Remember to Smell the Exmoor Roses

October 2022 may have been the most ‘normal’ month I’ve had in a long time. All that happened was the shortest UK prime ministership in history, a family run-in with COVID, and the arrival of our first guests from American since we moved back to England over two years ago. Bit of a snorer of a month really. Except I haven’t received the gift of a good snore in a long time. Hello Sleeplessness, my now constant companion. Sleepless on Exmoor; there’s a book title. When one of the better-known lines from my novel, Dunster’s Calling, states Exmoor is the place I ‘sleep the best and breathe the deepest’, this insomnia is, frankly, embarrassing. It’s also a nightmare (I remember those from back when I used to sleep) for productivity.

Why am I struggling like this? I suppose when I look back there are clues. Things were just settling down enough in our newly blended UK-US-Ukrainian-Exmoor household for me to open my laptop to write when BAM! – Hubby comes down with a nasty case of COVID. I locked the house down; no one in, no one out. I gloved and masked, disinfected everything without a pulse on the hour every hour, and climbed thousands of stairs delivering tea and steaming inhaler mugs to the patient. Fortunately, a brilliant idea penetrated the exhaustion: buy a second kettle and leave it in Hubby’s isolation chamber for him to use at will. Tracey:1 Covid: 0. Well, based on the acute pain Hubby was in and the 24/7 coughing for two weeks, maybe COVID scored slightly higher than that.

For all my efforts, Verdigris streaks now mar the paint work under the tarnished handles of every door from the constant spraying, my hands are raw from scrubbing, the dishwasher’s exhausted, as is the washing machine. But, by golly, no one else in the household caught this awful virus and for that I will claim the glory. I earned it. But… but sleep! When? Dear God, when?!

I’ve been thinking about stress and the impact it has on a body; well, my body anyway. The sleepless nights lead to non-productive days lead to sleepless nights worrying about how non-productive the days were. I have three writing projects whirling around in my mushy brain: a finished novel in need of post-edit editing, a half-complete cosy murder mystery I’m desperate to finish writing so I can find out who the darn murderer is, and a barely-formed idea on a scrap of paper that feels really quite promising as a novel. I just can’t get myself revved up enough to start the writer’s gruelling routine.

I’m not alone. So many of us are experiencing depleted energy levels from the last couple of years, even those who haven’t relocated 4000 miles or taken in a refugee family. We’ve all fought our own battles to make it this far through the 2020s. So many distractions. I try blocking all news of the energy crisis, while digging out ever thicker sweaters. I try to block images of all those families missing meals due to the food price crisis. I try not to think about whether the same Prime Minister will be in office at the end of dinner as at the beginning. War footage is no-go after breakfast. But it’s all still churning inside my head.

I’m not getting out in nature nearly as much as I need to for a good old recharge. This time of year is when I’m most grateful to be back in England. Perennials are just as perky as in late summer, roses bloom, grass seed germinates in the warm soil, and bulb planting and shrub acquisition is still in full swing. Back in the snowbelt of the USA, at this time of year the ground is frozen and temps are chilly enough to freeze solid the Halloween candy. I don’t miss that. At all. But I’m missing too much of autumn glories on Exmoor galloping around stamping out viruses and worrying about dirty bombs.

Enter the visitors from America. The delight of having dear friends staying at this time stems not only from their comforting presence but that they force me to get back out there. Sometimes you have to have your nose shoved into a bloom to smell the roses. Did I mention they’re still flowering here and will be until Christmas? Got to love that. And visitors mean you stroll around your beautiful garden for fun, without weeds in one hand and pruning tools in another. Friends mean in the last few days I’ve walked yellowy-orange wooded trails, eaten cream teas in Selworthy, smiled at Exmoor ponies backdropped by the Bristol Channel, visited Dunster Castle, swooned over the amazing truffle and parmesan chips at The Luttrell Arms, ridden the cliff railway at Lynton, and consumed Prosecco at lunchtime – that’s right, LUNCHTIME! – at the lovely Ship Inn at Porlock Weir. Sometimes you need much missed friends to remind you of the wonders in your own back garden and the joys beyond the news. Friends and Exmoor restore and rejuvenate. I just need to keep that momentum going long enough to write again.

Maybe I should make a habit of reading the David Austin Rose catalogue before bed. Fill my head with scents and petals and dream of arching boughs of colour to come in my Exmoor garden. Yes. That’s what I’ll do. And sleep will surely follow.

Images: author’s own and Rick Anderson

Changed, But the Same

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Old friends are like favourite books. You can read them over and over again and never get bored with the plot or the characters. When you move around a lot, as I do, those friends take on even deeper meaning. They’re not only entertainment during the good times and a shoulder during the bad, they ground you somehow in a way your unfamiliar location can’t. They remain a constant in your ever-changing time-space continuum.

I just got back from a nostalgic trip to England with two friends I first met in 1978, while training with horses on Exmoor. We’ve remained firm friends, though live thousands of miles apart. They are both from the United States and one hasn’t been back to England in thirty-nine years. We visited our old haunts, reacquainted ourselves with the local cuisine—that would be cream teas—and brushed off the cobwebs of vague memories. Was that hill so steep back then? Oh, what was her name? Are you sure this was the place? Remember when …?

We attempted to relive our glory days on horses. We used to be able to ride fancy dressage moves and fly over fences. Let’s just say those days are gone. Despite the aching muscles and weary bones, it was still great fun. On our last day in England, we met up with another student from the old days; one who’d gone on to great success in the equestrian field. We were jealous as we wondered around his beautiful stables and stroked the noses of majestic horses.

What if? What if the three of us had stayed with horses? What if we’d stayed in England and stayed young and stayed …? Just stayed. Doesn’t matter. We didn’t, and we all gained new lives and interests and homes and families and friends. It all turned out as it should. But, boy, do we miss the old us at times.

Our worlds collided on Exmoor, then we splintered off into space. We got one delightful chance to reconnect almost forty years later in a place that will remain in our souls for life.

Exmoor and us. Changed, but the same.

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