I am developing a new and challenging habit … to sit in silence; or at the very least, not have the radio on as I potter about my flat. This is unusual behaviour for me because I’ve always hated silence, always needed noise to fill the void; and that sound has invariably been the radio, or whichever album I’m currently in love with. Yet in recent months, I have started to switch everything off and just be with the sounds around me. Not a problem when those are birds singing or neighbours coming and going, but more challenging when my fridge starts ‘snoring’, which it does for about fifteen minutes every hour of the day; I was told it’s the gas. However, I have persevered and am writing this in relative silence – the oven is cooling down from dinner (homemade ratatouille; not bad if I do say so myself) – and my studies over the last year have also often been accompanied by silence.
So why the self-imposed change in habit? Primarily it’s because of work. I’m a teacher, and my desk is in the middle of a large, open-plan office, so it’s difficult to get quiet time during the day. Then there’s the commute to and from work and the gym, which I frequently do with headphones on, often to drown out unwanted noise. When I swim, I’m in a little cocoon of googles and swim hat; just me, my thoughts and the water, bliss!
It’s still a challenge sometimes, to be with whatever reaches my ears from the world around me, (especially when it’s my neighbour’s TV as it is now while I’m typing this) but I’m learning to welcome silence into my life, and my brain often thanks me for it because everything quietens down, not just on the outside but the inside too; and that is a relief for someone whose mind rarely stops chattering! I even prefer to meditate in silence now, and try to time it when little aural stimulation is likely.
The one time I struggle to be without the radio is when I go to sleep; I still need a little background murmur to help me drop off, especially when I can hear the TV from above or below my flat. However, I will continue to make the most of the silence as and when I can.
I hope you can find a moment of peace today and enjoy the silence.
As a Brit, I am well aware of the need to prepare for all eventualities weather-wise when going on holiday in my own country; hence I packed both my umbrella and rain jacket when my family and I went for a week’s stay in the Cotswolds. It was the beginning of July, the first week of Wimbledon; it was bound to rain at some point, wasn’t it? Actually, no, it wasn’t. In actual fact, it was really quite warm, with temperatures getting up to 29 degrees most afternoons. It was the kind of weather that many go abroad for and here it was in my own country, and did I moan? You bet! Just like a true British person, I moaned it was too hot; typical eh? Luckily, I had also packed a hat and plenty of sun protection, so still went prepared for anything, and as we were doing a fair amount of walking and I was wearing trousers and walking shoes most of the time, that didn’t help with the heat factor. Yet the clear blue skies were immense and the views were beautiful, and with no rain our days were spent outdoors without any interruption, so I was grateful for the weather, in the end.
We stayed in Cirencester, which is a convenient base for any visit to the Cotswolds; it’s a pretty little town, but with plenty of places to eat in the evenings, such as the usual chains of Pizza Express and Cote Brasserie, both of which were good but to give a shout to a local independent, I highly recommend Malt and Anchor – quite simply the best fish and chips I’ve ever had!
Blenheim Palace was first on our list of must-sees and we arrived just as the gates opened, which was a good thing as it became quite busy, although we were there during the week in term time, so it wasn’t as busy as it can be. We chose not to do the palace itself, primarily due to the difference in price; it was about £10 less to just walk round the grounds and gardens, and as we enjoy that, we went for the cheaper option. However, I’m not quite sure how anyone does all of it in a day anyway, as we didn’t leave until late in the afternoon and we had looked round most of the grounds, although not all. I think if you really wanted to get the full experience you would need two days. A word of advice, take some food with you unless you’re happy to pay out quite a lot throughout the day to keep you going as you look round. Like many of these places, they have you trapped, and although the food was fine and there was a reasonable range on offer, it was pricey.
The highlight for us was the butterfly house, which was wonderful, and I suggest you visit there first before the crowds. It’s near the pleasure gardens; you can take a little steam train to it but there’s really no need as it’s only about 10 minutes from the main house, and the train charges both ways.
Day three of our holiday was one of the hottest ones; 29 degrees and not a cloud in the sky, which was lovely for our photographs (if not for us) as we wandered through the trees at Westonbirt Arboretum. This (to use a well-worn phrase) is an absolute must if you are ever in the area. Unsurprisingly, arriving early is the best option, hence our being pretty much alone for the first hour or so as we strolled the first of two guided walks.
Upon arrival you can pick up a map which details the routes and also where the restaurant is, which is reasonably priced and serves tasty cakes and lunches; good-sized portions too! You’ll certainly be fuelled and ready for more walking. If you’re OK with heights then you must walk along the raised walkway, which gradually ascends into the canopy, providing fabulous views across the grounds and the opportunity to observe craftspeople at work in the wood shop below.
On our fourth day we once again arrived early at another highlight of the trip; Broadway Tower, the highest point in the Cotswolds. The drive up to it is a little tricky; rather narrow roads in places so beware, but once there, you can park and have a cup of tea and cake before walking to the tower. Early is definitely important with this attraction as you won’t be able to truly appreciate the view with dozens of other tourists in your way. It only costs £5, and there are exhibitions on each floor as you walk up to the top, concerning the tower’s history and place within the landscape. With luck, you will have a clear day and far reaching views across several counties.
We were fairly lucky (as you can see from the photo) but I think on an even clearer day, we would have seen more. As I mentioned, getting there for when it opens is key to having the opportunity to photograph and admire the scenery around you. We were there around half an hour, and as we were leaving many more visitors were arriving, including a coach full of people!
The afternoon was spent sheltering from the sun in the past inside the Cotswolds Motoring Museum, which is in Bourton-on-the-Water. The village itself is an essential stop on the tourist route through the area but we went principally for the museum and were not disappointed; it was wonderful! There’s a reason you enter the museum through a door which looks like the Tardis, as it has so much in such a small space. Not just classic cars but motorbikes, caravans, cameras (I was ecstatic at that point), boxes, tins, old signs, toys and other memorabilia; so much in fact we had trouble deciding what to photograph and I’m sure if we go back, there will be things we missed that first time. Each room is themed around the cars and artefacts from a particular period and as you walk through the music changes accordingly. It was lovely and put big smiles on our faces. The village itself was very busy as we arrived later in the day, so we couldn’t really appreciate it and at lunchtime it was quite a task to find somewhere that wasn’t already full. Fortunately we walked away from the river and found a good restaurant called L’anatra Italian Kitchen, which is part of a hotel; the service was friendly and the food was tasty. It was a good find as it was off the main route through the village, and therefore was a little quieter.
We visited Gloucester and Cheltenham, both briefly, as I’m afraid neither appealed to us, so we didn’t stay long. Cirencester is much nicer and as I said before, a good base with plenty of local amenities. Despite the heat, it was an enjoyable break, and we hope to return to Westonbirt later in the year to see the trees in all their autumnal splendour, and to visit the Motoring Museum again.
For more information on the places I have mentioned, click on the links below:
All photographs ©VCUZZELL2017
In a previous post; Endings and Beginnings, I wrote of a rather chilly visit to Mottisfont last December. It was lovely, even in the depths of winter, and my family were eager to return in the summer, and yesterday, we did just that.
We arrived just before the gardens were due to open as it gets very busy. Walking boots on, we had a chat with the friendly staff at the entrance before heading straight for the Coach House Cafe for tea and a scone, which set us up nicely for a few enjoyable hours of exploration.
The flowers had taken a bit of a battering the night before in a thunderstorm but the colours were still strong and the smell of lavender added to overall calm sensation of the gardens. It was hard to know what not to photograph there was so much to see! My mum impressed me with her plant knowledge and my brother took inspiration for his patch of garden back home. I don’t have a garden so it was lovely to wander among the foliage and listen to the birds flitting back and forth overhead; so healing and inspiring.
After the walled garden, we made our way into the house itself, which my brother and I had only seen part of at Christmas. You could easily spend a good hour or more exploring each of the rooms, which have so much detail; I loved the old wireless radios and cameras. Returning to the garden we made our way along the river bank and marvelled at the salmon jumping upstream. It was so peaceful; just the sound of water and the trees, with the occasional splash from the fish. The route back to the house cuts across some fields which were knee high with grasses either side of the path, and ended up at the circle of trees which I had photographed back in December on a sunny winter’s day. Unfortunately, although much warmer yesterday, it wasn’t sunny, so I couldn’t re-create the shot. However, I tried to do so with as many as possible.
It was lovey to see the gardens in their summer greenery and we’re planning to go back in October in order to see the trees in all their autumnal glory.
If you’d like to visit Mottisfont, here’s a link for more information:
I visited at my own expense. All photographs are ©VCUzzell2017
A few weeks ago I was listening to one of my favourite radio programmes, Radcliffe and Maconie on BBC 6 Music and heard an interview with Haemin Sunim, and immediately placed an order for his book.
I have quite a few books on Buddhism and meditation and was intrigued to see how Haemin would approach the subject differently. As it has been primarily inspired by his Twitter account, in which he gives advice on a number of topics, the book has similarly been divided up in to the following sections; rest, mindfulness, passion, relationships, love, life, the future and spirituality. It’s written in a very accessible, conversational style, and you could either read all the way through, or just dip in and out of it.
However, what really impressed me were the beautiful illustrations which accompany the words and elevate this above many others in this field and making it a joy to hold and read.
Recent minor surgery has resulted in much anxiety and forced ‘doing very little’ on me. Prior to the operation I was becoming increasingly apprehensive and had to find a way to calm myself. The answer came in the form of a free app; Headspace, which has ten introductory meditation sessions and encourages you to set a daily reminder to find the time and space to reconnect with yourself. As a former yoga teacher you might think I wouldn’t need to an app to remind me to meditate, but you’d be wrong; even those trained in meditation sometimes need a little shove in the direction of ten minutes of peace each day. Especially, if like me, you were not very good at sitting and doing nothing in the first place, and much preferred the physical asana practice of yoga.
It is also very beneficial to go back to the beginning sometimes and remind yourself of what you already know but may have forgotten, and possibly approaching it in a different way in the process. I have almost completed the ten free sessions and have found them very useful during what has been a very challenging time for me. As yet, I haven’t decided if I will sign up for further access to Headspace but it did lead me to consider re-reading some of my meditation books and I thought I would write a post about them as potential inspiration for some of you.
The little ‘Sit like a Buddha’ book is a simple, straightforward guide to meditation, written with humour, and is a realistic approach to the practice. It’s also a quick read, so you can get straight on with your meditation! One aspect of the book which I found useful was the chapter entitled ‘know your why’, which was something I had never thought about before. I guess I just thought ‘I should meditate’ but never asked myself why I was doing so; it was just something I felt I ought to do. Yes, I know all the benefits (and they are many) but what was the particular reason for sitting on any given day to practice? That I had not previously questioned; and so my reason these last few weeks has clearly been dealing with anxiety over my surgery, and the ongoing recovery from it. Once I had established my why, I felt a greater sense of purpose to practice and found it easier to make the time to do so.
‘The Miracle of Mindfulness’ is a classic of the genre from Thich Nhat Hanh; my copy is quite old; it was published in 1991! That goes to show how good it is because I do not horde, I have regular and quite ruthless clear-outs of everything, books included. The fact that this one (and others by TNH) has escaped my eager de-cluttering is testament to it being an essential read for anyone interested in meditation. I love the relevant examples used to allow beginners in to the practice, such as ‘washing the dishes, wash the dishes’ and the importance of being fully present in every moment, regardless of how you might feel at the time. This is something which I have often used when anxiety comes calling and I consciously re-direct my focus to what is happening in the here and now, as opposed to what I fear may happen. This is a must purchase! As are any books by Thich Nhat Hanh.
‘The Meditator’s Handbook’ is one of the first books on the subject I ever bought and takes a more psychological approach to the practice. It details varies styles of mediation from different belief systems, both eastern and western alike, in addition to perspectives from Tai Chi and yoga. It is a very thorough and therefore, a more academic guide, with plenty of opportunities to put what you have read about into practice. I would say this is for those who are more serious about their practice and would like to know something about the various meditation traditions around the world.
‘Mindfulness’ by Williams and Penman is one of the more recent publications on meditation and takes a modern approach by focusing primarily on the practice of mindfulness and how it can help with anxiety and depression. It includes an 8-week programme with accompanying CD, and is clear, practical and extremely helpful; especially at a time when mental health is (rightly so) being given increasing importance in society. As someone who is currently not 100%, I am aware that my recovery will be as much mental as physical, and if I can remain positive I will get better much quicker.
Regardless of whether you are a proficient practitioner or a beginner, I hope this post has inspired you, and I would love to hear of your books, apps or any other meditation tips you have.