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Now this is a little gem in the centre of crazy busy London: the Zen garden on the roof of the Brunei Gallery at the SOAS campus. Not that you wouldn’t be aware of the city around you; traffic noise is still audible up here, but I love the fact that a place for quiet contemplation has been created in the middle of Holborn.

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Planting has been kept to a minimum [...] Various types of stone are used in the garden: a sweeping curve blends the original rectangular sandstone with the irregular green slate; the central area of raked silver grey granite chippings has regular slabs of basaltic rock alluding to a bridge over flowing water; the island stones in the gravel areas are Larvikite from Norway; dark grey pebbles from a contrast in colour and texture to the formal granite edging and to the chequerboard planting.

(from the SOAS website)

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The Brunei Gallery itself is a unique little exhibition space. Whenever I have half an hour or so to spend in the area I go visiting on the off chance that something interesting is going on and so far I’ve never been disappointed. The concepts are unusual and often surprising: currently there is a photographic exhibition on Uyghur shrines in northwestern China on display and roughly a year ago they showed a fantastic collection of papers and textiles from all around the world.

The exhibitions are usually small so even with very little time at your hands it is well worth a visit. If you would like to spend more time at the gallery check out if they have any special events running. In any case: go and enjoy.

I’m still not quite sure what it is that has happened over the last few days but this morning when I was washing the dishes in the large communal kitchen tears started welling up inside me and I felt a deep velvety sadness about leaving this place. I had spent less than a week at The Barn in Sharpham with a group of ten other people I had never met before in my life. It is astonishing how quickly you can build bonds as a community when you do the right things together: meditate, work on the land, prepare food, eat, communicate openly without using sarcasm as a shield, sing, and be silent.

IMG_9602The retreat house is a beautiful old stone building set on a hillside amid woodland and open fields. I arrived late afternoon on Sunday, chose my room (“The Owl”) and had a cup of tea with the rest of the group in the sitting room overlooking the valley and the river below. I don’t think I had any particular expectations before I came – I just felt stressed out and was looking forward to a week without my mobile phone and the daily commute to the office. I was also hoping to progress a bit in my daily meditation practice without knowing what that actually meant to me. I felt relieved that the other retreatants seemed to be very normal people – or as Paul put it on our last day: “I’m glad you were not a bunch of hippies.”

The days at The Barn went quietly yet were filled with very nurturing experiences. Good conversations, heart-felt smiles, beautiful food, walks in the country. Every morning we got up at 6.20 am in complete silence and started the first mediation session at 6.50 am. After that we worked in the house until breakfast was ready around 8 am but kept silent until 9 am. In the mornings we did some gardening or other tasks around the house. I really liked working in the polytunnels, the hot and humid micro-climate and the smell of wet soil. A second sitting started at 12.20 pm. Lunch was prepared each day by two of our group and we all ate together. The afternoons were free until evening meditation, on some days teachers came to the house and gave talks. Silence started again at 9 pm.

IMG_9557Wednesday was “Silent Day” where we didn’t speak with each other at all. That doesn’t mean that there was no communication. It was my turn to prepare lunch together with Barry and we used sign language and little hand-written notes to co-ordinate what we were doing. Having lunch silently didn’t feel that strange actually but when we gathered around the table in the evening each with our bits and bites to eat I felt a bit awkward for the first time. What do you do when small talk is not an option? I admit I left the table earlier than I normally would have and went for a walk up the hills from where I had a beautiful view over the river. All in all the day had gone by easily and I felt very present. I remember the grass glittering silvery in the evening sun and there was no sound but the wind.

By the end of the week I felt very much at home at The Barn. Before I came I had wondered if I would feel resistance against the schedule, the meditation, maybe even the people, but nothing of that happened. Quite the opposite I felt I could easily have stayed longer, working, eating and meditating with the same group of people around me every day. I had always been very skeptic about communal living but now, for the first time, I felt it was actually possible. Jane told me about her own ideas to create a beautiful community somewhere in the countryside. It’s not an easy decision though to invest in a vision like that. For me it resembles a leap off a steep cliff.

On our last evening we shared our thoughts about what we would take with us from the retreat. I felt very grounded and very much like IMG_9564myself. No major revelations over the course of the week, I said, but things that had been lurking in the shadows, things I had somehow been aware of but not acknowledged or not taken seriously had started stepping out into daylight. I thought it was good to be clear about things and then work on them when back home.

And on the way “back home” it hit me. Yes, things had become clear to me but what that really meant I only understood when the panic inside me was growing while the train was approaching Paddington station. I didn’t want to put on this London persona again with her blow-dried hair, false smiles and hectic busyness; the persona that I had peeled off my skin layer by layer, silenced by keeping silent, starved through acceptance of myself. I have uncovered this shy little self again that isn’t interested in pension plans, Groupon deals or spring sales. I have nurtured it, petted it and encouraged it to man up a bit. I hope it won’t go to sleep again and I’m excited to see where it will take me. But I have a feeling things will not become easier. It might take a leap off a cliff, even if a tiny one.

IMG_9507I’d always imagined Totnes in Devon to be the most amazing place in the UK after I’d read an article about how its inhabitants had successfully fought against Costa Coffee wanting to open up a branch on their high street. With a considerable number of independent coffee shops – all fair trade, organic, you name it – the little town is probably oversaturated with caffeine anyway. The principle that the unique appearance of the main road leading from the Norman castle on top of the hill down to the river bank should not be spoilt by generic high street brands only seems to apply for coffee shops though, as the Totnesians do not seem to have a problem with a branch of Superdrug, SPAR or WH Smith on that same street.

Eventually, to get away from it all, my boyfriend and I went to Totnes for an Easter weekend break. We had expected a very laid back place far away from London’s mega-consumerism but munching our £8 fair trade organic vegan lunch in one of the 27 independent coffee shops my partner says: “I’m a little bit disappointed, actually. I expected it to be less …” – “… less commercialised?” I ask. He nods. Prices for a cup of coffee or a light lunch are more or less the same as in London, even though you are a 3 hours train ride away from the big city. The atmosphere resembles that on a Saturday afternoon in one of the nicer suburbs, take Wimbledon, for instance, or Richmond and add an alternative touch such as vintage wooden chairs and vegetarian IMG_9522cookbooks on handmade shelves.

I would probably not consider going back if it wasn’t for nearby Dartington, another place I’d been wanting to visit for a long time. The huge estate is just a lovely 20 minutes walk along the river from Totnes. Dartington Hall, set on a hill side, is surrounded by woodlands; there is a café, a pub, a cinema, and the beautiful gardens. The trust managing the estate works in three broad areas – the arts, social justice and sustainability, and innovative programmes and events are run throughout the year. The Schumacher College offering short-term and long-term courses for sustainable living is also located on the grounds. From the Hall we walk further up the hill, stroll through the forest and along the river. It is a beautiful late afternoon with golden sunlight touching the preternaturally green grass, a scenery looking slightly photoshopped.

IMG_9540Instead of heading up the high street when we arrive back in Totnes we turn left and walk across the river into what is called Bridgetown. The “Albert Inn” just by the main road looks like a proper local – dark wooden interior, stained carpets, three drunk people leaning against the bar; one of them, the chatty one, tells us about the on-site brewery, the live music gigs and the beer garden behind the house which is where we are headed once we hold our pints of local ale and cider in our hands. This is where we will go straight away when visiting next time we both agree.

The North Cornish coast is a magical place where the power of the elements makes itself felt on stormy, rainy winter days as IMG_9347well as gloriously golden summer afternoons. With that abundance of natural richness it is no wonder that the Southwest of the UK is a centre of attraction for people who celebrate the power of the earth, namely for pagans, druids and witches. You barely could have chosen a better spot for The Museum of Witchcraft than the small town of Boscastle, nestled into the slopes of the surrounding hills and amid rugged cliffs just by the Celtic Sea. It is a proper hideaway, remote enough that no street lights spoil the sublime vista of the starry night sky. The museum is located by the natural harbour in a quirky old house that looks small from the outside yet has surprisingly much space for the display of all sorts of magical paraphernalia.

Originally the musIMG_9352eum was opened on the Isle of Man in the 1950s but moved to Boscastle in 1960. It houses the largest collection of witchcraft and Wiccan related artefacts in the world which comprises of images and books, medicinal plants and magical stones, and various puppets and dolls – my favourite being the Hitler pincushions which drew on the ancient use of image magic to strike down an enemy. Other fascinating displays are the human-shaped mandrakes – on lend from the Netherlands -, a sculpture of the Horned God of Wicca and the dark mirror used by the museum’s founder Cecil Williamson. Apparently, gazing into a mirror is one of the most ancient forms of divination, liberating the creative and intuitive aspects of the mind and enhancing spiritual awareness. According to another myth when a woman looks into a magic mirror long enough the face of her future husband will eventually appear, looking over her shoulder. Never being quite sure whether I am superstitious or not I refrain from trying – the outcome might be quite scary!

Over dinner we have the chance to speak to Simon Costin, the new director of the museum. He tells us the collection is likely to remain in Boscastle for another couple of years before the bigger part of it is going to be incorporated into the newly to be built Museum of British Folklore. However, Boscastle will not completely lose its quirky visitor attraction as the current place will still be kept as an outpost. Luckily, be it magic or not, I also get promised a lift back to London the next morning so that I needn’t embark on the lengthy train journey via Exeter.IMG_9354

Hence, at 5 a.m. on Monday I am waiting for Kerriann in the empty sitting room of the old hotel when all of a sudden I get the strong feeling of another presence just outside the door in the corridor. It is still pitch black night and the stormy, rainy weather doesn’t encourage me to wait in front of the hotel. Seconds later, the lights of a car turn around the corner and pull into the parking space. I feel relieved, grab my bag and run outside. On our journey Kerriann tells me she’d managed the hotel for a while. “There are a few ghosts in there, one keeps standing at the top of the stairs just next to the sitting room where you were,” she says. – And what about the little museum? – “Yes,” says Kerriann, “the place is haunted by a lot of ghosts, they are attached to all the different paraphernalia of witchcraft in there.” However during a devastating flood in 2004 which severely damaged the museum some of the more vicious spirits seem to have been swamped out and a rather agreeable crowd of ghosts has taken over. A shimmer of light at the horizon indicates the end of the night. “Would you like a cuppa?” asks Kerriann pointing to the inescapable Costa Coffee sign at the entrance to a gas station. We’re back in the normal world, obviously.

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It would be very nice just to put sculptures on hill sides or in small valleys, or place them where you think it would be nice for them to be and for everyone to enjoy. – Barbara Hepworth

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There they stand on the slope of the hill leading down to the lake: the young girl and the youth; the bride with a long tear running down her face, the bridegroom with a hole in his stomach; the parents and the mysterious looking ancestors watching over them and the exalted figure of the Ultimate Form (or, as it is widely being interpreted, the deity) is looming. The Family of Man is a group of nine bronze sculptures created by Barbara Hepworth, and each figure is meant to represent a different stage of human life. One of only two complete sets stands here, in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park not far from the artist’s native Wakefield.

When thinking of Yorkshire, images of soft green hills dotted with grazing sheep often come to peoples’ minds, or Wallace and Gromit having Wensleydale cheese for tea. All this is part of the county’s character, however a visitor to Bretton Estate will also find sculptures of internationally acclaimed artists such as Henri Moore and Andy Goldsworthy among the sheep.

IMG_9140The Yorkshire Sculpture Park was established 35 years ago on the initiative of now Executive Director Peter Murray and for the first time in its history the Estate was opened to the public. From the visitor centre a broad lane leads past Hepworth’s Family to the Camellia House. A giant rabbit is kneeling in front of the conservatory. Inside, I witness yet another proof for the English character being one of a gardener: “Oh, look, this is camellia,” exclaims a woman, dragging her husband towards a bush in front of the bay window and completely ignoring a complicated steel structure with streams of water running down its blank surface.

From the greenhouse, a windy path leads through thick ancient woodland past the folly of a Greek temple and to a derelict IMG_9146boat house at the shore of the Upper Lake. It was not until a couple of years ago when wider parts of the estate were restored that visitors could get an impression of what the grounds of Bretton Hall must have looked like in their heyday. I walk up the hill on the opposite side of the lake over Seventy-One Steps, an artwork by British sculptor David Nash who works with wood and trees. At the top I climb across a dry-stone wall and look out onto the serene autumn landscape below.

Ten yards ahead a group of highland cattle is positioned under the branches of a wide old tree, a blank expression on their hairy faces. I pause to observe. They remain stiff. I move. Neither of them even blinks an eyelid. “What a brilliant idea,” I think, “and so truthfully done!” Then one of them slowly lowers her head and starts munching the grass down by her hoofs. I continue on my way, thinking that after all I’m probably more of a walker than a connoisseur of sculpture.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Cheltenham and Gloucester with my mum and her partner – a convenient weekend trip away from the city. The train ride from London Paddington took 2.5 hours and the weather was still sunny and warm enough to enjoy the beautiful countryside of the Cotswolds.

We went for a walk along the Leckhampton Loop just outside of Cheltenham with fantastic views of the town and the surrounding hills. The bus no. 51 took us from the centre of Cheltenham directly to the start of the trail at Seven Springs and we spent about 3 to 4 hours leisurely walking. Luckily there is a big pub at Seven Springs so we could enjoy a couple of pints while waiting for the bus back into town.

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Upon a friend’s recommendation we had dinner at The Vine, a pub with high standard Thai food. On the way back we randomly stopped for a pint at the Bayshill Inn and ended up staying for a couple of hours thanks to the live music and the good atmosphere. This is a truly great local pub and we felt so comfortable that we went back the next day. We spent the night at the White Lodge B&B a short busride outside of the town centre which was good value for the money although it was a bit of a squeeze at the breakfast table.

The next morning we jumped on the bus no. 94 which happened to stop just outside the B&B and went into Gloucester. I was surprised how quiet the city was. It was a Sunday but still I would have imagined it to be more lively around the city centre. We went to see famous Gloucester cathedral and the little Beatrix Potter House which is located just a stone throw away in a small alleyway. However, I found the really interesting part of the city were the Gloucester docks with their weird mixture of old industrial charme and fancy new shops and cafés.IMG_9091

Even though Gloucester might have had more on offer for tourists than Cheltenham I was keen on getting back to the smaller of the two places. We spent another couple of hours wandering around the little Regency town. I particularly like the architecture of that era which to me seems exotic yet familiar, as I cannot think of a similar building style to be found in Germany, but I also lived in Brighton for a year, another British town that has been shaped during the Regency period.

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To round off the day we had a curry at Shezan, a decent Indian just around the corner from Montpellier Gardens, before heading back to London.

I’ve come to really enjoy weekends away from London once in a while and Cheltenham & Gloucester can easily be combined in a nice short trip of a day and a half. Of course there is so much more to explore in the beautiful Cotswolds especially for somebody who loves walking!

I’ve just come back from a great walking holiday along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path where I went with two friends from Germany. We were incredibly lucky – although in Wales for almost a week it only drizzled down very lightly one morning. Apart from that: blue skies and sunshine. I had a fantastic time away from the City in one of the most beautiful parts of this country, the only problem being that it was too short…

Day 1: We started our tour from Milford Haven where we had arrived by train from Cardiff (3 hours) and walked a short distance of roughly 6km to Herbrandston. The coastline is soft and green on this part of the way, and the landscape reminded me of my native Bavaria, except for the sea of course. The countryside is slightly spoiled by the silhouettes of the natural gas terminals nearby. We arrived at Jayne’s fantastic Field’s Lodge B&B just in time to have a quick swim in the sea before heading for dinner at the Taberna Inn, a great country pub with decent food.

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Day 2: The 25km from Herbrandston via the Dale Peninsula to Marloes are a lot more challenging, mainly due to the distance. There are two river crossings that can only be passed at low tide along this part of the way. Around St. Ann’s Head the landscape changes as we leave the riverside behind and arrive at the shore of the Irish Sea. I love the wideness of the sea, the view of the horizon in the far distance, and immensely enjoyed this part of the way. I have a quick dip into the chilly water at the beautiful beach of Marloes Sands in the evening. We spent the night at the Clockhouse B&B which has the feel of a youth hostel and have dinner at The Lobster Pott Inn, a grand restaurant pub with excellent food and great atmosphere.

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Day 3: We walked about 19km from Marloes to Broad Haven, a distance that is well doable. At Broad Haven there is another great beach and I collected some sand in a plastic bag to take home with me – slightly eccentric as I would have to carry an additional kilogram on my back the next day. Talking of food again: The Swan Inn in Little Haven serves excellent food but is fine dining rather than pub food. We spent the night at The Anchor Guest House which was a good choice.

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Day 4: We set off early as we had another 25km to St David’s ahead of us. This part of the Coast Path is more strenuous as the way winds itself up and down steep cliffs at some stages. The views are magnificent though and the landscape is becoming more rugged and attractive. Stubbornly I hiked all the way to the smallest city of Britain (tiny St David’s has an impressive cathedral) although I could have hopped on the Puffin Shuttle at any stage, and I was absolutely exhausted when I arrived at The Coach House B&B. Another fine dinner at the Cwtch and a couple of pints at The Bishop’s Inn are my reward for the day.

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I can only recommend this outstandingly beautiful part of the UK for a walking holiday. The whole length of the Coast Path would take a couple of weeks but you can easily get to any point along the way by train and bus. As a guide book we used Jim Manthorpe’s “Pembrokeshire Coast Path” from the Trailblazer Series which was very helpful. Booking B&Bs in advance is advisable.

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