I’m lucky enough to be able to say that Grasmere’s not a long way away for me. Pretty much all year round, though, getting up into the Lakes on a Friday involves crawling along in traffic (and though I can’t really blame people for wanting to drink it all in, that doesn’t mean I don’t blame them, vociferously, in the privacy of my own car).
Fortunately this afternoon I was in no hurry. I was due at Glenthorne, the Quaker Centre and Guest House, for a weekend’s course on the Spirituality of Travel; but the only fixed point in the afternoon was tea at 4.30, and I had plenty of time
The course was to be facilitated by Ben Pink Dandelion. Quakers don’t really have Big Cheeses, so I guess you’d call him a well-known Cheese; and I was looking forward to meeting him and to being in a learning community for the weekend. As I passed Dove Cottage I mentally said hello to Jeff, the lovely Curator-in-Chief who pays me to facilitate poetry groups which feel like the opposite of work, and to Hazel, who’s the Head Guide there; then I drove through Grasmere village, which was full of tourists doing that meandering down the middle of the road thing which we all do on holiday. Arriving at Glenthorne, I was given my keys by a kind and smiley person who told me where cake would be (she clearly had a grasp of the essentials). I crossed the unfussy but lushly fragrant gardens to the lakes’ stone building where my room was. It looked out over a small undulating field, with stately mature trees, at the top of which was Allan Bank, one of the Wordsworths’ homes. Far more important than that, though, was the fact that the field was being grazed by Herdwick sheep and their delightful black lambs. In the other direction Helm Crag loomed, the Lion and the Lamb standing out against the light grey sky, and the distant-seeming road was visible where it climbed up over Dunmail Raise. All was quiet, apart from the call-and-answer bleating. My shoulders dropped. It felt like a peaceful place.
It also turned out to be a well-held place. The facilities were simple but clean and well maintained, the catering was slick and generous, without being flashy; and as a facilitator BPD (an unfortunate acronym, but there we are) turned out to be knowledgeable, relaxed and entertaining. He had that easy command of his subject which you want in a facilitator, and I felt safe in his hands. Over the evening session we introduced ourselves and began talking about our travels, and attitudes thereto. It was a good start, and I headed back to my room in a contented, if slightly over-switched-on, state of mind.
Kipping on the first night in a new place is usually a challenge anyway, and this was made more so by the bed. I’m not used to sleeping in a single, so there was that; but also the fact that the mattress was both marshmallowy and slippery, so that it absorbed me, rather, at the same time as it slid around on the bed base itself. There was only a small window, too—I usually have mine wide open to help with menopause-y temperature dysregulation—so I was too hot, as well as having to hold on with my buttocks. Eventually I did one of those middle of the night grumpy, harrumph-y rearrangements of the bedclothes which feel much more satisfying when there’s someone else there to appreciate quite how longsuffering you are. I remade the bed so that my head was at the window end and tried to come to some kind of compromise with the flat, unhelpful pillows. Not feeling very serene or spiritual…
But then, as BPD asked us to ask ourselves, what exactly did we mean by spiritual or spirituality? Taken back to first principles, we then moved through a really well-structured series of discussions, thinking about how do you like to travel? what is your spiritual life? What nurtures it, or doesn’t? When has travel done so, and what is it about the travel that’s been helpful? Can we, therefore, find it at nearer home? I particularly enjoyed the session on the what’s helpful and what’s not: how travel can involve the quest to encounter Other, in the shape of people, places and states of being: how we want to be open to experience, and enlarged by it; but how the actual practicalities of travel can get in the way of all these things—whether it’s being stuck on a busy motorway with lorries up your backside, or sitting disconsolately on your luggage in the vestibule of an overcrowded train fretting about missing your connection, or being folded like a Marshwiggle into a space on a plane—a space some fraction, perhaps ⅞, of the size you need it to be—staring at the garishly yellow seatback in front of you and wondering if the plane really is made of Lego, or being hypnotised by those ranks of bullyingly unavoidable screens which always seem to be showing mid-90s episodes of Friends… In such circumstances we often shut down to survive. So how can we be open and ok at the same time?
Thus it was with plenty to think about that we broke for lunch on Saturday. We had free time in the afternoon, and I’d decided to go up to Easedale Tarn via Far Easedale, cutting round Stenners and Cockly Crags and coming back down beside Sour Milk Ghyll. A most satisfactory loop. I had munchies in the daypack, and a surprising amount of spring in my step given I’d had about 3 hours’ kip and had been up for a run at 6.30. I felt like the embodiment of travelling hopefully.
And it was even better than I could have predicted. Quite apart from the beauty of where I was, and the sweet unobtrusive music of bird, beck and sheep, there was also the fact that today turned out to be the annual Walking with the Wounded fundraising walk, which meant that I had several interesting conversations with people manning the check-in points, and scores of micro-moments with groups and individuals—many veterans, others supporting them—all of whom were going in the opposite direction. Encounters with Other, all only footsteps away. Wonderful. As he walked on, one man said, over his shoulder, “Love the hair, by the way”: a delightful moment of drive-by flirtation, meaning nothing but itself. Bonus. I tossed said lovely hair, and walked on.
Then of course there was Easedale Tarn itself. I haven’t been there for a long time (though there is a Thing planned there, soon) but it’s a place that holds precious memories for me. I first went when I was about 21, with friends I made during my teacher training year in Ambleside. I was young, and beginning to see how to be happy. I went there again, about 20 years ago, and had a picnic with a man with whom I was in that delicious everything-about-you-and-the-world-is-wonderful stage of a relationship; I have a clear recollection of the tenderness with which he stroked the hair back off my cheek as we lay in the sunshine by the water side, and said what a delicious sense of wellbeing he felt in my company. Jings, that really was in another country; and that wench is most definitely dead. But at least I still have the hair.
After such a lovely afternoon—there were even some new and tiny Herdy lambs to enjoy on the walk back down—I struggled a bit with comedown and tiredness, and therefore grumpiness, during the evening’s final session. A slightly better sleep helped me engage more with the important ideas of the Sunday morning session: how we can look after the planet as well as ourselves when we travel (though it all feels like too little, too late); and how we might find whatever it is we seek in travel nearer to home. I’d have liked the chance to look more explicitly at which hungers we were feeding by travel: to hear more about what others were seeking. I thought of Tennyson’s Ulysses, and his restless craving for experience.* Is it like that for everyone, I wondered?
At the close of play on the Friday Ben had read a piece from Quaker Faith and Practice (19:09, if you’re interested), the point of which was to do with the writer’s willingness to leave home and travel, when he felt called by the Spirit to do so. Although I got all that, one particular fragment of a sentence stayed with me and assumed the status of a metaphor. The writer said of himself that he was ‘not thinking then of any journey’. Yes. Oh yes. How life offers us things, takes us on journeys, which we could never have anticipated and might never have chosen. Or definitely wouldn’t. The question, of course, is not what the journey is, but what you make of it.
I thought about this as I ate my sarnie in the garden at Allan Bank (which has been wonderfully under-restored by the National Trust and is a most relaxed and lovely place to visit: you can make yourself a cup of tea and have it in any of the rooms, or eat your picnic outside). A red squirrel was splayed sideways, Mission Impossible style, across the trunk of a full-leaved oak, twirling and snaking his tail in a ridiculously impressive and elegant fashion. Below, the lake glinted in the middle distance, and the road home was a ribbon of grey along its eastern edge. I felt the wrench of leaving, of returning from togetherness to solitude, freshness to familiarity. But at least there were only a few miles to go, before I slept.
*Have a look here at ‘Ulysses’, the poem from which the post’s title comes.