Happiness. An endless sandy beach, blissful sunshine, a turquoise sea spangled with silver, cocktails, a balmy breeze and… happiness? contentment? inner peace?
I was inspired to write this post by Andy Mort who runs Haven.
Andy occasionally sends out thought-provoking and discerning emails to his subscribers and I particularly agreed with him about the slippery soap that is our pursuit of happiness.
The pursuit of happiness puts me in mind of a brilliant book I read called “Finding Sanctuary” by Abbot Christopher Jamieson. In this book he talks about how we wear numerous masks during our lives, and in pursuit of happiness we constantly seek products which the advertising industry tells us are going to make us happy. We long for peace and a state of calm and inner contentment, and we seek it through more products, such as holidays. In fact we can never escape from the compulsion to seek the fulfilment of our ultimate longings within a product of some kind.
Being reflective about all this is such a good step on the journey to seeking some kind of release from this compulsive drive. It has been said by a doctor that everyone needs to go on retreat once a year (and of course Abbot Christopher was the one who featured in that TV programme The Monastery about the men who went on retreat). Though it could be argued that even a retreat is a product!!
I write this as I am busily selling a product myself …. a book called Paranormal Warwickshire – and I do my fair share of using marketing techniques tried and tested by the advertising industry – the Mr Bigs of this world. In fact when I think about it all, I could despair, except for the one saving grace that helps us keep it all in perspective – a sense of humour!
A giant gunnera tunnel, lush subtropical vegetation, vibrant flowers of many colours, and a journey through an imaginative and intriguing landscape: as you will find when you visit this lovely part of Cornwall, Trebah Garden becomes a series of portals to different worlds.
The path draws you into the heart of different areas which yield up a variety of feelings, memories, reflections. In the centre of the garden we come upon an auditorium used for theatrical performances.
Though no performances were taking part at the time of our visit due to the recent Covid19 lockdown, we could imagine ourselves into the acting arena, into the responses of the audience, as we contemplated this empty space full of creative possibilities, taking a rest before breaking out into a reawakening.
Your journey tempts you on through glorious shrubs, trees and exquisite blossoms past a quiet pool and an inviting white bridge…
… and ultimately leads you down to Trebah’s own private beach at Polgwidden Cove.
In addition to this, you’ll find an excellent restaurant at Trebah: the post-Covd19-lockdown arrangements were immaculate, and the vegetarian tart we chose for lunch a perfect taste sensation.
The previous post in this series describes the glorious gardens at Trellisick National Trust, on the Fal Estuary. From Trellisick, motorists and pedestrians may take the King Harry ferry across the River Fal, and then travel on to St Mawes.
We found St Mawes a peaceful and charming fishing village, on the Roseland Peninsula opposite Falmouth. It was quiet when we visited, as the UK Covid9 lockdown had only just been relaxed, and few visitors were to be seen.
As we strolled through the village, we were particularly struck by the fresh, gleaming appearance of the seafront cottages. It seemed to us that all the owners of those cottage must have made good use of the lockdown, and were now looking forward to welcoming new holidaymakers.
As we strolled along through the centre of the community, we noticed a painter at work on the scaffolding and were tempted to ask him if he was working his way through every house in the village!
We gazed ahead to the castle of St Mawes as we made our way along the seafront: the twin of the castle opposite, across the water at Pendennis Point.
The atmosphere was dreamlike and tranquil; a contemplation of space through the vistas of water, beach, boats, and seafront flowers, which all contributed to this vision of a small community and an unhurried pace of life.
Later, we drove around the Roseland Heritage Coast to Gorran Haven. Again, we delighted in the tranquil atmosphere, as we walked along the harbour wall.
Although these small communities need their visitors and tourist trade to flourish, nevertheless we did value the opportunity to experience them in this brief, precious interlude before people start gaining the confidence to go on holiday again after the lockdown.
What an enchanting location this is for a grand house: situated on the Fal estuary in Cornwall, views across to the water are to be glimpsed from the terrace at the back of the house, and also from many places in the parkland.
As one of my friends on social media remarked, grand houses like those in the possession of the National Trust always remind him of Cluedo. Here at Trellisick, we weren’t able to go into the house due to the Covid19 restrictions, but certainly I was tempted to gaze through the windows of the orangery and imagine which part of the plot might unfold in there behind the giant terracotta urns…
Moving round into the gardens, it seemed every bend of the path brought new vistas and new delights.
I loved a gazebo in the gardens with stained glass windows which was decorated with natural objects; fir cones had been embedded into the design and created an exquisite fairytale effect.
The walk through the gardens eventually leads d
own to the King Harry Ferry which carries motorists and pedestrians across the river Fal and is the best route to take from Trellisick if you are, as we were, planning to visit St Mawes later. You might like to check out some other bloggers’ thoughts, feelings and information about the glorious gardens here at Trellisick: Tinbox Traveller; Trellisick ranger blog, and Trellisick garden blog.
Check out the previous posts in my Cornwall mini series.
In this post, I take up again my Cornwall mini series which I started on 8th October 2019. I opened the series with the beach at Mawgan Porth and continued with a series of short reflections on different places easily reached from St Columb Major.
In early July 2020, we visited Cornwall again, during the first week after the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown had been relaxed. Once more we stayed in the delightful holiday cottage of Penty-Lowarth, in Quoit, near St Columb Major.
We visited a few different locations this time and I’ll be writing about them and sharing photos in my next few posts.
A curious atmosphere surrounds a visit to a place like Discovery Quay which is intended to host thousands of people during “normal” times.
We loved wandering through Discovery Quay even though it seemed suspended in a dreamlike quality of stillness.
Of course, the magnificent Maritime Museum had not yet re-opened after the Covid-19 lockdown. Very few people had begun to venture out yet, and we traversed the open space designed for large crowds, and for mass public entertainments, with a curious feeling of being in a time-loop.
I love this quote from the great novelist Joseph Conrad which I read on an informative noticeboard on the Quay:
The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.
There was a special quality to this experience, wandering through the quay, gazing at the boats, coming upon captivating views every few steps. Some of the many restaurants had begun to re-open and we enjoyed a relaxing lunch in The Shack, where the social distancing changes had been well organised, despite the fact that there were very few people to socially distance from.
Originally built by Henry VIII this has a fascinating history as it returned into use during Elizabethan times ad the Napoleonic Wars and World Wars I and II. Situated across the bay is the twin castle of St Mawes. The views from Pendennis Point are spectacular.
Again, few visitors were in evidence, though the social distancing arrangements were well in place.
We toured the Keep and the Half Moon battery alongside a small party of other visitors, and both tours were excellent, captivating and informative.
Check out the previous posts in my Cornwall mini series.
Have you ever seen the episode of the TV comedy drama series Rev when our main character, Rev. Adam Smallbone, goes on retreat? Adam, played by Tom Hollander, is in the austere setting of a convent, and returns to his room when suddenly Roland, the media vicar, played by Hugh Bonneville, appears at the window, crying “Retreat!”
In he comes and it transpires he’s brought plenty of alcoholic supplies with him to offset the effect of the austerity to which they have both committed themselves for the next several days. Then Adam opens the drawers in his bedside cabinet and reveals his stash of chocolate bars and bottles of whisky.
“Dear boy,” says Roland with a look of extreme seriousness on his face, “I think we’re going to get through this.”
I’ve just been on silent retreat for a week at Lee Abbey in Devon.
It isn’t a convent, nor is it austere, and there’s absolutely no need for chocolate bars and bottles of wine in the bedroom, as we were well-fed… in fact, I find retreat centres tend to over-feed you rather than the opposite, and within the Christian community that runs the retreat centre, there is a team of house elves who wait on you hand and foot until you almost feel guilty… and thus begin the insights you may draw from silence.
And ever present outside this retreat centre is the sublime scenery of Lee Bay. Throughout the week, it called me, a background to all that was said, a huge presence out there. There were all the things Michael was saying as he weaved his spell and beguiled us, and all the insights and metaphors his stories gave us about the dynamics of life, and beyond it all was the vast embracing presence of the scenery, the rocky headlands, the tree-covered cliffs, the sea.
Our silence lasted 48 hours, and I loved it.
Insight is the child of silence wrote the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
For me, a silent retreat gets better and better. You’re completely released from small talk; from having to answer other people’s questions; from people at the table passing comment on your vegetarian meal and asking what it is; from people commenting on why you’re eating a banana or a pear or a yogurt instead of the rich lemon syllabub and caramel sauce and chocolate flakes they are all eating.
You are free: to smile at people and not say anything; from any anxiety that you ought to say something; from feeling out of it because other people are chatting in little huddles and you’re the only one not talking; from feeling compelled to make conversation just to fill the silence or to be polite or in case people think you’re unfriendly.
Everyone is released from the curse of unguarded tongues and small talk and nonsense. Blessed silence releases us from all that. Silence is such a gift. How I love it.
The only person allowed to speak during that silence was our retreat leader, Michael Mitton. And he gave us treasures, in what he later described as “a Jackanory week”, retelling stories from the bible in the most beguiling way. The stories were taken from his book Seasoned by Seasons.
His retellings of those stories engage every sense: funny, illuminating, revelatory and totally absorbing. Moving and absolutely relatable, these stories are intimate, warm, human.
It’s as if you are an invisible observer on the scene of a story. Or maybe you are inside the thoughts of a character. You can smell, feel, hear, touch and taste what it is like to be there. There is humour, poignancy and passion in these stories and often they are deeply moving. Sometimes you may find yourself thinking, “What! Is this in the bible?” or “I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this character. But this story is so powerful, and relevant to me, and my life.”
I feel, too, that I now have a much richer sense of Jesus himself, his humour, his warmth, his compassion, his wisdom, his humanity, his understanding, his disregard for convention and rules, his sharpness, his wit, his mental flexibility, his clear vision, his sheer versatility.
During the silence, there were for me no telephone calls, no internet, no Facebook, no texts, no messages, no emails. Only the power of Michael’s storytelling, the insights that poured from those stories, and from the silence, and above and beyond it all, the grandeur and majesty of God’s creation, silent, unfolding before me in lines of faint blue and pink across the horizon above the luminous sea.
During my visit to The Holy Island of Lindisfarne last year, I sat on the shore by the Lindisfarne Causeway and watched the tide come in and cover the road.
Here are my insights – and a few images – from that experience.
Sitting at the end of the causeway and watching the tide come in is one of the activities suggested for you here Give Yourself a Retreat on Holy Island by Ray Simpson. It has many benefits and can be quite amusing as you watch cars driving along the road well outside the safe crossing time, and wonder whether they’ll soon be floating away. This too can be a good prompt to reflect upon the quality of patience.
It’s also a challenge to your ability to sit quietly for an extended length of time and meditate; to some it can become boring. We sat with several other people, some of who left early, but we stayed till the water was surging across the road.
I found myself thinking of the High Tide of God; sometimes it comes flooding in over the road and then you may not pass. At other times, it is out, and your way along the road is free.
Of course, you can interpret the tide differently, reversing the meaning.It all depends upon the viewpoint you take; whether you see yourself sitting on the shore, or whether you see yourself as a boat, or as a bird skimming the waves. Instead of equating the tide with a signal that you must patiently wait, you can equate it with a time for fruitful action. That is how Shakespeare interpreted it when he wrote: There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.
So even non religious people can sit here at the end of the causeway and take from this their own reflections on life.
My personal reflections for my own life, work equally well when applied to the current world scene.
I believe, with Tolstoy (see my previous blog post here) that “the times produce the man”; and currently, those who voted Trump in as President hold the moral responsibility for elevating him into a major role in their society. The tide in the affairs of men, that Shakespeare referred to, has thrown up this situation… and though many hold different views, perhaps we must just wait for the tide to recede, taking with it all the flotsam and jetsam.
Curiously, you can apply this principle to the writing of novels too. Sometimes you find you have a major character in a minor role, and vice versa. This can underlie problems with story-writing when you get stuck, and perhaps you can’t initially work out what you’re doing wrong.
And also you can equate creativity with the tide; the high tide of ideas. As the tide surges in, so can our ideas – but only if we get to work.
And lastly we, as writers, can see the tide as Shakespeare did: a tide of fortune. Are we boats, or birds, or perhaps merely foam on the crest of the waves? We may be a beautiful beached fish, just waiting for the tide to sweep us up again. However we see it, we can learn many things from sitting patiently at the end of the causeway, and waiting and gazing.
So why is it that the book he created is so revered and has such a hold on our imagination now? – apart from its age and the wonderful fact of its survival?
I believe it’s because of the dedication, the patient concentration and the painstaking artistry that breathes out from the pages, and because of what inspired its creation: love and devotion.
Eadfrith created it “for the glory of God and St Cuthbert”.
St Cuthbert himself inspired so much reverence because he was a holy man, at one time bishop of Lindisfarne, who died as a hermit in 687 on Inner Farne (which I recently visited), and around whose body many miracles occurred.
The astonishing story of his body, which failed to decay for many years, records how he was carried for several decades by faithful monks around Northumberland, to escape Viking attack, before finally it was laid to rest in the spot over which Durham Cathedral was built. You can visit St Cuthbert’s Tomb in Durham Cathedral, a place which has a strong spiritual resonance and atmosphere of holiness.
The glorious book which is the Lindisfarne Gospels is a testament to patience, concentration, love and devotion.
For us now, to gaze at, or to work with, the patterns Eadfrith painted is a pathway to peace and joy – hence the popularity of Celtic colouring-in books for adults, partly because the act of colouring-in forces you to pay close attention and eliminate all distractions. Celtic designs based on the Lindisfarne gospels pop up everywhere – here’s an image of my lovely metal bookmark displaying Eadfrith’s designs – notice particularly his ornamental birds (Lindisfarne has long been a paradise for birds, so Eadfrith had plenty of them to model his designs on).
In creating the ornamental designs, Eadfrith needed to pay minute attention to the geometrical foundations and symmetry of the overall design – very little was left to chance or the “inspiration of the moment.”
The book he created is now revered not just for the beauty and skill within its pages, I believe, but because that beauty is a physical representation on this earth of a spiritual reality – goodness, peace, patience, holiness and love.
Eadfrith had to source, prepare, or make from scratch everything he used – the parchments of vellum; the pen from a thick reed or quill feather; the ink, from animal, vegetable and mineral raw materials, ground to a fine powder and then mixed with egg white. I have personal experience of something of this latter part of the process at least, because I did an icon-painting course a few years ago and we mixed artists’ pigment with egg-white to paint our own icons on pieces of wood we had ourselves prepared – see the photo here of my own icon of the Archangel Gabriel.
After Eadfrith had created the Gospels, he left the scriptorium and as far as we know he never painted or wrote anything else – not that I’m suggesting this is a model for creative writers of today!
I find his story awe-inspiring and uplifting because it gives me an image of a patient, devoted person sitting alone in a quiet place concentrating absolutely on a work of art, to the exclusion of all else. It makes me think of many others who have created great works in similar circumstances – those who have been perhaps in prison, like St Paul, or Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote, two amongst several examples: or those who have deliberately chosen to go apart into an isolated place like Eadfrith in the scriptorium, free of distractions.
To be free of distractions and able to fully concentrate and devote yourself to the task in hand is such a luxury now, such an ideal for writers and artists to aspire to.