‘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?
How can it possibly be twenty years since the whole Y2K thing? Remember all that ‘Your laptop will explode at midnight because it won’t be able to tell the time’ or some such nonsense? Well, nothing happened to my laptop or the oven clock. My car didn’t swerve off the road because the radio malfunctioned and here we all are. Twenty years wiser and about to start the clock on the next decade.
And here I am, shaky and nervous and pondering the next ‘Will the sky fall?’ scenario. You, see, in my infinite wisdom, I’ve chosen the era of Brexit, – nay, the very month of Brexit – to return to the United Kingdom after thirty plus years in the United States. Well done me. But how was I to know my US ties to a mortgage and college payments would end, my homesickness would increase, and the fiasco that is US politics would all collide at the stroke of midnight New Years Eve, 2019? Well, not exactly at midnight but you get the idea.
Chaos and the unknown aside, my mind’s made up. I’m going home. It’s not about perfect timing as there’s no such thing, in my opinion. It’s about making the time fit your needs. In preparation for departure, I’ve spent the last two months emptying out my house of all the detritus of a lifetime – and yes, so much of what we hoard and shift from place to place is detritus. Seriously, a popsicle stick with a red pompom nose and just the glue left where the eyes used to be that may or may not have been made by my child (but which one?). The cracked orange dressing table dish that a cousin (or friend, or business colleague or who remembers?) gave me in 1979 after their trip to Asia – a place I’ve never been? I’ve been dragging this from coast to coast and attic to attic for all these decades? And now I’m downsizing by about 75% in square footage, where exactly is the cracked orange dish going to go? Toss it! But wait. Maybe it was special and I just don’t remember. I’ll put it over here and decide later. Next to the popsicle stick, because what if one day a child (but which one?) says, ‘Mum, remember that popsicle stick reindeer I gave you that I was so proud of? I’d like to show it to my own child now. Where is it?’
Clearing the detritus, that turns out not be detritus but is in fact little pieces of my soul, is emotionally draining. But the dream moves closer, the purchase of my first ever English house moves closer …
As I get to the very last box of photos from 1989, as I sell the last string of Christmas lights and the childhood puzzles, that house sale turns shaky. No one’s fault, just a kink in the housing chain that throws everyone off balance. But it’s really thrown me. From certain where my boxes were going, to visions of looking for a different house ‘just in case’, all happened in the space of days. And I’m back to wondering if the sky is falling, my laptop will explode, planes will be grounded, the earth will swallow my dreams of returning to England in January right at the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve, 2019. But I’ll make it work. It must work. The clock’s ticking. It’s time.
Wishing you all a Happy New Year, wherever you are, whatever your dreams.
I assisted at a US citizenship oath ceremony last week, held at the District Courthouse in Madison, Wisconsin. By ‘assist’ I mean I crinkle cut vast quantities of veggies and lugged a cooler through courthouse security. No mean feat, actually, as the handle of the cooler wouldn’t fit through the scanner. Therefore, umpteen gallon-size baggies full of carrots, celery, peppers, kale, cucumbers, tomatoes and cauliflower florets had to be hand-screened by three guards wearing earpieces. Can just imagine the conversation with the control room:
‘Sir, she says she cut all these herself using the neighbour’s
Pampered Chef crinkle cutter.’
‘No one’s crazy enough to cut that many vegetables by hand.’
‘She’s wearing a wrist brace.’
‘I see. Let her in but keep an eye on her.’
I, of course, had wanted to go all out roast beef, Yorkshire
pudding, gravy, trifle, treacle tart and custard. Greater minds prevailed and
it was suggested I just go for the veggie platter. Good job, too. Can you
imagine the trifle after the hand-screening?
Anyway, security cleared, I waited for the other volunteers
to arrive. Soon, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, cheese platters, sheet cake, and
baklava were trundling out the back of the security scanner on the conveyer belt.
This isn’t what typically comes through the court’s doors. But this ceremony was
unique. Open Doors For Refugees – the organization I volunteer with – arranged
a special ceremony to be held in Madison. Court officials had to travel from
Milwaukee to Madison. The least we could do was feed them.
To be honest, the food was mainly for the oath takers and their
families (though we fed everyone – including the security guards). Naturalized
citizens – like me – and immigrant organization leaders, including former
refugees, provided a welcome lunch for the new citizens once they were sworn in.
This is the third year Open Doors For Refugees has held this ceremony in
Madison. Apparently, the judges are fighting over who gets to administer the
oath. It’s a bright light in what can be a dark world in the district courts.
Every other case posted on the courtroom door sounded, let’s say, less upbeat.
Finding myself back in court only a few months after my own Milwaukee
induction into US citizenry, it seemed strange to watch it from the other side.
Oath takers arrived, nervous, dressed-up, clutching paperwork. Family members
followed, excited and proud. For so many it had been a long and arduous
journey. If you haven’t been through it, it’s a bit like being the bride: months
of prep, of stress, of dress fittings and venue food testing and sweating the
cocktail napkin colour choices. When the day arrives, you’re too tired to care
if the tiny ring-bearer hurled the cushion into the koi pond or the groom forgot
Only it’s more than that. It’s many more years of
preparation. It’s an even bigger – in many senses -commitment than marriage. It’s
loss, or at least change, of one’s long-held concept of home. One of the guest
speakers, herself a naturalized citizen, spoke of the changes in terms of grief
and the notion that things will never be the same. She spoke of the underlying battle
to process who you really are now and how others will view you. What to hang on
to and what to leave behind. I found it moving in a way I hadn’t expected. It
was my first time holding my hand over my heart and pledging allegiance to the US
flag. It centred attention on divided loyalty and homesickness and pride and yes,
grief; of being separated from one world while stepping through a door into
another. I did it by choice when I married an American and it was still difficult
for me. I can’t even imagine how it felt for those who had fled their beloved
homes and would choose to still be in those homes if not for war, violence,
fear, or persecution.
Some oath-takers brushed away tears through the whole ceremony. What did those tears represent? Regret, homesickness, gratitude, honour, a sense of loss, or a sense of gain? Another gentleman held his right hand so high while taking the oath, I worried he’d lose all feeling in his fingers. It’s a long oath. But his great pride was front and centre. Some spoke fluent English, some struggled to keep up as they read the oath. Some smiled at family, some appeared alone. Some waved American flags, some stared at their flags with looks of confusion. What does it mean to wave this flag now after a lifetime of waving other colours?
It’s a process, this citizenship thing. And I don’t mean
just a complex, confusing paperwork process. It’s a process of moving on, of
hoping to be accepted while questioning what you’re being accepted into as
immigrants at this particular time in American history.
The judge shook my hand and thanked me for all I do for our local immigrant populations. I do so little, wrist brace notwithstanding. I just tutor families in the English language and help with childcare while mothers take classes. Many do so much more. I was embarrassed by the judge’s kind words. But he reminds me these little things send ripples across oceans and influence generations.
It felt good. To belong. To welcome. To feel part of something
so much bigger than myself. As this country struggles to redefine itself as
part of a global community, I know, wherever I live, I’ll continue to reach out
to those from somewhere else.
Welcome, new citizens. Hope you enjoyed the veggies – and that you get the chance to welcome others yourselves soon. Thank you, Open Doors For Refugees, for this opportunity to serve.
This event was part of Welcoming Week 2019, one of 2,000 events held across the US designed to bring together immigrants, refugees and native-born residents in a welcome for all.
July has been a big month in the Gemmell household, two newsworthy events occurring within days of each other.
First, after decades of dithering about citizenship, I celebrated my first Fourth of July as a US citizen. I know, right? Hell froze over despite climate change. In honour of the occasion, America decided to forgo the usual focus on picnics, hotdogs and apple pie to celebrate the event with a militaristic show of force. Tanks roamed the streets of Washington DC, the President acted as MC for the airshow, and ‘bombs bursting in air’ threatened to revert to its original interpretation, rather than signify a pretty firework display.
Was my new citizenship status the provocation for this change or could it just have been coincidence? I mean, the British were coming long before I married into the colonial clan. First to collect taxes and demand better treatment for tea. Later as voice-over artists for Jaguar car commercials and, in my case, to provided accent modification services to a population that seriously needed it. Or not, depending on you view of the appropriateness of ‘France’ being a three-syllable word. (Fu-Ra-Yuns echoing down the Champs-Élysées endears you to no one, America. Just saying.) Anyway, my formal dunking in the melting pot hardly seemed cause for lining up the troops.
But I’m greater cause for suspicion this July and tanks are necessary. Apparently. You could argue it’s not just me. USCIS naturalized 756,800 people in fiscal 2018, a five-year high, according to a USCIS report, and there’s a backlog of a million applications for citizenship and permanent residency according to government statistics (reported in the Washington Post, June 3rd, 2019). The wait time for approval has jumped from four or five months to close to a year under the current administration (reported on NPR, September 1st, 2018). So, all these new and potential new voters may have played a role in the rolling tanks. But I choose to keep the focus on me. I commit now to bringing more apple pie to next year’s Fourth of July party.
The second event occurred four days after the tanks decimated the National Parks budget: my 30th wedding anniversary. This occasion annihilated my theory that only old people can be married for thirty years. Turns out you can be very young and reach this milestone; in my case, due to the fact I was betrothed at birth to my US husband in a ceremony dedicated to cementing the ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK. No, really. It was attended by Margaret Thatcher and Bush 41. They used one of those new-fangled fax machines to share the news with my parents. I still have the smudged documents. Anyway, my husband sweetly maintains he got the better end of entente cordiale. I sweetly agree with him. As much as I miss home and as much as hireth nibbles at the corners of my conscious 24/7, I wouldn’t have missed this American man for anything.
July 2019 goes down in history. I hope you found many reasons to celebrate. Hopefully all your reasons included pie.
I’m fortunate to have citizenship in two countries: The United Kingdom and the United States of America. But it’s not lost on me that ‘United’ appears in both nations’ titles when ‘united’ currently seems a strained concept in either place. Pick your poison: the bedlam of Brexit or the trauma of Trump. You can be supporters or detractors of either and still wonder how we got to this place in history.
Neither issue impacts my resolve to return to the UK permanently. This was a decision made years ago, during a gallop on horseback across Porlock Hill and during a cream tea in a sleepy village. It was made beside a gurgling steam in Horner and while hanging onto my sandwich during a gale on Dunkery Beacon. Politics, current events, head-scratching choices – in the whole scheme of things, they don’t matter. England is home and that’s that.
However, current US policies have coalesced my family’s energy around leaving the US sooner rather than later. Soooo … you heard it here first folks, next year is the year! Yep, by the end of 2020, my husband and I plan to be living in England. The wheels are in motion, the list-making has begun. And, boy, is that list intimidating.
There’s all the usual rigamarole associated with any kind of move, whether it’s down the road or across continents and oceans: Prepping the house to sell, worrying how best to transport the dog (he does ‘down the road’ but may prove resistant to crossing oceans) and of course the stuff of nightmares – The Clear Out. Is it more cost-effective to leave everything and buy new in England or transport everything via container ship? Evaluating each piece of furniture, each knickknack, each cupboard full of memories, it’s daunting. What to take, what to sell, what to destroy in a fire in the back garden because that wooden crate, snatched from a party in college and still used to hold the stereo (yes, stereo. It’s that old.) is too humiliating to post on the local Buy and Sell site. Do I take the custom-made couches that, let’s face it, were designed twenty years ago for a dreamed-of cottage in England but in a size more suitable for the larger colonial house in Connecticut? Do I take all the framed posters of global vacations that hang in my current huge basement but couldn’t possibly fit in a downsized UK house? And then there’s the issue of the books. Hundreds of books. But … but my books!
And don’t get me started on the garden. My trees, shrubs and perennials are all well-loved members of my family. There’s a story behind each one. The lilac was a gift to memorialise my mother-in-law, the white rose for my father-in-law. There’s a beautiful hydrangea, a gift from a student for fixing her ‘Howwible R’, (her words – before treatment), when I was a speech-language pathologist. A large potted rosemary commemorates Basil, our dearly departed Golden Retriever. I’ve nurtured them all through transplant shock, bug infestations, puppy-chewing, polar vortexes, and scorching summers. How can I possibly explain to these plants they’re being left behind through no fault of their own but because customs won’t let them into the UK? (And because the realtor seems to think a stripped-bare patch of earth full of tell-tale holes will impact price.) Parting from human friends is hard but they can visit me in England. My maples, silver birch, ornamental plums, blue spruces, spiraea, red- and yellow twig dogwoods, clethra, peonies and hydrangeas are bound to this place. Is it so unreasonable to demand, as part of the sales contract, the new owners send yearly updates and photos of the irises and oriental lilies?
My relocation situation includes the complication of visa applications for my husband. Having just been through the citizenship grinder – and my American daughter-in-law’s UK visa application – the thought of all the months of confusing and contradictory instructions, expense, and nail-biting waits for approval is intimidating. But needs must. I need to – and must – return home. It’s time to commence countdown. But first, I must go outside and sit with my climbing roses. They’ll require careful explanation of the situation if I’m to expect them to bloom next spring during the house showings. Think I’ll avoid any conversation about current politics on either side of the Atlantic, though. No one could explain any of it to anyone.
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.
In Wisconsin, the last two days witnessed savage war: Man against the Elements. With air temperatures of negative 26F and wind chills in the negative 50F range, surviving the coldest polar vortex in a generation was all I could hope for. I was home alone; my husband delaying his return from a business trip as travel in these conditions was too dangerous. It was me against the world. But I had an ally. My house.
Home had to
become more than a peaceful, cosy sanctuary. It had to morph into an escape
pod, a foxhole, a superhero friend in the worst of times. As the winds picked
up, the snow churned and the world turned to black of night, my survival
depended on my house. Would it stand up to temperatures it was never tested to
withstand? Would the windows fail, the pipes burst, the roof cave in? This all
crossed my mind during the vortex days and the long, long vortex nights.
I helped as much as I could: opened all the bathroom cabinet doors to let heat in around the pipes, covered curtain-less windows, turned lights on in the garage because if I’d tried to do it once the temperatures plummeted, the bulbs could explode.
But I could do little. My house took the brunt of it. It suffered for me. I listened to it scream. Cryoseisms ‒ known as frost quakes ‒ occurred all through the day and night. The boom and pop shook the house as the foundations fought against the freezing ground. The siding contracted in bursts like exploding vinyl popcorn, the windows bowed against the wind. Those windows! I hurt for those windows. As the snow piled up on them and the glass oozed ice, both inside and out, they wept real tears during their herculean efforts to protect me. I soothed them as best I could, wiping their eyes with soft towels and whispering to them to hold on, stay with me now. Just a little longer. But I had to leave them to check on the commander of the battle: the furnace. Would it hold out? Would the fuel line rupture as the ground froze deeper than ever before? If the furnace lost the battle, the war was over. I turned the light on for it so it wouldn’t fight valiantly alone in the dark. It needed to know its efforts were appreciated. That someone cared about its survival. I cared. My dog, Watson, cared. My photo albums, my computers, my artwork, my books, my indoor rosemary plant – we all cared. Fight on, brave furnace! Wisconsin Forever!
It held! My house
held! The bricks and the glass and the wood and the concrete and the wiring and
the gas line and the furnace held! I could cry with gratitude! I hug the walls
and kiss the patio doors, aware some houses didn’t hold. Rooves caved in from the
snow, fires erupted from broken power lines, houses drowned in waterpipe
breaks. Those houses tried, too. But these were times for extraordinary houses.
Mine was one of them.
How do I thank it? For holding off the onslaught, for protecting me against a frigid Armageddon? New coat of paint? Not nearly enough. So I hereby award my house a title. An honourable title.
Arise, High Commander of Highland Drive. Long live the King!
Note: I’m fully aware there were others in this battle with me: power company workers, water main fixers, snow plough drivers, emergency personnel, construction workers, fuel delivery drivers, architects, to name a few. I thank them all from the bottom of my heart. And my biggest thanks of all goes to those working to keep the homeless safe. You are true heroes.
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!