The lovely yet haunted Mayday Hills Asylum in Beechworth, Australia, looms over the township like a vulture, waiting for someone to die. In days past, it never had long to wait. Once a centre of misery and death, it now hosts businesses and contributes to the township’s tourism attraction. One of the events situated within its majestic 150-year-old walls is Asylum Creative Retreats, held a few weekends every year by Geoff Brown and his business Cohesion Editing.
In April 2015 I was the lucky recipient of ‘The Two Sigs Grant’. It’s a grant for the full cost of the retreat at the lovely heritage-listed, haunted, and abandoned asylum. The grant takes its name from the interesting historical fact that you only needed two signatures to be committed to a Victorian asylum, but eight to get out.
Yes, I would be staying there for three days with other writers, and from what I’d been told, plenty of restless dead. Good inspiration for writing I thought. I hope I meet interesting people. I wasn’t disappointed. Although, I wish my intention had been clearer. I hope the interesting people I meet are alive.
Why Asylum Retreats?
These retreats have a certain ambience you are unlikely to find in any other writers retreat in Australia. This uniqueness has resulted in people travelling from Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia to attend, with interest expressed recently from the United States. A slight difference from when the retreats first began.
They started as a forum for anyone interested in the paranormal, including writers. History tours and paranormal investigations were offered as part of the initial packages. As the retreats developed, the focus on writing increased and special guest workshops were also introduced. Presenters to date have been writing teachers, a practicing undertaker, and Kaaron Warren, an Australian multi award winning-author. Aaron Sterns, co-writer of Wolf Creek 2, is the next special guest for the retreat scheduled in October 2015. The retreats have seen accomplished Australian authors sit alongside novice and student writers.
When I asked some questions, Geoff seems especially supportive of the writer’s journey.
“We’re all in the same boat,” he said when I expressed my concerns about attending as an inexperienced writing student. ‘We all want to improve our writing.’
It’s in this spirit of supporting writers that Cohesion has established The Two Sigs Grant allowing one lucky recipient to attend a retreat for no cost.
I asked Geoff why he opened up the grant process, and he immediately said “We wanted to give something back to the writing community.” It is this spirit that underpins every retreat that is run.
Cohesion Editing and Proofreading have held asylum retreats since 2013. Geoff Brown, also owner and editor-in-chief of Cohesion Press, has held five retreats so far, with plans for many more. In 2011 Geoff was elected president of the Australian Horror Writers Association and he held the position for two years. Whilst maintaining an active social media presence, Geoff runs these retreats, writes, edits, proofreads, runs a successful publishing house, and teaches Professional Writing and Editing at Bendigo TAFE. In that last bit of spare time, he is completing a BA of Professional Writing and Publishing.
So, he understands writers and writing. And, he knows how to run a great retreat. http://asylumretreats.com/
The April 2015 Mayday Hills retreat
Arrival at the Asylum
For a long time, I had resigned myself to not attending the April retreat. Due to financial circumstances beyond my control, I was not only short of funds but without a car. At times like these I realise how generous the writing community is. I was awestruck at being offered the grant, but then I realised I still didn’t have a way to get to the asylum. Within a few hours of a query on the private Facebook page for Asylum retreat, I had a lift organised. The only problem was I’d be at the Asylum a day early. Staff arrive the day before to clean and set up. Problem you say? No problem for me!
Travelling up with one of the full-time retreat workers, I arrived at Mayday Hills around 3pm. I didn’t know what to expect, but what I found certainly wasn’t anything like I imagined. After passing modern buildings on a newly-surfaced road, we pulled into the complex. We parked at the back of the women’s ward, near the Bijou Theatre, the home base of Beechworth Ghost Tours. The mix of old and new had me displaced before I even got out of the car – I felt like I was living in two worlds instead of one. We had a brief stroll around. There were abandoned buildings that really didn’t live up to the signs on the walls. The ‘Kiosk’ stood in disrepair and empty, and the ‘Toy Shop’ looked anything but fun. A number of rambling cottages sat outside the main buildings.
The old Asylum staff quarters remains standing but has been turned into an art-deco hotel. A five star restaurant has been built by the same owners on the Asylum grounds.
Walking around to the front of the building, we can see the women’s ward is now split down the middle. The other section is leased by The Spa Beechworth – ‘a place of inspiration and transformation’ where tourists can go to soak their faces in mudpacks while waiting for a relaxing massage. This fully-restored area is located right next to a section that seemed to be translocated from the 1800s.
I could only imagine what this proud establishment must have looked like in 1857 when it dominated the Beechworth hilltop. Over the years, sections had been knocked down, sold or repurposed, however a large section remains intact. As a subtle reminder of the place’s origins, a small expanse of the ha-ha wall that once surrounded the complex still stands, serving as a reminder of the impenetrable barrier it once was.
“Creative Retreat Attendees ONLY” said the sign. We opened the doors to the matron’s area of the administration block. A quick look around showed two floors of private and common rooms in various states of disrepair. It was lucky Geoff could see the potential for a comfortable space because, on first impression, I couldn’t. From the common area looking down a hallway, all I could see were rows of doors and darkened passageways. Initially I didn’t even want to use the toilets on my own. It was just too haunting.
But there was a lot to do to set up for the retreat and the team got busy. Not wanting to be a total freeloader (or hang around doing nothing somewhere on my own) I rolled up my sleeves and offered to clean the kitchen. This was where the first weird thing occurred.
As this was the retreat’s very first time in this new (old) location, lakes of disintegrating wall and years of dust lay on benchtops, while possum poop and I-don’t-quite-know-what lay on the floor and in the corners. And really, let’s not mention the tiles! I put on rubber gloves and realised I didn’t have a cloth. As I left the kitchen I shut the only thing that was open, a kitchen drawer.
Cleaning can be hypnotic and before long the surfaces were shining. I turned to face Geoff’s wife, Dawn, who was standing in the doorway.
‘It’s looking great,’ she said as I wiped down the last cupboards and pushed in the drawer again.
‘Did you open that?’ I asked realising immediately that Dawn hadn’t been in the room.
Not wanting to seem skittish, I ignored it until I was sure no one else was nearby. I jumped up and down trying to get the drawer to open without living help. The only thing I succeeded in doing was feeling like an idiot. But the drawer stayed shut. I’m not suggesting anything here. Make up your own mind.
Later, after the rest of the day cleaning and a dinner at the Hibernian Hotel in Beechworth, it was a quick night walk in the unlit abandoned buildings. There was a definite feeling of being watched as I passed through parts of the asylum, and on occasion I had that feeling to get my butt out of a particular room as quickly as I could. Was it fear? Was it my imagination? Was ‘something’ there?
Then it was time for bed. There were two communal rooms on this retreat. The people interested in paranormal investigation (most of the staff) set up in one room, which left me alone in the other. Alone. The hosts, Dawn and Geoff were in a private room down the hall. I could do this. No worries.
About ten minutes later, as brave as a four year old child after a nightmare, I dragged my bed into the open hallway space and slept near the host and hostess instead of that big empty room. And did I sleep better? Hard to say. All night I existed in a half sleep, arms crossed snuggly against my chest with hands on either shoulder. I faced the wall buried in blankets. I felt scared. I remember that. I also imagined someone was offering me comfort – telling me not to worry and that I’d be okay. I also had the compulsion to hide my hands. But this didn’t make me feel comfortable. In fact I stayed half-awake until I saw first light and then I fell into a deep, untroubled sleep.
More next week on the first official day of the retreat, on the history tour through the haunted buildings, and how scary the whole thing was turning out to be.