It’s not you

I’ve been uncommunicative, silent and regressive only to you. You are not the reason or the cause, just someone to take it out on. Take out what? What’s the matter? I feel quite grounded a lot of the time, but sometimes scared and lost. I’ve been angry, bitter and I hope this doesn’t sound blameful. A year ago, I met you in Brighton and I cried the whole time. I had so many feelings built up about loneliness and Paris and a lot of darkness in me and you didn’t ask but I couldn’t share so instead I turned fear and sadness into anger. I couldn’t share because by articulating it, I’d have had to think about it. That’s not okay and not fair on you. You’ve not let me down, you’ve not been bad. I’ve just been expecting some sort of guardian angel to come and save me. Save me from what? From loneliness, that sadness I get when I feel alone but am surrounded by love. When the loneliness goes, I know it’s gone because I feel powerful and happy and I have faith in my relationships but from time to time it creeps back. I have things to talk about, I want someone to guide me, someone to care but it’s unfair for me to put that on you. Only I can get rid of it, only I can challenge myself and find the route away from pathos. 

Before graduation I cried the whole night in turmoil about all the faces I would be so far from. It’s not logical half the time. Afterwards, on the train heading back from Southampton to Oxford, I rested my head against the window and a hand came gently from the roof of the carriage, took my wrist and slowly pulled me up and outside where we sat on the top of the train as it roared and rattled through the countryside. My hair blew across my face and covered the views then the hand guided me back into the train until I rejoined my body that leant against the window.

Back home, looking up from the fields, the moon would drift from behind the clouds and the stars would light the sky. My favourite time of year was whenever the nights were cold. We’d wander outside and the icy air would wake me up and I’d feel in the middle of something beautiful; protected, guarded and sheltered by all those stars and the blanketing cloud. I don’t mind that it’s gone because it isn’t really. I can picture so clearly those winter nights and the memories are strong of us wandering the countryside at dusk. Those images are uncorrupted, untainted and I can hold on to them. I’m still there, fifteen and lying in the garden in the silent brightness of 3am. I never want these memories to go. They remind me of myself and that I want to keep seeking and seeing blissful night skies. 

 

 

 

Soft as Egyptian cotton, unrotten S’oton

 

 

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When I was in Paris, I would find a square or something as close as possible to a square in the density of the city, where I’d listen to an omnipresent guitar or accordion and try and think. Sitting in the middle of something can make you feel like you’re a part of it, which can be very calming. So sitting by the Bargate in the centre of Southampton, I stopped putting off the thought that I’m leaving a place that over a few years has become home.

 

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In the fantastic whirlwind that was first year, I didn’t think much about whether or not I was enjoying it. Second year and Paris were tougher and I think I felt bad more often than good but I don’t want to hark on that because I’ve been completely privileged to have been surrounded by some of the loveliest people in the world. I thank you all, who’ve made this final year an absolute treat. Thanks to the commune at Rosemary house where, before wifi and sofas, we rolled our chairs from our desks into the lounge and would chat for hours. Then when we did have wifi we’d enjoy film nights and in essay season we’d fester on the sofas rattling out words interspersed with memes and tea. We’d cook together or explore Southampton’s fine dining establishments, go out to some grotty clubs or stay in and dance and share songs. I’ll remember the crosswords at 1am, getting the deals in the Tesco Express on Lodge and the cashier asking where “the other one” was when Rad and I went separately; karaoke in the Richmond, exploring National Trust properties; numerous trips to the cinema; when my flatmates ran out to get plasters and TPC when I forgot how to run. Thanks to the runners, who coerced me out of bed at 7am whilst the rest of Portswood slept, who I’ll meet again one day at some race somewhere in the world. I won’t forget the long runs to Winchester, the laps of the track, the cycles to the New Forest, my inability to make cakes … Kelly, Rach and Emily’s astonishing ability at making cakes.

 

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I want to thank the friends who’ve tolerated or consoled me when I’ve been wretched. Thank you for being there, you’ve helped me realise that it’s ok to ask things from people, to ask for help, for an ear, for a hug. More than it being ok, it’s important. You’ve helped me listen to myself: if you’re tired, sleep, if you’re irritable or your head’s bad, run, play tennis, anything. Open up. Others are probably going through something similar. Cook with people, create, have fun, relax. Lower your expectations of others, they’re only human too. Obviously I came here for a degree but it’s been way more than that. Thanks to the people, I’m ready to leave and I’m not sad about that as such because I know myself better, I’ve met these wonderful souls and I have so much love for this place and this time. 

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Michael Harris’s “The End of Absence” / Friend or Pho(n)e

Are we missing something? According to Michael Harris, the advent of communicative technologies has stripped us of our access to absence. What’s absence ? It’s daydreaming in class or on a bus: silence, reflection and simply being alone. Although new technologies undoubtedly afford us opportunities, they also have the potential to inhibit other ones. “We forget the games that childhood boredom forged” because boredom has been replaced by candy crush and scrolling aimlessly on newsfeeds. Harris, citing Seneca, recalls that we “are living not in seclusion but in a state of restless idleness”. 

 

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But our connection with our devices doesn’t come from a bad place. It’s part of our social-animalistic nature that we want to connect with others. Of course we’re susceptible to this magical device that allows us to have every heart that we care about so close. What’s the problem? We might have forgotten how to be alone and enjoy our own company. We have perpetual access to contact with others and this often becomes a preference to actually dealing with other people, perhaps those right next to you. These means of communication arouse in some an anxiety in which they cannot be alone. If they are physically alone, then at least they’ve got their phones to turn to.  

There’s a lovely passage in Rupi Kuhr’s Milk and Honey: “Loneliness is a sign you are in desperate need of yourself”. It’s a struggle to master the correct ratio between the time we spend on and off our devices but it is so important to be alone sometimes. Like my oldest brother said, there’s a time for the company of others and a time for your own. Harris ends his book with a generous piece of advice: we must welcome both solitude and company. “The former will make us long for people, the latter for ourselves, and one will be a cure for the other”. Solitude has negative connotations and Harris points out that if it feels painful to be on one’s own, we’re not doing it right. We need to value our time so that we wholeheartedly commit our undivided attention to what’s going on, who we’re with and where we are. “Flitting” from one stimulant to the other (i.e. from our friend to our phone) generates disruption, the result being a feeling of isolation and loneliness.

 

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So why do we care about using these technologies? Why is it that when we’re faced with a beautiful landscape, a hearty meal or other quotidian landmarks, that we snapchat, instagram, Facebook or tweet about them? Would the experience be any less real if we didn’t share it? Why don’t we listen to Kierkegaard and just enjoy a sunset for what it is, “the highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen, but are to be lived”. Ok, it could be because of “the thirst for instant gratification” that comes with likes and retweets. Auden hit the nail on the head when he talked about our need of validation, “the image of myself which I try to create in my own mind in order that I may love myself is very different from the image which I try to create in the minds of others in order that they may love me”.

But it’s more than that. It’s a means of savouring experiences. By recording our lives, we can actually get more out of our journey. By writing it down (either in tweet form, or picture form or whatever), it stays “fresh” and we hold on to memories that other-wise may slip away. This doesn’t mean we should record everything in HD, sometimes there may be merit in obscure memory but these mediums consolidate memories, allow us to record our lives and share them. I used to love the Chris McCandless’s line “happiness is only real when shared”. With a few years experience added to my belt, I now think Harris’s version is more accurate: “we can’t live an unshared life”. 

Harris thanks the presence of these technologies that have allowed him “a city full of memories” to walk through rather than a “desert by Dali”. I’m glad to have a compromise: it’s refreshing and inspiring to look back on family photos of the Simmonds clan RVing around the States, but it’s a rewarding challenge to try and remember the conversations, the jokes and the feelings that we really shared.

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Into the Wild

 

Notes:

  • Please read Michael Harris’s The End of Absence 
  • Here’s a nice quotation from Henry David Thoreau – Not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realise where we are
  • How much of your life can you recall perfectly? and how much of it is less clear, a bit hazy?

The Paris Marathon

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The Paris marathon

We started training just after Christmas and overall it went pretty well, although poor Em had a couple of injuries to cope with. I managed to do three 20+ mile runs and my aim of 3:45 was doable. My training peak was Wimborne 20 which I averaged 8:19 pace which would get me 3:38 in a marathon, and it was hilly, windy and rainy, so my confidence was high and with this came a lot of self-exerted pressure.

 

Once we arrived in Paris, we were both already a bit achey, Em’s injuries still delicate and both of us knackered after running tour in Portugal. The night before the marathon, we stayed in our AirBnB and wolfed down 250g of pasta each and let the realisation of what we were about to do settle in. Up and out the door by 7am, porrdiged and watered, we made our way to The Arc de Triomphe. As we emerged from the metro onto the Champs Elysées, the atmosphere hit us hard, around 42,000 runners plus spectators and organisers cramped onto the avenue, making Paris one of the biggest in the world. Unlike the big 6 (London, Tokyo, Berlin, Chicago, Boston and New York), Paris isn’t a ballot entry, so anyone is guaranteed a place. The downside of this is that the race is overcrowded. It took us longer than we’d hoped to drop our stuff off at the bag drop, queue for the loo and get to our pen, all of this adding gratuitous stress to an already high-pressure event.

We set off at 9:20 and the first 10k was slower than our ideal pace, mainly due to the sheer amount of runners heaving down Rue de Rivoli. Luckily team Gow (Emily’s family) were there at a few points along the way to encourage us, which helped a great deal. At 10km we were happy to see them but at 30km we needed to see them, and hear “you can do it!”

At mile 11 I got awful stomach pain. I don’t know why. Most likely it was a combination of the heat (24 degrees) and the stress. I could still run but they worsened over the next couple of miles and at half way I told Em to go ahead, I couldn’t run without hunching over let alone keep up the pace. I ducked out to a portaloo 3 times over the next few miles but I didn’t need the loo so I kept running through the cramps. At mile 14 I realised I wouldn’t be getting 3:45 and at mile 15 I knew I wouldn’t get under 4hrs. That was hard to deal with. Running along side the seine towards the Eiffel Tower, my pace having dropped from 8:30 minute miles to 11:30, I cried and ran. This didn’t last long, cause the two don’t go together. I slowed down to 13 minute miles and pulled myself together. Up to mile 20 I played everything through in my mind. What had I eaten? What had I done wrong? What should I do now? Keep going or jump in the Seine? DNF is far worse than DNS and I’d started this race so I’d better finish it. Plus, the quickest way back to my bag, money and phone was to run the course, even if slowly.

At mile 20 I saw Emily’s family again and ran past them at an embarrassingly slow speed, I was so disappointed, tired and aching but their encouragement gave me a surge of motivation, I’m finishing this marathon, so I might as well enjoy it, I thought. I drank all the water I could at the stations, pouring it down by back and over my head, trying to cool down. The last 10km was in the Bois de Boulogne and I fell into some kind of daze, the miles flicked by, it wasn’t as hot in the shade of the trees and I was so close now. The bands on the side of the road were wonderful and since the Paris marathon route isn’t blocked off to pedestrians, anyone can jog along side a loved one so hundreds of people strove to complete the last few kms together in a sea of support. We turned a corner and the 41km sign, so close, closed in on us. I sped up, my stomach hurt but not as much so I picked up the pace for the last bit, crossing the line and bursting into tears, obviously. Hose pipes showered water down on the marathonien(ne)s and I stood under it palms open, crying, so relieved that it was done but also kind of bad. Normally after a race I feel tired but elated, here I just felt sick and my head and legs pounded. I found Emily and her family and I was glad that we were both ok, both acknowledging our achievement and not disappointed with our times. We’d trained hard and had put pressure on ourselves to get a “good time” but doing a marathon at age 21 in 4:05 and 4:18 is pretty good.

We went to one of my favourite restaurants in Paris, an authentic basque restaurant called Chez Gladines and the atmosphere was perfect. Some marathoners, lots of friends and just general relief and happiness.

 

 

At risk of sounding arrogant, I can run quicker than 4:18. So I’m excited for my next marathon, I’m excited to show and see what I can do, it’s a shame that Paris wasn’t what I’d hoped but also a huge wake up call that anything can happen on race day, that there are good ones and bad ones. I realise that putting too much pressure on yourself can rob you of the race you want. My final year at uni has been encompassed around running and I’ve loved how it’s helped me, shaped my identity even, it’s made me happier, or calmer and I’ll run anywhere and with anyone, as long as I can run. Thank you to all my friends for your kind messages of good luck and good will and thank you team Gow for keeping us going and most of all, Emily, for running around Southampton with me several times a week as early as 6:50am and as cold as 1 degree for the past 4 months. Here’s to the many more marathons to come.

 

Monte Gordo

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I’d never heard of Monte Gordo before, but the track and athletics facilities are well known in the running community. I didn’t really know what to expect from our one week running tour in Portugal so with hardly any expectations, everything seemed pretty impressive. One of our hotel companions summarised the accommodation pretty well, “I thought it were like Marigold ‘otel ‘cept for all these youngens”. Travelling there and back was quite a faff with about twelve hours of voyage door to door but it was worth it for the running, which was insane. The track was only a few kilometres from our hotel and full of super elite athletes, you only had to glance over to feel a bit out of place, but this brings me to one of my favourite things about running. Anyone can run. On our second day, our Southampton runners were a bit nervous at the idea of sharing the same track used by world class athletes. But no one cared, as should be the case. We got on with our session, and they with theirs. Who cares if the elites lapped us a few times, the sun was shining and everyone in the stadium was working hard. Well done, running, thanks for being inclusive. 

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The pocket of Monte Gordo sits in a nature reserve of Mata Nacional das Dunas Litorais de Vila Real de Santo Antonio, or in short, a 2000ha forest perfect for trail running. Surprisingly hilly at parts, the sandy stoney terrain was sheltered by hundreds of pine trees. So within a few kilometres, we were spoilt for choice with the trails, track and beach. We tended to run in the mornings and then chill out on the beach after or explore a nearby town. One day we took the €1.90 ferry across the Guadiana river and natural border between Spain and Portugal to Ayamonte. Paella, mooching around the town and basking in the sun like the bunch of vitamin D deprived brits that we are. Later in the week we took a train to Tavira, a city between Monte Gordo and Faro, where again we found a pleasant set of stairs to lie on under the spring’s sun and relax. I think everyone’s pretty aware of the stresses and pressures of uni and life in general, so to separate yourself from that is so important, it’s like a dose of chill that you can take back to your ordinary life and I think we’ve all brought back a bit of zen from the mainland.

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What I loved most about the trip was the fact that we were ten. That was a good number. We spent a lot of time together as a group, which was well welcomed in what can be seen as a solitary world of libraries and offices. I love that each of the ten were such different characters, some as big as Mount Vesuvius, some partners in crime helping me sneak into the hotel kitchen at 5am, some knew every word of Les Mis, some as pale as me, some the same pace, some the guides, leading us through the forest and around the trails, some providing the games. Thanks for a great week team and keep running!

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Home is where the heart is

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At home, where I spent twenty years from day one, I’d often sit in the garden at a big wooden table with a Yorkshire tea and watch the day begin, let the thoughts flood in. One of my favourite spots in the world, I’d think. Looking across the fields in the distance I’d remember twelve year old me striding with confidence in an emerald green dress along the lawn. I used to narrate things in my head, half hoping someone who knew something would take over and tell me the rest. What is home? This garden? This family? I have my lifetime of memories in these rooms. My bed used to be over there, in the other corner by the window and I’d gaze from my pillow at the crowns of conifers and the rest of the sky. I’ll never forget the Cheshire moon. Maybe the Cheshire cat has such a wide grin from looking up at that huge sky, the one that illuminated the courtyard below my window and my dreams.

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Home was with my mum when we cycled around the Loire valley, singing along to Sam Outlaw or sat having dinner with our Air BnB host and her three pet chickens. “In France, this breed of chicken must be your pet for three years before you can eat it. By then, they’re your friends”. After our trip she dropped me off in St Cloud, Paris, where I would stay to finish the last two weeks of my internship and it felt like the last time we’d be saying goodbye. Drifting off to sleep I heard the gate outside my window shut loudly and I lifted my head in an attempt to see. Combined with the cigarette smelling apartment, this transported me back to home. Half asleep, I’d hear the backdoor shut, the porch light would come on, some feet would shuffle through the courtyard and faint smoke would flow through my window. I’d press my forehead against the cool glass, peering down, trying to figure out which of my brothers and which of their friends were there, wondering what I was missing. Back in St Cloud, I put my headphones in hoping to drift off at the sound of some sweet peace. Thinking of mum, I put on some Ornella Vanoni. I missed her terribly, which felt ridiculous, as we’d just spent two weeks together. We’ve had our differences, but in that strange apartment, with her departure, all I could think was how wonderful she was, how lovely and human. I remembered being about ten or so when we went to New York. Arriving at sunrise, travelling past Statin Island, she cried and said something along the lines of “just think about all those people who came to this island in hope of a life, a job, only to be turned away back on the ships they’d travelled on for weeks”. I remembered when she’d go to the shops, I’d hear the car engine start and frantic at the door beat my shoes onto my feet, wrestling the Velcro on my tiny trainers, wanting to go with her like my life depended on it. In Paris, there were weeks where I’d ring her everyday around 4pm as I walked from Metropolitan to the post office next door. I don’t know why. I think to check in but also scared of that time alone, missing and looking for home.

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When I didn’t have friends come to Paris, I’d explore elsewhere. One of my most comforting trips was to Freiburg to see some Southampton friends who I’d be living with some months later in our final year of university. Wandering near the Bächle from the UniCafe, eating Flammkuchen, we swapped stories about our time on the continent. It was refreshing to talk about our experiences and realise that there are obstacles wherever you go, even if you’re in a beautiful European city. Home was hearing that we all felt lost sometimes. Going back to visit Southampton in December, the friends I’d lived with for two years welcomed me with a “welcome home, Lulu” sign. One of them erred cautiously around the question, “are you looking forward to going back to Paris”, I immediately broke down like a kid, “I don’t want to go back” I said laughing and crying at once, trying to make a joke out of my silliness. Well there’s only truth in jest. “But you love Paris”, she said. She was right. So what was it? “I hope this doesn’t sound unkind but I missed you guys much more than I thought I would”. Whether on the night bus to Bordeaux or at the airport from Basel to Southampton, I’d sit between time and place, waiting between countries and cities, loud mountains and louder seas and feel home in the knowledge that I was on my way to someone.

I don’t mind that home is no longer in Cheshire. It’s a feeling more than anything else. Home was when friends came to visit in Paris. It was sitting in Shakespeare and Company with my twin, drinking coffee and thinking. We explored Paris with mum, our little trio, the Rodin museum, the Irish cultural centre, Montmartre. I showed my parents my Paris and they showed me theirs. Home was how my dad counselled me in a bistro on Rue de Baci. Him or my mum had asked what I was going to do after university. Please tell me, my eyes begged, lost and misty in their clouds. Home is how you feel when the people you love smile at you, when you lock eyes and hear each other’s hearts beating.

This time last year

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My year abroad began in Nanterre, one of the westerly suburbs of Paris. I lived with a French woman and her five-year-old son. In exchange for picking him up from school and looking after him in the evenings until she arrived home, I had a bed and a powerful view of La Défense. The University of Southampton’s Parisian pairing was Univeristé Paris 8, based in the northern suburb of Saint-Denis. I really wasn’t far from England, neither my north-westerly home nor the Sainsbury’s in Saint Denis, Southampton.

It was an odd concept to my European counterparts that in England you can do a degree in Modern Languages. “What do you study them with?” / “Nothing, just the languages” / “But do you do German and History or French and Film?” / “Well, we do modules in that sort of stuff along side the language part” / “Ah so it’s a History and Modern Languages Degree?” / “No, no, just Modern Languages”. The quadri-lingual polyglot of a Greek stood quite silent in front of me. For my Erasmus friends from all over the world, languages were quite an obvious skill and everyone spoke two or three along side their degree of International Relations, Law or arts plastiques.

I felt pointless. Whilst everyone else studied their socks off, trying to make sense of their final year in French, this year meant nothing towards my degree, the requirement being to pass half of the modules. We only had to do 15 credits, each class being five credits. This removed all incentive to do anything. On my days out of uni I’d explore Paris, which I definitely enjoyed but after three months of lazy apathy I decided to get out. I found an internship on indeed.fr in a language school in south-west Paris as a receptionist and client assistant. At the very least, my French will improve was the thought.

I spent a couple of weeks watching Friends in my room, I don’t think binge watching TV is healthy but it reminded me of my childhood. I remember when it was on 164 and then 136, then it swapped from E4 to comedy central. I remember watching it with Ed, I remember watching it by myself. That TV lounge, I used to take in binge food, junk food and watch TV show after TV show. It’s always been escapism, a product of loneliness.

Around the beginning of November I started to write things down. I wrote, “Here begins my consciousness. I know this isn’t the beginning, it’s been here my whole life, but I feel it stab me so strongly, and this feels new. Blinking my eyes in the shade of this autumn, I see the sandstone trail we walked along, I see horse chestnuts and smell Cheshire’s seasons, whichever one I imagine to be in. Do I miss home? I don’t know. I don’t know what I miss or who I am or what I’m doing. I’m here to learn French, yes that’s clear, that’s fine, but how much? Am I supposed to spend my free time in my room writing notes, learning grammar, all that stuff? So I do a bit, I do some French and some German, maybe an hour of each a day, theory and writing, that seems enough, I use the French when I chat to people, I do, I do speak and I do try. It’s the people, they’re both everywhere and nowhere, all at once. It’s November and I thought I would have settled by now. Am I not? I’m keen to find work opt volunteer somewhere like Shakespeare and Company, I might meet some nice people, some people I can love and that might love me, we’ll have the books in common and that’ll be a start. I’m endlessly going for coffees and chatting to people and sometimes it helps. Sometimes it’s depthless and I feel worse than when we started the conversation but other times I can purge my soul and I feel light as a feather. I can’t spend three days Monday to Wednesday cooped up in this house, these walls they’ll crush me hard. Why is this lump lingering in my throat like an anchor pulling my entire self down, attached to these drooping eye-lids.

I had to tell Z that I’d be leaving. The little boy was finishing his fromage and watching a show. I told her in English so as not to bother him, yet. I leaned across the counter in the kitchen, across the barrier she’d put up between us since day one. She wouldn’t really take no for an answer, suggesting methods and ways to make the arrangement work. This made the reality much harder. I shouldn’t have gotten invested with a family, it got tough and I quit, if you don’t like where you are in life then change it, you are not a tree, unless you are affecting other trees, I’m scared I’ve stunted the growth of a beautiful little sapling. Even though I’d found an apartment to move into at the end of November I’d stay for another month trekking from Belleville to Nanterre every evening to cherche le petit à l’école. It’s the least I could do. I moved in with S, a studio apartment at Jaures and it’s all we needed: kitchen, bathroom and the room we lived in with two beds, a sofa and a desk and I’d found a job to start after Christmas.

Looking back on my time in Nanterre, it was bitter sweet, as all experiences are. I had a lot of freedom in the day so I’d run and read and see friends and Paris, it was the constrained evenings that go to me, especially as the days grew darker. Dinner in my room every night, smells in a house that is not mine. Some nights she wouldn’t get home until ten and I’d cancel on a friend again. But I can bitch and moan all day about this. It’s not worth a minute. How could I have known that no evenings in a new city would take a toll, in a flat an hour from Paris. I don’t regret the decision, because it’s brought me to where I am now and I loved the autumn leaves in Mont Valerian, I liked reading on the bus into Paris and I needed the time to think.

 

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The Power of Now

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In my last year of A levels I went to visit one of the women who helped raise me. Mel settled me into her spare room and on the coffee table I saw a copy of ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle. Over the years to come, the name resurfaced in the discourse around me until last week, whilst roaming around the charity shops of Portswood, I found and invested in my own 99p copy.

Living in the “moment” has become laced with clichés and criticism, but in its simplicity, it’s full of truth. “Now” is the only thing that is ultimately real about life, so it deserves our undivided attention. Many of us suffer, whatever form pain comes in, it exists and poisons us. Often, it comes from an obsession with the past and/or future. In this sense, time controls our present state of peace. This is the myth. “Belief in a future heaven creates a present hell”. That dwelling on the past or hoping for the future may alleviate your current state of unhappiness is kind of like creating time, it carries no salvation. Your mind is in control and you can’t find peace if you have no say. What will save you from your mind’s control is accepting what has passed, “die to the past every moment”. You do not need it anymore. In a similar way, the future is irrelevant to now, it will not change any pain you possess.

To escape unhappiness you have three choices: remove yourself from or change the situation that is causing you pain OR accept it. Tolle believes that peace is within us already, but it is clouded by our loud minds that over-think things and run amok. This pain is often fuelled by the ego, the “I” which desires fulfilment, validation, love, social status … When we say “accept” these feelings, it doesn’t mean keel over and let them consume us, but acknowledge them, be present in your fears, your pains, listen to them and peace will filter in. In the morning, instead of fretting over task ‘x’ and job ‘y’ of the day, accept that they are there and then you will be able to appreciate the “soft luminosity filtering through the curtains” or the warmth of your bed. Instead of getting angry about having to wait for X, don’t view the time as “waiting”, “That’s all right, I wasn’t waiting, I was just standing here enjoying myself – in joy in my self”. By accepting what “is”, you can adopt peace, this is your natural state, your “being”.

There is an element of responsibility in all this. What drug have you adopted to numb your pain? Is it sport, with the hope that physical exertion will mean your mind doesn’t have the energy to control you? Is it substance abuse that will temporarily alleviate your pain? In any case, whether reading or roaches, whatever you choose to distract yourself with, disturbance is still there and it will come back stronger than before. Catch this unhappiness in its “dormant state”, tackle it now. Don’t be angry at the past or apprehensive about the future, accept all for what is. This is “enlightenment”, what the Buddha defined as “the end of suffering”, be the buddha, (the “awakened one”). This is the power of now.

Mottisfont


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Layered-up and cosy, Simon and I edged out of Rosemary House and began the 12 mile cycle to Mottisfont, a 13th century abbey. We cut through Southampton Common, not quite a rhombus, not quite a triangle but somewhere in between. The air was an icy -4 but the winter sun warmed us as we emerged from the channels of trees with thickets either side. The route turned out to be more roady and less leafy than was hoped. Passing through Romsey and Timsbury, we caught up with the river Test, the same river down which Hazel fled in Watership Down. The first time we crossed the river, the landscape called us over and we lent over Greatbridge Road’s namesake, the Test ran below and away taking speckles of sun too. Arriving at the National Trust property, we roamed the gardens, void of the roses for which Mottisfont is known but aflame with winter’s young perennials.

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As expected, the volunteers were affable and sweet, touring us around the property, playfully pretending we were guests of the latest owner, Maud Russell. The final room we filled was the large saloon, decorated in 1939 by Rex Whistler, well known for his “trompe-l’oeil” murals and his illustrations for Gulliver’s Travels. Our guides pointed out two details unique to the room: A miniature cauldron of a paint pot hid on a high beam, it was a trait of Whistler to leave clues around the room he was decorating as a message that his work was not finished. Further along the beam, some writing was barely visible. “I always choke up when I read this” said one of the guides, before reading from memory, “I was painting the Ermine curtains when Britain declared war on the Nazi tyrants. Sunday September 3rd 1939 RW”. Hearing these words placed Whistler feet from where we stood, painting from his ladder, radio at his side. He died in the penultimate year of the war and the room was never finished.


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Pllas Newydd Mural – Rex Whistler 

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Though grand, houses such as these, beds unslept in and books unopened seem eery. However, this means you can look at the house as a relic, as art, and appreciate it in all its splendour. We walked around the grounds, green silence everywhere, the sun started setting so we mounted our ricketing bikes and headed back Southampton way, this time via Lee Lane and away from the roads, which were still icy and the air icily still. Here’s to exploring and finding one’s way. 

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The Sandstone Trail : Walking through words

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Little Switzerland walk in Boothsdale

Opened to public feet in 1974, the sandstone trail runs for 34 miles from Frodsham to Whitchurch along the mid-cheshire ridge that abruptly protrudes from the plains of Cheshire West. Before the inaugural march four decades ago, the trail had already been well worn, often chosen as the safer route of traders travelling from the Mersey to the Severn, having to avoid the marshlands below. Both the geography and geology of Cheshire are reflected in the names of the ambient villages and towns. As you meander and mosey along the trail, the name of each hamlet and isolated dwelling holds a history.

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Primrosehill Wood

Having grown up in Weetwood, a cluster of several homes and a couple of roads adjacent to the trail, my brothers and I grew up gadding around the woodlands of Utkinton and Delamere Forest. “Forest” only came to signify “wooded area” at the end of the 13th century. The word dates back to Medieval Latin foris meaning “outside” or “foreign”, referring to the area outside of the central and enclosed woodland. The “forest” of early Middle English referred to any land (woodland, fields, marshland) dedicated to hunting. Delamere Forest stands in the place of Mara and Mondrem, two such medieval forests used as hunting grounds of the Anglo-Saxons, which were then relinquished to the Norman Earls of Chester in 1071. Assarting (the clearing of woodland for farming purposes) was illegal until 1215 and by the early nineteenth century nearly all of Mondrem and the majority of Mara had been flattened. Delamere Forest is the left over portion of Mara and is found in the Mouldsworth gap.

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Hand drawn map of Mara and Mondrem

Why this name? At the end of the last ice age, when the earth began to warm and the ice began to melt, a ginormous lake was formed in the basin of the west of Cheshire with the Welsh mountains to the West and the sandstone ridge to the East. Along the mid-cheshire ridge there are several gaps where parts of the rock formations seem to have been prodded out. This is where water would have burst through the rock and today we see these as gapping voids at both Beeston and Mouldsworth. As the water flowed through the gap at Mouldsworth (mould – hollow shape and worth/worp – enclosed space), minerals and earth were deposited creating the fertile land that became Mara and Mondrem. Delamere bares its name (de la mere – of the lakes) due to the marshland betwixt the trees, where several lakes are found.

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Views of the Beeston gap and sandstone ridge

Continuing the route via Old Pale hill, the tallest part of the northern sector of the trail, you are welcomed to the heights that entrust marvellous views of several British shires. The route slopes down into Willington via Gresty’s Waste Car Park. What an odd name! Gresty (also written Greastie, Grestie or Greste) is an uncommon Anglo Saxon surname, having derived from Old English greosn meaning gravely or pebbly area. Waste comes from the Latin vastus, meaning empty or desolate. This car park sits on the modern A54, a road between Tarvin and Congleton that crosses paths with an old Roman road that runs between Segontium (north Wales), Chester, Manchester and York. The Car Park used to be a turnpike (a toll bar), where travellers would pay to carry on their journey. The family owning this toll house were the Gresty’s.

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Gresty family at the Toll Bar (late 1930s) – photo courtesy of Mike O’Donnell

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The Old Toll Bar – photo courtesy of Mike O’Donnell

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Hand drawn map of Cheshire

Beyond the toll bar is Primrosehill Wood and the sandstone carries on, an uneven terrain, sheltered by saplings, sapping up water and sun, seeping through. Along the path is a sign for Urchin’s Kitchen, another gap in the ridge, a gorge of sandstone. When the ice began to melt, the water would run through cracks in the rock, deepening and widening them into glacial drainage channels. Urchin comes from Old French herichun meaning hedgehog (derived from Proto-Indo-European prefix ghers- to bristle). Urchin is often used to refer to hedgehog-like people, i.e. prickly, rough. Deep in the woods is Whistlebitch Well, dating back to the 1600s. Supposedly a healing well, it was flocked to by up to 2000 visitors a day in its heyday. The well is said to have whistled as water ran at the base and bitch comes from Middle English bicched meaning cursed.

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Roman Roads in Britain (image courtesy of the motor museum in miniature)

Primrosehill Wood fares thee well as you cross a stile onto Tirley lane by Summertrees Tea Room. Unfortunately no longer open to the public, this shelter served my family and I refuge in the forms of buns, crumpets, scones and tea. The trail winds down Sandy lane, offering wonderful views of Beeston beyond and deposits you in the vicinity of Willington Hall. An old country house and now a hotel, Willington Hall was part of an estate of several houses, some acres of land and a Mill Farm, situated one kilometre to the West. Registered as a flour mill in 1875 and owned as part of the estate by the Chief Forester of Delamere. For me, these routes and this history begins where I was born, at Willington Mill Farm.

 

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