We have returned to the mundane world and are now back online. England is one of our most favourite places in the world.
We arrived at Heathrow on October 15, pretty excited.
We had a pleasant flight on British Airways that, apart from the starvation on us imposed by the airline crew (memo to BA: PLEASE FEED YOUR PASSENGERS MORE), we enjoyed eight hours of the latest movies we’d missed in the last year. Fun. The other thing BA did right was give us a free stay at the very posh Sofitel Hotel at Heathrow. They included it free when we bought our flight. And boy, were we grateful. A night of deep rest in posh surroundings meant we were fresh for our long day’s travel to Hereford and the European Long Course Centre at Harewood End.
We haven’t eaten salads or fresh fruit and vegetables for many, many months. Marks & Spencer’s now sells the most incredible healthy “super food” prepared salads and meals. And they’re pretty cheap. We gorged ourselves on salads and healthy food. We were like two children running around in a frenzy inside a Willie Wonka candy factory. Only, the “candy” wasn’t sugar, it was beets, broccoli, salad, quinoa, raspberries, etc. Oh, and the cheese. Scott had his fill of that, too.
We’ve taken the train before on previous trips to the UK and, quite frankly it sucks. Not very reliable and even though you purchase non-stop tickets, inevitably you end us having to go in the opposite direction you want (like to get to Heathrow we went to Wales?) only to change trains and go back the other way. So now we take the bus whenever we can. The bus is fantastic. This time it took a very different route that went through the Cotswolds and the many small towns along the way. Beautiful. It was also a rare clear and sunny autumn day. We really enjoyed the trip, quietly site-seeing out the windows and munching very happily on our raw veggies and salad, rolling in gratitude for not having to eat lentils, chapattis and rice.
In about 4 hours we arrived in Hereford, called a taxi to Dhamma Padhana and began to settle in and get ready for the course to begin the next evening. It was so nice to be back at this Vipassana Centre, lucky to be sitting there for the third year in a row. It held the first 30-day course in August 2010. Since then the centre has become greener and prettier and is particularly spectacular in the splendour of the Fall. Leaves turning to brilliant gold and red, and carpeting the ground like a colourful rug. On the evening of the day the course began, we said our final goodbyes, each wishing the other a “productive” and successful course (that’s code for “good”). Then we turned our attention inwards for the next 4 weeks. That was October 17.
On November 15, after the morning group sitting our silence ended and we greeted each other once again. So happy. We spent the next two days at the Centre just chatting and catching up. We both had great (“very productive”) courses. Of course, it was very difficult, but in the difficulty there is also a lot of insight. We both feel very refreshed and very clear.
One of the things we’ve noticed about long courses here at the European Long Course Centre is the custom of students receiving gift packages at the end of their long silent labours. As usual, there were several packages waiting for students on the first day silence ended. Families and friends send gifts and letters as a special treat to greet the hard working meditator after a long course. We watched a father from Germany open a large package that contained a thick scrapbook hand-made by his two children. The book was littered with photos and stories that allowed dad to catch up on each day of their lives that he missed during the course. They also sent him a knitted scarf and toque knowing the weather had changed in the month he spent at the centre. Other students opened packages of books and other gifts and letters from family and friends. So cute. Karen has always wanted to end her long course with a package waiting for her. But who would send us a package? And to England? While we smiled watching the gift-opening rituals going on around us, the male manager came up to Scott and handed us a package. “That’s not ours. We’re Scott and Karen. From Canada.”
“Nope, this is addressed to you.”
Sure enough we looked at the package decorated with clever little stickers and drawings and saw our names on the label. Wide-eyed and slack-jawed, Karen practically squealed out loud (she might have even clapped her hands together loudly, in her glee actually). Who could this be from? Who? Daniel and Lisa, that’s who. Wonderful friends. They didn’t even know we (i.e., Karen) had always hoped for a letter or package after a course. We visited Daniel and Lisa in Ireland last year (click here to see previous post). We miss them terribly and believe strongly that the best plan for them is to immigrate to Canada. Their gift was so thoughtful (just like them).
Now with the course over, we looked forward to spending a few days (not enough!) in a small guesthouse in Hereford before we headed back to Thailand and ultimately on to Burma, our final destination before heading home to Vancouver. Every time we come to England, Karen says, “you know, we really should stay longer. Do a road trip across the country.” But when it comes to booking the trip, somehow this feeling gets forgotten.
When last we stayed in Hereford, we spent three nights at Castle House. It’s a little posh but it was a nice treat. This time we looked for something a little more intimate (and less expensive). So we took a chance and booked at a place called Somerville House. It was a great decision. Somerville House is run by Rosie and Bill. It has about eleven rooms in a large historic house five minutes walk from the city centre and cathedral. We loved it.The breakfast every morning was superb. And the staff were amazing. It’s also just as beautiful as any fancy hotel, except it feels more like a family home. It was the perfect place for us to chill out quietly following our 30-day silent retreat. When next we return to England, this will definitely be our post-course resting house.
We arose early each morning (as we always do, habits are hard to break). Ate breakfast and meditated then headed into town for a long walk or window shopping. Hereford is an important city historically. The episcopal seat for the region for several hundred years, and strategically located right on the border between England and Wales, Hereford has seen much in the history of Britain. The Hereford Cathedral was an important centre of learning in the Middle Ages and included the Chain Library (famous for it’s large collection of books chained to the shelves), and the 12th Century medieval map of the world, the Mappa Mundi.
When we last visited Hereford, we were very lucky to get a private guided tour of the cathedral by a very enthusiastic volunteer. he even took us up the towers and into the spaces behind locked doors normally not open to tourists like us. We stood on the roof of the cathedral’s vaulted ceiling high above the apse and choir where he showed us the thousand year-old graffiti left by the stone masons who built the cathedral. The best part came when he led us up very narrow and steep spiraling steps that ended at a tiny bolted wooden door in the low ceiling. When we climbed (carefully) up through the opening, we found ourselves on the roof! The view was amazing. We also visited the museum and the library. This time we just walked around inside the quiet and peaceful cathedral and visited the gift shop to get a postcard for Scott’s niece and nephew, Sadie and Markus.
After sitting so many hours for so many weeks, we always make an effort to walk as much as possible. Hereford is a wonderful place to walk for miles and miles along the River Wye and among quintessential English countryside. We took a day trip to the small town of Ross-on Wye, about a hour’s journey by public bus along a scenic route through the countryside.
Now we’re on the train to Reading, where we’ll jump on a bus to Heathrow. We know, the train sucks. But the bus back wasn’t an option. Sure enough the train we booked a month ago was cancelled due to flooding. So we’ve spent three hours going to Newport in Wales (the opposite of London) to change trains only to be re-routed again back to Gloucester, a city only a few dozen miles from Hereford. Now we’re running an hour late, but Karen always plans for the unforeseen so it should make little difference to us in the end.
Tonight we take an eleven-hour flight back to Southeast Asia to Bangkok. There we’ll spend a quick week arranging visas and a flight to Yangon in Burma. We are so excited that for our last leg of this amazing trip we’ll have a good friend joining us. Diane has been traveling on her own for a few months and we decided to meet up in Bangkok to share our journeys into Burma. We’re so looking forward to it. We’re a bit starved for company. We love spending time together, but it’ll definitely be a treat to have another human along to talk to and share the experiences.