We spent a long weekend at Othona in West Dorset, participating in a ‘reading retreat’ with the title Journeys of Discovery, led by Mandy Addenbrooke. I’ll let Othona tell its own story, provide a few establishing slots from the first morning to show the kind of place it is, and say it is as familiar and dear to me as any ‘home’.
The first evening was spend meeting people, sharing a meal and some ‘reflective time’ in the Chapel. Tony Jacques read a short passage from a book called The Path by Chet Raymo, an account of the author’s repeatedly-walked one-mile journey to work, where ‘Every pebble and wildflower has a story to tell.’ Raymo’s comment that ‘Any path can become the Path if attended to with care, without preconceptions, informed by knowledge, and open to surprise’ was a good lead-in to the weekend.
In the sitting room we introduced ourselves with accounts of significant journeys, a process which sketched out a huge variety of experiences among the 14 or so participants. Along with many kinds of life-changing or -illuminating travel, the journey along the birth canal was cited, which I decided to re-enact the following morning
in the slide on the new treehouse
(DO go towards the light.)
Time for a bit of reading – something I find little time for these days. I decided to re-read Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust in the light of my recent peregrinations, finding it (like walking itself) a book full of awkward wonders which I will no doubt return to frequently.
Before lunch we gathered in the Library for some discussion, in different ways answering the question ‘What is it about travelling from A to B that makes us tell stories?’ One thing that emerged was different ideas about the value of the concept of a spiritual journey – perhaps there are other metaphors, such as a jigsaw or garden, that could be liberating or useful in different ways.
In the afternoon I decided to do some actual walking. The SW Coast path is readily accessible from Othona, but I decided to head inland. This involved walking seldom-trod, hummocky field-paths through sinister empty farms. Crows cawed overhead in a gloomy afternoon. The hills around here look archetypal, like the backgrounds of Tarot cards; here they also seemed abandoned under the piled grey clouds.
Rather than press on inland, necessitating a return trip though this Land of Grimness, I walked along a lane to Burton Bradstock where I found friendlier-seeming paths and stiles.
smelled sap from recently shorn hedgerows
and returned along the coast, grateful to get back to an Othona beneath a lowering sky.
After tea and cake we had a session sharing from a favourite book. I only found out about this aspect of the weekend about five minutes before we left, which meant I hadn’t had time to find something impressively literary, spiritual or intellectual. Instead, I had grabbed a battered copy of Tarzan Alive by Philip Jose Farmer, moved by PJFs death earlier in the week, and my memories of discovering this amazing celebration of subliterary heroic fiction as a teenager. When my turn came I referred briefly to John Clayton/Lord Greystoke/Tarzan but moved swiftly on to stuff from the Solnit book. This was a bit of a lost opportunity, as I could have spoken about the hero’s journey embodied in E.R. Burroughs’ tales of an orphan changeling, or quoted the elegaic final passage from Farmer’s book where Tarzan contemplates inevitable ecological destruction and its posthuman aftermath:
The trees would green the earth again. The earth would be, if not as wealthy and as beautiful in life as it had been, still wealthy and beautiful enough. And he would, if he were lucky, be here to enjoy it, to loaf, to invite his soul, to have adventures, to talk with the beasts and those men worth talking to. Pass the time of day and of eternity with them.
If not, so be it.
The tall, bronzed, black-haired and grey-eyed man, more Apollo than Hercules, disappeared into the green chambers.
The forest god’s skin gleamed as he crossed an open space, and the moonlight seemed to bless him.
Loafing – inviting one’s soul – having adventures; probably as good a recipe for spiritual journeying as the quote from Thomas Merton which I actually shared.
In the morning, it was slightly brighter. I took some more pictures, exploring the textures of the woodpile and the endlessly changing views of the sea and the grounds.
Then another discussion session. The zig zag passage of sailing craft, always correcting course, never going straight. Gleaning subtle information from travel and bringing it home, in the manner of bees. A gap in the fabric, through which we see ‘more’. Seeking the inexpressible. Encountering people, the unexpected, the differences and, perhaps, an underlying soul-sameness. The weirdness and inexplicable nature of the past and, indeed, the present. A mass grave of Barbie Dolls discovered by future archaeologists. Finding ‘something that isn’t us’ when we travel attentively.
Othona offers a temporary experience of community, held together by a small core who live there and run the place. Daily chores are an important part of the community experience and a great way of getting to know people. Today I was on table laying, in some ways not a good job to get as it needs doing three times. But I love the tables here, centre of the house, the place where much of the life happens. Sometimes home to leaves from the polytunnel.
After lunch I read a book that I found in the Othona library, The English Path by Kim Taplin, which ‘explores the history of footpaths through the writings of poets and novelists from Hardy and Jane Austen to Jeremy Hooker and Iain Sinclair’ in fine style. Here I discovered the ‘old Latin tag’ solvitur ambulando which ‘means something like “You can sort it out by walking”’. I decided to put this into practice with another excursion, in an afternoon that was now sunny and warm: a last day of winter offering a foretaste of summer. I played with manual exposures, self timing and worm’s eye views:
made many attempts to photograph a vapour trail and a shining oxbow pond
got mildly lost in a grotto-like stretch of woodland
and returned to Othona, beneath sunnier skies today, where there was some Dorset Apple Cake on offer.
An accidental encounter with a children’s entertainer unsettled me in unexpected ways. [Insert metaphor here: distracted me from my journey; defoliated my garden; scattered my jigsaw pieces...] Why being near someone in a chicken suit should surface feelings of loneliness and confusion (untelling my stories quicker than I could retell them) is a mystery to me. There were some grim months in my childhood, in a place that was not my, or anybody’s, home; unlike Othona, an unsafe space: perhaps during that time some State-appointed mummer, clown or pierrot added to the misery. I’ll never know; it’s as inaccessible as the precise history of the scratches on a pebble. Some memory of those times has led me to love Tarzanic accounts of captivity and escape; to value walking with a kind of solitary, aloof dignity (like Sheeta the Leopard); to want to control my own Foolishness.
After a fitful sleep, grimly planning ways to have the most adult, non-children’s-entertainer experience possible (reading Schopenhauer whilst drinking Laphroiag, smoking a Latakia blend pipe tobacco and wearing evening dress with opera playing on the Third Programme was the best idea I could come up with at 3am – an experience that would be very tar-flavoured if nothing else) I woke up to another bright day.
A final session of discussion: touchstones and takeaways; unlikely twins; how voyages might differ from journeys; pilgrimages in which you ‘come out from the centre of your life’; human-made routes having a ‘claim on the landscape’; the pleasures and virtues of being grounded on mudflats and calmly waiting for the rising tide.
And then there was just time for a few more photos, before the six-hour drive home: the participants on a break, textures, plans, the blue-pipe rune of farewell.
And we’ll be back, running a weekend ourselves in early April: The Map is Not the Territory.