A strange thing happens when you leave London by train. As the carriages meander further into the patchwork countryside, you slowly feel the tension leave your body.
Millimetre by millimetre your shoulders drop, the mental static gets quieter, the gravitational background stress of the metropolis gets weaker and weaker until it no longer has any power over you, and you feel like… well, you feel like a normal person.
I’m a proud Londoner, and I hold onto that background mental static proudly. I tell myself I need it, I tell myself I love it.
But it does feel good to let go of it from time to time.
Or so I’m told. And that’s why I booked a remote working retreat with Ashore.
Full disclosure, this is not my first remote work trip. Last October I stayed in an Airbnb in Cornwall for a week of remote working to focus on building my company’s new website, and… full disclosure… to make the most of the best part of the surf season in Cornwall.
What a shame it was then when the wifi turned out to be almost unusable. Oh how I grieved those lost hours of work, instead having to surf wave upon wave of vintage Cornish barrels.
Sadly though, I had to build the website when I got home instead, which resulted in several long days and long nights.
Ashore mitigates this pitfall by guaranteeing that all its properties are kitted out with a Herman Miller chair, a handbuilt (and rather fetching) desk, 4k monitors, and a fast wifi connection.
My retreat for the week is at a cottage called Atelier in Hay on Wye, a town famous for its book shops and literary festivals. Atelier is located 1 minute away from an excellent coffee shop, and 2 minutes away from an excellent restaurant. I know this because Atelier’s owner Val has told me all of this in a welcome email. I haven’t met Val, but I like Val. Her welcome email is 50% food and drink, 40% literature and arts, 10% admin. Spot on.
The closest train station to Hay on Wye is Hereford. I’ve pre-booked a taxi to take me the last leg from Hereford to Hay on Wye.
I once lived in Wales for five years, so I’m aware of the stereotype that all Welsh people know each other on first name terms.
So you can imagine my absolute delight then when it turns out my taxi driver knows Val. In the literary town of Hay, Val already feels like a protagonist.
Pulling into the town, my stress levels are below zero. I’m at minus stress. This part of Wales is a geological warm hug, or - a warm cwtch. The hills, mountains and rolling valleys are a physical deterrent to such alien concepts as stress, haste and tension.
So we’ve established that I’m already relaxed. But one thing I’m unconvinced by is how productive I’m going to be this week.
I’ve been to Hay once before for its eponymous festival - a visit I remember incredibly fondly because I had the privilege of interviewing Terry Pratchett (yes, he was absolutely as mischievous and delightful as you would expect).
I also remember it fondly because I went to around a dozen book shops and walked halfway up a mountain whilst on the clock for a Welsh newspaper.
Rolling into Hay on Wye, it’s clear that there are as many, if not more, book shops than the last time I visited.
There are more book shops than there are people [citation needed…], and I feel the immediate need to visit every single one of them - despite the growing stack of unread books I already have at home.
I also spot something very dangerous, a potential source of personal financial destitution - a guitar shop.
Bravely, I keep my head down and check-in at Atelier. You know the drill - there’s a key in a lockbox, it’s all very easy, within seconds I’m in a beautiful cottage with timber flooring, period features, wall-to-wall artwork, multiple nooks chock full of books, and an incredibly modern work setup.
I am in love.
Atelier feels spacious and airy thanks to some excellent interior design choices. The thinking here is done for you. Take the example of the split-level living room, one half of which is the ultimate homage to lounging - there are soft furnishings, there is a daybed, there are wingback chairs.
The other half of the living room (the lower of the two split levels) is home to an Ashore workspace.
A Herman Miller chair faces a custom-built desk, on which sits a 4k monitor, a laptop stand and an LED backlight.
I could work, relax and sleep in this room alone, but I don’t need to, because upstairs there is a large bedroom with a king-sized bed, as well as another Ashore workspace, and a bathroom.
My Macbook connects to the monitor on the living room workspace without any stubborn arguments, and I am delighted to find that the WiFi is reliable and fast.
The gravitational pull of London is a distant memory, and in the cosy refuge that is Atelier, even the potentially distracting gravitational pull of those dozens upon dozens of bookshops feels weak.
During my stay I start by working through the tasks that have been on my to do list for months, the ones that you never quite get round to. The result is a feeling of pure satisfaction, like watching those videos of people pressure washing things, except I’ve pressure washed all of the tasks right off my to do list.
With this achievement banked, I find myself zooming out and thinking about things I simply don’t allow myself to think about when I’m in the office. I’m thinking creatively, I’m thinking strategically, and I’m not doing it in a sterile meeting room as part of a “visioning session” with a load of other colleagues who are also all thinking about the work that is piling up while they’re away from their desks.
“We should all recognise that high pace doesn't always equal high productivity.”
– Rich Beech
I come to the realisation that I have been missing an incredibly obvious solution to a problem that my business has been trying to solve for months now. I call my colleague to run it by him, but he’s “just running to Leon” at 2:30pm to get his lunch, he says he’ll call me back later (he doesn’t).
The short connection back to HQ, back to London, feels violent and comical in juxtaposition with my serene experience in Hay.
We should all recognise that high pace doesn’t always equal high productivity. The quality of my work here has been high, the change of scene has given me a change of headspace, and with that, a change of perspective. But the pace has been gentle.
As the week goes on, I’m conflicted between excitement to get back to the office and start sharing and working on my new ideas, and a feeling of impending grief for leaving the little life and routine I’ve very quickly become accustomed to in Hay.
I get up early, I go for a walk along the River Wye, where I meet a quite frankly obscene number of dogs, I work from 9-12, and take a liberal 2-hour lunch break in which I mooch around the town, find a sandwich, buy a book I won’t read for months, and return to Atelier for a four hour work stint with no afternoon crash.
As a Marketing Director, I’ve had the clarity of mind during this week to plan a new campaign for my business, I’ve had the perspective and distance to rework some processes and workflows in my department, and I’ve got notepads full of ideas to take back to London.
As a book lover I’ve got more new books than I can fit in my bag, as a guitarist I may or may not be about to buy a new guitar, and as a foodie I feel nourished by the £60 set tasting menu at Chapters, which was an excellent way to sample the bountiful local produce of the Welsh Valleys.
I’ll be happy to return to the hustle and bustle of London, but I’ve made a promise to myself to make a habit of working from an Ashore location at least once every two months, and to encourage my team to do the same.
If you’re inspired to embark on your own work retreat to Hay on Wye, I highly recommend a daily pilgrimage to The Bean Box on the bank of the River Wye, where Chris (who knows Val) will brew you a coffee that can be enjoyed next to the gentle chorus of flowing water and busy bird song.
A pub-meets-tapas-bar called Tomatito’s is approximately a 15 second walk from Atelier. It is both the best pub in Hay, and the best Tapas bar in Hay. In fact, it’s the only tapas bar in Hay. But the food is outstanding.
Sitting at a quiet table near the bar on a Sunday evening, I listen to the hubbub of Hay locals discussing their weekends. If Hay is a town where everyone is on first name terms, then Tomatito’s is the pub where everybody knows your name.
The barman recommends me the honey coated aubergine chips, which are quite honestly life changing. I also have the white bean chorizo stew, and patatas bravas. For around £15, I am well-fed, and I stay on for a couple of pints just to let my food go down.
During one of my afternoon walks, I visit Ben (who knows Val) at Farmers’, a shop that is a sign of the progressive times.
There are pots of calm balms, awake balms, hand creams, essential oils, body wash, and it all smells divine.
If you’re stuck for entertainment then you can catch a newly released arthouse or independent film at the Richard Booth bookshop cinema, just a 10 second walk from Atelier. And on Friday night you can check out the open mic night at the Globe (which also serves an excellent burger) where acts come from far and wide to play to an attentive audience.
If you’re in need of a quick bite to eat after, then there are three lads who serve pizzas from a stone oven opposite the castle until 10pm. I went for the ham and pineapple (don’t judge me) - make sure you get a side dip of the homemade garlic and herb sauce, you’ll want to dip those sourdough crusts.
And if you love art, then aside from staying at Atelier, which features wonderful works from Bob Brown and Lois Hopwood, you can visit our protagonist Val’s curated space - The Table, which occupies the shopfront below Atelier.
And my final recommendation - buy a book, obviously.