From there to here…


The Vaucluse is the most beautiful place on earth. Well, perhaps not THE most beautiful. Cappodocia, Turkey probably is….then there’s Holy Island. Well, alright, there are quite a few beautiful place on earth and the Vaucluse is one of them. In fact, on our recent holiday,  I found it so beautiful, that it actually hurt in a Look-God-you-know-I-need-beauty-why-am-I-in suburbia? sort of way. (But God, who is used to my moaning, just chuckled and did a thing, which is what this post is about really.)

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The old house – shuttered and sprawling, with honey coloured stone – was run by a wonderful couple called Olivier and Christele. When translated, their website said things like, “We are a small family who love to receive and share the living environment so privileged,” and “We will guide you through our discoveries and our hot heart”. The living environment was indeed privileged with its vine covered terraces, inviting pool and shady corners. And their hot hearts provided us with ample breakfasts of lush fruit, home-made yoghurt and melt-in-the-mouth croissants. To say nothing of the cheese, and wine to die for (the latter not for breakfast obviously). The first night we ate outside as guests at their Table d’Hote along with five Belgians and a French couple (few English make it to these parts).  Olivier regaled us with stories of his visit to Brighton where he’d been required to put coins in a meter to make the lights work. We politely asked when this was. It turned out to be forty years ago.

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During the day we read by the pool or drove to tiny villages balanced so precariously on the edge of hills, that they seemed to float in a shimmer of heat and silence. We explored caves. We followed the River Sorgue to its source above Fontaine de Vaucluse and wandered in covered markets. We ate in brasseries in squares of sunshine or in the flower filled courtyard outside our room. We slept behind shutters which made the room so dark, you blundered into cupboards trying to go to the loo. We pushed them aside when we woke, blinking in bold sunshine. It was,  let me tell you, a slice of heaven.

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But here’s the thing. As I went through the various stages that we all go through on holiday – 1) This place is incredible. We are so blessed 2) I want to live here forever. It’s not fair 3) Nothing lasts forever, even life itself. Just enjoy it, you fool – I went on Facebook. That, in itself, is of course not particularly interesting. It happens all the time, rather too often in fact, and it was good for me not to have it available 24/7 for a week or so. But when I went on it one day I recognised, with a beat, some photos of my local area – Richmond, the River Thames, the lock at Teddington.  It seems that a friend, a beautiful and talented musician we knew in Turkey, was visiting our area. She had posted some photos of it on Facebook, excited about her visit.

My immediate reactions were, somewhat paradoxically, both surprise that she thought they were worth posting (after all this was Richmond Upon Thames, not Cappadocia or Istanbul or the Vaucluse), along with a beat of recognition and love for the place. How strange! Here was I, bemoaning my incipient return to “suburbia” and here was she, posting photos of her holiday there with excitement and pleasure. It opened my eyes. I actually live in a very pretty part of London. I should be grateful.

We’ve been back for three days now. We keep saying things like, “They’ll be having aperitifs on the terrace now,” or “I wonder if Olivier is raking up leaves”. The fascinating glimpse into the lives of these people – the cycle of guests arriving and departing (How can they remain so welcoming, so interested?) – is still with us. In an attempt to keep the spirit of our holiday alive, tonight we had aperitifs on the patio – a Peroni and a Pimm’s. We sat in the garden enjoying the environment so privileged. And then I served my husband a Saturday supper with my hot heart – pizza in front of the TV.

Come back Olivier – all is forgiven. I quite enjoyed the Brighton story really…

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Sleep mode


Sleep mode – the pc stays on but uses low power. Apps stay open so when the pc wakes up, you’re instantly back to where you left off.

When I was younger, I could sleep anywhere. I’ve spent nights on floors, coaches, trains and under stars on the side of mountains. Once, memorably, I slept in an abandoned house in a tiny French village, with nothing but a febrile breeze and a band of crickets for company. In those days sleep was an irritating if necessary interruption to all the things I wanted to do, to experience. From living in student digs in a castle to racing friends up the down escalator of the Pompidou Centre to hitching across Europe in the summer (sorry Mum).

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My friend and I shared the top bedroom in the front left-hand tower. We used to do Hamlet impressions on the roof.

How times have changed. Now it has to be in my bed with the linen sheets and the 100% cotton jacquard duvet cover. And most important of all, the thin cushion (for lying on my back) and the thicker cushion (for lying on my side). I remember once lumbering into my mother-in-law’s room years ago and helpfully flinging the pillows onto the bed as she made it. To my surprise she wrung her hands. “You haven’t muddled up the pillows, have you?” she demanded. I was dumbfounded. What did it matter if I had? (Those were the “If-we- have- two- pillow- cases- that- match -we’re – doing- well days) Now, I  understand.

Sleep, these days, is precious, particularly at weekends. On school nights, it’s different – though much better than it used to be – lying coiled like a spring, dreaming of recalcitrant children and OFSTED inspectors with daleks for heads. I once dreamed that my entire class had turned into adult versions of themselves and were sitting with their knees scrunched under the tables, with car-keys and mobiles where their pencil cases ought to be. To say nothing of the odd I-forgot-to-get-dressed dream and the Whoops-no-teeth dream. I can honestly say I love my job. But do I ever have these dreams on non-work days? Never.

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Sometimes on school nights, when my brain is addled and active and rolling like a sackful of cats, I pretend I don’t have to get up the next day. It’s magic. I can feel myself melting and spreading like heated honey, stretching across the bed, toes tucked into cool, linen on skin, sleeping like a starfish. Sadly my husband doesn’t really appreciate the starfish thing. But then he doesn’t spend his day hunched over children’s work or wedged into chairs the size of fruit crates.

My favourite way to wake up is, slowly on summer Saturdays. The window’s open and, as I surface, I’m reeled into shore by breeze or birdsong or the lemon lift of curtains. The bed is a criss-cross of light and shade and I stretch, luxurious, into the warm bits for extra snooze. Because I can.

Sleep is really the most curious thing. I can’t think about it too much otherwise I can’t do it, but it’s such an interesting concept, this Let’s- press- the- Off- button- and -shut -ourselves- down- thing, and we do it every night mostly without thinking much. The more active among us may resent it – “Sleep, those little slices of death – how I loathe them!” wrote Edgar Allan Poe. But I prefer Arthur Schopenhauer’s: “Sleep is the interest we have to pay on the capital which is called in at death; and the higher the rate of interest and the more regularly it is paid, the further the date of redemption is postponed. “

A happy little note to end on. God knew what he was doing when he invented Sleep mode. A breath, a pause, a taste of that other life – where no amount of rushing around will bring you what you yearn for. But there is rest, strength, hope for the new day.

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A Celtic prayer and gift from my dear friend Norita Erickson whose early death left so many of us in shock. But she lives still, I know she does…

Human Sleep mode – the human being is still alive but uses low power. Options stay open so when the human wakes up, you’re not back to where you left off. You’re given another chance.

 

 

 

The Unexpected Cost of Celebration


It was the biggest summer since we’d grown sunflowers from seed. I’d got a new job, my daughter got great exam  results and two days later she was going to be a bridesmaid for the first time. These things in themselves would have had me doing an Eric and Ernie style dance up the garden. But to turn joyful celebration  into heart-stopping excitement, the wedding was my son’s. To a wonderful girl. From a lovely family. In a village church, in Sussex.

For non-U.K. dwellers these were two comedians who did this great happy dance…

On the last day of term, I drove away from the primary school I’d worked at for twenty eight years (apart from a spell abroad) with a bootful of presents, and cards saying things like, “You were my best teacher ever. Apart from Miss Young who could yodel.” I remember driving past people slouching along the pavement, feeling sorry for them because they didn’t have a son getting married this summer. (I was careful to choose those too young to have sons at all, lest I bestow my pity on the undeserving, although of course these days you can never be sure.) Basically I was so full of anticipation and excitement that I was even dreading  the summer’s end before it had begun.

And it was an amazing summer. My daughter did so well in her A’ Levels. So did her boyfriend. We even managed to squeeze in a quick celebration lunch for her, with bubbly, and balloons (and a traditional home made banner) before packing the car and heading off to Sussex for the  wedding weekend.

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The wedding day was perfect. Everyone arrived on time. The church looked amazing. The service was wonderful. The bride and groom and bridesmaids and Best Man and ushers looked stylish, gracious and poised. I didn’t cry during my reading from 1 John, although I had a wobbly moment when I looked at the bride and groom during the phrase, “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.” My husband gave me this verse at our wedding twenty nine years ago so I thought it might be appropriate to give them a meaningful look at this point – not soppy, but warm, serene (I’d practised in the mirror). This may have been a mistake. Just as my cheekbones stretched into the planned gracious smile, I was aware that, a) It looked like a drunken leer, b) Tears were pricking at the back of my eyes. I thought briefly of the cost of Estee Lauder mascara. And recovered.

The Reception, food, speeches, evening – all were fabulous. I knew it would go fast. So I’d already decided I was going to concentrate really hard on each moment and not think ahead to the next one, to slow time down.

In fact the whole experience taught me a lot: –

1.  Family weddings are a gift from God, but they’re going to be emotional. Accept it.

2. Young men in suits can intensify hot flushes, even when you’re old enough to remember them in nappies.

3, You don’t often get all your favourite people in the world in one room for hours on end. Make the most of it.

4. After the wedding, there’s only a limited period of time in which you should relive it, a) on Facebook b) with your wedding hat  c) with your friends, who may tire of your anecdote-laden photos.

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5. Excitement is all well and good but it can be as stressful as disaster, as in an OFSTED visit or, say, locking your house keys in the car while leaving a pan of figs on to boil. In a foreign country. (I would never do that though).

I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but it’s worth mentioning that during the exciting run-up to the wedding, I hardly slept, I lived on Strepsils and Paracetamol, I had the No Teeth Dream and the Forgot to Get Dressed Before Work Dream more times than I’d care to mention. God, if you believe in Him – and I absolutely do, even at the dentist and on the M25 – didn’t mean for us to live on highs all the time. It’s great when life’s a whirlwind, packed with exciting experiences but it can make us crazy. We also need large chunks of the mundane, the everyday. It calms us, slows us, gives things shape and structure. A different kind of gift.

I enjoyed every minute of this summer, but I’m not mourning its demise as much as I thought I would. It’s time to take up other things, like reading. And eating (now that I’m not on a wedding diet).

And there’s still a fair bit of excitement out there. I mean, you should see our tomato plants…

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“And we know and rely on the love God has for us.” 1 John 4:16

 

 

 

 

A lifetime of holidays and I’m still learning…


So it wasn’t the best weather, and it wasn’t the best place.  The windscreen wipers squeaked double-time all the way there and there was rain on and off all week. It was cold. The upstairs shower didn’t work and the toilets were dodgy. The roof in the conservatory leaked in three places and the smoke alarm bleeped all night, until we took the batteries out, choosing sleep over fumes and crisped skin.

But we got over it. And once we got over it, it was wonderful. There was lying around and reading, and reading, and lying around (for the over 50s).  DVDs and Youtube and Youtube and DVDs for the overs 18s. There were seaside towns to explore,  cafes for getting warm and eating cake,  and  beaches, and sudden bursts of sunshine, the latter two actually coinciding once for twelve whole minutes on a beach in Cromer.  The cottage was pretty, if dysfunctional, and in the evenings we took it in turns to cook, or loaf in evening light spilling gold into the back room.

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And it strikes me how strange it is that we’re always taken aback when holidays, in common with Christmas and new kitchens, aren’t perfect. They should be. After all, we’ve paid for them and we’ve waded through a lot to get to them – all that planning and pontificating, making arrangements (so much of life is making arrangements). To say nothing of the daily grind that has dominated your life since your last holiday – cooking, shopping, keeping clean.  You’ve gone up in the roof and found the cases, though no one’s seen the toiletries bags since Brittany, and as for the automatic cat feeder, didn’t you lend it to someone at Easter? Then there’s the whole, Shall we leave the low-energy lounge/kitchen light on, blinds up or down, curtains open or closed at the back/front, plugs in/out? And by the time you’ve packed the cases, written an essay to the cat feeder and the plant-waterer and the rubbish-putter-outer (you couldn’t possibly impose on the one person to do all of this), you sink into your car feeling you need a holiday. But you’ve got to put up with the long drive/flight before you can even dream of one, let alone the blood-pressure-raising interrogation for the next few miles or so – “Did you turn the coffee machine/iron/hair straighteners off? Did you slam the dodgy freezer door?” (This all before it starts to rain.)

So after all that, and sitting in roadworks and traffic for hours, the place had better be perfect. And if it isn’t. we’re surprised, then irritated, then annoyed. This is our holiday! 

But after we’ve had a cup of tea, talked of complaint letters, unclenched a little, we shake our heads, shrug. We notice the rain has stopped, there’s a view across fields. The lounge is cosy and has a log burner, some pretty brickwork. And for miles and miles there are fields dotted with tiny hamlets, and trees and water. And arching above it all, singing, the wide  Norfolk sky. It’s pure gold.

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And it suddenly hits us, that holidays are a break from  routine, not  life. They still require us to do the things that make life work, most of the time – laugh, ignore rubbish, watch for gold. We remember, with a clunk, this hitting us last year and all the years before…But somehow in the middle of all the toiletry bag hunting and the why-isn’t-this-perfect ranting, we forgot it. Again.

I sometimes think that God, if you believe in him, and I absolutely always do, apart from on planes and once briefly in a kebab shop in Brighton,  must sometimes put his head in his hands and sigh.

 

 

 

 

The Olive Tree


When it was all over, she resigned her job, packed a case and flew to Montpellier. It was strange really. While it was all unravelling – thirty years of careful working life – she knew, at the end of it, she would need to go away for a bit. But where? Night after night, stiff with horror at the accusations levelled against her, her mind taut with McGowan’s sweaty face, she lay awake until birdsong began and the window fringed with light. The only thing that would sometimes help – if not sleep exactly, a kind of drifting wakefulness – was a systematic list of possibilities, each night a little longer like the game she used to play as a child, “I went to the shop and I bought…” Holland, Vienna, Lake Garda; Spain, Tunisia, Venice; The Canaries, Morocco. Money wouldn’t be a problem. She knew that. Whatever happened, they would pay her off; no one wants a scandal, especially in a well-known company like theirs, struggling for survival against other giants.

So it was with a breath of surprise that she found herself on a plane to the south of France less than twenty four hours after she’d messaged Annie and bought a ticket. It had all seemed so clear in the end. Walking away from the brick building that held most of her life, determined not to look back, she ran for the 381, sat down in a seat offered by a spotty youth with sideburns, and opened Facebook. And there it was.

Kate – it’s been such a time. Saw you were friends with Ali and added you. Would so love to catch up. Come see us! We are in Almeres, near Montpellier, in France. I’m at a bit of a loose end. P away a lot. Come any time…

As suburbia had jerked past – grey October people and concrete – she’d remembered; photos, some Christmases ago – a stone house, blue shutters, an olive tree. It had struck her at the time as being the kind of place you saw in tourist brochures, not the sort people actually lived in. When she got home, she dug them out of the old tin box that had held special things since her teens. They were a little creased and she’d had to hold them up to the light to see them properly. She messaged Annie.

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Coming in to land, the plane shuddered and creaked in that way that precedes impending death. Kate gripped her seat. God, I’ve been through a lot. Don’t let me die as well. Not til I’ve seen Annie again, and eaten olives…For the tenth time she counted the seats to the nearest door. None. Good. Booking the seat next to the middle exit was the best thing she’d learned from her fear of flying therapy. That and the fact many peaceable people wear rucksacks.

She and Annie examined each other with wonder by the double doors near Arrivals. She supposed she had changed as much as her old friend, a shy dark eyed girl who had somehow chrysalised into an elegant woman entirely at ease with herself.

“Thirty years!”

“Where did they go?”

“I don’t remember you being so tall!”

“You’re practically French now!”

They talked all the way to Almeres, spinning past fields, around hills and under leafy archways of filtered light. Kate stared at the space, the sky, tiny villages with their twists of olive trees. It was such a relief to exclaim over things other than work. Other than the latest development on the case. On McGowan and his newest angle. On her certain demise. She had worried for six months that the worst would happen. Well, the worst had happened, and here she was in France, in October, with her old friend.

“Come!”

Annie had negotiated a narrow street, crested a hill and pulled into a driveway edged with pots. Kate, punch drunk with exhaustion, felt herself opening the passenger door and sliding dream-like into this other world; a breath of wind, of lavender; through the gate, fields bathed in amber light. The stone house, perched on a rise above the village, was low with blue shutters. Her heart lifted with pleasure.

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Inside – filled with polished wood and stone – Annie left her to rest while she prepared supper. She drowsed, aware of drifting across a sea of sunlit geraniums, tomatoes and olive oil. Until McGowan’s angry face thrust itself into her dreams in its usual way – large, red, devoid of all feeling, all humanity. Shouting, always shouting.

“Do you honestly say you were unaware of this? That you had no idea? You are the last check, Kate, the last check, before it gets to me! That is your job! How was I to know the risks if you didn’t tell me?”

She jolted into consciousness. Beads of sweat pricked her scalp. A familiar surge of antipathy towards her old boss overwhelmed her. She had never liked him – the hearty laugh, the self-interest – but now she found herself inventing his ruin. He was a hard man. The only time she’d ever seen a glimmer in him, a softness, had been when mentioning his daughter. There were no photos, no clues to the man ever having had a life, a family. But he had mentioned her once, and his whole face had changed. Kate had never forgotten.

The distant clink of china was replaced with Mozart, Kate got up, washed her face, went down.

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“Ah! Bienvenue en France! How was your journey?” Pierre was an English gentleman with a French name. He was solicitous, seating her by the window, pouring wine. She smiled. Annie appeared, carrying olives and a baguette.

“I love olives! Are they from that tree?”

Pierre nodded. “It was a dry, stunted little thing,” he said, “I had to move it. Quite a tricky business. Had to prune it, dig a moat, soak the roots…but look at it now! And just taste these olives!”

They ate, reminisced, filling in the gaps, but still there was no talk of work, of how they’d really spent the years.

“What do you do, Pierre?” A different job, a safe topic.

“I’ve been seconded out actually. An airline.”

A beat. A gust of wind. The patter of rain, olives falling.

She cleared her throat, “Which one?”

He named it. “I have to travel a lot. Not so good!” His eyes shone behind steel rimmed glasses, belying his words, “But it’s mostly trouble shooting. I’m never away for long. Actually, I’m in your neck of the woods next week. Our HQ’s on your doorstep.”

Spearing asparagus, Kate was aware of her heart, pausing, stepping out, staring. Her fingers, slippery, struggled to hold her glass. How could she have travelled so far, to be in this place again?

Pierre poured wine, became expansive, “Sad case really. There’s been a complaint – bullying behaviour, a dismissal. And the gentleman concerned is now fighting for his own job. There’s a disabled daughter apparently. No mother…”

A roaring in her ears, a memory. McGowan in his office, late one night; she, thinking he’d gone, not bothering to knock. He had reacted instantly, pretending to be asleep but she had seen – the look of despair, the head lowered along a length of arm, flung out, palm up, fingers splayed like drowned sausages. She pushed aside a shred of pity. Now, at last, she had a chance. She would tell Pierre everything.

Annie served sizzling meat, gratin dauphinois.

“I was the one he dismissed. Well, I resigned in the end.”

Her voice, quiet, calm, held a steadiness she did not feel. Her hosts did not respond at once. Annie took ratatouille, Pierre a mouthful of wine, they resumed their placid eating. It was only then she realised she had not said it out loud. She had not said it at all.

“Where do you work these days?”

Kate observed her old friend over the rim of her wine glass. Her eyes, still huge, were warm and wise.

“Oh,” She replaced her glass carefully on the coaster, a slim square of wicker, “I’m between jobs at the moment. That’s why I decided to take up your invitation. How long can I stay?”

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That evening, she sat at the window, looking out. The rooftops, threads of orange and red, dipped and rose into liquid indigo. There was the sound of doves. Below, the olive tree’s silver leaves trembled in twilight. She thought of her job, of the years of early starts and late returns, of the sacrifices, hours and hours of effort, of energy, of giving ‘til there was nothing left to give.

“You and I,” she said softly to the olive tree, “We were the same, really. All washed up, and nowhere to go.” She remembered something she had read in the middle of it all, derided, pushed aside.

Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. 

“I do not need revenge,” she told the olive tree, “I’m beyond that now. But it will be a long time before I can forgive him!”

But as she lay down and slept a sleep she had not known for years, she knew in a way, she already had.

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The olive branch is usually a symbol of peace or victory. Greek myths tell how a dove brought an olive twig from Phoenicia to Athens, where it was planted on the Acropolis to become their first olive tree. The early Christians often allegorised peace on their sepulchres by the figure of a dove bearing an olive branch in its beak.

 

Retreat, Reuse, Recycle


Have you heard the definition of English hospitality? According to a peculiarly honest American who once stayed with us, it’s – Making people feel at home when you wish they were. It made us laugh, then it made us think. Then we wondered if he was trying to tell us something…

I would defy that man to visit Mays Farm in Wiltshire and maintain his position. It is run by the loveliest English couple, Kim and Penelope Swithinbank, who moved from Muswell Hill in July 2013 to open it as a Retreat House. Arriving by bus at the tiny village of Hullavington, my friend and I were eager to see if the house was as elegant as the website suggested. It was. We, in jeans and smeared with train juice and crisps, rolled up the drive – my friend in her rucksack and me puddle-jumping my wheelie case – as the house reared up before us, all mellow stone and silence.  A pair of crumpled teachers with dreams, the sight of it made us sigh with anticipation. We were in the country, surrounded by beauty, for a whole weekend. To write.

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Penelope welcomed us in the back courtyard and showed us our rooms. On the way through the house there were glimpses of lamps and rugs and wood burning stoves. A door to the spiral staircase led us past the dining room – book-lined walls with chandelier – up curving stairs to our writers’ haunts. Views, space, the smell of wood. Perfect.

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Our hostess was lovely – warm and elegant matching the ambience of her beautiful home (think Joanna Lumley meets Princess Di). As the weekend progressed I marvelled at her ability to produce perfect meals for seven, manage seamless conversation and remain apparently unruffled and calm. But everyone has their story, and when interviewed for this post, Penelope explained that her dream of running a retreat house was years in the making.

After working in America and London as a member of the clergy, with three married children and six grand-children, Penelope’s longing had always been to open her home as a place for tired people to relax and recharge in inspiring surroundings. But life as a rector, then as a chaplain in her husband’s large London church made this impossible. Until tragedy struck and she was forced to re-think her life in the most challenging circumstances.

In September 2010 Penelope’s mother was run over and killed, before her very eyes. The horror of this experience and its aftermath meant she was unable to work for two years. To make matters worse, they lived in a church flat on the main route for the police and fire services. Sirens blasted 24/7, making the road to recovery impassable. Advised to move away, Penelope and Kim had a sense that this might be the time to pursue the Retreat House idea.

Penelope visited Wiltshire in August 2012 as London was bulging at the seams with Olympic fever. An idle google on a property website announced an Open Day for the sale of a large property in the village of Hullavington known as Mays Farm. Penelope believes in God-nudges. She had one then. The house had not been lived in for three years and before he died, the old man hadn’t been upstairs for ten. The place was crumbling but as Penelope walked through the door, she was Gnudged again, this time more strongly than ever, “This is the place…”

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They had a tiny flat in Vauxhall which they put on the market, and they made an offer on Mays Farm. Against all the odds (it was the lowest of three) it was accepted, they completed in February 2013 and the builders moved in. Penelope’s dream became reality in mid -July when the first retreat-hunters arrived.

Running a retreat house is clearly hard work but for Penelope the rewards are in seeing burnt out, tired people relax, sleep, read, walk and just “be”. It is a great joy, she says, to help people feel pampered. Sometimes they ask for spiritual direction, making it possible for Penelope to reuse her pastoral skills. Sometimes they simply want to escape. There’s so much choice in the world, says Penelope. It’s exhausting.

My friend and I had a particular agenda in mind. We planned to write all day, walk a bit and spend the evenings in the local pub. But once we arrived and the house drew us in like a hug, neither one of us had any inclination to go anywhere. With beautiful home cooked food (and wine) around the table and interesting conversation with Kim and Penelope and the other visitors – a vicar, an administrator, a manager – why would we want to go out? After supper we sat by the fire in the drawing room and chatted, and sort of wrote a bit on our lap-tops. Firelight, company, a big country house – the perfect escape. Like Cluedo, without the murder.

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Other highlights of the weekend were steaming bowls of soup, a cream tea and breakfast in bed. Not that my friend and I are gluttons or anything…We also loved the stillness, the walk across fields and through the village and of course the writing.  It was my perfect writing place – beamed ceilings, filter coffee, a view of fields and old stone. And silence.

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When we left, replete with stories and with a new perspective on the week ahead, I thought of the American. He’s not wrong. We Brits don’t have a great tradition of hospitality. But people like the Swithinbanks, they break the mould. The ultimate hosts are surely people who provide the perfect atmosphere and space in which to rest and dream, and spend time with God if wanted. Unwittingly perhaps, Penelope has built the kind of haven she once desperately needed and was unable to find at the time. But it’s clear that she takes great pleasure in seeing others blessed by it.

Recycling at its best I would say…

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The Vine at Mays Farm is a Christian Retreat House. Rooms are from £65 per night (full board). Details are at http://www.thevine-at-maysfarm.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hunting for Small and other Sacred Pathways


I hate closing doors – on the house, the classroom, the car – there’s always a tiny stab of panic just before the lip of the door hits the jamb. Sometimes I have to go back and check things – the oven, heater, brake. I don’t quite know why. Call me O.C.D. but I suppose it’s the finality of it, the end or beginning, or the potential forgetting. Like the time we lived in Turkey and I went out leaving figs on to boil, then locked my keys in the car, rushing back when I realised. But that’s years ago now (and a blog post in itself).

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I feel it when we leave the hotel. Not because I particularly like it – the windows are too small and there are illuminated colour changing banisters (unnecessary). But at least my husband enjoys arranging the refreshments. He gets bored easily.

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When I close our hotel room door, there’s the familiar lurch – what have I left, where is my phone charger, Kindle charger, camera charger? – but there’s also another closing. We came up north to visit our son and his lovely fiancée which was excitement enough for me. The day out in the Peaks was a bonus. It was like opening a door and instantly forgetting everything behind you, like Narnia without the snow.

What is it about English moorland – wet, brown – that’s so deeply soothing? After our crowded cities, is it the space and the sky? Is it the pastel colours layered fatly in quiet light? Is it glimpses of things? Water? Trees? Is it because I live in London and the dizzying sight of a green field and a cow, is enough to make my day? But in the Peak District there no cows, or fields. Just the dun coloured moor and trees in sepia.

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We walk, drifting together and apart, as families do when they’re not together much. And somehow, the wideness of the sky and the ringing water makes us laugh more, and share secrets, as if tranquility seeps from the earth into our very bones.

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And all the while the water plunges on – determined, carefree – flinging itself with abandon at anything in its wake – stones, trees, the bank – bouncing into obstacles, then immediately flowing round them, carrying on. Not worrying, readjusting its path when it needs to. Trusting that, in time, it will reach the sea.

And God, who whispers small in quiet places, begins to work his magic.

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I’m reading a book called “Sacred Pathways” in which Gary Thomas refers to creation as God’s cathedral. The book outlines different ways in which people relax, re-energise, feel close to God. I am apparently a naturalist. Fortunately for the world, this has nothing to do with removing my clothes but is being filled with energy by nature. Other pathways, according to Thomas include the sensate, the ascetic, the activist and the intellectual. Obviously most people are more than one, but what I love about his writing is the idea of spiritual nutrition – we are all fed in different ways. So it kind of matters to find which is yours.

I’m thinking about this later, at home, crashing around all moody at being back in the suburbs with concrete and cars and the faint screech of sirens. And the cat appears and taps on the French doors. I yell, “Use the flap!” He taps again and that little black and white face, all pert and hopeful makes me weaken, as usual. A clutch of miniature daffs on the patio catches my eye and I feel the familiar stirring. And it occurs to me quite suddenly, that in reality cathedrals are not in the country, but in cities…

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The light is fading and I have work to do, but I grab my phone and go.

So here we are again, I think. The park, the houses, the roads. It’s February so it’s mostly daffodils and blossom but there is a different kind of pleasure in hunting them out. They’re not just there, embracing you, like in the Peaks when it’s all vast beauty and you’re almost drunk with it. You have to search.

Behind houses and in front gardens. But the same things are there – just smaller – pastels and trees and glimpses of windows. And there’s that smoky, winter-Sunday smell that’s kind of city-comfort, as if God, who shouts loud in noisy places, is beginning to work magic again. I’m still here – don’t you see me?

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It’s dusk so people put lights on. I try to take a photo cos I love other people’s lives, but a front door opens so I have to pretend to be waving around for a mobile signal. (Note to self – You can get sued for this kind of thing.)

So I get home, all flushed and cathedral-quiet. The key clicks in the lock and I realise with a jolt that when I left, I slammed the door and strode off to hunt for small, without a single backward glance.

In time, perhaps even I will reach the sea.

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Moles and Glimpses of Things


What do you do on a thin day in winter when you’re not at work, your To Do List is vile and the air outside beckons with cut glass finger? You go out of course, with your husband or your friend, to Richmond Park. You worry you’ll regret this later because there are decisions and emails and appointments to sort, and school work hissing at you from a pile in the corner. Also the carpets look like a scene from Armageddon, on Day Two. But it’s your day off…so you leave them. After the week you’ve had, you know what you need. This takes enormous will power and, as you settle in the car with your new camera and the prospect of a walk and a latte, you congratulate yourself on your mental strength.

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When you get to the park, there are birds, and trees and wide spaces filled with pastel coloured light. You remember with relief that there’s this whole world outside home, school and church that exists quietly without your input and has a different rhythm, a kind of slow-time which fills you with breath, like a yawn. In the silence you walk on wet leaves and down pathways which pull you irresistibly towards the views from Pembroke Lodge. If someone asked you at this point what was on your To Do List, you wouldn’t even remember. The Great Outdoors has worked its magic again and you’ve emerged from tight spaces, a crumpled paper smoothed out for re-use.

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What you love most, apart from the trees and the silence and the views across the city, are the glimpses of things; windows, smoky trees, the gracious rise of houses; threads of gold on a winter’s day. There are steps and pathways and an old gate with a glimpse of meadows on the other side, which you can’t walk in today, but you’re happy that they’re there. Best of all there’s a viewing point on top of King Henry’s Mound where you can see a keyhole glimpse of St Paul’s Cathedral, ten miles away.

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You go into Pembroke Lodge and are amused to read about its history before you tuck into lunch and a latte, which is extravagant for you, but delays the moment when you take up that other life, at least for a bit. As you eat, you marvel at the fact that this lodge began life as a cottage occupied by a mole catcher. It’s hard to imagine that mole catching was once a full-time job, but there we are. This was around 1754. It seems that “his sole duty was to prevent the peril to huntsmen presented by molehills”. This you find fascinating. You know that Richmond Park was one of the Kings’ hunting grounds but who’d have thought that moles could be dangerous? So dangerous, in fact, that their activities caused extreme peril to huntsmen who could not take to their horses without fear of mole related plots, to dismount them and kill their steeds. Your husband, or friend, wonders what happened to the moles. You briefly discuss the virtues of Mole Pie or Fillet of Mole with Mushrooms. How would you catch a mole in the 1700s? One imagines it would be fairly basic, the mole catcher coming home to his house on the hill, with mole juice on his hand, to ask his family, “What shall we do with the moles today? Anyone need a sponge?” It makes you laugh, but inside you do feel sorry, for the moles.

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Over the years the lodge was expanded and became a grand home owned by countesses and lords. It was visited by Queen Victoria, Gladstone, Dickens, Tennyson and Lewis Carroll. Bertrand Russell grew up there. Then it became a regimental head-quarters during the war. Finally it was converted into flats for park staff with a cafeteria on the ground floor for the public. It’s also hired out for occasions.

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As you drive home, the lodge breaking up like a dream in the wing mirror, you wonder about the mole catcher and what he would think of it now: the wide sweep of stone, the cafe, the famous people who have lived there or visited. Before you know it you are whisking between shops, stopping at lights, staring at women with shopping or children. And you’re back in that other world again.

But when you get home, you feel different, lighter. Your To Do List won’t kill you and your school work is snoozing beneath a pile of newspapers. You tidy, hoover. And when you’ve finished, you yawn and stretch and put the kettle on. You notice things like patterned light on the desk, the view from the window. You’re still in slow-time.

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And on Monday, when you tunnel to work through streets laced with rain, and your mind skitters like a mole along the unlived rat-runs of your day, think of this; the space and the silence and the pastel light. And look for patterns on the pavement and the way the sky’s getting lighter; glimpses of gold on a dark day. And remind yourself – there will be other days. Like an old gate with a glimpse of meadows that you can’t walk in, it’s enough to know they’re there.

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