You Have Five Minutes To Smell The Flowers: The United Kingdom

Photo by Amanda Kelly

Chance

My recent trip to the UK left me thinking a lot about time.  How it moves, how our feelings move it, how it can be slow or fast, sometimes both at once.

Einstein once wrote: “the separation between past, present and future is only an illusion”.  If that’s true, that might explain why it’s so difficult to live in the present moment and find our footing in “the now” without worrying about what comes next or forgetting what has happened before.  It’s a bit tricky to seize the day when time is so pliable and elusive.

Something tells me that Einstein was thinking more about scientific facts than he was about spiritual growth when he came up with the theory of relativity.  One fact that I know to be true is this: we can’t erase the past, and we can’t access tomorrow, so it seems to me that we have no choice but to put one foot before the other and be as real and good in the present moment as we possibly can.  Of course there is interconnectedness between then and now, but everything other than this moment right here is a black hole that you can’t quite touch.

Even so, I love trying to bend time in my favour.  My second favourite thing about the UK is getting a 5-hour leg up on everyone in North America.  You wake up fresh, tackle the important stuff, and right around the time that your productivity is waning and the Pimm’s starts calling, those lazy sloths over in the West are just wiping the sleep from their eyes.  From a competitive standpoint, they seem so far behind, and that is so satisfying!  From an efficiency standpoint, absolutely nothing could be more valuable than having those five glorious, uninterrupted hours.

You can gain that kind of head start relatively easily, by getting on a plane and catapulting yourself through the air five hours into the future (the closest thing to time traveling we will likely ever experience).  Be careful though because somehow in the process of crossing the Atlantic, I travelled out of a scorching heat wave and landed right in the middle of sweater weather.  Here’s another universal law: whenever I pack cardigans I need more sundresses, and whenever I pack sundresses I need more cardigans.  It never fails.

Alas, welcome to cold and rainy Poundstock, Cornwall, where one can definitely never have enough sweaters (or leg warmers for that matter).  I counted and the population (including the friends I was visiting) is officially 8, one of which is a horse and one of which is a donkey.  Their names are Nemo (short for Geronimo), and Chance.

This place is quiet; it may in fact define rural.  The house where I am staying is nestled so deeply into the green hills that life seems to pause with each sip of tea, and the stone clock perched on the kitchen windowsill is the only obvious indication of forward motion.  I find myself checking it often, just to orient myself.

After a couple of days, my pulse has slowed to match the pace of the grey clouds passing overhead.  I am swallowed whole by the vast quietude, disappearing into the damp, windy pocket of the seaside.  The old house once served as the town’s chapel, and there are still remnants of its earlier purpose to be found, including a cemetery in the back yard.

From under a heated blanket, I pass time by counting the gravestones outside my bedroom window.  How long have they been gone?  Who was their one true love?  More importantly, where are the people who left those flowers?  I didn’t see anyone come by.

Given my hankering for recreational divination, you can imagine my excitement when I discovered that I was only four miles north of Bude, where the artist Pamela Colman Smith is buried.  Smith is half of the team who created the world’s most famous and widely referenced tarot card deck (the Waite-Smith tarot) in the early 1900’s.

In Smith’s honour, I pulled a few cards from my travel-sized tarot deck while I was in Cornwall.  My own reading had a very clear and unmistakable message: “NOT YET”.

Southwark

I had a number of opportunities to practice patience on this journey.  One day, my hosts and I packed a picnic basket and walked to Millook beach and this was, to be sure, the longest walk I have ever taken in my life.  Thankfully, I had ample warning of the magnitude of this trek so I was mentally prepared for the five-hour hike.

We crossed endless fields, picking blackberries and passing no one along the way, except for a crusty, old man who bristled past us quickly with his walking stick.  We continued on for miles, chasing the distant glint of blue on the horizon as my companions and I became tiny specks in the rolling countryside.

At the halfway point, we stopped and devoured an entire lemon drizzle cheesecake, stuffing every morsel of yellow and white cream into our mouths with our hands.  Clearly we were now at one with nature; connecting to our wild, animal roots.

We crossed a small wooden bridge, and followed a trickling stream along a shady path that led us to the water’s edge.  When we finally arrived, a heavy wind bullied us back from the massive waves that were thrashing against the rocky shoreline.  We took shelter near a lone, dilapidated boat, shouting inaudible words at each other as our voices disappeared into the salty, howling air.  We huddled there for a few minutes before turning around and heading back towards home.

On another day, we ventured into Padstow, a sleepy fishing village on Cornwall’s northern coast.  The cobbled streets were lined with gourmet ice cream, tea, and confectionary shops intermingling with an array of touristy wares and handmade crafts.  After indulging in some white chocolate Malteser ice cream and trading in our pence for some tiny trinkets, we escaped the sudden downpour by ducking into a cavernous pub where we passed the rest of the evening doodling and philosophizing over plates of fish and chips.

I was hurtled out of this slow, easy world via speeding train into the frenetic activity bubbling over London’s Paddington station.  It almost seems as if Big Ben’s ominous presence casts a spell over all of London, making the city restless and hungry for swift and steady progress.

Having lived in Montréal for most of my adult life, a city where leisure is highly revered, I guess I am used to being surrounded by people with a more laissez-faire attitude.  Unfortunately, this attitude can sometimes manifest itself in the form of unruly facial hair, cycling to pick up a baguette with a baby in your bike basket, or spending an entire Sunday sitting in the park listening to an amateur hand-drumming circle.

Granted, I did arrive in the wake of the recent UK riots, and a recession, but there does seem to be a heaviness that hangs over the heads of many Londoners that is impossible for someone from my background not to notice.  I have not yet decided if my overt positivity stems from my cultural upbringing, or if it is simply part of my genetic makeup.  Optimism is definitely a very Blake trait.  I used the word Blakeness recently as an adjective to describe the unstoppable perseverance and twinkle that exists in all of the members of my family clan.

I’m not judging English stoicism harshly here.  Brits have a slightly less emotional and more realistic approach to life that in some ways I really admire.  We could even say that Londoners are highly evolved because they are capable of living with an intense focus on the demands of the present moment (or millisecond).  I just find myself wondering if anyone ever really stops.  Do they ever make time to lie in the grass and do nothing but dream?  If they do, how long will they allow themselves to lie there before they are overcome with the fear of missing something important or being left behind?

I did not lie around in the grass in London, or buy any heart-shaped rocks (but that was just because my suitcase was full).  I didn’t want to feel or look like a tourist so I took a cue from the locals and busied myself immediately upon my arrival.

First I checked into the stunning 3000 square foot loft near London Bridge where I had the amazingly good fortune of staying.  The crown jewel of this loft is its rooftop hot tub where you can soak up spectacular views of three of London’s architectural highlights: The London Shard, Tower Bridge, and The Gherkin.

I took a short walk along the Thames in and around Southwark, exploring the delicacies at Borough Market, and then made my way to the Urban Physic Garden.

The Physic Garden

The truth is, I went to see this living art installation partially by accident because I thought it was called the psychic gardenAfter visiting, I still think that would have been a much more appropriate name for it.

When I arrived at the garden, I entered tentatively, mainly because it was very weird, and also because I felt like I was trespassing on some sort of hippie cult’s private gathering place. To my right, some longhaired folk were playing ping-pong amidst a slapdash collection of potted herbs and plants.  To the left, people were gathered around a picnic table drinking herbal tea next to a rusty, deserted ambulance (“The Rambulance” aka “Rambling Restaurant”).

Collections of wild, renegade plants were grouped together into “wards” based on their medicinal properties and the specific types of ailments they could cure.  I spent some time studying the plants in the cardiology ward, and then left rather abruptly after passing a sinister looking row of poisonous plants, which I thought emitted a spooky, evil vibe.  They were profoundly creepy and you’ll have to take my word on that because the garden was open for a very limited time only.

I finished my walkabout with dinner at Village East, a trendy restaurant in Bermondsey.  While it may be the perfect place to host a 25th birthday party for hipsters, it is not perhaps the most appropriate place to sit alone reading Michel de Montaigne’s essays on solitude.  I decided to finish my reading elsewhere…back at the loft in the rooftop jacuzzi.

It always amazes me how easily I can slip into a joyous state of calm anywhere in the world, even in the most unlikely scenarios: all I need is a glass of wine and a hot tub.  Throw in some of The Sanctuary’s sandalwood vanilla body butter and I am really on my way to heaven.

It was four years ago that I first discovered this delightful cream, and I will never forget the bliss that overcame me in that Boots drugstore when I took off the cap and inhaled its spicy, sultry scent.  To this day, I am literally overcome with happiness and excitement each time I apply it (and don’t even get me started on the Sanctuary’s hot sugar scrub).

Sanctuary’s products have earned a coveted place on my “favourite things I can only find in the UK” list, and are in very good company alongside: Waitrose’s Rhubarb Champagne Yogurt, Kettle brand’s Sea Salt & Balsamic Vinegar Crisps, and Boots’ Moisturizing Nail Polish Remover Pads.  The UK has some superior commercial goods, and they know how to sell them to you; this cannot be denied.

I wanted to go straight to the source of my greatest pleasure and see where the body butter magic happens, so I booked myself an appointment at The Sanctuary spa in Covent Garden.  The staff at Sanctuary (a women’s only spa) did have a few good tricks up the flowing sleeves of their blue kimono tops.  First of all, the massage therapist asked me if I wanted to wear any “paper knickers” during my massage, or if I’d prefer to take off my “swimming costume”.  Um, sorry, does that mean get dressed, or undressed, or are we getting ready to do a puppet show with dolls made out of paper?

This masseuse had some intensely good moves; maybe that’s why she thought she could get away with a “less is more” approach.  I am a huge advocate of efficiency and I like to apply it with force in pretty much all areas of my life, but not when I’m having a relaxation massage.

I swear, the oil on my back was just starting to warm up under her hands when she suddenly turned off the pan-flute solo midway through and said “all done”.  Not yet, I thought.  NOT YET.   I’ve never even seen a twenty-minute massage on a spa menu before.  Is that even enough time to lie down?

Another thing about this spa: there are no cold dunk pools.  Yes, there were saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs, and two full-sized swimming pools on the premises (one body temperature, and the other cooler, for exercising), but what I really yearned for was a freezing cold, ice water pool.  After spending time in a sauna or steam room, a cold shower just doesn’t cut it.  Remember, Canadians are like polar bears.

Don’t get me wrong, the Sanctuary is a veritable oasis of peaceful calm spread over five floors, and the spa definitely earns its name.  Virtually no sound penetrates the soaring white archways, save for the gentle swish of vines swaying from the sky-high ceilings, or the faint ripple of majestic, white fish gliding across a pool past euphoric women swathed in towels and robes.

I find this kind of quiet much more comforting somehow than being deep in the countryside.  I think it’s because I know that noise does exist just outside the walls and that I am actively choosing to escape from it.  I am lavishly content to escape on this particular Monday afternoon, sipping tea amongst a handful of serene, silent strangers.

I finish the day with a visit to the Sanctuary’s signature “Sleep Retreat Beds”, where I am told that in just thirty minutes, I will experience a total body revitalization similar to getting a good night’s sleep.  The sleep retreat beds vibrate the skin using low frequency sound waves that resonate in harmony with the body’s cells, coaxing the body into total relaxation.

Five women are lying in a row, silent, and as the beds start to hum, a woman’s soothing voice emerges from the darkness to guide us.  She asks us to leave our cares behind as we enter a garden, and to watch the clouds pass by overhead.  She describes the garden, the sound of a fountain, and the feeling of the soft, green grass under foot.  Someone in the room begins snoring, and my meditation is disrupted for a brief moment while I marvel at how anyone could fall asleep so quickly.  Out of curiosity, I press a few buttons on the bed’s remote control to see what will happen, but it just keeps whirring at a steady, languid pace, lightly rocking my legs side to side.

I close my eyes and go back into the garden.  I can feel the sunshine on my face, and I am just starting to make out shapes in the clouds, when I hear our guide say, “Now, prepare to leave the garden”.  Am I the only one laughing, because surely this lady has to be kidding, right?  She may as well have said, “Come to the garden and relax deeply, you have five minutes to smell the flowers.”  Couldn’t I stay a little longer?  I think I was just about to get somewhere good.

Before I know it, I find myself folding time as I traverse the ocean, hours and days turning back and the dark sky changing to light.  Part of me is neither here nor there, and I feel as though I exist in a temporal void between then and now.  As I crawl into bed the blurry edges of my jet lag close around me and I wonder how it can feel both like I have been gone too long and like I left too soon.

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