Win two nights on Retreat at The Vine at Mays Farm

Pen &; pup .jpg

Win two nights on Retreat

at The Vine at Mays Farm

I'll tell you how you can do that in just a minute!

Welcome to our new online home! Ministries by Design has a brand new website and a dot com address -  how exciting is that? Well, not very unless you are geeky, perhaps, but even I am excited by this beautifully designed and fresh looking up-to-date site!  Designed and managed by Kim Swithinbank, this new site is where you will now find us.

So, while you are here, take a look at next year's calendar (the link to it comes in a moment)  There are lots of exciting new retreats planned - including the one that always gets an "Oooooh!!!" when I mention it: Hotel de Chocolat. A two night retreat using Chocolate as an illustration of God's extravagant grace. Lots of treats in store over 48 hours - not least hot chocolate around the fire pit and chocolate tasting ..... book soon, because there are already some bookings and places are limited! 


Because our daily lives are typically filled and busy - things to do, people to see, life to live. And all that is good. But we each need time to BE - and at The Vine at Mays Farm we offer you the much-needed opportunity to step back from the chaos in your life. We offer an oasis, a place of spiritual sanctuary, a safe space to reconnect with God.

Mays Farm - over a hundred years ago!

Mays Farm - over a hundred years ago!

There are walking retreats 

and Silent Retreats

Retreats for clergy

and retreats for writers

Retreats to help you pray for others

and times for individuals to 'do their own thing.'

What would help you most? Which would suit you best? 

Maybe you find it easiest to connect with God when you are out in the countryside...

or when you are reflecting in silence in the Chapel...

Maybe you need others to share thoughts and experiences with....

or maybe you prefer to work through things on your own....

Maybe you like your own room...

or maybe you're happy to share a twin room (and pay a little less) ....

Maybe you'd like breakfast in bed ....

or maybe you prefer to keep the crumbs in the kitchen ...

..... Whatever you prefer, there is probably something to suit you, a time when you can step aside from 'normal' life, be revived and refreshed and renewed; and allow your roots to go deeper and remain in the Vine (John 15:4) You can hop over to the calendar/list of retreats here ... but don't forget to come back to find out how to win 2 free nights on retreat.

Pilgrims walking from San Gimignano to Montalcino , September 2013 

Pilgrims walking from San Gimignano to Montalcino , September 2013 


As well as retreats at The Vine at Mays Farm, we also lead Pilgrimages. In 2014 there will be two pilgrimages for you to choose. Both are on the Via Francigena, the old pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome. It passes through glorious countryside in Tuscany, and in early June, we will walk from Montalcino to Viterbo, an 8 day holiday, with a walk of 85 miles. In very early September, another 8 day holiday will be a walk from San Gimignano to Montalcino, slightly less strenuous and 68 miles of fabulous countryside.  Click here for photos and descriptions and more information.

* * * *


Yes - any two nights at Mays Farm! You might choose Hotel de Chocolat, or the walking retreat or your own individual retreat. But your two nights will be absolutely free, and will include all meals (except lunch on walking retreats). 

To enter the free draw you can either:


HIT SHARE ON FACE BOOK  to share this post with your friends.

RETWEET ON TWITTER including the hashtag @minstriesbydsgn

For every time you do one of those things, your name will be entered into a hat and one name will be chosen by a Board Member who is here on a retreat this week! So the more times you share/retweet, the more opportunities you have to be chosen.

The draw closes on Tuesday December 11th at midnight (GMT) and a name will be chosen the next morning and the winner announced sometime on Wednesday.

* * * *

There are places still available on the ADVENT AWAY DAY on Saturday December 14th (10am - 3.30pm) but otherwise 2013 is now fully booked! Look at the calendar for 2014 and book soon.

We look forward to welcoming you to The Vine at Mays Farm. In the meantime,






For people like you

We took a photo on Friday evening  - a reunion of  pilgrims.

Pilgrims who once upon a time had ventured to fly to the UK solely to walk 100 miles. And make it an intentional walking with God.

One told my husband, “It changed my life. I’d tell anyone to go take a Pilgrimage.”

There were twelve of us gathering for dinner - an evening in the most amazing home in California,just south of the Napa valley.




A gathering of people like you - people who love the Lord, people who long to go deeper with God.

People who are busy with their lives. Weary from everyday life. But still longing to go deeper with God.

And as we reminisced about Pilgrimage, we knew that we had gradually lost something we'd found when walking.

Because vision leaks. Life takes over. And we wistfully look back at times when we have been close to God; times when we have clearly heard His Voice; moments when we felt ourselves near to Him; journeys we knew to be in step with Him. We yearn for that closeness to return; long to hear the still small voice again; remember with longing the joy and love we experienced when we first knew Him.

Sometimes it happens unexpectedly again. Joining with others in a moment of worship. Being prayed for. Glimpsing the rise of a powerful moon in a pinkly grey sky.


But sometimes we even forget that we yearn for more of Him. We are people who live life busily, every moment in our schedules accounted for, crazily careering from one moment to the next.

We are people who often forget to live our lives with eternity in mind.

Maybe we need to walk a mile or three to reconnect with God. Maybe we need to rediscover a rhythm of walking which rests and clears the mind, helping to shed the everyday problems or see them from a different perspective. Being physically active all the time, meeting the challenges of the ups and downs, knowing the accomplishment of a long day of travel and arriving tired but triumphant after depending on God and one's companions to get there.

 *  *  *  *

The Lord says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you. "

(Psalm 32:8; NLT)

We need to get on that pathway. Get walking so that the Lord can guide.  And sometimes making a pilgrimage is a really good way to do that. Doing it physically enables it to happen spiritually.

*  *  *  *

We're offering two pilgrimages in 2014: walking the Via Francigena, the old pilgrim route which traces a path from Canterbury to Rome. In late May/early June (dates depending on when people like you would like to come!) we will walk from Montalcino to Viterbo, a walk described as "one of the world's most unique, classic walks .... South of Montalcino the country becomes wilder, with forests, low plateaux and Monte Amiata and the wide crater of Lake of Bolsena."

In very early September, the pilgrimage will be from San Gimignano to Montalcino, the walk we did in 2013. A glorious, Tuscan trail,  characterised by paths through vineyards, olive groves and forest, and landscapes punctuated with cypress trees and walled hill towns and villages.

These Pilgrimages are exhilarating, demanding, Spirit-filled times. Mountain top experiences, literally and spiritually. Designed with people like you in mind.


If you would like to know more, ask to be put on the mailing list (email: and be one of the first to get the full details. Each walk has a total of just 12 people so register your interest now so that you can be sure of your place.

 *  *  *  *  

 And if you'd rather walk in the glorious English Cotswolds, come on one of the walking retreats at The Vine at Mays Farm. Details of the first one in March 2014 can be found here.


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People like you, people like me - We are people who often forget to live our lives with eternity in mind.

Walking a pilgrimage can help to restore that balance.


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Take a peek here for full details of events & retreats at The Vine at Mays Farm from now until Easter 2014 





Mainly for Americans - but other can sneak a peek!

I've added a couple of books on to my Kindle today. Which is exciting because it means it's nearly time to 'fly the friendly skies' and cross The Pond once again. Three whole weeks in the United States of America is fast approaching - part work and part vacation. Visits to friends and family - including Thanksgiving with the grandsons. No wonder I'm excited! And one of most exciting things is having the opportunity to meet with friends and acquaintances and soon-to-be-friends in 3 different states - California, South Carolina and Virginia.

So here is your invitation to a special event - YOU ARE INVITED!  

It would be wonderful to see you - and you can bring your friends too, anyone who might like to come to Mays Farm, or come on a Pilgrimage with us in Italy. There will be a presentation with photos and video clips; and the opportunity to find out more about future events.

Plus, find out how you can 'own' part of a 17th Century chapel in the Cotswolds.

All you need to do is email me ( to say you would like to come, and to which event, and how many you are bringing with you. You will then receive your invite with full details of the event.


The Revd Penelope & The Revd Kim Swithinbank

are back in town and would love to catch up with you & your news!

Come and hear about their new ministry

Ministries by Design:

-       retreats at Mays Farm in the Cotswolds

-       pilgrimages & walking holidays in Italy and the Cotswolds

-       discover how you can be a part of a 17th century Cotswold building!




San Rafael CA 94903

Cocktails at 6.30pm  dinner at 7.30pm

Kindly hosted by Jennifer & Ken Kroner


Friday, November 22

 Church of Our Saviour, Johns Island SC 29455.  

5:00 -  6:30pm

Wine & Cheese

Kindly hosted by Sue & Quentin Jackson


Tuesday December 3

The Falls Church Rectory, Falls Church, VA 22046

6:00 - 8:00pm

Wine and Cheese

Kindly hosted by the Revd John and Mrs Susan Yates 

Looking forward to seeing you soon!

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For full information about The Vine at Mays Farm/retreats/Quiet Days: click HERE 

On next week's blog: Hotel du Chocolat.  Places will be limited so make sure you don't miss out on the opportunity to be blessed by God's extravagant grace

Feeling at the end of your rope? Me too ......

I got it all wrong last week. Ever feel you've reached the end of your rope? That you've got it all wrong; you're barking up the wrong tree; hopelessly out of your depth; mis-hearing God's Voice; and any one of the many other clichés I could quote.

Yes, all of that. And more.

So I posted a sad little note on Facebook.

Said that I wanted to give it all up, as it all seemed like a big failure.

I  felt totally out of my depth. Totally out of perspective.

What had happened?

- we moved into the new house on July 18th; the first retreatant arrived that same afternoon of July 18th.

- the house was full of retreats and lovely retreatants for the next SIX WEEKS! Even at weekends. Oh, and did I mention that I was leading the retreats and doing all the cooking - oh, and still have no Aga and for most of the time had just a microwave and then a small electric oven.

- at the same time, we had all the unpacking to do. The work was still progressing. The builders are still here.

- then we madly had a large party to celebrate rather large birthdays this year and to have a house-warming. Lots of lovely family and friends came. It was a fabulously happy day. And took a lot of organising and preparation. But there was no time to clear up properly for we were off to Italy.

- 2 days of rest and we were straight into leading a Pilgrimage. 10 amazing people came with us as we led them 70 miles on the Via Francigena, leading physically and spiritually. At least no-one was lost or inadvertently left behind.

Photos from To print

Photos from To print

Returning home on Thursday, we walked into the lovely house we had left - and could not believe our eyes!

We'd left this:





and we walked into this:



you can't see the thick dust in the photos but it is everywhere, over everything, in every room



The decorator we had hired came in while we were away. And did a terrible job; and didn't do half of what was supposed to be done.

And it's truly colder inside the house than it is outside, even at midday and with windows open to let in the comparatively balmy air from outside. It was much warmer in Tuscany and the difference is stark.

Then there was the post - and the bills and more bills; and no money and no support (we so far have just one person supporting us monthly and are desperately in need of financial support.)

Living by faith is hard. Especially when you are totally exhausted.

Living into God's calling is not always the easiest path - but it's the only one worth walking.

*  *  *  *



Friends and acquaintances have given enormous support to me over the past few days, all via social media.

Lots of prayers, lots of verses from Scripture, lots of encouragement.

I am exceptionally grateful.

Of course, there's still dust everywhere and the house is upside down and there are about 100 people coming on Saturday for the Open Day and Launch. (will you come? please?) It's still cold and damp indoors.

There's still no money, and only a total of 4 nights of retreat booked in for the foreseeable future and lots of outstanding bills.

*  *  *  *  

But I need to be grateful for how far we have come in such a little time. Grateful for the extraordinary weeks of the Preview Retreats.

And to remember not to give in to despair and frustration.

Especially when so very tired.

And isn't that just when the enemy likes to get in and tell us we are no good and never will be any good and that it's all gone pear shaped?



But -



illustration from #smokymtnchristian on Facebook



seen on FaceBook, from the Psalm we learned on the Pilgrimage

So now I am tied to God.

Resting in the power of God.

Learning to be strong, take heart and wait for the Lord.

*  *  *  *

And you?

What do you do when you are at the end of your rope? Where are you tied up?

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Wwould love you to come and enjoy The Vine @ Mays Farm

12noon- 4pm

Come for as long as you can - call in, or stay!

Light refreshments served all day

2pm  short dedication prayers in the Chapel

The Board of Trustees will all be here

Come and see what is on offer at this place of spiritual sanctuary -

retreats for you, for your leadership team, for your small group

RSVP by email. Thank you!

*  *  *  *  *  *

What retreatants are saying, after experiencing one of the Preview Retreats which were offered over the summer:

"L & I returned home from our Retreat at The Vine this weekend. The retreat center is going to be a wonderful place (it officially opens in Sept) and I highly recommend it to all  for visiting. It might be very special to go with a group of friends.  We enjoyed  meeting new friends, loved seeing the countryside and charming villages, and most especially experiencing afresh God's blessings upon us. The location is beautiful and peaceful, and the ministry very meaningful. The Swithinbanks are called to this place for ministry, and her Godly leadership skills for custom retreats are excellent! "  L&L from USA

"I had the most amazing time and am longing to be back at the best 'spiritual spa' that I have ever been to. I could not have asked to have been blessed with more beautiful and tranquil surroundings . I found utter peace at The Vine - I just loved it.  I came back and felt like I had found how I want to live -  I want to live with the supernatural peace that I experienced at The Vine." S.B. from London

*  *  *  *


 for more information, Penelope's latest blog posts, and retreat details.

Your prayers and support are greatly valued and appreciated as we begin this new ministry. There are huge hurdles ahead of us (not least the money to complete the house and support the ministry) and we are learning afresh to look to the Lord and lean on Him:

Jesus said, "I am the Vine ... Remain in Me."

Curiouser and curiouser cried Alice


Early thoughts from a Pilgrimage ... 

Last week we (the other pilgrims and I)  walked in Tuscany -  from San Gimignano to Montalcino.  A mere 65 miles of the ancient Cammino, which goes from Canterbury to Rome, a total of 1300 miles. We called it a Pilgrimage for we wanted to make it a time when we intentionally spent time to draw closer to God.

And on the way we met Alice.

Rucksack on back, skin tanned, legs strong -  walking from Hertfordshire to Rome. Alice graduated earlier this summer from her studies of mediaeval history; left her home in Hertfordshire on June 23rd  and set out to walk to Rome. Take time to think. Cogitate on what may lie ahead for her. And meet her parents in Rome on September 23.

We were fascinated, astonished, curious. Why do it? Where did she stay at night? Would she be there in time? What did her parents think about it? And is it changing her, or her attitudes or beliefs?

Her tales were of sordid campsites in northern Europe, of a night finding nowhere to sleep and walking on in the dark - 30 miles without a stop, and then of warm Italians and welcoming Catholic churches and convents and parishes; and of how their faith was drawing her in, causing her to reconsider her agnosticism and making her wonder about becoming a Roman Catholic. And of calling her mother every other day to reassure her.

Later that night, when we had toiled up a hill to stay at the  Fattoria Pieve a Salti and were sitting by the pool under the setting sun, we prayed for her, for her safety and for her faith.  Thought of her sleeping in the parish church at Buonconvento, and of the 201 km she still has to walk to reach Rome.


Maybe some of us felt inadequate - our 65 miles felt very tiny in comparison. Most of us felt old - Alice is 22, our pilgrim party contained two who are 73, one who is 70 and one who is about to be; several in their 60's and 50's.

But comparisons are not always reality.

As we arrived in Montalcino after a long steep incline  at 20% there was a grand sense of achievement.

Physically -  many of the pilgrim party were not used to long walks each day, steep hills, strange beds, learning long sections of  Psalm 27: The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple...

For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock...

You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, LORD, do I seek.”

Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!

And spiritually  - thinking of how the deer desires, longs, pants  profoundly for water in the intense heat, especially the day we were unable to refill empty water bottles and the sun was hot and the path long and steep. How deep is our desire and longing for the Lord in our lives?

Or our ability to walk at all, being so wonderfully complex in our makeup, walking so slowly as we revelled in God's creation of us.

Remembering one morning of how He walks beside us. One pilgrim spoke of the intense sense of  the Lord's Presence beside her as we imagined His walking alongside us - and of how that Presence was accompanying her ever since.

One morning, married couples held hands and prayed together as they walked - one couple said they had not walked hand-in-hand for thirty years. Nor prayed together like that. You could almost see their marriage strengthen.

65 miles. 12 pilgrims (although only 10 made it the whole way). 6 days of walking. Too much pasta and plenty of water. No blisters, no falls, no casualties. God walked beside us, watched over us, drew us closer to Him. And each other.

And now it's over.

And already some are looking forward to next year and walking the next part - Montalcino to Vitterbo.

Come with us? Curious though it may be, walking in order to spend intentional time with God seems to work.











To be a pilgrim.

Today, I am flying to Italy - in order to walk. Walking: the original form of transport. A metaphor as we journey with God.

I don't NEED to go to Italy to do it. Nor to journey with God.

And yet.

Walking along the ancient ways, following the paths journeyed by pilgrims, remembering their search for more of God as they walked from Canterbury to Rome, will help me in my spiritual walking.


*  *  *  *

Scripture has much to say about pathways and walking with God.

On the Cotswold Pilgrimage, we learn some of the verses each day, to encourage us as we walk and listen to the Lord. I've listed below some we have learned .

And so I am excitedly stepping out to walk with God; and was astonished this morning to read not one but two blogs on Pilgrimage. Each written by one of my favourite authors, Maggie Dawn and Sheridan Voysey. 

On why we make Pilgrimages, and what we learn from them and why they have such impact upon us.

*  *  *  *

So I'm off to pilgrimage, being joined by 11 others. We will walk the Via Francigena from San Gimignano to Montalcino, over 6 days.

Pray for us? Pray for us as we look at how we can drawer closer to God, face-to-face with Him.

On our walk but also in our everyday lives.

Join us next year when we do this part again, or  then the next part, of the VF?


Bless us, Lord Christ, on our pilgrimage,

Be with us and all who are dear to us,

And with everyone we meet.

Keep us in the spirit of the beatitudes –

Joyful, simple, merciful.

                                                                                                                  (Taize: Pilgrim prayer)


Psalm 32:8  I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;

I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.

Genesis 17: 1 The Lord said, “I am God Almighty (El Shaddai);

walk before me and be blameless.”

Romans 6:4  Christ was raised from the dead by the glory

of the Father, so that we might walk in newness of life.

Proverbs 3:5,6  Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on

your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge

him and he will direct your paths.

Philippians 3:12

But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ,  who has so wondrously reached out for me.

Jeremiah 6:16 (RSV)  This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads

and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the

good way is and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Psalm 37:23  The steps of the godly are directed by the Lord; He delights in every detail of their lives. (Though they stumble they will not fall

for the Lord holds them by the hand)

Searching for sanity again already?

You shake the last of the sand from your sandals recall the sun and the sea, the sunburn and the swimming pool,

remember the siestas and the sangria,

empty the last souvenir from the suitcase

and settle back into September sanity.

And the possibility of a clean slate.


"January is the official start of the new year, and I always get a burst of renewed zeal at that time, but September also gives the same feeling of an empty calendar and a clean slate. The air seems charged with possibility and renewal.  

Back-to-school is a time of self-evaluation and reflection."

So writes Gretchen Rubin.

Maybe it's the same for you.


A new start, a clean slate, time for something newer and stimulating? Searching for sanity again already?

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That need for self-evaluation, for reflection and renewal, can be something which drives us to what is sometimes called spiritual navel gazing.

Or it can be something which stirs us to greater things, to a desire to draw nearer to God and start afresh with renewed vigour in our relationship with him.

Get set for September - shake up your schedule and set a time for intentional seeking of God.

You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, LORD, do I seek.” (Ps 27:8 ESV)

Set a new schedule - now , while you think about it and before everything else takes over! Set a time for those extra moments to seek his face.

And set a date to come on retreat.

Plan to spend a couple of nights away, time for renewal of the energy which has been sapped over the autumn, summer energy seeping away.

Spend a night or two at The Vine @ Mays Farm.

It's been transformed over the past few weeks! So even if you have already been, it's very different now.

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Walking in the autumn colours, it promises to be a very beautiful time to be away, to enjoy the countryside, to be intentional about searching for God. There's something special about walking, allowing the mind to clear of busy-ness and the beauty of creation to speak of the glories of God. And the peace and quiet as one walks is stunning for being able to concentrate on speaking to God and listening to and for him. Book now - limited places available!

Monday October 14  - Friday October 18 2013

Arrive Monday afternoon in time for a cream tea. A light supper followed by compline and an early night in a comfy bed in an ensuite twin bedded room.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we have breakfast followed by a morning devotion, and then leave to walk  for 7 - 8 miles,  pausing for a leisurely lunch break at a local hostelry about half way round. During the walks we may chat or be in silence, take part in a spiritual reflection/exercise or pray. Each day's walk is different:  hilly or wooded, through the prettiest village in England or past a Georgian building used in filming a Jane Austin novel.  We walk approximately from 10.30 -  1.00, stop for lunch and walk again until reaching home about 4.00. Free time until supper, which is followed by compline.

Friday: morning devotion after breakfast, followed by a 3-4 mile circular walk. Departure by noon.

Facilities for guests include: fridge,  washer/dryer,  wi-fi in the house (but you are encouraged not to use it too much and we do not use technology on the walks!) sitting room  and a well-stocked library  (both have wood burner stoves and underfloor heating!)  lovely grounds including a walled garden and a chapel.

The small print:  this fully guided retreat is for 4 nights half board. You will need to buy your own lunch each day at the pub on the way. Dinner, bed & breakfast are provided. Each room is fully ensuite, equipped with a tea/coffee tray and freshly made up beds. (bring your own towels) Accommodation is in twin rooms (bring a friend and share a room, or we can allocate room mates!) COST for the fully guided 4 night retreat half board is just £200 to cover costs; with a suggested donation to MbD of £20 a night which can be gift aided.

There are just 10 places available  - so make sure you book now to be able to come!

Email to ask for a booking form.

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For those who love photos - latest updates!























  • You are very warmly invited to the

    Open Day and Launch

    We would love you to come and enjoy a day in the southern Cotswolds and see what is happening at Mays Farm! 

    You've seen so many photos, now come and see this special place for yourself.

    12noon- 4pm

    Come for as long as you can - call in, or stay!

    Light refreshments served all day

    2pm short dedication prayers in the Chapel

    The Board of Trustees will all be here

    Come and see what is on offer at this place of spiritual sanctuary - 

    retreats for you, for your leadership team, for your small group

    More details coming soon



    We very much hope to see you at The Vine @ Mays Farm before too long.

     Work parties are happening on Friday July 5th and Saturday July 20th - and any day in between that you like to come, we're here working to get it ready!

    MINISTRIES by DESIGN is based at The Vine @ Mays Farm.

    The Vine @ Mays Farm
    for retreats, 
    quiet days, 
    quiet spaces,
    Spiritual Direction
    leadership training
    & mentoring
    come alone
    come with a group
    bring your friends
    your small group
    your leadership team

    The Vine is a place for spiritual sanctuary and sustenance, and the name came partly from the two Vines growing in the Orchard and partly from John 15 where Jesus says, “I am the Vine, you are the branches – abide in Me.”  The Vine offers the opportunity and space you may need  to draw aside from everyday life and spend time ABIDING and BEING, waiting on God, taking time for reflection and repose.

    The house is a 17th Century Cotswold Farmhouse, renovated and refurbished to be a wonderfully welcoming and restful place. There are five large bedrooms, each with ensuite facilities. Breakfast is often served in your room so you can start gently and have time without even rushing downstairs! Lots of places for sitting and dreaming – the Drawing Room, the Library, the Chapel; or the Walled Garden -  the gardens are currently a work-in-progress during the renovations!


I am currently leading a Walking Retreat in upstate New York - near Lake Keuka, one of  the Finger Lakes.

Here's why I find such days such amazing times.


Complete wholeness – of stillness and silence.

As in the absence of interruption or invasion by iphones or imaginations. We stand, gazing at the beauty spread before us, hardly daring to breathe.

This is what we came for, this is what we saved for and trained for. This is the vacation with a difference for which we had dreamed and yearned.

A Pilgrimage.

A long walk with a difference because it is a long walk with God. Intentionally wanting to find Him.

And find Him we did –  in the glories of creation, in one another, in our uplifted hearts.



And we found the gift of TIME.

Time to be, time to be with God.




Isn’t that what so many of us crave? Time out, we call it.

Time to do something different, BE something different, in some place different.

Pilgrimage has been part of the Christian tradition for centuries. It’s not always been a part of mine, until some 10 years ago, when I was asked to lead one. I discovered that the daily walking, the lack of distraction, the determination to keep going, opens up opportunities for the still small Voice in ways I could not have found elsewhere.  I’ve led many since then, and each one has had its ups and downs, literally and metaphorically. Each one has been special. Sometimes the sun has shone, sometimes it has almost snowed.

On one occasion, we plodded along, one foot then another, one foot and then another. It was hailing, cold wet hard hailing. “All hail King Jesus …” someone began to sing. There were giggles and groans. One foot in front of the next foot.  Onwards and upwards. We had walked a mere 17 miles the previous day. 83 more to go to reach our destination.  One foot then another. The hail turned to sleety rain and tried to invade the scarf wound around my neck.  It was June, it was England, it was Pilgrimage at its worst. And maybe at its best too, for we spurred one another on, sang to God in spite of the cold, and appreciated even more the day when the sun finally emerged.



A mere 100 miles, each of the weeks of Pilgrimage in England, walking the ancient pilgrim paths and sheep-herding byways, from Chipping Campden to Bath Abbey. Some 60 miles in Tuscany, along the Via Francigena, from San Gimignano to Montalcino.  (Those names, they roll romantically round the tongue, inviting and enticing!)

Sometimes in silence, sometimes in prayer; sometimes singing, often laughing; taking time out from daily lived busy-ness, purposely spending time waiting to hear God speak into the rhythm of walking.

Nothing else to do – suitcases moved by unseen angels, meals awaiting us at the next destination along the way. An evening time of devotions – a short thought; some worship; prayers. Maybe Compline. Sharing our journeys, helping each other along.


Pilgrimage is a time of challenge – physically and spiritually.

It is a leaving behind – of daily routine, of family and friends, of expectations.

It is a purpose filled week of deliberately stepping aside and stepping out, in faith, to find God in ways never previously experienced.

It can be a difficult time. No good to pretend it’s easy, however much one has tried to get fit, practice, walk the extra mile.

It’s not the usual walking.

And yet, into this challenge, this sacrifice of normality and time and effort, God speaks. Whether it’s the chill of an English summer or the heat of an Italian one, there is something unusual, something special, something incredible, about this intentionality. So often we don’t know God, don’t hear His voice, because we don’t take the time to stop – really stop, or step out of our comfort zone and wait.

Wait for Him to speak into our hearts.

The Pilgrims are always amazing people. On each Pilgrimage I’ve led there have been people in pain – pain from living, pain from past wounding, pain in this journey. But they keep walking.


And each time, God has stepped into people’s lives – sometimes right then and there, sometimes later when reflecting. But God always speaks – if we take time and trust Him to do so.

“It truly was a life changing experience for me; and I met with God in a way I’d never done before.”

The Via Frangicena is another ancient Pilgrim route – from Canterbury to Rome. I Pelligrini (the pilgrims) walked it as an act of devotion to God, as an act of contrition. They carried little other than the walking stick, the hat, the cloak and the backpack.

Sometimes they ‘walked’ on their knees. They had no idea when they set out as to whether they would ever return, after such a long and dangerous journey. But their contrition and devotion drove them out and on, dependent totally on God, their fellow pilgrims and the people they met along the way.

When we first walked a part of it (Tuscany in July) the sun beat down mercilessly, our skins scorched and our tongues stuck with thirst. Yet we gave up relatively little compared to I Pelligrini of old.

And what of us? You and me?

How far would you be prepared to walk in order to empty your life of its everyday busy-ness, its tests and trials, its screaming loud insistence?

What do we need to sacrifice in order to hear that still small Voice?

This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jer. 6:16

How much do you yearn for the rest, the silence, the stillness, in which to hear God?

What might you do in order to take time to hear that still small voice?



The Revd Penelope Swithinbank is an international speaker and leader for Christian conferences, Pilgrimages, Retreats, Quiet Days and women’s events. She loves hiking, reading and travelling.  Author of ‘Women By Design,’ she is a Spiritual Director, blogger, wife, mother and grandmother, and is about to open a Retreat house – in an old Cotswold farmhouse, a place of spiritual sanctuary for those who need time away, especially those in Christian leadership. 

Website and Retreat details:


I nearly died this morning.

I was nearly trampled to death earlier this morning. At least, it felt as if it was just about to happen.

Walking the dog along one of our usual footpaths, we (Gracie and me) came upon a herd of cows; young bullocks, actually, not very large nor very old. All black, they were, grazing nonchalantly under the trees at the edge of the field. Even so, as Gracie has not come across cows at close quarters before, I put her on the lead, in case she charged at them.

Over the years of dog walking (my parents first got a dog when I was just 10) I've traversed many fields of cows with various dogs in tow - and have always found that cows will crowd you if the dog is on the lead - but they usually back off if you shout and wave your arms around, and allow the dog to run free.

I presumed it would be the same today. It was not.

As I passed the bullocks, they stopped grazing and began to stare. I  hastily let Gracie off the lead, and fortunately she had the good sense to race for the gate at the end of the field. Thanks, dog. You left me to it!  I turned and stamped my feet and then continued to walk on. The bullocks followed. Threateningly. More arm waving, more shouting, more walking on. But to no avail.

I suddenly remembered the news last week - of a man trampled to death not too far from here, as cows stampeded.   My fear grew and perhaps the cows sensed that.

Or perhaps they didn't like Matt Redman who was playing loudly on my iPhone so I could sing as I walked.

It certainly wasn't my singing as I had stopped when I saw them!

So now I have a shaped rearguard of black young bullocks at my back, and they are getting closer. And I'm remembering the man who was sadly killed. And I'm wondering what young calves are fed these days that makes them so vicious. Cows, even young bullocks, were sweet large-eyed docile beasts when I was young.

Now they are vicious killers.

I ran. In my blue hunter wellies I pounded towards the gate. And so of course the bullocks began to run too. And I think they run faster than I can. I am no runner.

Gracie barked - from the safety of the other side of the barred and locked gate.

I hurled myself at it and never have I climbed a gate so quickly.  With black bullocks running at it. At me.

Now there are ten thousand and one reasons for me to bless the Lord. Because I got over the gate and looked back to see the bullocks crowding the gate. I didn't even stop to take a photo. Heart pounding - fear? running? climbing a gate quickly? - I stumbled on throughthe farmyard. What DO they feed young bullocks? Do cows have more of a killer instinct than they used to?

I wish I could say I prayed as I charged for that gate! All I could think of was running fast enough to outrun the bullocks.

Thank you Lord. You had my back covered.

 Isaiah 52:12

You will not leave in a hurry, running for your lives. For the LORD will go ahead of you; yes, the God of Israel will protect you from behind. 

Psalm 139:5

You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. 

New Living Translation (©2007)


Bless the Lord, Oh my soul, worship His holy name ... sing like never before, Oh my soul, I'll worship your Holy Name.


I had an interesting experience with water - or at least the lack of it -  a couple of weeks ago. My husband & I are celebrating auspiciously large birthdays this year; at Christmas, he gave me 2 books: the "Lonely Planet guide to Jordan",  and “I Married a Bedouin,”  written by a young New Zealand nurse who, in the late 1970’s, was on a gap year travelling, and met and married her Bedouin, who lived in a cave in Petra, Jordan.

I loved reading about Petra – it's been at the top of my bucket list since I first saw a photo of it when I was a teenager. Ecstatically excited to be going at long last, I devoured the books, amazed by Marguerite van Geldermalsen's account of living in Petra, where her children were born - including her son Raami.

And when I read the guide book and noticed "Raami Tours" mentioned,  we got in touch - and yes, it's her son, and a little local entreprenurialism. So we decided to do the "trip of a lifetime thing"  and  booked with Raami to have a local guide for each day of our stay. That decision led to 5 amazing days of things we would never have seen or done if simply following the guidebook!

Our local Petra guide was Ibrahim, who was also born in a cave in Petra, but  he doesn’t know when. He is perhaps in his late 20’s, has never been to school, but has learnt to speak English from the tourists. He and I developed quite a bond: he declared at one stage that I was like a mother to him!

On day four, we were scheduled to go for a hike  - a couple of hours in the Dana Nature Reserve. Ibrahim had only been there once before; so Nasser came too - and we discovered that Nasser, who speaks no English, is the son and heir apparent to a local Bedouin sheik, someone who is one of the advisors to the King of Jordan. Ibrahim and Nasser  took us for what turned into a long 6 hour hike:  down through the Dana Nature reserve to Wadi Araba.  From +1700m above sea level down into the desert at  -50M below sea level.


Down and down we slipped and slithered on the stony path.

After a couple of hours, Ibrahim decided it was time for tea - and he produced a kettle and glasses and black tea from his knapsack, lit a little fire and brewed up - throwing in a handful of herbs he gathered from the wilderness for good measure.


While it brewed, he showed me how to get colour from a little stone to paint my hands as the Bedouin women do.


Then we were off downhill again … as the sun rose higher and hotter and the oleanders bloomed beauty in the rocks.


The wild life was stunning.



But we were getting hot.



Our water bottles ran out after four hours. We'd no idea we would be walking so far - in such heat - with nothing to do except keep walking.


Gradually we began to realise that we were parched. Dry. Thirsty. Miles from anywhere, with no water. And nothing to do except keep walking.

My husband began to overheat.  We were panting, longing, deeply desiring, desperate for, water.


And into my mind came those words from the Psalms:  As the deer pants for the water ....

Words set to a sweet little tune, which belies the depth of the thirst and the dryness of the desert. We were parched and had a real problem.  The words suddenly came to life for me. THAT'S what the deer feels  - and that's what the psalmist was describing.

That dryness, that desperateness, for the refreshingness of the Lord.

That longing that only water, only God, can satisfy.

Do we know that deep desperation for the Lord? As the deer pants ....  are we panting, longing, dryly desperate for God’s Presence in our lives?

In the desert, on our way down to Wadi Araba, we – at least, Ibrahim and Nasser – stopped some passing goatherds – who were Bedouin too and who shared their cool water from the waterskins they were carrying. But we, thinking there was not too much further and wary of water whose provenance we didn't quite trust, refused it.

And began to wonder: will we ever make it?



Never have we been so glad as when we eventually saw Nasser's car in the distance, his brother driving it,  loaded with cold bottles of water. And oh the joy and the pleasure of sitting in the shade of a tree, drinking cold cold water. And knowing there was a ride in the car.

(to Nasser's house for lunch - but that's another story...)

Never will I forget the desperate parched longing for water. The deer panting and likely to die. The psalmist longing, panting, desperate  for the Lord in his life.

I need to stop God, to ask for cool water in my spiritual desert.

And don't we each need to do that?  To know the refreshment of His spring rains in our parched and weary and battered and bruised lives.

Sermon over!

But I now know that I need to pray: God make me want to want you like that.

It's a dangerous prayer. 


Psalm 42:

As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God.  I thirst for God, the living God.

and in The Message -

A white-tailed deer drinks from the creek; I want to drink God, deep draughts of God. I’m thirsty for God-alive. I wonder, “Will I ever make it— arrive and drink in God’s presence?”


And this too:

As we wait in silence,
fill us with your Spirit.
As we listen to your word,
fill us with your Spirit.
As we worship you in majesty,
All fill us with your Spirit.
As we long for your refreshing,
fill us with your Spirit.
As we long for your renewing,
fill us with your Spirit.
As we long for your equipping,
fill us with your Spirit.
As we long for your empowering,
fill us with your Spirit.


An invite to join us as our guests

Winter is coldly here  ... spring is on the horizon ... and  already unbidden thoughts about going somewhere different or special in the summer flit across our minds. Somewhere to allow ourselves the space to BE; to soak in some peace and quiet; maybe some time focusing on the Lord and on our relationship with Him. We know the very place, and this summer we would like to invite you to join us, as our guests.

In late September, Ministries by Design will be opening The Vine@Mays Farm, offering a place for retreat, a spiritual sanctuary from noise and bustle, with visitors taking part in various types of retreats, or coming for a private visit, whether for a day or for a longer period.

At the end of the building project, and before we officially open, we are offering a few preview retreats at no charge (although we will welcome any offers of help with paintbrushes, brooms etc! and any donations are always acceptable, as MbD is a registered charity).

Why are we doing this? Several reasons!

-  We have been blessed already by many many people as we launch out into our new venture. (If you missed the announcement about our moving to Mays Farm, you can read the article hereAnd we want to bless othersWe want to bless you. Come and experience the peace and the quiet, the  opportunity to draw aside from a busy life and enjoy a few special days.

But also, honestly, we need some 'guinea-pigs!'  A few people who will come on retreat and then tell us how it was and what is good and what might be improved.

Some people like to have something to do manually for an hour or two during a retreat; and there will be gardening or decorating, or tidying once the builders have gone; or curtains to hem or raspberries to pick .... and if you wanted to help in that way for a couple of hours each day, it would be much appreciated. It's not compulsory - although it would be an enormous help!


The house will have 5 bedrooms, each with sitting areas, and with private ensuite facilities. You can relax in your room, in the Library or the Drawing room, in the chapel, the walled orchard and grounds, the local countryside ...

All retreats are full board - breakfast, lunch, dinner are all included, tea and coffee making facilities in each room.

There are 2 different retreats and each will happen at least once in July/August/September

1. A WALKING RETREAT - get fit spiritually AND physically!

Arrive on a Monday afternoon, settle in with a cup of tea. First session, then supper. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings, after a buffet breakfast,  Penelope will lead you on one of several local walks, each of about 6 miles, with opportunities for spiritual reflections and meditations as we walk. Return for lunch and spend the afternoons as you wish to make the most of this time - praying, sitting in the chapel, journalling, sleeping; and hopefully helping out manually for a couple of hours.  There will be a short session  each day before Supper, which  will be followed by compline and early nights. Final session on Friday morning, and leave  after a light lunch.   Maximum of 10 people, in en-suite twin bedded rooms.

2. A GUIDED SILENT RETREAT - to concentrate on your relationship with God

Arrive on a Monday afternoon, settle in, enjoy tea. First session, then supper, compline and early bed, after which we will move into silence. Breakfast will be served in your room to allow time to rest, reflect, be renewed. Each day there will be individual time with a Spiritual Director, and there will be guidance if required as to how to get the most from this time. There will be opportunity to help manually around the Centre for a couple of hours each day. Meals will be taken in communal silence or you may take your meal to your room if you wish. Leave after a final time with your Director on Friday morning followed by a light lunch if required. Maximum of 5 people, in private en-suite rooms.

Of course, we risk a lot doing this - you might sign up, then as you haven't paid anything, pull out at the last minute! Or you might come and not like it at all and write us a bad review. Or you might not help out manually as needed. But we believe that the Lord is calling us to this, blessing us with so much in this new home and with opportunities for ministry, and in turn we want to bless you. We hope you will know the Lord's richest blessings when you come, and that you will then want to come again, and recommend it to others to come, too. We hope and pray that The Vine@Mays Farm will be one of those 'special places' for many of us, a place where one slips easily into a different rhythm with God, a place to hear His Voice and seek His guidance.

Oh, did I tell you that Mays Farm is just 1hr 40 mins drive from London (M4 jct 17) , easily accessible by mainline trains (Chippenham), near to Bristol, Cheltenham, Oxford, Birmingham, and on the edge of beautiful Cotswold countryside?  Come and enjoy!

If you would be interested in being invited to one of these special retreats for free, as a guinea pig, then email me! (see below) and DO PASS THIS ON TO YOUR FRIENDS TOO! (men and women all welcomed, but we will take care with room allocation!!!!!)  

YOU DO NOT HAVE TO COMMIT NOW - just express your real interest and ask for an application form. If you are accepted you will be sent the details and the dates soon, and then you can sign up to come.

If you would like an application form for an invite to the free retreats, please email me now:

stating why you think it would be good for you to come and which of the two retreats you would prefer.