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Liverpool, England – [12/10/16]

October 25, 2016 UKCHcollective 0

There’s a long standing stereotype that Christians don’t care for ‘the finer thing in life’ – well, that isn’t strictly true.

Although I’ve led a relatively staid life over my 6 decades – I can’t say I haven’t spoiled myself when I’ve had the chance. One such example is ‘Betty’.

old-photoAfter thirty years or so working as a Christian establishments, I had gotten used to feeling perpetually ‘uncool’. It’s a folly of youth that assumes older people lose the concept of ‘cool‘. Understandably, it’s a concept that was established somewhere around the late 50s and the assumption is that, as you gain years and experience, you care less and less about how you’re perceived. Since attending University in the 60s, studying Religion & Theology, I have felt that I’ve missed out on ever feeling cool.

My parents were wonderfully old fashioned people, the kind that probably don’t exist anymore – at least, not in the UK. Maybe that’s a good thing, I loved them but they had some blinkered views on the world that were, perhaps, best left in the past. They instilled a sense of hard work and strong moral fibre (minus the strangely antiquated prejudices), but failed to allow me to develop my own identity – at a time when I really needed it.

As a result, I travelled up North to Manchester as, really a boy, untrained and unprepared to face the world as anything but a relatively close carbon copy of my parents’ combined Old World attitude.

To say it was a difficult time, would be an understatement.

porsche-911-1968I made it through though. As it is for most people, University was an important part of my development as a person. The wide variety of people, that I met and studied with there, informed me on the many different ways that a life could be led. My Plymouth Brethren felt a long way away and I began to dream of un-Christian notions. ‘Betty’ was just one of those notions, who would be realised much later in my life – after decades of dealing with my inherent ‘uncoolness’.

I’ve never been much of a motor head, but after seeing a Porsche 911 swoop past my battered Anglia in 1965, I knew it was the car that I wanted.

It was a strange thing – to have such an intense need for a material object. Back in Plymouth during the 50s of my youth, we were happy to have what we could get. A life free from the tyrannical Germans that we had so closely avoided, good ale and a decent cricket game in the summer. But the 60s brought with them a time of material goods and the ever unattainable goal of ‘coolness’.

When I retired from teaching – that 1968 Porsche 911 was the first thing I bought.

cathedral‘Betty’ is an old girl. She needs a lot of love and care to keep her on the road – and only the best technicians to work on her. So when the time came to give her a complete service, I knew I had to take her on a serious road trip to get to the right mechanics.

I’d not been to Liverpool before, but when a friend from the Porsche Club recommended Tech-9 (http://www.tech-9.co.uk/), I knew it was the right thing to do – plus, I’d always heard about the stunning Cathedral there and wished to pay my respects.

The drive took a long time.

‘Betty’ had a top speed of 131 mph back in 1968. Several owners and a period of long misuse had led to that speed being significantly capped. We took around 6 hours to do the 300 miles or so up North. I left her with the lads of Tech-9, friendly chaps who gave me the ‘cool’ respect that I’d always looked for as a teenager – I knew I’d left her in good hands.

liverpool-metropolitan-cathedralLiverpool is a city that has always been concerned with religion. It’s two Cathedrals – owned by the Church of England and Catholic Church, rest at either ends of Hope Street and dominate the skyline. Although the Catholic Church’s Metropolitan Cathedral has it’s own strange beauty, in the realm of science of fiction, it was the Church of England’s Cathedral that I had come to see.

Giles Gilbert Scott’s competition winning design was fully realised in 1978, the stone and brick construction stretches 100 metres up and is truly breathtaking from the outside. The interior does not disappoint either, cavernous halls and an elaborate organ facade make this Cathedral one of absolute grandeur and decadence. Not a place that I would feel comfortable praying in – but a beautiful destination – nonetheless.

When I picked up ‘Betty’ from the mechanics, I was thoroughly impressed by the new sounds, or lack of sounds, she made. As I drove past the Liverpool Cathedral, I had one last look at it’s grand stately facade, with the westering sun fading behind. Although it wasn’t a place that instilled any religious fervour in me, I understood their intention.

The Cathedral was like ‘Betty’. Visually stunning, but only capable of instilling a sense of piety in those who were truly supplicant.

Early Morning at Padstow Harbour - Padstow, North Cornwall

Padstow, Cornwall [08/10/16]

October 23, 2016 UKCHcollective 0

A cold bracing wind – the first of Winter – cuts through my Summer Jacket…I should’ve packed smarter.

I usually try and keep myself busy.

During the week I volunteer, help out at the Church and see my family. Little social activities and busy work during the weekends tend to keep my schedule pretty full. However, I found myself in the unusual position of have nothing planned last weekend, so I decided to book a little self-catered cottage and drive myself all the way down to Padstow, Cornwall.

late-night-drivingI find driving at night very relaxing. The feel of the smooth tarmac beneath the rolling wheels, with the driver’s side window down just a smidge to let the cool breeze flow throughout the car. Driving straight out of Birmingham at 5pm was probably a little bit of a mistake, but once I’d got past the rush hour traffic the going got a great deal easier. I was happily cruising past Bristol in just a couple of hours.

I’ve recently got into the habit of taking myself away on little excursions. I live a very social life up in Birmingham, so sometimes it’s nice take a little break from people and enjoy some time by myself. One down side of this is that I rarely have anyone to share the driving with. Thank God the radio gets so much more listenable the later the evening gets and, with no one to judge me, I can stop at as many Starbucks as I like!

ballaminersAfter a 4 hours drive (with an extra half an hour added on for compulsory breaks) I arrived at my home for the weekend, the gorgeous Ballaminers House.

A charming little self-catered cottage situated just 3 miles out of Padstow, once I’d thrown my bag in my room, I wrapped myself up and took a stroll to the Ring O Bells Inn for a cheeky night cap and a little food. Luckily for me, they were still serving when I arrived and I was treated to some wonderful pub grub (Bangers, Mash & Gravy – once a Northern girl, always a Northern girl) and a lovely pint of ale.

With only a light headache lingering on my brow in the morning, I put on my walking boots and hiked the 3 miles into town.

padstowIf you’re wondering how busy the tourist town of Padstow is off season, it’s not as quiet as you might think. The traditional seaside town doesn’t suffer from the same drought in popularity that other Cornish beauty spots do.

There’s a reason why Padstow attracts thousands of families and couples to it’s charming streets every year. Little side alleys bustle with locals, pubs and restaurants are filled on Saturday nights and the ice cream shops, despite the cooler weather, are still much in demand.

As far as activities go, you’ll find it enjoyable to simply stroll around the scenic harbour and soak in the sea breeze. Even though the breeze did take me a little by surprise, it made the cosiness of the pubs and tearooms even more precious.

Despite the cold weather, a weekend is just the right amount of time to get the most out of Padstow. Good food and beer is more than enough to accompany the beautiful surroundings match that with a good book and you’ve got a recipe for one super relaxing weekend.

The drive back was a long one, especially with a full roast dinner inside me, thank God those service stations were open…

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Thermae Spa, Bath [18/08/16]

October 13, 2016 UKCHcollective 0

I’ve always loved outdoor swimming pools.

The dream of warm waters and clear skies, is the compulsion that draws hundreds of thousands of British people into far flung corners of the world each year.

thailandThe allure of white beaches, aquamarine waters and exotic food had seduced me into spending the last few months in Thailand. A hair-raising adventure at points, I had nonetheless been pleasantly surprised by the deference and respect that I had been shown during my time away. The local people were generous, several times I was hosted for dinner round complete strangers’ homes – and the travelling Brits I met were always overjoyed to have an avuncular character, such as myself, amongst them on their nights out.

When I returned, grateful to be back in the Garden of England, I mourned the loss of the warm waters that had soothed the aches in my old body.

In need of a little adventure, I booked some trains, packed my swimming shorts and headed out to Bath.

Over 150 miles of railway track laid between my destination and my humble abode in Kent, which is why I left early – packed lunch in hand. A long train journey is a thing of beauty, at once serene and evocative. As the rolling hills of England fade in and out of urban areas, the mind can drift in and out of conscious thought and settle into the comfortable rhythm of the train.

In 3 hours, having essentially napped for the entire journey, I arrived in Bath – a city steeped in an Ancient History that has been celebrated for centuries

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Having been nurtured and developed by the industrious Romans, during their brief 400 year stint as Britain’s rulers, the baths have been wonderfully looked after and are worth a visit, regardless of your interest in the History. A ticket costing around £15 will gain you entry to the Baths proper, a good few hours can be spent here learning about the place and there’s even a lovely restaurant overlooking the steaming baths that you can rest your weary feet at.

Of course, a trip to Bath wouldn’t be complete without taking a dip into the warm waters themselves.

thermae-bath-spa-003A few years ago, when I was a more avid swimmer, I had a heated swimming pool installed in my back garden. It was an extravagant purchase at the time, made to signify the level of decadence to which I was retiring to. Sourcing all the necessary tools and equipment from Paramount Pools, the water was warm and inviting – but it was eventually neglected as I grew older and less inclined to swim. The allure of truly hot water was something that had never left me. Thailand had offered a few options, but it was the naturally heated Roman springs that I had travelled all this way for.

The Roman site is unfortunately off limits, but thankfully Thermae Spas have modernised the experience – harnessing the natural warm spring and channelling it into their flashy facility. A two hours session on a week day will cost you around £35, with an extra charge of £10 added for each hour that you decide to wallow there for. Go in the late morning on a Monday, like me, and you’ll find the Spa delightfully quiet and peaceful. Yet to be bombarded with the droves of hen parties and birthday dos that are these places bread and butter, the waters were hot and calming.

After a good couple of hours floating around the swankily set pools, I left feeling cleansed and suitably sedated.

chai-walla16Yearning for some exotic food to match the tropical highs my body had just experienced, I moseyed along to Chai Walla for a bite to eat.

Serving Indian Street Food in a small but relaxed cafe environment, Chai Walla is a blink and you’ll miss it establishment. A colourful, hand-painted sign sits above it’s small entrance and has just enough space for a handful of people to queue for the delicious homemade foods that are churned out at an alarming rate. Falafel wraps, samosas and hot chai tea are served along with a variety of changing specials. Although there was no official seating, the owners were kind enough to find me a seat from the back so I could sit and enjoy my meal. Tea and a couple of samosas will cost you around a fiver – transporting your mouth to another land entirely.

With my need for hot water and exotic food sated, all I had to do was return home on the train. On the way to the station, I passed the Abbey. Towering above the surrounding buildings, the structure is over 400 years old. Although it’s beauty is undeniable, the pompous arrogance of the Religious Establishment of the Middle Ages hung over it like a dark shadow.

Briefly bowing my head in reverence, I moved quickly on, leaving the warm waters of Bath and domineering weight of it’s Religious history behind me.

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Baptism in Chipping Campden, The Cotswolds [25/09/16]

October 13, 2016 UKCHcollective 0

The last of the summer’s rays beam down and flash off the gently flowing river.

After reaching out to other Calvinist Churches across England, through online forums and discussion boards, I’d got in touch with a group of good Christians – operating out of Chipping Campden in the stunning Cotswolds.

river-cotswoldsBack when I was still married, and the kids were still young, we used to travel down the short trip to the woods on a regular basis. Adults who don’t have kids assume that the only way to distract young minds is with bright flashing lights and encouraging sounds. That may well be the case now, but 15 years ago my boys were just as pleased with a day out in the forests as they were in a video game arcade.

We used to spend hours wandering around the well trodden paths and circuits through the calm forests there – with the foliage dampening any sound of the outside world, leaving only the screams and laughter of our boys running between the trees.

I drove down early on a Sunday morning to witness the baptism of a handful of recent additions to Chipping Campden’s small community of Calvinists. Slightly taken aback by the kindness I’d received through online messages from the leader of this group, I’d put on my traditional Sunday Best on and was anticipating a morning filled with nervous excitement and anticipation.

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My baptism was a day that I’ll never forget.

The calm of the Church and the stillness of the waters had lulled me almost into a trance-like state, the firm grip of the priest’s hand on the back of my hand pushing me down with comforting ease. It was a true water-shed moment for me. I had not intended on converting to any religion, but the Calvinist philosophy had lured me into a life that I found reassuring.

baptism-of-christ-greg-olsenAfter drifting lazily through the winding roads undulating throughout the sun dappled Cotswolds, I reached my destination. A small, tree covered car park that was already rammed with cars and people. As I got out of the car, I was greeted by the group’s leader. Jim. A bearded man of 60 or so, his warm blue eyes and firm handshake filled me with comfort.

On the short walk down through the forest to the riverside, he told me about the small beginnings his group of Calvinists had started from and how the converts today were people who had liven for decades in the surrounding areas but had been swayed, late in their days, to join him.

The power of baptism is something that has to be seen or experienced, to be believed.

As each new convert was brought up from the chilly depths of the waist-high waters, a clarity could be seen in the irises of their eyes. A peaceful satisfaction that comes with being reborn in the light of the Lord, of having all your past sins forgiven. The calm reverence with which this group of people left the river in was a testament to the sincerity of the event and reflected the natural beauty of the secluded gorge.

If you’ve not visited The Cotswold’s before then I would highly recommend it, if you’re lucky enough to witness such a baptism then it will be an experience you’ll never forget.

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Sanctuary Of Our Lady of Lourdes [16-18/09/16]

October 4, 2016 UKCHcollective 0

Lourdes: Romance & Religion

For the purposes of privacy, I’m going to refer to my clients using aliases. Jane and John, Richard and Rachel – two young Catholic couples who were about to enter into lifelong marriage vows.

I was tasked by their parents to take them on a weekend away to Lourdes, to experience the sacred fervour that surrounded this holy place and to bring them back intact and ready to tie the knot. I like to think that I achieved this and much more in our weekend away to Lourdes.

A benefit of running a business by myself is that I have full control over the customer’s experience from first contact to the final good bye. When I first met the two young couples, who had known each other for over a decade, I could tell that the holiday they wanted and the holiday their parents were paying for were completely different things.

With not a single one of them older than 21, these were essentially a group of kids looking for a fun time, one last hurrah before their life of marriage and work began. Catholic upbringings can vary wildly and I wouldn’t like to suggest that they all produce the same results. However, these kids seemed to me like quintessentially Catholic young adults. Slightly nervous and awkward, having stayed sheltered within their religious community for the entirety of their University lives – they had successfully avoided all contact with binge drinking, drugs and electronic music – retaining the big-eyed innocence that their parents has cherished since they were children.

Behind this unabashed naivety was a longing for adventure, a curiosity to see behind the Wizard’s curtain. Their respective educations has taught them about History, Mathematics and the Sciences – and a large amount of conflicts now existed between what they knew and what they had been taught by the Church. A weekend in Lourdes, with me as their guide promised to be more than enough to satisfy their curiosity.

Although they’d decided to travel at peak season, I’d managed to pull a few strings and book a couple of double rooms at one of the swankiest hotels in Lourdes.

As of 2011, only Paris held a higher hotel room capacity amongst all the French cities. Lourdes is host to over 6 million tourists each year, and for one weekend my nervy Catholics would not just visit the Sacred sites but aid in others doing the same.

hotel-chapelleThe Hotel Chapelle et Parc lies just half a kilometre away from the Religious centre of the town, the rooms didn’t come cheap, but as the parents were footing the bill – I thought the youngsters deserved a little French Romance. 2 double rooms within the stately early 20th Century hotel came to roughly £300 per night. After arranging airport parking at Manchester Airport and booking flights, we were all set to go.

On our first night, to settle the nervous travellers, we ate dinner in the hotel restaurant – a simple French dinner with a few bottles of Red Wine between the 5 of us. I decided to have an early night and left the room keys on the table with the half-full wine glasses.

I allowed the young tourists a little lie in the next morning and gave myself the chance to meet with my Catholic contact. I’d arranged a whole day of volunteering for the couples. Although their parents had wanted them to approach the Holy Sites as pennant children, I’d decided put more responsibility in their hands. They would be spending the day helping the elderly and infirm climb the steps to the Lady herself.

Grabbing some coffees and pastries, I slipped a message under each hotel door and left them to figure out the way to the site.

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After spending a whole day in aid of the good people, I could tell these Catholic kids were tired. They returned from the the pilgrimage site looking tired, but flushed with pride. They’d shared an experience that might not have been religious in the strictly Catholic sense of Adoration or Confession – but would be one that they would cherish for a long time to come.

They had one night and half a day left in Lourdes, their parents had suggested they spend the evening in prayer together – somehow this didn’t sit quite right with me. Part of being a good guide is knowing when to step in and push the clients into experiencing something new, a little more outside of their comfort zone.

I brought them out of their separate rooms (they’d split themselves up automatically on the Friday night) and dragged them away from their Bibles. Taking them downstairs I talked to them about travelling, about experiencing life, rather than reading about it in the Bible. Leading them out into the bustling streets of Lourdes, I pointed them in the direction of a wine bar and handed them a hundred euros.

Breathless excitement was abound as they walked off arm-in-arm.

After briefly considering my own solitude, I shrugged and walked off to a local bar to order a bottle of wine.

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Winchester & The Cathedral [18/09/16]

September 22, 2016 UKCHcollective 0

In the depths of the South lies Winchester, a small city surrounded in History and Spirituality.

When you get to a certain age, the prospect of a long weekend seems less of a treat and more of an ordeal. Spending days on your feet and enduring long, tiring journeys do not appeal to this old Christian anymore. One day is all you need to grab a train, eat lunch and visit a Cathedral.

That’s just what I did in Winchester last week.

winch-interior-2The train journey from Plymouth was a pleasant one. Catching the first off-peak connection after the morning rush, I was able to capitalise on a cheap ticket and have a little lie in at the same time. My wife was kind enough to pack a little elevenses, a few cakes and a thermos flask of tea – so I was happily occupied for the 4-hour train ride up to Winchester.

The sky was a little overcast, leaving my grim and grimy home of Plymouth, but after an hour or so – spent nibbling cakes and perusing a Bible – peaks of sunshine began to penetrate the clouds and illuminate the letters on the page. Putting the scarlet tome down for the last half hour of the journey, I allowed my mind to drift whilst watching the rolling green landscape slowly transform into the urban jungle of Winchester.

winch-interior-3Stepping out, from the cool shade of the Station, into the bright sunlight of Winchester’s idyllic streets – I was struck by the evident historical nature of the place. Although the usual trappings of a modern city were present and correct (High Street retailers and coffee shops aplenty), the cobbled streets, traditional pubs and Tudor facades belied it’s rich cultural heritage. My belly aroused by the sights and smells of many lunch services, I hurried myself along to The Forte, on Parchment Street.

An elegant yet playful modern bistro, The Forte is run by food obsessed couple, Naomi and Olly. Naomi handles front of house, whilst Olly (a chef with 12 years of experience in the hospitality industry) keeps a steady stream of classy lunch staples coming from the kitchen. I’ve never minded eating alone before, but the waiting staff were so attentive that I felt that I had a companion throughout the meal.

With the warm weather of the Lord’s Summer casting a tangerine glow over the dining space through the huge windows, I felt like something Mediterranean, settling for a simple lunch of bruschetta with tomato, basil, mozzarella and red onion salsa (£7.95). Thoroughly satisfied with my meal, I left a mighty tip and made my way over to the Cathedral – just a few minutes walk away through those lovely cobbled streets.

winch-interiorOne of the largest of it’s kind in Europe, countless alterations over the building’s near-1000 year history has given the Cathedral a mismatched, yet grand appearance. The site was consecrated in 1093, with surviving sections of the building dating back to the 12th Century. An unusually long nave draws the eye when approaching the building, with the central tower acting as the focus point. Gorgeous stained glass bridges the gaps in the stonework and alludes to the ceremonial exuberance on display inside.

A small humble entrance leads directly into the main hall of this Grade I listed building, immediately my breath is taken away. For a man used to praying in small side rooms and private corners of the world, this massive prayer space is simply jaw-dropping. I have always felt that it would be impossible to feel close to God whilst in such a grand space, that these Cathedrals were simply relics of a time when people needed to be awed or scared into attending Sunday Services.

winch-cryptFinding a seat on an empty pew, I bowed my head and allowed my mind to empty as much as possible. On a Thursday afternoon, there were not many other tourists, a handful of visitors could be heard shuffling around, for the most part, a reverential silence held throughout the Cathedral.

With the damp silence of the space enveloping me, I felt at one with the thousands of others who had visited this same spot and sat on the same pew. The spiritual weight of all these prayers, hopes and dreams lingered still in the cavernous halls.

Satisfied with my moment’s reflection, I stood up and left, dropping a few coins in the donation box as I left.

Winchester had left a good impression on me. Although I have no need to return any time soon, I feel like it is a place entrenched in its past.

Not so much trapped in the past, as it is revelling in it.

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