64 degrees North

From 30 degrees and humid to 5 degrees and icy cold wind.

Having experienced the bustle that is Hanoi, the calm that is Rekjavik could not have been more of a contrast. The capital of Iceland is the northernmost capital city in the world. There are only 300,000 Icelanders, and two thirds of them live in the city – the rest of the island has an average of 3 people per square  kilometre.

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In contrast with Hanoi, the air is clean and crisp, several of the streets are pedestrians only, cars stop and let you cross. The city is full of galleries, museums and public art is dotted about. One of the most striking buildings is the Hallsgrimskirkja which draws its inspiration from the basalt formations in the south of the island. Another impressive piece of art is the Solar Warrior, a sculpture on the harbour which recalls the first settlers in Iceland, Danes and Norwegians who came here in their longships. This Viking heritage is celebrated around Rekjavik, most notably in the Settlement Exhibition which is built around an excavation of an actual Viking longhouse.

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On the other hand, a lot of the houses seem to be built from a mixture of granite and coloured corrugated iron. Icelanders are very laid back – hotel staff treated our worries that the bus to take us out to see the Northern Lights was 30 minutes late with a bemused “It will be here,” and of course it was.

One of most popular tourist treks is called the Golden Circle, taking in the first hot spring which gave its name to all the others, Geysir, followed by the spectacular waterfall at Gull Foss and the Thingvellir, the area where the oldest parliament in the world is held.DSCN1017   DSCN1022

Another tourist must see is the Blue Lagoon, a hot bath as big as half a football pitch, where you can enjoy being in 39 degree water whilst swimming up to the bar and pasting yourself with silica mud to improve your skin.

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However, what it really is, is the outflow from the geo-thermal power station. All hot water in Iceland comes out of the earth from its volcanic core at 80 degrees (so the showers in the hotel warn you that it can smell of sulphur).

The most inspirational part of our trip was however the drive we took to the south of the island. The black sand beach at Vic was deserted, and the black basalt caves just around the coast were dramatic. On the way back we stopped off at Sólheimajökull glacier, where we were able to walk right up to the mass of ice which poured down the valley. Sad to learn that the glacier was over a kilometre shorter than just ten years ago.

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Iceland is the only country in the world to both continue commercial whaling, and have a tourist whale watching industry in the same place. Contrary to popular belief, whaling is not a traditional Icelandic pastime – islanders simply ate whale if it washed up on the beach. It was other nationalities that came to Iceland to whale in their waters. This misapprehension means that restaurants advertise “traditional” Icelandic menus featuring minke whale steak (as well as puffin and guillemot) which is the sole reason that the Icelandic whaling industry continues.

It was interesting that several friends commented, “Why Iceland?” when they heard where we had been. Apart from seeing the spectacular Northern Lights, which we did on our last night there, no one seemed to feel it had anything to offer. Yet we managed to find enough to do to fill our week.

Why do we choose places to go on holiday? Is it because someone tells us about them, that we might see a programme on TV which sparks our interest, or that we read a book which uses the setting? We had thought about going to Iceland several times when we lived in Boston, as it is kind of on the way there, but we never made it happen. So we finally made the trip ten years after we came back from the States. Iceland is interesting, stimulating, has a dramatic landscape and the people are welcoming and laid back. Since returning, I’ve used some of the pictures I took to create art. It’s inspired me to discuss my own Nordic heritage with my children. Well worth the experience!

 

 

 

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Walking away

I was horrified to see that by getting out of the habit, my last post here was in May! And things got rather crazy in the summer as we staged our art exhibition, The Magic Forest, in August, see https://www.facebook.com/The-House-Group-501302149898224/?ref=hl

One of the things that has kept me distracted since then is an opportunity to spend some time in Vietnam for a work contract. This gave me the chance to walk in what was one of the most exiting and sometimes maddening cities, Hanoi. There are over 7 million people living there, and most of them seem to own a motor scooter.DSCN0939

Traffic moves in conflicting directions, and the pedestrian crossing seems to be more of a suggestion which most drivers and riders disregard. A T shirt I bought for my daughter reads- “Vietnam traffic rules: Green- I can go. Amber – I can go. Red – I can still go.” Most pedestrians hesitating on the kerb appear to be Westerners.

Walking in the streets early one morning the roads were full of commuters. Often, the pavements were full of scooter riders too, if they needed to get the wrong way down a one way street. Pavement cafes were full of people having their breakfast noodles, street sellers wearing panniers of fruit and vegetables were walking to their pitch. Loud music blared out at intersections. The air was full of fumes. Then I came across Hoan Kiem Lake, in the middle of the city.

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All around the lake, people were sitting, chatting, doing tai chi. Around the outside the traffic roared, yet under the trees people seemed calmer. The legend is that when the emperor Le Loi was boating on the lake, the Golden Turtle god surfaced and asked for a magic sword that the emperor had been given by the Dragon King. The tower in the centre is called the Turtle Tower.

Hanoi is full of such contradictions to my Western eyes.  Not far from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum is the One Pillar Pagoda. Tourists swarm around it, yet  many people go there to leave offerings and pray. Buddhism exists alongside evidence of a communist state.

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In the Women’s Museum, there was a whole gallery devoted to Goddess worship, which seems to be a living faith here too. And the women heroes of the struggle against occupation and oppression were those who had fought and killed American soldiers to liberate the south of their country.

After a few days I was feeling the weight of the city around me, and was more than happy to fly back to my rural home in Devon. Yet Hanoi and Vietnam has awakened a fascination with a different culture that I am sure I will return to sample again.

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Age is just a number, right?

My last post ended with the thought that Mount Ngauruhoe would prove impossible to resist. Well, that was true up to a point. We got to our hostel the night before, and were treated to the sight of the mountain summit in clear evening sun. DSCN0640

However, the next morning as we rose at 6am to catch our bus to the start of the Crossing, it was thick fog.

“I’m not going up there if it’s foggy,” I declared, rather thankful to have an excuse not to attempt it. The driver on the bus was very clear that the mountain was dangerous, that it was not recommended to scale it, that people climbing above often dislodged lumps of rock that could break the bones of the people below.

Still, we made good time up the trail, and by the time we started to ascend the steps below Ngauruhoe, the mist had started to lift. The sign at the bottom promised us that the diversion would take us an extra 3 hours (on top of the 6-8 hours of the Crossing itself).

We began our climb. The surface was like grey sand and shale, with the occasional lump of hardened lava which provided some resistance. For 45 minutes we toiled up the 45 degree slope without making much headway on the 800 metres of ascent. It was exhausting. My inner self talk was working over time. “You can’t do this, you’re 57! That’s nearly 60!” followed shortly by “If you don’t do this now you will NEVER do it, you’ll be too old!” “You’ll feel great when you get to the top!” “What are you trying to prove?”

These inner conversations distracted me from the fact that I was really not enjoying myself at this point. Eventually I took a break and looked at the view.

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“I am not going any further,” I told my daughter. “This is not fun. I’d like to enjoy the rest of the Crossing rather than spending another 2 hours toiling up this mountain.” So we agreed to part, she wanted to get to the top, I would go down and she would then be 2 hours behind me on the trail.

The rest of the walk for me was in a mixture of mist and sun. I saw the fabled Emerald Lakes through a haze, a brief glimpse of the Blue Lake before it was covered in fog. And the Red Crater steamed out of sight, although the earth at the side of the path was hot. When I started to descend, of course the mountains came out of the fog and showed that this was still a live volcanic area.

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At the bottom, while I waited for Ella to finish the trail, I had plenty of time to beat myself up about “failing” to get to the top, and reason with myself about making the right decision. My age seemed to feature largely in both my regrets and my justifications. Yet whilst it is true that I am less capable of physical tasks than when I was younger, I have seen people of my age using walking frames, and friends who are older racing up hills leaving me breathless. What is important is to learn to listen to the body, rather than attaching some label to the numbers. So whilst I may well return to Tongariro in the future, and I may make another attempt on Ngauruhoe if I want to, I may just walk the trail again and drink in the experience of walking across a volcanic crater over a mile wide.

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Pushing the boundaries

We mostly prefer to stay in our comfort zone. Doing the things that we know how to do. Following the paths we know so well we don’t even need a map.  Every once in a while, though, we need to break out or we get stale. Sometimes it’s not because we want to, but because someone else sets us a challenge.

In my case, this challenge has been laid down by my 19 year old daughter. She is currently travelling, and set off on her own in September to Bangkok. Putting her on the plane was a really painful emotional experience for me – she’s my youngest so she heralded in the empty nest. I had to hold onto my upset all the way back from Gatwick as I knew I would not be able to drive if I just gave in. She travelled through Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and thank goodness for Facebook! I can’t imagine what it must have been like for parents whose children set off in the days of the odd postcard from far flung places. I had to be strict with myself so that I didn’t stalk her – but then the days when she was just having a good time and didn’t post anything were scary.  I was so glad when she got to Australia – somewhere I had been and could imagine her being. But then the gun siege happened in Sydney just 5 minutes from where she was at the time.  Now she has moved onto New Zealand, and I will be joining her there in just 10 days to spend 3 weeks in the North Island.  There was a moment when she considered returning to Sydney afterwards, and I was faced with the prospect of yet another airport farewell. However, the moment passed due to lack of finances and she’ll be coming back with me at the beginning of April.

Some of her friends recommended the Tongariro Crossing – 18 km including scaling a volcano. “Let’s do that, it looks cool!”  She is not a walker, but she is much fitter than me. So I consulted a friend who is a personal trainer. Within a day she had drawn up a fitness programme to get me ready for the challenge. Four walks, two cycles and one rest day each week, adding on distances and trying to do the same route in less time. The weather was not helpful – the first time I went out on my long hill walk it rained (I wrote about it here). However, in six weeks I was knocking my time down, overtaking people who were going up Fore Street, feeling fit and healthy. I went on a 9 1/2 mile walk which seemed to involve every hill between Cornworthy and Dittisham and then back again. But I did it, and along the way discovered a part of the Dart that I had never seen.

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Then disaster struck. The next day I felt as though someone had stuck a needle into the tendon on the top of my right foot. I had to rest up. A few days later I tried again. Still sore after 2 miles. Frustration set in, and panic that I would not be able to complete the Crossing. Much beating myself up and lots of self pity about how I was going all this way and wouldn’t be able to enjoy it. Luckily my husband pointed out that when I’d had a problem before the local Quay Physio had sorted me out. And so it proved again -Wendy finding the muscle in my calf that had tightened and caused the problem.

So I have not completed my programme, and have not topped the long walk by the Dart. But I can walk without pain up to  5 miles and that’s a good start, and twice as much as I could do last week. My basic level of fitness is higher than it was in January. And I have a good supply of ibruprofen and various leg supports. In fact, the only time I ran a marathon I did the whole thing with a knee bandage because I was determined to complete it! I have to remind myself that this is voluntary, that I don’t have to do it and I can always leave out the volcano part. But I suspect that I will get to the base of Mount Ngauruhoe and be unable to resist.  Watch this space!

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Tree Swimming

Research from Japan suggests that the practice of Shinrinyoku, or ‘forest bathing’, lowers stress levels and could even help fight cancer.

I was reminded of this last week when we walked from Princetown on Dartmoor. The weather was fabulous, cold and clear, and we could see for miles as we set off past South Hessary Tor and then turned right down towards Older Bridge. The Tor has a Victorian spike on its crown, one of only 2 markers left to show the boundary of Dartmoor Forest. It’s always surprising to remember just how industrialised the Moor is, as we passed several old tin workings and the remains of a ‘blowing house’, where a waterwheel drove bellows to heat the furnace to smelt the ore. Princetown itself only exists because the prison was built there, its remote situation being an advantage to discourage escapes. And there is the Devonport Leat, built in 1793 to take water to the community on the Devonport dockyard.

Despite the fabulous views, there was a distinct softening of the air as we entered the forest and walked down through the trees towards the River Meavy.  Forest bathing is simply the practice of taking walks in the forest.  One study by the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo showed that forest bathing reduced depression, anxiety and anger in participants.  Another study measured the amount of “natural killer” or NK cells in the blood after a prolonged two day trip, including staying in the forest overnight.  These cells are part of the immune system’s armoury against cancer. After the trip, NK levels were increased significantly, and the effect lasted for up to 30 days.  It is thought that part of this effect comes from breathing in essential wood oils that trees emit.

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Of course, it seems best when trees ad water are combined, and we stopped for tea and flapjack at the woods near Norsworthy Bridge.  The best way to enjoy forest bathing is to enjoy the woods through all five senses – so here we could listen to the stream and the birds singing, drink in the green of the grass, smell the clean pine scented air and touch the trees.  There is some ingoing research to see whether walking in a city park with a good density of tree cover can also reduce stress levels.

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However, there is nothing to beat the real thing, away from the noise of the town and spending time in nature. Forest bathing is now a recognised activity for stress management and relaxation in Japan – and over 67% of the land is covered with forest there.  One of the charities we are working with in our art exhibition, The Magic Forest is Moor Trees. They plant native trees in the South Hams and on Dartmoor, creating a legacy for the future and helping to offset some of the carbon that is causing global warming. They will be giving us saplings, so that we can give everyone who visits the exhibition at Harbour House in Kingsbridge a piece of the forest to take home with them. Whilst it won’t create forests throughout the country, it’s a start!

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Walking up that hill

So, you set off on a walk and you come to a hill. It doesn’t look too challenging, maybe a little steep but it looks quite short.

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Then you turn the corner and the hill gets steeper, and longer. But you’ve started now, and you’ve invested time and effort into it so you keep going to the next bend.

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Then you see that the hill just keeps going on and one. It’s getting tougher now, but you just get your head down, one foot after another.  At last you come to the top, you look back down and survey all that you have achieved.

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You take a breath and turn the corner. And you discover that the hill just keeps going upwards.

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So when you do actually get to the top, you don’t trust it. You don’t stop to celebrate, you don’t take a moment to think about your achievements, you just keep going, because you think that there is just going to be another hill along soon. And of course, if you keep going long enough, there is another hill to climb, so you go up that one too, without ever really giving yourself credit for the first one.

This week I set out on the Netherton circuit in a slight drizzle. And I had that experience of keeping on going upwards, and then having to keep on going up a hill that turned out to be about 2 miles long. Just as I got to the top, the heavens opened and by the time I got home I was drenched. But this circuit is part of my training so I can complete the Tongariro Crossing with my daughter in New Zealand, and I fly out in just six weeks. So I could put it into context of preparing for something which is going to be amazing. All too often though, we just keep on trudging, head down, just doing it because it has to be done, and we never look back and see what a hill we have just climbed.

The other thing that happened this week was that I had a whole page editorial published in Devon Life about  my walking and coaching business.  That has been a bit of a long process too, as I took the business editor on a walk last summer. Originally the article was scheduled for October, then pushed to January, and finally appeared in the February issue. But now it is out and it’s fabulous! So I am raising a glass to Naomi who wrote it and celebrating a milestone in getting the word out about Walk the Talk. Make sure you look at your achievements and celebrate them too.

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Better Together

I love running my own business. I love being in control of my day, whether I am commuting across the landing to my office, coaching in person or by Skype, going to networking meetings, delivering training or teaching in Plymouth, Bristol or Birmingham. I find that working on my own means that I am more productive. I am no good at office politics, and my most recent experiences in academia confirmed this.

But there comes a time when I need the company of other humans. Mostly I can satisfy this by going out to my other “office”, Coasters Coffee down on the quay. There I can meet clients, read the paper, catch up on local gossip, whilst treating myself to a chilli hot chocolate and cake.

The best solution is to work with like minded individuals on different projects, and I have recently teamed up with Inga Page. She is a qualified Moorland Guide on Dartmoor, and runs Dartmoor Walks This Way. We were connected by a mutual contact who thought that my own Walk the Talk and Inga’s expertise on the Moor would make a good fit. So we have created Walk the Talk This Way, which benefits both from qualified coaching and a moorland guide who can tailor walks on Dartmoor to the abilities of the coachees. We have decided that this would make a good addition to the business offer of the hotels on the moor and have started talking to a variety of places with that in mind. Watch this space for a special launch of this new way of coaching in April.

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But you don’t need to wait that long. Inga and I will be offering tasters at the Business at Buckland Open Day on Thursday, 29 January. Buckland Tout Saints Hotel in the South Hams is staging a variety of activities  and showing off their conference facilities. I will be delivering a Networking Masterclass at 1.30pm, and there will be short WTTTWs at 3pm and 4pm. Quercus Brewery will be arriving at 5pm with samples of their ales. Buckland Open Day invite  If you want to come along, email jo.butler@edenhotelcollection.com or go to http://www.tout-saints.co.uk.

Working together with someone who has different, but related, skills, has been really energising. We have planned routes and thought about how it might work to offer this to larger groups than I can manage on my own. And now I am starting to think of the kind of clients I would like to work with who would really benefit from being coached in the open air instead of in a more conventional setting.

I have benefitted myself from mulling over some issue I have been stuck on whilst walking, only to find a creative way of solving it pops up as if by magic. It’s helped me both with my business and my creative practice. So I have really been Walking my own Talk too! If nothing else, try and grab a space between the showers and the hail that is forecast this weekend to nurture your creativity – but make sure you record your revelations when you get back. If you can walk with a companion, all the better. I will be dragging Rod out on my training for Tongariro on Sunday as I need to up my distance to 8 miles this week to keep with the programme. But even just 20 minutes would do.

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Pleasure not pain!

Why is January nominated as the month where we have to give up everything? So many people posting about giving up alcohol for January, or not giving up alcohol for January and feeling guilty about it, going down the gym, not going down the gym. Meanwhile, the weather outside continues its cycle of wet, windy, cold, grey and occasional bright glimmers of winter sun.

Somehow it seems that having a good time over Christmas and New Year must be paid for by a subsequent cleanse, purify, detox and generally painful time. Is there something deep  in our psyche that suggests anything good must result in something painful? It’s OK to have a big dinner and get drunk occasionally. Typically we seem to eat and drink to excess as a way of socialising with our family and friends. But Christmas does not come round every day.

At the start of the holidays we took advantage of an offer at the fantastic Scarlet Hotel in Mawgan Porth for a 3 course lunch with a glass of fizz. We also walked up the cliff path to Bedruthan Steps. It was a fantastic way to start the break.

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Now we are back at work, and last night met up with friends to try out the new Mexican restaurant in town. Tonight we are out to see a movie. Tomorrow we are off to Dartmoor for a walk and lunch in a pub. We don’t seem to feel the need to give up enjoyable things just because it is January.

The weather outside is often wet and windy, the skies grey. Why compound this with a regression to puritan  values? Surely this should be the month where we stock up on crumpets, hot chocolate and movies and treat ourselves?

Having said that, I am just about to start a training programme to get myself ready for the Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand in March. This will include four walks and two training sessions on the bike to make sure I will be able to keep up with my daughter, who although she is not a walker, is only 19! I am a great believer in the maxim that there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing, so I will be out pounding the lanes whatever January throws at us. And in a weird way, I am looking forward to it. I will be getting fitter and probably enjoying the countryside when very few others are venturing outside. I love the experience of being the only person in the landscape.

I am sure that I will set up rewards for myself when I get back from some lengthy tramp, so maybe I am just doing the pleasure/pain cycle in reverse here. At the same time I am working my way through the Mindfulness course, which reminds me not to give myself a hard time, and to be present, moment to moment. So maybe the trick to surviving January and the rush of guilt and penance is just to concentrate on the present rather than feeling like I have to pay for the past.  Happy 2015!

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For everything, there is a season

It’s really tempting at this time of the year to just hide under the duvet and turn up the central heating. But then my husband suggested going to see the sun rise from the top of Ripon Tor on Dartmoor and despite myself, I had to agree! We consulted the weather forecast and today looked the best in terms of brightness, although the temperature was supposed to be sub-zero.  At 6 o-clock the alarm went off and we reluctantly got up and dressed, packed everything warm we possessed into the car and set off. The roads were bright and frosty, the car temperature gauge read a balmy 1 degree.

As we got onto the moor the sky started to lighten with a false dawn, as the sun made its presence felt just below the horizon. When we got to the foot of the Tor, we still had 20 minutes to go before official sun rise time. The wind was bitter, but luckily I was toasty in my many layers, fleecy neck and ear warmers and skiing gloves. As they say there is no such thing as bad weather, just inadequate clothing. We climbed to the top and whilst Rod set up his tripod, I found shelter behind a pile of stones, only to be told I was in shot and would have to move! Five minutes later some of the clouds to the east acquired a frilly edge of red light, followed by the sun peering through the haze.

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Walking back to the car, the landscape glowed.

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Our reward for getting up so early was to treat ourselves to breakfast at the Fox Tor café in Princetown. The “small” breakfast was more than enough. Luckily our early start meant we got a place by the woodburner, as the place was soon full.

Next on our itinerary was Wistman’s Wood near Two Bridges. We have talked about going there for a while, as it is a place that inspires many artists around Devon and beyond. One of three high altitude woodlands on Dartmoor, the twisted dwarf oaks cling onto the hillside above the West Dart. It is only half an hour’s walk from the car park, and even today when the sun was shining and the sky a bright blue, when we got into the wood it felt dreamy and mysterious. Because the ground is covered in a “clatter” of granite boulders, there is no clear path and it’s hard going to leap from stone to stone. The people in front of us went into the wood only a few minutes before we did, but we could not see them at all. When I was a child growing up in Cornwall, the legend of the wood was that it walked with you so that you never got out. It was told to warn prisoners at the nearby Princeton prison that escape was impossible.

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The trees are gnarled and bent into strange shapes, covered with ferns and moss. Lichen hangs from the branches like witch’s hair. But I am pleased to report that we did come out of the wood and made it back for a cuppa at the Two Bridges Hotel.

So whilst it was tempting to stay inside because the forecast was freezing and we were warned about treacherous roads, venturing out this cold winter morning resulted in a fabulous adventure. I am always amazed that people often celebrate holiday time by sleeping in. Why sleep away your own time? Getting up early and seeing the sun come up was amazing. The sharp frost and biting wind certainly made me feel alive. Winter sun produces those sharp icy blue skies, and the views across the moor were stunning. So this is the season to be out in the cold as well as home in the warm.

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If you go down to the woods today….

Two weeks ago today I was starting my experience of The Journey at Embercombe, wondering what on earth I had signed up for. What was I doing, swapping my comfortable bed and central heating for a temperamental wood fired stove in a yurt with a non-ensuite (thankfully) composting toilet? Thank goodness for the huge wood stoves in the main venue that kept the water for the showers at a toasty temperature!

I spent most of the week living in the moment, as each exercise was only announced as we did it. It was strangely liberating not being in charge of the agenda, and interesting to note my control-freak tendencies gradually subsiding and being able to go with the flow.  I fell in love with my wellies – I had had to buy a new pair as my previous ones had developed a leak. I spent most of the week wearing them, apart from when I was in bed. I found it easy to exist without TV, newspapers, emails and phone calls.

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There was a small group of us who developed a close relationship over the week into our tribe. Some of the time was spent working on the land, some walking across the estate with some thoughtful exercise in mind. It was designed to help us reconnect to the earth, and to get us thinking about  what we loved, what were our gifts ,and what were our responsibilities in the world. However much Embercombe seemed like the valley of Shangri-La, Mac was clear that we needed to take action when we left.

So I had gone to discover my invisible path, and I found that I am already living my life purpose – who’d have thought it? I have taken on some work helping a local community have a say in how their town will develop. I realised that the art project I am doing with my husband, The Magic Forest, will help young children connect with their environment through art. https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-House-Group/501302149898224

It was strange to come back home, having driven down the A38 straight back into the flow of life busily going on outside Embercombe. I was lucky enough to get home in time to be able to go down to the beach at South Milton Sands to watch the sun dipping into the sea whilst drinking a hot chocolate outside the Beach House. Others had lengthy train journeys or drives up country.

It was a fantastic and enriching experience to take a week out to be able to think about my place in the world. It was better than a retreat, as everything was designed to be able to be used back in the “real” world. I’ve made some great friends and I feel confident that I am contributing to the world, although I know I can do more.  Embercombe runs a programme for young people focusing on sustainable leadership and I have volunteered to do what I can to support fundraising to make sure that it continues. http://www.embercombe.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=46&Itemid=413

And being close to the woods has inspired my art project so that I have ideas to inform my pieces for the exhibition next year. We have also found a wood nearby in which we can install sculptures to link to the gallery exhibition.  So feeling that I got real value from the course and am ready to step up!

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