15 and pounds 20). Otherwise, you pay what you can afford.

You do not have to be a Catholic to visit Quarr nor even a Christian; the abbey welcomes all visitors of any denomination - or none. The monks like you to attend the daily service - a sung mass at 9am and Compline at 8.30pm. You are, no matter how temporarily, part of their community.

Each guest has his own room, simply furnished, and there are, of course, all mod cons. There is a lounge where tea, chocolate and coffee are available at any time, plus a small library for visitors' use. Breakfast is taken in a small room adjoining the refectory at 7.30am while the monks, whose day starts at 5am, are about their various tasks. Lunch and supper are taken with the community. The food is simple, good and varied, though I am told it does not bear comparison to what was prepared in the days when there were still many French monks around the place. When you make your first visit to the refectory you are individually welcomed by the Abbot and bidden farewell by him before you depart.

The abbey periodically resounds with Gregorian chant. The monks' diurnal round is constantly and regularly punctuated by the singing of the Divine Office. The choir of Quarr has not reached the same heights of fame and financial success as their brothers in Spain, but they have produced a couple of compact discs.

Some guests are very generous and include well-known celebrities. At the end of the Sixties, for example, an American rock star stayed at the abbey (the monks are too discreet to mention names). The ostensible reason was to study the rhythms and harmony of plain chant, but the real cause was a case of nervous exhaustion. When his fans got to hear of where he was, the monks discovered that hordes of young people were camping rough in their grounds.

Not wishing to embarrass his hosts the singer departed, but not before giving them a present - a large radiogram with 200 LPs. The community does not know much about pop music and even less about the intricacies of technology. The radiogram remained unused for a long time and it would be no surprise, even now, to learn that somewhere in the abbey is a pile of 26-year-old LPs still in pristine condition.

At Quarr, nothing is demanded of you. You suddenly have all the time in the world to think, write, read, talk (or not), walk in the extensive grounds or in the surrounding area (half an hour to Ryde). You have time to take stock and think about the important things in life. I know of no secular equivalent. A health farm's underlying philosophy is probably grounded a little too much in human vanity.

On my last return journey to the ferry at Ryde, my taxi driver wanted to know what it had been like in the monastery. I said I felt good in myself and was going home after a great holiday away from it all. "Yeah?" he said. "Reckon I could do with a few days in there. How much is it?" When I told him you paid only what you wanted to or could afford, I saw the same expression come over his face as I on the faces of my neighbours when I tell them I am going to Quarr Abbey for a holiday.

After my four days I returned from reality to what? Virtual reality? Perhaps. I do know that I had managed to slow down somewhat and maybe, for a while at least, will seem to be in control of my life and to have some idea of the direction in which I am headed. It probably will not last long, but I know I can always go back to Quarr.

For further details call Quarr Abbey: 01983 882 420

How the spiritually minded holiday

Patrick O'Rourke, a seminarian training for the priesthood at St Patrick's College in Maynooth, Ireland. Spending his holiday working for the Catholic Church

"It's good experience, a source of income, and I enjoy what London has to offer. Holidays are an essential part of life - they're REcreation, and help us become renewed."

Elizabeth Hillman, British Humanist Association

"We'll be going to Scotland, just taking the car and wandering around. I don't look on a holiday in a spiritual way, but I enjoy the relaxation and the break in routine that a holiday provides."

Alex Kirby, Anglican priest and BBC Environment Correspondent

"We're going cycling in Normandy as the cheapest way we can think to get abroad - starting in Cherbourg and heading for Mont St Michel. Along the way we'll be stopping off at Lessay, where there's a wonderful abbey, heavily damaged during the war but beautifully restored."