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Nourishment for your mind, body and spirit at Peace Festival
Co-owners of The Banyan Retreat Nic Witham and Steven Siu.
    Co-owners of The Banyan Retreat
Nic Witham and Steven Siu.

Imagine an idyllic summer’s day deep in the Kent countryside. Butterflies flutter past as the sun glints on the waters of a still, clear lake. The surrounding fields and trees are vibrantly green after weeks of rain in this south-eastern English county known as the Garden of England, writes Sue Farrow.

In the grounds of Lake House, home of the Banyan Retreat, marquees are laid out on the lawns, each host to some form of spiritual activity. In one, palmistry and tarot, with Toni Jode, seem to draw a constant stream of people. In another, healing is offered under a copper pyramid. The largest marquee holds a vast array of items for sale – everything from carved buddhas to crystals, from séance trumpets to multi-coloured butterfly sun-catchers.

While this gentle bustle goes on all around me, Banyan’s co-owner Steven Siu leads a Tai Chi Qigong class beside the lake. I stand for a while, mesmerised by the slow, elegant movements and decide, uncharacteristically, to have a go myself, hoping against hope that no one is pointing a camera! I seldom do ‘slow’ at anything, but I’m amazed how relaxed – and, paradoxically, energised – these timeless movements make me feel.

Steven describes Tai Chi Qigong as “a moving meditation, with similar benefits to ordinary meditation. It can be beneficial for those who have difficulty stilling their body and mind.” He adds that it has “numerous benefits for the physical body and can create a healthier energy body by use of the meridians. Breathing exercises combined with gentle movements promote better health by removing blockages from the energy body and the mental body. Focusing within helps you connect with your inner self and better understand who you are.”

Before venturing inside the main building, where many other events are in progress, including talks on everything from soul contracts to martial arts. I stop at one of the food stalls, in this case offering homemade Thai and Indian dishes. Tucking in to some delicious noodles and vegetables I get chatting with the chef. It turns out we are fellow wine lovers and we talk for a moment about favourite examples. With a flourish he reaches under a table, produces a previously hidden bottle of chilled white, pours a little into a plastic cup and hands it to me. I don’t know his name, but I thank him for generously enhancing an already lovely lunch!

Banyan grounds

Afterwards, inside the Banyan building, I find a host of alternative therapies on offer. Founder and owner Nic Witham has been healing for almost forty years and Steven since 2007. Banyan has a two-year certified healing programme, taught by Nic, while Steven manages the day-to-day healing requirements of clients and offers healing to anyone in need. Both are qualified in spiritual healing, reiki, reflexology, Indian head massage and electrocrystal therapy.

“We have a keen interest in natural healing methods,” says Nic, “and quite a good network of others with a similar interest, so that we can help as many people as possible with their conditions.”

Chilled out and mellow after a good lunch I decide to sample Indian head massage for the first time. Physical medium Scott Milligan, whose home circle meets regularly at Banyan, cautions me with a wicked glint in his eye that while I’m likely to find it enjoyable, I should “brace” myself for when my hair is “yanked” upwards. “It really hurts!” he says, reassuringly.

In reality the experience is utterly relaxing and I find myself drifting off as my neck and shoulders are given some much-needed TLC. If you’ve not tried IHM, I highly recommend it, particularly if, like me, you tend to store tension in your neck and shoulders.

In another room, private sittings are on offer with mediums Christine Morgan and Jan Dayton, while concert pianist David Bailey is available to play your own personal spirit-inspired music and present you with a recording of it to take home.

The Peace Festival ends with an evening ‘SoulQuest’ service. SoulQuest began in 2009 when, as Nic explains, “a small group of friends asked Morning Star – through the mediumship of Scott Milligan – how we could assist the spirit world”. Acknowledging the comfort brought through demonstrations and sittings, Morning Star went on to suggest that the group sit to channel love and healing for the spirit world to use as they felt most appropriate at the time. This now happens monthly. Nic cautions that “SoulQuest only appeals to those who wish to give, as there is very little to take away except an understanding that you have participated in something far greater than we can see or understand from where we stand at this time.”

This year, as always, Morning Star, who apparently speaks through Scott just once a year, gives an inspirational talk. Nic leads a moving meditation on the elements, and healing is sent out to those in need. So ends a wonderful day of spiritual awareness and interaction in idyllic surroundings.

Banyan Qi Gong

The story behind Banyan’s beginnings is an unusual one. Nic gave up a successful career as an investment banker to establish this lovely spiritual retreat. On the face of it, it seems like an unlikely step from international banking to running a centre for spiritual development. I asked Nic what had prompted him to take such a radical, life-changing decision.

“My mother was a healer and my father a trance healer,” he told me. “I spoke regularly with my father’s control (Silver Cloud) from childhood. When I was about fourteen, he asked what I was going to do with my life. I told him I’d like to work for the spirit world as a healer and medium. He advised me to go and live a normal life first, otherwise I would always wonder what I’d missed.”

Nic’s final conversation with Silver Cloud occurred in 1997, while he and Steven were living in Hong Kong. The control suggested it might be time to return to the UK and start the second chapter of Nic’s life, though he gave no further direction. In 1998, the couple moved back to London, Nic continuing his work in the city and managing projects worldwide. But the pull of the spiritual life would not leave him.

“I had vivid images in my mind and dreams about a centre for treatments and demonstrations,” he told me. “Steven and I trained in a few therapies, and I returned to developing my own mediumship whilst we looked for premises. From 2003 to 2005 we looked to find a home for Banyan Retreat, travelling each weekend anywhere from Oxford down to Sussex. Eventually, when we sold our home in Hertfordshire, we had to find somewhere. We extended our range of counties to include Kent and one day Steven found Lake House.”

In the strange way that so many spiritual things seem to work out, a prediction confirmed that Nic and Steven had found the right place.

“During a sitting, Steven’s grandmother told us we would be close to the fish and chip shop. We both assumed this couldn’t be correct and there must have been a miscommunication. Arriving far too early for our appointment to view Lake House we drove past it and pulled in to the next turning which just happened to be outside the Yellow Fisherman, the local fish and chip shop! As we drove down the drive to view Lake House, Steven and I knew this was the right place to open Banyan Retreat.”

The pair moved into Lake House in July 2005 and Nic continued to work in the city for another year. The house needed work, having dry rot and a number of other problems, all of which required money.

“When we opened the doors in May 2006 the focus initially was on natural healing therapies with a few demonstrations of mediumship and private readings,” he told me. “This rapidly changed to much more spiritual work and less focus on therapies. Although we will always offer treatments and healing, spiritual development is now the main focus.”

In more recent years Banyan has become well known for hosting physical séances by Scott Milligan and David Thompson. Since this form of mediumship – which enables manipulation of physical matter by those no longer in this world – is very rare, I was interested to know how it had become such a personal passion for Nic.

Banyan Peace Festival

“When Steven and I returned to the UK in 1998 I took him to the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain, the Arthur Findlay College at Stansted and the College of Psychic Studies in London. He was fascinated with the pictures of ectoplasm coming from physical mediums of the past.

“Knowing only a little about this form of mediumship, it prompted me to research much further to help Steven understand. He said to me, ‘Before I leave this physical plane I’m going to see this for myself!’ I feel that physical mediumship can provide the ultimate evidence of survival. What greater proof could there be than to see your loved ones who have passed to the world of spirit materialise before you, speak with you, hold you and reassure you that they are doing fine?”

Banyan also hosts demonstrations by some of the UK’s finest evidential mediums, including Mavis Pittilla and Eileen Davies. Promoting the highest possible standard of survival evidence is a priority for Nic.

“When someone is grieving deeply they are in a most vulnerable and fragile state of mind. Accurate communication is of vital importance and there is no room for error. So many mediums dip into the psychic, and also begin to counsel, but we prefer communication from the spirit world in the best way possible.

“Hosting Mavis Pittilla’s mentorship programme is a great honour for us. We feel it’s of great importance that her in-depth knowledge and understanding are shared with as many as possible. To watch her teach, and see what she is able to do with students, is truly inspirational.

“I feel that many mediums today are out giving readings and demonstrations almost as soon as they are able to give a link. Development from that point forward takes a back seat and many do not reach their full potential. This mindset has to change and our mediums of today need to continue to invest in their development no matter how experienced they are.”

Over the past two years Nic and Steven have invested significantly in transforming Banyan Retreat into an extremely attractive modern spiritual centre. There is a dedicated séance room, and a large, airy demonstration/workshop space. They now hope to attain charitable status and complete the remaining renovation work.

“We have some wonderful mediums and very experienced tutors working with us in evidential mediumship, altered states and physical mediumship,” says Nic. At the moment we only offer one-day or weekend workshops. Next year we are hoping to host week-long courses which will be of great interest to overseas students as well as those from the UK.

“Later this year we’ll have Christine Morgan working with us. Christine is no stranger to Banyan, but as from November she will be teaching here in addition to supporting the physical séances with David Thompson. We also have new workshops planned, one of which is with Chris Connelly, entitled ‘Exploring your mediumistic potential through hypnosis’.

“We’re always looking for new services to offer and great mediums to work with us here at Banyan Retreat. As we go forward Banyan may morph and change, but we welcome change and go forward with no boundaries to restrict us and only a desire in our hearts to be of service and help all who enter through our gates. Continuing to build our reputation and promoting only the highest standards of mediumship will remain our number one aim.”

Through the realisation of Nic’s long-held dream, a peaceful and beautiful environment has been created for the nurturing of mind, body and spirit. If you’ve not yet visited Banyan, be sure to put it on your spiritual itinerary. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

• The Banyan Retreat is at Lake House, Maidstone Road, Ashford, Kent TN26 1AR. For further details see: www.banyanretreat.com, or call: 01233 714155.

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