‘When was the last time you did something for the first time?’ John C. Maxwell
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. We spend so much of our lives repeating the same limited array of actions; the routine so ingrained we don’t even miss what we’re not doing. Oh, I know, we sometimes look up from the alarm clock, the grocery cart, the housework, the dog in need of a grooming, the editing, the writing, the rewriting, to say, ‘I should do that’. But don’t.
This past year, though, I’ve broken out of my personal routine. I’ve committed to doing something I’ve been just talking about for years. Yep. Going home. Back to the United Kingdom. Back to fish and chips, egg cups, dog-friendly pubs, good chocolate and exorbitantly high petrol prices. And the National Health Service and BBC license fees and Trooping of the Colour and stunning national parks and Brexit. Leaving behind endless snowy US winters, stunning national parks, two-year-long election campaigns (Do they ever really end in the US?), school shootings (Will these ever end? Seriously, America?), uber-convenience (think warm cookies delivered to your door, 24/7) and extra sugar in everything, including bread and possibly soap.
With this dramatic change on my horizon, there’ve been a lot of first and a lot of lasts lately.
Searched for a house to purchase on Exmoor. Signed contract on a house on Exmoor. Retracted said contract when things fell apart. Continued search for a house.
Researched shipping a dog from the US to the UK. It’s not cheap, is it? And it’s stressful, for all of us but Watson. He’s none the wiser at the moment but that will change when he sees the crate. Which, unfortunately, must be ordered in ‘Woolly Mammoth’ size due to Watson’s mixed heritage including a large dose of Great Pyrenees.
Got US citizenship. (I know, I know. Why, you ask if I’m going back to the UK? It’s the travel restrictions on green card holders. Have to be free, man.) Attended my own citizenship oath swearing ceremony and assisted at another for refugees.
Travelled on a US passport. The only thing I enjoyed about this was the photo on my new US passport is much nicer that on my old UK passport. Now it’s not such an ego-bruising occurrence as the immigration officer sniggers behind his screen.
Lost European Union citizenship. I think. Not sure of the exact date that happened/happens. Was it January 31st or is it the end of 2020? Who knows?
Published a second novel. That can never happen again. So is it a first or a last? Luckily, publishing a third can happen for the first and last time also. It can also happen wherever I am in the world.
Paid off our thirty-year mortgage. That felt good! Can now afford the Woolly Mammoth crate.
Witnessed my youngest graduate university.
The Lasts. (At least, I think they are…)
My youngest graduated university, which means no more payments, or summer jobs, or ‘Can I borrow the car?’, or ‘Send food parcels, please’, or sweating grades. It’s been a jolt to realise I no longer have a dependent child. Luckily, I still have a dependent hubby and dog. Or maybe I’m the dependent there. Depends on the day.
Celebrated last Christmas and New Year in the US.
Spent six hours in one day shovelling a massive amount of snow from my driveway. (Should this happen in my new English home, I’ll be upset. Seriously upset. But packing one snow shovel, just in case.)
Applied for citizenship in a foreign country. At least I hope that was the last time. The paperwork was mind-boggling! The emotional toll was also greater than I expected.
Filed taxes for last full year of earnings solely in the US. 2020 will see filings in both the US and the UK. Can’t wait.
Condensed photo collection from what seemed like a hundred boxes, envelopes, drawers and albums into five photo storage boxes. While I enjoyed the sentimental journey from my own childhood through my children’s childhoods (went digital in 2006 – thank goodness!) it was a massive task I hope never to repeat. I hear you saying, ‘If she’d been more organized through the years, it wouldn’t have come to this.’ I don’t need this from you, thanks very much. But come over and I’ll show you Every. Single. Photo. You’re welcome.
Weighed – literally – the value of items based on nostalgia. Does that child’s tent, book, box of baby clothes, wedding dress, favourite leather chair, china serving dish I’ve never used but was given to me by a favourite person, etc., warrant the expense of shipping?
Bought my last roundtrip ticket from the US to the UK and back. Next time I travel, it will be roundtrip from the UK to the US and back. This may not seem a big deal to you, unless you’ve spent thirty years away from the place you consider home. The roundtrip starting point becomes a huge deal. A Woolly Mammoth deal.
So much still to learn and organize before the move. So much still to experience here in the US before saying goodbye. So if you ask me, ‘When was the last time you did something for the first time?’, I can say, ‘Oh, about lunchtime.’
Wishing you every success with your own firsts and lasts.
The last decade ended with great excitement. I thought I’d purchased my first house in England, ready to move home after thirty years in the US. This new decade began with great disappointment. The purchase fell through. Hand wringing, lamenting, and yelling ‘A pox on all your houses!’ didn’t seem to accomplish much. A change in tactics now finds me waking at 4:30 a.m. to peruse real estate websites and badger all my Exmoor friends to be on the lookout for suitable properties. Many have stopped answering my calls and it’s only … still January. Anyone would think they feared my return. Fear not, brave allies! I shall return in all hast to force copious amounts of clotted cream on you. In the meantime, I remain in the wrong time zone.
As a distraction from lamenting and house-poxing, I turn to books. Not my own as I’m too distracted. Haven’t written or rewritten or edited a word in a couple of months. Luckily, other authors are filling the void and I’ve read some awesome works, many outside my comfort zone. Out of necessity, I spend a lot of time reading within my genre. I need comparative titles for agents, a current view of the publishing landscape, a familiarity with like authors, what’s working and what’s not. Reading is certainly pleasurable but it’s also work. I used to read everything and there’s no reason to stop just because I’m now a writer in a certain genre, right? In fact, every reason to broaden my horizons. So, 2019 was the year I stepped back outside my humorous fiction cave and blinked in the light of forgotten categories.
I found some of my 2019 reads through PBS’s Now Read This (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/features/now-read-this/), and still others at my new favourite hangout, the reviewer’s copy table at Barnes and Noble: new releases at discounted prices. Some of my reads are brand new releases, others are old classics. I’ve linked to reviews rather than sellers where possible as I know you have your own purchasing preferences. I hope the links work wherever you are. I’d love to hear your recommendations from your own reading adventures. Here goes:
Spy thrillers became a favourite genre after meeting Tom Clancy at a book signing, then marrying a US Naval Officer. But that was years ago and I’d let the spy work go. Daniel Silva’s The English Girl brough me back with a vengeance. (Though I could never write this. Here’s why.)
Everyone should top up their classics reading each year. (Tracey, that means you.) My choices were I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou, American Gods, Neil Gaiman, and Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier). How could I never have read Rebecca before now! It’s awesome! But most of you knew that already, I suppose.
The flip side of the classics is to take a chance on a debut author. Beneath the Flames by Gregory Lee Renz is a great place to start. I met Greg at the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute and, boy, can this former firefighter tell a story.
War and violence are topics I steer clear of if I can. There’s just too much going on in the world for me to find the awful things we do to each other entertaining. But A Woman Among Warlords, Malalia Joya, and The Beekeeper of Aleppo, Christy Lefteri, are eye-openers. I’ve started 2020 with Olga Grjasnowa’s City Of Jasmine, about the refugee crisis brought about by the war in Syria. Foreign translations haven’t been on my radar for a while, yet City Of Jasmine, translated from German, reminds me to look outside my native language. It’s a fantastic book. Never will images of boats full of soaked people leave my consciousness. I volunteer with refugee populations, but I need these non-fiction and fictional accounts of prior lives and journeys to help fill my knowledge gaps.
I didn’t abandon the lighter-hearted, fun read. Far from it. I read many. A favourite was Rules For Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane. Maybe it was the timing of my own hopes to reconnect with old friends in England (those still taking my calls) that deepened the meaning of this tale. Or maybe it was the protagonist’s job, her world filled with plants and flowers. Either way, I enjoyed it.
I read my first Stephen King, Duma Key. The author has the potential to do quite well. You heard it here first.
Some 2019 reads I didn’t fully appreciate and one in particular was downright awful (mentioning no names), but each one sharpened my senses for what kind of writer I hope to be. Stephen King (an up-and-coming author I’ve mentioned before) says, ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.’ I believe him. Here’s to taking my open genre mind into 2020 – and into my own writing.
One more thing: I’ve decided not to participate in the Goodreads 2020 Book Challenge, where readers are encouraged to set a goal for number of books they’ll read in a given year. I’m too numbers-oriented for this. I find myself focusing on book count, finishing books I’d rather put side, choosing a shorter book over longer just to chase an arbitrary target. Which I missed. Two years in a row. Dropping that stressor (I need to save all that dopamine and epinephrine for house-buying) means I’ll read exactly what I want, when I want.
I’ll still write reviews of everything I read, of course, as reviews are the lifeblood of any author. If you’ve enjoyed my novels, please consider leaving a review on Amazon, Goodreads, Smashwords, or Barnes and Noble. Then go and read something outside your comfort zone – and review it. Your new favourite authors will thank you. Hey, even Stephen King needs validation every now and then. Wonder if he’s tried to buy a house lately?
To know me is to know I’m somewhat of a cream tea aficionado ‒ and I don’t mean just the ‘life-as-an-expat-makes-me-crave-all-things-English’ kind. No, I’ve loved scones and jam and clotted cream since I was old enough to lick the inside of a jam pot. (Which, incidentally, is frowned upon now I’m older.) Anyway, in anticipation of my move back to England, I contacted one of the most iconic tea rooms in the United Kingdom to see a) if they’d let me in, given my penchant for licking the inside of jam pots, and b) if they’d show me the inner workings of my idea of Nirvana: a tea room. Surprisingly, they said yes. Enter Paul Gibbs and David Pollard.
A chilly autumn mist
lingers over much of Porlock Vale as I negotiate the winding lane to Selworthy.
I feel I’m driving through a portal, framed by arcing gold, russet and amber
boughs. This much beauty is distracting, and I haven’t even reached the iconic
Selworthy Green yet. Changing gear is trickier than I remember and I almost
stall going around the 90-degree bend by the 15th century whitewashed
church. Thirty years in America leave my left hand unused to such driving tasks.
I pull into the car park and grab my journal, leaving my laptop under the front
seat. I’d initially thought I’d carry it in for my interview with Paul and
David, the dynamic duo behind Periwinkle Tea Rooms and Clematis Cottage Gift
Shop and Gallery. But as I stand gazing across thatched rooves, the silent
cemetery and striking views of the moors, high tech seems somewhat out of
place. Maybe I should have brought a quill and parchment paper. And worn a
bonnet. Too late now. Where does one buy a bonnet these days, anyway?
I open the gate
to Selworthy Green and cross the threshold into a different world: birdsong,
the brittle crackle of leaves chattering back to the wind, a stream gurgling
towards the sea after a stint on the moors high above the village. A step back
in time. Many a dream of moving to Exmoor begins at this gate.
Clematis Cottage greets
me on the right. A lichen-covered bench sits in welcome under the diamond-paned
cottage window. A riot of pink resurrection lilies keeps the bench company. Pyracantha
and ivy cascade over the stone walls and steps. An ilex tree of some variety
draws the eye through the bountiful berries to the fields and moors beyond. I
feel no need to take another step. Surely this bench is as good a place to
spend eternity as anywhere? But I take one more step because my nagging subconscious
reminds me I have an appointment.
I pause again on Selworthy Green. I have no choice, appointment or not. Surrounded by burnt-amber cottages topped with mossy thatched hats, its grassy welcome is set in a frame of confectionary-coloured flowers, even in November. Picture postcard perfection. I inhale the welcoming scent of a wood fire, tendrils of smoke curling from a chimney into the air. A door opens. A cheery hello, followed by ‘Want a cup of tea?’ Why, yes. Yes, I do.
Paul Gibbs waves me into Periwinkle Tea Rooms. Paul and David are entering their second year as National Trust tenant operators here, though there’s been a tea room in this location for decades. Ducking under the thatched porch, I’m reminded of a hundred other entries into this hallowed place. As a teenager, sullen (until the cakes arrive), as a newly-wed, proudly presenting Exmoor to my American husband, as a mother introducing my US-born children to an important part of their cultural heritage – clotted cream, flapjacks and ploughman’s lunches. And now, as a homesick expat and empty nester, looking for all the comforts of home I just can’t replicate in America. The tea room had been closed for several years. Seeing it open again elicits more complicated emotions than I’d imagined. I thought I’d lost this part of my history.
With a grateful sigh, I take in another of my favourite Exmoor views: A sideboard groaning with cakes, a glowing fireplace, tea pots lined up like soldiers ready for the lunch fray. Wonky beams and low ceilings; all of it familiar. Yet, there’s something new here, an energy that belies the quintessential ticking-clock-sleepy-cat-on-windowsill expectations of an English tea room. This is no museum to the lace table cloth, encased in magnolia white walls, the hush broken only by the faint clatter of a stainless-steel teapot lid.
There’s new colour
here. Plenty of it. In the seafoam walls, in the local artwork, in the cushions
scattered around the bench seating. In the light reflecting from glistening ceramic
tea pots and the quirky snail-shaped menu holders.
There’s music too,
coming from sophisticated elec-trickery
(remember the Cat Weasel TV programme?)
flashing under the cakes. It’s my first clue this is a thoroughly modern
operation wrapped in quaint trimmings. As Paul directs my tour – I’ve never
been upstairs before ‒ I realise this is not your grandparents’ tea room. There’s
a computer screen above the impressive commercial ovens in the bakery. Paul shows
me detailed statistical analysis: every scone sold in 2018 (13,628), every
cream clotted (33 kilos) every carrot grated (26 kilos), walnut halved (20 kilos),
egg cracked (3,727), Victoria sponged ‒ sorry, your majesty, but that’s 7,453 total
slices of all cake varieties for a total of 828 cakes. And finally, every dollop
of jam (410 kilos). That’s a lot of jars to lick!
Where am I? This is not what I expected. I’m somewhere between below stairs at Downton Abbey and the bridge of the USS Enterprise. (Darn it. Should have brought my old laptop in with me, just to compete.) Pulling up more screens, Paul shows me social media has replaced the lunch gong here. The business twitter account has a staggering reach of up to a million a week. There’s Instagram, Facebook, a polished website and a blog, all responsible for an impressive increase in guests taking detours to visit. The only nod to custom in the kitchen is a binder full of recipes, including all the traditional favourite cakes, biscuits and scones, along with new inspirations, like smoked salmon, leak and potato soup. Paul tells me the recipes are followed precisely, every time. Nothing is left to memory or chance. A guest can return time after time for that favourite coffee cake and never leave saying it was better last time. This is all part, Paul says, of knowing your business, knowing your market, and never compromising on standards. This may explain why they won ‘Tourism Business of The Year 2018’ at the Best New Business Awards.
It all seems so … not thatched. I’m sensing SEO manipulation and business projections Amazon would be proud to call its own. Turns out, I shouldn’t be surprised. Paul and David also run Mill Close Solutions, a management consulting business specialising in leisure, tourism and hospitality start-ups. With their Selworthy businesses open seven days a week, eleven months of the year, when do they have the time, you may ask? I almost feel guilty interrupting their day for a cup of tea. Almost.
I’m honoured to
be offered a seat in Writers Corner, designated for local writers who meet to share
all things ‘Author’. (Authors eat cake too, I’ve heard.) I start by testing the
tea. Periwinkle Tea Rooms uses Miles tea, a local supplier who blends tea and
coffee specifically to compliment the peaty Exmoor water. I don’t know what
that involves, but it tastes sublime. Of course, that could be as much a part
of context as flavour. Hard to imagine not enjoying anything in this glorious setting.
Taking a break from his duties at Clematis Cottage ‒ the gallery side of the business featuring Exmoor artists ‒ David joins us for a chat about finding home. His journey to Selworthy started on a fruit farm in Kent before spending eighteen years on Sark, in the Channel Islands. He says he doesn’t miss Sark, mainly because it could take weeks to get off the island in bad weather. Paul, born in Devon and raised in Dorset, has a strong family tie to Selworthy. His great-great-grandparents worked on the Holnicote Estate, one as a woodsman, the other as domestic help. They even lived in one of the Selworthy ‘grace and favour’ cottages. They rest here still, with their youngest daughter, in the churchyard a few yards from where we sit. Paul recalls conversations with his great-grandmother about life in the village. Treasured memories.
ancestry full circle to now live himself in Selworthy is profoundly meaningful
for Paul. ‘Selworthy is such a special place for so many people,’ he says. But
for him it’s more than that. It’s the beating heart of his family history. I
wonder out loud if someone had to compromise to live here, the historical
connection deeper for one half of the partnership than the other. After all, I
have the same concerns about asking my husband to move to Exmoor just because
it’s home for me. But neither Paul nor David struggle with the decision. They both
cherish the opportunity to make Periwinkle Tea Rooms and Clematis Cottage ‘must
see’ destinations. They’ve succeeded already. Trust me on that.
Their love and
excitement at being here has led to phenomenal success, outperforming all
expectations in their first years. They’re certainly willing to go out on a
limb for their guests, even throwing an impromptu wedding reception for a bride
whose ancestors lived in Periwinkle Cottage. They organized a meet and greet
for me with other local authors too ‒ well above and beyond the call of scone
I wonder what Paul’s great-great-grandparents would think of a world-renowned, technologically-advanced enterprise in Selworthy. It was, after all, just low income housing in an isolated village ‘back in the day’. Who knows? But certainly, this is not your grandparents’ tea shop ‒ unless you had state-of-the-art grandparents. That said, Periwinkle Tea Rooms still uses your grandparents’ recipes. Those delights, combined with time-honoured tradition, stunning scenery, the welcoming warmth of a fire cracking in the grate, and good old-fashioned hospitality will bring me back to Selworthy over and over again. No matter how long I’ve been away, this place is part of my family tradition. It will continue to be so thanks to Paul and David.
There are pros to
life as a rolling stone: a global perspective, varied opportunities, a trail of
diverse friendships, strong adaptive skills. Cons: an outsider’s perspective, constant
regrouping, new rules. (Did you know you can display the Union Jack instead of
a licence plate on the front of your car in Connecticut, but not in Wisconsin? ‘Officer,
I didn’t know that. Thanks for informing me in front of everyone with blue
lights flashing and your hand on your gun.’ Some relocation lessons are
hard-earned, but for the most part they add zest to life.
Despite my wanderlust,
I find myself envious of those who’ve remained in an area long enough to pull
back the curtain; to know all the workings of a place. As I build momentum for
a move back to England, I thought it may be helpful to find someone who knows
Exmoor like that.
Nigel journeyed to Exmoor via Hampshire,
Nottingham, and London. He’s worked for
the National Trust for forty years ‒ mostly on Exmoor ‒ currently as the Projects
and Grants Manager for the Holnicote Estate. (From the ochre-tinted cottages of
Selworthy to the peak of Dunkery Beacon, the Holnicote Estate comprises most of
what I call home.) Nigel’s bio says
he’s ‘passionate about the countryside, wildlife, music and cooking good food!’
Sounds like someone I should meet.
We shake hands in
the car park at Horner, a tiny hamlet at the foot of Horner Wood ‒ an 800-acre
section of the Holnicote Estate. Blue skies greet us after days of rain. We
head off into what Nigel calls his ‘favourite temperate rainforest’. This is
one of my favourite spots too. Horner Water burbles through the predominantly
sessile oak woodlands. Cloutsham Ball sits at the top of the steep combe,
presiding over dramatic views of Hurlstone and beyond. Dunkery Beacon towers
over all. On horseback or on foot, I feel cosily cocooned here. It’s the
location of one of my favourite benches in the world.
I thought I knew this place quite well. Turns out I knew little but the trails. Nigel knows every turn in the river, every plant, every historical detail, including the locations of at least two Iron Age hill forts near by. He points to a raised earthen berm topped with mature trees, a testament to the Tudor Age men who rerouted the river to facilitate their iron ore industry. Yes, they moved the river. I didn’t know that. We cross it via a small bridge. Nigel explains the bridge timbers were replaced by iron railway lines, recycled from the West Somerset Railway. He shows me pollarded trees, a pruning technique used for encouraging young growth for fencing and ship-building. I’d never noticed their unusual shape. As we climb, we pass a storm-ravaged oak, its trunk fractured into a stunning natural sculpture. Nigel tells me the year it happened. He conveys an unspoken understanding it is worthy of note, as though the tree is a friend. Oaks here can be upwards of seven hundred years old. I feel a need to spend a few respectful moments with the mangled tree.
As we admire the
view across to Wales, I comment on the amount of holly covering the slopes. I
don’t remember there being this much of it in the undergrowth. Nigel see it as
a rather pesky plant. Since the reduction of sheep grazing in the National Park
‒ a result of agri-environment grants to reduce the impact of trampling and
damage to heather moorland ‒ holly has taken over. During research, I discover “Holnicote”
may trace its roots to the Anglo-Saxon word for holly ‒ holegn. Therefore, its dominance here may be well established.
I remember more mistletoe. I saw so much of it from the saddle years ago. Nigel tells me there’s less now, but still some near Timberscombe. Anything I notice Nigel can explain, whether it be acidic soil, resulting in fewer native flowering plants, or policy change and its impact on vegetation. He shares more: Greater than 440 species of large fungi can be found in Horner Wood. It’s considered by some the most important woodland for fungi after Windsor Great Park and the New Forest. Horner Wood is also one of the richest bat sites in the United Kingdom, boosting fourteen of the seventeen UK breeding species, including the rare Barbastelle. This may explain how busy Liz Bradshaw is, Nigel’s wife. She’s an expert, regularly consulting on all things bat.
We come to a monitoring station on the banks of the river. I can’t imagine what it’s doing out here. Of course, Nigel knows. He’s part of a research project called the Multi-Objective Flood Management Demonstration Scheme. The equipment at the station collects water flow data every five minutes. Using this information, flooding in the Bossington area ‒ where Horner Water enters the Bristol Channel ‒ has been significantly reduced. Modern science buried deep in the ancient forest. Who knew? I wonder what Tudor Man would think of this technology and if it would have impacted decisions to move the river. Maybe Horner folk considered Bossington folk too far away to worry about.
What’s it like to
know a place so well, to be so acutely attuned to its strengths and weaknesses?
It comes at a cost, Nigel feels. Not all is smooth sailing in Camelot. His job sees
him sharing information with Exmoor residents on controversial and divisive
topics, such as Brexit and the banning of hunting. It hasn’t always made him
popular. Exmoor, as seemingly remote from Parliament and Europe and US politics
as anywhere, still exists alongside current issues. That’s a good wakeup call for
me. Escaping world complexities is not what Exmoor is all about.
We discuss the
biggest changes over the thirty years I’ve been away. Nigel feels the number of
visitors, the extension of the tourist season, and the purposes for which they
visit can be viewed as blessings and curses. They change the special qualities
of Exmoor. Landscape and wildlife pay a price for successful Exmoor businesses,
such as adventure tours, hotels and shops. “Erosion, with its inherent
soil loss and water run-off is becoming a real problem,” Nigel says. This
translates into a decline in upland wildlife. He continues, “Curlew, ring
ouzel, merlin, whinchat, stonechat, grasshopper warbler – all disappeared or
rapidly disappearing from Exmoor.” It’s a familiar dilemma in areas of
outstanding beauty: the very businesses necessary to sustain an area can damage
it. Nigel feels strongly about this. “National Parks should not put recreation
above biodiversity.” I promise to remember this.
moss-covered stone walls and the quintessential wooden pathway signs. It’s all
breathtakingly beautiful to me. I ask about other places Nigel enjoys. Apparently,
Badachro, in Wester Ross, Scotland speaks to him of home as I define it: the
place you sleep the best and breathe the deepest. “It reminds me of Exmoor thirty
years ago,” he says. “A wild, untamed, wildlife-rich landscape that excites me
every time I visit.” Recently announcing his retirement, Nigel plans to spend
more time in Scotland. As my face falls – but
we haven’t got to the ‘cooking good food’ part of your bio yet! – he
assures me Exmoor will still feature prominently in his life. Its diversity of
landscapes and wildlife, its cultural richness, including archaeological
evidence of 5000-year-old communities, its wild appeal and remoteness ‒ while
only two hours from Bristol and Exeter ‒ all keep him passionate about Exmoor.
We exit the trees just above the old watermill and head back to the cars. I cherish a whole new appreciation for Horner Wood, but Nigel makes me realize just how much I don’t know about my ‘home’. Or anywhere for that matter – the curse of the constantly rolling stone. I can tell you Bora Bora is surrounded by surreal turquoise waters, the central California coast, though ravaged by fire and landslides, is still beautiful, that the brutal winter storms of Wisconsin produce stunning natural snow sculptures. I can tell you Bahamian sea water is too warm in August, your feet will get wet in Venice, and New Zealand’s volcanic and glacial topography never fails to impress. I can tell you where they serve a great tres leches cake in Costa Rica and that the Brazilian rainforest is vast. What I can’t give you is depth. I can’t express a connection forged by time. But I want to know Exmoor; to pull back the curtain and learn to greet a tree like an old friend. It will take a while. And that’s okay.
Many thanks, Nigel, for sharing your knowledge, and for your commitment to Exmoor.
If you caught yesterday’s blog, you’ll know I paid a visit to the West Somerset Morris dancers as part of my ongoing effort to reconnect with my English roots. It was a success. I left the session feeling more English than when I arrived, which shouldn’t have been a surprise. Witnessing part of something so intrinsically English is bound to stir the old DNA. But something did surprise me. I hadn’t expected to meet so many kindred spirits. Several WSM members recognized and understood the pull of home. They had also left their birth places before connecting in Somerset. I found out more about them during the tea break …
didn’t used to serve tea during practice ‒ until women joined WSM in 2015.
Thank goodness for women, I say. As the kettle boils, I get to corner a few of
the members to ask: why Morris dancing and why Somerset?
For several WSM
members, Somerset is where they were born. Mitch, Reg, Dudley, Peter, Joe,
Edmund and Ray have called Minehead, Watchet, Taunton or Bishops Lydeard home
forever. Other members followed somewhat more circuitous routes to Somerset.
Like Kathy and Andrew, husband and wife, who lived for several years in New
Zealand. Retiring in Yorkshire, their desire to be active members of a
Morris led them to Somerset. Though a passion for the dance attracted them to
the Southwest, they happily report considering the area home now.
After a four-year
stint in Africa, Nicky explored the rest of the world with her husband,
Malcolm. It was a trip to visit the in-laws in Porlock that led to permanent
residency on Exmoor. Nicky’s always enjoyed Morris music and as soon as women
were invited to join WSM, she jumped in. Or is that cross-hopped in? ‘Dancing
with the Morris is such an uplifting experience,’ Nicky says. ‘The men are
hilarious, as you may have noticed.’ Yes. I have noticed.
Anne moved to Somerset seven years ago. She was delighted when the West Somerset Morris asked ladies to join. In her opinion, the WSM is the best thing about Somerset. Barbara was born in London, moving to Somerset thirty years ago. She didn’t hesitate to join WSM as soon as women were allowed. She tells me the group makes everyone so welcome, it’s like family to her now. I’m starting to get that sense after only an hour in the group’s company.
Edwin, who plays
the concertina, was born in Watford, near my birthplace in Hertfordshire. He
studied Classics at Oxford and came to Somerset ‒ via a stint in Manchester ‒
to be closer to his wife’s family. This is Edwin’s fiftieth year as a musician
for WSM. He requires no sheet music, just the name of the dance and he’s off ‒
foot tapping, eyes half closed, lost in the moment. He tells me it’s the people
here that make Somerset home. As I witness the jovial comradery in this village
hall, I believe him.
Steve washes the
mugs while I dry. His story is unique. Having spent his life in Oxfordshire, he
dabbled in genealogy after retiring. Unbeknownst to him, five generations of
his family were out of Watchet, a Somerset coastal community. Upon discovering
this, he felt drawn back to his ancestral lands and here he is now: a
It’s an interesting mix of experiences: those who remained settled in one place and those who found home later in life. Both groups feel it’s important to perpetuate the traditions of Somerset and Exmoor. I’m shown memorabilia saved from each public display. Photos and flyers preserve happy faces outside pubs and on village greens and at Christmas celebrations. All proceeds from displays go to charity. This year WSM are supporting Halway Manor Library, The Air Ambulance and Southwest Children’s Hospice. Good fun and good citizenship. Win-win.
I ask Squire Joe
if he considers Morris a re-enactment of the past or whether it is, in fact,
forging ahead, making new traditions. He thinks it’s both. Times change: women
join, tea breaks are added, and they don’t drink as much alcohol during
displays anymore ‒ that’s what Joe tells me anyway. When asked about the main
draw to join the Morris, Joe feels it’s a fun hobby that encourages members to
connect to place, time and each other.
Sounds good to me
‒ ancient dance woven into the fabric of society. Dance aside, I see a pattern
here: people searching for connection and home. Whether through ancestry or fluke,
there’s a shared desire to be part of traditions that both precede and outlive
us. I vow to weave myself back into England as soon as possible.
I wish you home
for the holidays, wherever that is for you.
I heartily thank
the West Somerset Morris for their kind welcome. The hilarity was a bonus!
‘I’m off to find
England. MY England’, I announce to my American husband. ‘Great,’ he says.
‘Bring back some Club biscuits.’ Tut. Eyeroll. Like Club biscuits epitomise my national
identity. (They’ll be in my luggage anyway.) But if not Club biscuits, what exactly
is ‘My England’? I’ve met many Brits abroad who crave the comfort of all we
left behind, without being able to pinpoint what that is. Hiraeth (or hireth,
Cornish spelling) ‒ a deep yearning for home with a sense of loss ‒ has taught
me to beware the rose-tinted dangers inherent in returning to the land of my
birth. After all, what exactly do I think I’m returning to?
Sounds like a fieldtrip’s
in order. I head across the Pond to search for …well, England. A white
handkerchief flashes in my peripheral vision. Enter the West Somerset Morris.
Morris dancing, that most quintessential of ancient English folk dances, prances proudly through my youth. May Day festivities, royal jubilees, Christmas pub crawls, the Morris dancers were always there in sashes, tabards and tatter jackets. The sounds of the concertinas and fiddles blending with the bells attached to the dancers’ shins. To the rest of the world, the scene may be evocative of cosy murder mysteries; Morris dancers used as a cinematic cue we’re in jolly, quaint, quirky, hankie-flapping England. It’s bound to be one of the dancers who trips over the dead body.
But I digress.
I’m here to discover my connection to this English tradition. The West Somerset
Morris is brave enough to let me visit a practice session.
I drive to
Sampford Brett, a village just outside Exmoor National Park. As I check
directions to the village hall, a peal of bells makes me smile. I roll down my rental
car window. The joyful tones cascade from the church belfry and wash over me;
memories of childhood Sunday evenings. Nowhere else in the world do bells sound
like this. But I mustn’t tarry. The Morris waits for no one. Gathering up my
pen and camera, I pull open the door to the village hall, and step inside the
beating heart of English tradition.
greets me ‒ Bagman an infinitely more interesting title than secretary. Ray is
also the Foreman of this Morris, aka the dance teacher. Next, I meet Squire Joe
(the leader). Other dancers arrive. In a corner, the musicians set up: fiddle,
concertina and flute.
I’m placed in a
safe position at the side of the hall – there are spinning bodies to avoid
after all. Members line up and the music starts. Foreman Ray names the dances
for me: Maid of Mill, Banbury Bill, Nuts in May (this one involves chunky sticks.
I’m here to tell you, they don’t hold back in taking swings at each other),
Border Dance, Skirmish, Jenny Lind, to name but a few. It’s a chilly night but
there’s soon a sweat on brows. This is a workout and then some.
carefully round the perimeter to take photos as Foreman Ray calls out dance
steps. Squire Joe wants more energy from the dancers. The dancers want Squire
to take smaller lateral steps so the lines remain true. This is an art steeped
in tradition, and members are sticklers for maintaining form. I try a discreet little
hop step myself. It’s harder than it looks.
During the tea
break, I ask the group about their own roots and ties, both to this dance and
this part of the country. Members recount stories of global travel,
coincidences and genealogical flukes. These stories follow tomorrow in Part II.
their tea. The fiddle, flute and concertina fire up, and they’re off again ‒
sticks clanking and whoops whooping. The steps have exotic names like
Whole-Hey, Half-Gyp, Caper, Hockle Back and Cross-Hop. Handkerchiefs must be
flicked outwards from chest level, no lower. Ray explains these little details
distinguish one Morris from another and one area of the country from another.
It’s fascinating. I’m so joining the Morris when I move back here!
Or so I think until Bagman hands me a pair of handkerchiefs and invites me onto the floor for the final dance. Let’s just say, it’s a good job I wasn’t trusted with the sticks. As I cavort gamely, trying not to trip anyone while flicking my handkerchiefs with abandon, I’m reminded of the description of Morris dancing in Cecil J. Sharp’s book, The Morris, written in 1907: ‘…the Morris dance is a bodily manifestation of vigour and rude health, and not at all of sinuous grace or dreaminess.’ I may have the rude bit down as I crash around. No one declares I dance with ‘sinuous grace’. Maybe I’m a natural after all.
All too soon, it’s 10pm and practice is over. Ray tells me I’ve only been privy to half the experience so far. It’s on to the pub for a pint, as much a part of Morris as anything, with its history steeped in ale since mediaeval times. Unfortunately, I have an early assignment tomorrow, so have to pass on the offer. Good excuse to come back for the rest of my education though.
I wind along the inky-black
lanes towards Porlock, wrapped in a sense of history, of belonging, of roots. Was
it the dance? The tea? The tradition? The comradery? Yes. Yes, it was.
I’ll never take
for granted the work and dedication of individuals preserving traditions. They
mean so much to the expatriate ‒ this one, anyway. Can I fully explain my
connection to home? Not really. It just is. But I reconnected with part of my
England in a tiny hall in a tiny village, dancing with people I’d never met. I
found kindred spirits in the jingling heart of my home, complete with church bells
and Morris bells. I can’t thank the West Somerset Morris enough for pulling me back
into the dances of England.
I’ve just returned to the United States from a promotional book tour in England for Dunster’s Calling. Let me repeat that. I’ve just returned from a promotional book tour in England. I know, I know. You heard me the first time. But I needed to hear it again myself. You see, I can’t quite believe it happened. I’m not very good at self-promotion. I’m better at sitting alone and writing. I knew I had to ‘do’ social media to build my brand, but I questioned its efficacy. In all that noise, no one hears you, right?
It’s still hard to believe that a Facebook post led to a live presentation. Oh, and did I mention the BBC called? (I’d repeat that but I’m afraid I’d lose you, so I won’t repeat that the BBC called.) I write fiction so you’re right to check my credibility and/or mental state. That’s why I took photos to verify the account that follows …
After writing my debut novel, Dunster’s Calling, I thought the hard part of being an author was over. Ha! Marketing a novel, as it turns out, is much harder than writing it. But I got stuck in on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. My social media strategy was 1) to establish why I was the person to write this story of an expat’s search for home, while exuding humour (well, my mum thinks I’m funny), and 2) to connect potential readers with the setting for my novel: Exmoor, a National Park in England’s southwestern peninsular. I felt as soon as potential readers saw Exmoor’s beauty, they’d want to read a book in which that glorious setting becomes a central character. My job would be done and sales would roll in. So I posted photos of thatched cottages and moorland views over the Bristol Channel. Based on follower reactions to the photos, the beauty of Exmoor struck a chord. However, the translation into book sales was less … struck chord-y.
As time passed, I grew weary of battling to promote through social media, of limited traction, of endlessly attempting to drown out the ‘you-just-can’t-do-marketing’ voices. I almost gave up, deciding social media was a time suck and no one was listening anyway.
But someone was listening. Someone I’d never met. Someone who saw my photos while setting up her new store that sells all things Exmoor. Enter Elke.
Elke is also an expat, moving from Germany to England nearly twenty years ago. Maybe my tale of life in a foreign country, of homesickness and of the pull of Exmoor spoke to her. Anyway, she asked me to write a guest blog for her website and to provide some signed copies of my book for her store in Minehead, Somerset. I did so, gratefully. I figured that was the job finished ‒ until Elke asked if I’d be interested in giving a talk at the store.
Why, yes. Yes, I am interested.
I book my flight.
I arrive in England to discover Elke has sent press releases far and wide. There’s a writeup in the paper and an invite to record an interview for West Somerset Radio, to be played on air the next day. Before I know it, I’m sitting in a sound studio, headphones on, mic check done, Bryan Leaker counting me in: three, two, one … ‘Tell us about Dunster’s Calling’. Bryan makes me laugh, despite my nerves, and offers to give away a copy of the book in a competition on the show. I sign a copy like it’s no big deal.
It’s a very big deal, to me.
I leave the studio after my first radio interview. It’s more than I ever dreamed possible and I return to the place I’m staying for celebratory tea and biscuits. The interview plays the next morning and I listen in, disbelieving it’s my own voice on the radio. There’s more disbelief to come.
The phone rings. It’s Broadcast Assistant Luke, for the Simon Parkin Breakfast Show on BBC Somerset. They’d like me to come into the studio for a live radio segment early Saturday morning. I believe Luke said he was pitching me the idea of possibly appearing on the show. I believe I said he didn’t need to pitch very hard. We record some promotional soundbites while talking. Long after Luke hangs up, I’m still staring at the phone in my hand.
It’s an early start Saturday morning to drive to Taunton in heavy rain. I’m not exactly displaying nerves of steel. More like nerves of wet noodles. Impostor syndrome goads from the passenger seat. But I needn’t have worried. I’m greeted with a cup of tea, a welcome tour of the impressive new BBC studios, and a friendly chat with another guest waiting to go on air; a veteran commemorating one hundred years since the end of WWI. Simon Parkin comes out of his studio to introduce himself before showing me to my seat.
No headphones this time, a glowing red light says we’re on air and Simon leads me expertly and kindly through my first live interview. At the end, he asks me to come back soon. Maybe he says that to everyone, being such a gracious host, but at this point I don’t care. I’ll come back soon.
Floating on air, I return to Minehead to prepare for an afternoon author event in the gallery section of The Exmoor Store. Elke has filled the space with homey furnishings and artwork, all produced locally. The kettle’s on. Guests arrive, and I’m engaged in a wonderful hour of sharing stories of travel and the meaning of home with delightful people. It’s all surreal. Because I’m enjoying it! Me! Enjoying promoting! Words I never thought you’d hear coming from my lips.
There’s security for introverts (as most writers tend to be) in posting to an audience you can’t see. Hiding behind your keyboard, it’s easy to get comfortable there, to not push yourself out into the world, to blame all the other voices for drowning you out. Connection to readers and listeners can feel tenuous in our lonely writing spaces. The last few days have reminded me being a writer is only half the equation; readers/listeners/followers complete the whole. They aren’t as scary as you may think when you first begin the process of building your brand.
I’ve asked myself many times if social media is a productive use of my time as an author. I now have the answer. Yes. It. Is.
I have more stories to share from my recent trip and will be blogging about them in the weeks ahead. Until then, I can only say how grateful I am to all out there in Social Media World and to offer this advice: If you’re an author struggling to be heard, don’t give up. You never know who’s listening. Sometimes it’s no one. And sometimes it’s just the person you need. Thanks, Elke.
Here’s the link to the BBC Somerset interview. (If link won’t play in your location, try logging into BBC Sounds and searching Simon Parkin 11/10/18.) My segment begins at about 1:53.00: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p06pswh8
Birthdays are funny little things. We look forward to them yet dread them, celebrate them yet lament them, plan them yet attempt to ignore the fact they’re happening at all. That single twenty-four-hour period makes us crazy, doesn’t it?
This year, I’m attempting to make my upcoming birthday more like New Year’s Day: an opportunity to clarify, reassess, make course corrections ‒ only with cake and an earlier bedtime. This year I’m asking for two gifts. Firstly, a wheelbarrow, owing to a perpetually flat tire and a rusty, crooked frame on my current twenty-five-year-old model. Secondly, I’m asking for the ability to live in the here and now. You see, I’m horrible at it. Not gardening – I have a green thumb that practically glows in the dark. I mean, I’m horrible at living in the present. If you’ve followed my trials and tribulations with hireth and making plans to return to England, you’ll know this already. I spend way too much time wishing I were somewhere else. And that has to stop.
Or does it? Is the drive to be somewhere else at the centre of all human progress? If we were completely happy where we were, we’d never have left the ocean floor, or climbed down from the trees, or left the African continent or the tiny village of Flamstead where I grew up. Following that logic, predisposition to NOT live in the here and now, to NOT accept the status quo, could actually be the cure rather than the ailment. Now I’m really confused. Is my hireth an ailment or the cure for an ailment? Should I live in the present or not? Constantly think about going home or not?
Well, that puts a spanner in my birthday plan works. Maybe I should just settle for the wheelbarrow and call it good.
Today I watch the royal wedding with billions of others around the world. The joyous scenes of castles and bunting and English flowers and beautiful veils and adorable bridesmaids never gets old for me. But I can usually watch these occasions with a sense of separation; that this vision of life is not part of my world. Today is different.
Today I watch the lovely Meghan become an expat and I understand the consequences of that decision. For all she gains, she will have time over the years to reflect on the joys and anguishes of exchanging a birthplace for a different culture.
Meghan and I reverse roles. I ‒ a Brit through and through, never dreaming I would ever give up my life in England ‒ married an American. The 1989 ceremony was held in an ancient church on Exmoor. English tradition and bridesmaids in Wedgwood blue dresses all spoke to me of my homeland. The heavy wedding fruitcake, standard fare in the UK, was a novel experience for my husband. He tapped his slice of cake on the side of his plate to see if he could chip the china with the icing. He assumed there’d be something vanilla sponge-like under a thick layer of buttercream, apparently. (He should have married Meghan. She’s having that kind of cake.) Turned out our cake was only the first of many surprises as my husband learned about British culture through my eyes ‒ and stomach. It’s been a fascinating journey for us both and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. That said, it’s not always easy to live as an expat and days like today are the hardest.
I enjoy every moment of the wedding and marvel at the sunshine and the glory of Windsor Castle. I hold my homesickness at bay. Until the bells.
It’s the church bells that break the teary flood gates. That quintessential English peal of wedding bells from an ancient tower moves me like nothing else. I can’t pretend I listen to them from inside a church very often, but they stir memories of Sunday evenings, birdsong, cobbled lanes, hedgerow flowers, teaspoons tapping gently on china tea cups, cottages and … home.
I wish Harry and Meghan all the best. I hope they find home together, wherever that is. I hope they discover the best in every culture, as I’ve tried to do. But those church bells – they call me back to England. It’s time. Luckily my husband understands and is ready for our own role reversal. We’ll make the journey together, as he becomes the expat.
If you’ve been with me long, you know I love to travel ‒ to places both familiar and new. But you’ll also know I struggle to settle anywhere. Wherever I am, I’m planning to be somewhere else. This causes some friction in the Gemmell household. My nomadic tendencies appear to be both my joy and my sorrow.
To alleviate this friction, I decided to focus all my attention this year on my creative writing home, rather than my physical space. No sooner had I made this decision, travel opportunities arose en masse. So many, in fact, that 2017 turned out to be the greatest travel year of my life! Funny how that happens; you finally decide to dictate to Life and Life just laughs at you and says ‘Look, lady, this is what’s actually going to happen here …’
Anyway, I found myself in Hawaii, England (twice), France, the South Pacific Islands and the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Fabulous trips, all. But in amongst the luggage, airports, hotel rooms, and about a billion digital photos (no selfies ‒ there will never be selfies), I found myself deep inside that creative writing space I can truly call home. That home just happens to involve multiple locations.
I don’t think I could ever write about places I haven’t been as I need to feel a setting in my heart before I can see it on a page. So, I end the year with three photos from my creative world, all places that have grabbed my heart with their beauty, but more importantly, their welcoming vibe. Maybe that’s why they keep spilling out across the page, dictating my writing, just as Life dictates to me.
‘Dunster’s Calling’, my first novel, is based on Exmoor in England. This tiny corner of the world is still the brightest flame to my moth. Glorious scenery, steeped in history, and of course, enhanced by the exquisite Exmoor pony. There is nowhere like Exmoor.
My second novel, ‘More or Less Annie’, complete and working its way through the publishing channels, is set in stunning Costa Rica. Beautiful beaches and volcanic topography are only a part of the magic. The eco-friendliness is just as big an attraction.
My novel-in-progress features the splendorous lavender fields of Provence, France. I find myself almost trance-like in this part of the world, drinking in its Roman legacy and its Medieval chateaux; not to mention spending more than a little time in its vineyards and lavender fields. This may have to be a looooong novel. Leaving will be hard.
I may still be predominantly a traveller more than a settler, but my creative endeavours have seen me delightfully ensconced in a sense of home. My friction leads to fiction. Gratitude doesn’t even begin to express my feelings for being able to do what I do. And I’m enormously grateful to you, too, for taking this journey with me. Let’s see where we end up next year, shall we?