December 17, 2011 GMT
Way Out West

The North West, that is. I'm going to use the reference to Way Out West in a previous posting as an excuse to include this youtube link.
It sort of introduces a trip I'll be doing over Christmas and New Year. In that there may be a lonesome pine where I'm going, but there'll definitely be no trails or lanes or tarmac or motor transport. Nor much else.

It all started back in the mid to late 90s. Caroline and my son Richard had left home and set up their own places, and in the lead-up to Christmas one year they had no idea of what they'd be doing. You know the sort of thing - maybe they would go over there, nip back here, or visit somewhere else, or maybe not. It didn't seem to matter, as Christmas would happen wherever they were.

So, an intriguing advert caught my eye:
"Alternative Christmas at the Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Taunton, Somerset. Escape boozy parties, TV films and plastic Santas and find peace through meditation. Large country mansion, vegetarian food, country walks. Seven nights' all inclusive is 140 for dormitory accommodation; 195 for a single room. All facilities are shared. Contact: St Audries House....."

Just phoning the number seemed like seriously taking the plunge for something rather strange. And I found that all single rooms had gone (there were very few), the dormitories were full (there were very few), but another room would be cleared out if there was sufficient demand. So I demanded, and set off down to the Quantock Hills looking for a run-down mansion house, built around 1850, above a beach near Watchet.
St. Audries House was quite a find.
And very dilapidated. But the bits that had been restored were wonderful and quite sufficient, including the 'cleared out extra room' where the ancient beds were kept away from the walls so that plaster didn't fall on you in the night.
Even better, only a couple of sticks of wood had to be scavenged to wedge the windows closed.

There was a very pleasant and ornate teaching room, an incredible shrine room, and a magnificent tudor galleried hall that served as cafeteria and lounge, with a creaking kitchen adjacent.
And two jewels in the crown.
A huge open fireplace in the hall, the only heating in the whole place (for December and January). It was the responsibility of everyone to keep it stocked with firewood, which in turn was the responsibility of everyone to collect and gather in, making sure it was old and dry. (Newly cut branches are homes to thousands of tiny creatures and therefore can't be burnt).

And a telephone engineers' delight. Not a telephone system, but better. A mechanical network of old wires and pulleys and bells and springs and enamelled signs and levers, stretching along corridors, around corners and through walls, begging to be lovingly restored. A pull of a lever in some ancient abandoned study in a far corner of the mansion would set a rusty old bell ringing in 'the parlour', dangling with twenty others on spiral springs, high on a wall next to the kitchen. The ornate enamelled sign below was inscribed "Master's room. Latin," or some such similar. (The manor had been a public school for about 50 years).
What joy!
(A posh example from this website).

Us guests numbered about 30, and no two came from the same part of the country, had the same job or interests, or had anything else in common whatsoever.

A barrister, actor, singer, writer, water diviner, ex-convict (drugs) now a bus driver, teacher, travel guide, student, newly-ordained Buddhist monk from Spain, ditto nun from Wales (with parents in tow), artist, caterer, butcher, baker, candlestick maker, the list went on.
Plus an incredibly enthusiastic staff of ordained and lay Buddhists to help us get organised.

It was quite a Christmas and New Year with no shortage of entertainment. Musicians brought instruments and played from the gallery, actors performed set pieces by the fire, poets recited, parlour games were organised, caterers catered, everyone mucked in.

Plus truly thought-provoking teachings.

Later the same year I returned for another two weeks.
The dilapidation was worse.

A few years later the deteriorating building proved too much to keep going. The rest of the story is here.
Sadly the residents had to sell up and find a more manageable place in Bristol.

Over the years since then, I checked now and again to see if the group had established another location that could take in visitors for weeks at a time, but they hadn't.
It was quite a shock later to discover that the old manor house is now a 5-star hotel specialising exclusively in weddings. The spirit of the 90s, and the old mechanical bell system, all gone.
(Stuffed full of mobile phones I would guess).

Anyway, being grounded in the UK for a while, I went off to Ulverston back in August to spend one week at a two-week event at the Buddhist centre at the Conishead Priory. And found that I'd been away from this sort of venue for far too long. Thirteen years or more.
Bouncing between hospitals and surgeries meant that this was a last-minute booking, for only the second week of the festival, and all the limited indoor accomodation was long gone. But it was good to get inside my tent again.
The only, slight, disappointment was that unlike St. Audries, where thirty of us and about fifteen residents made for a very merry and rambling event, at Conishead in August the visitors alone numbered between two and three thousand. A bit overwhelming.

So, with Caroline working in Khartoum, and Richard spending this Christmas at Sam's mum's in Devon, I decided to look around for another 'Alternative Christmas'.
And found a long-established Buddhist centre in Scotland with an outpost on Holy Isle (off of the coast of the Isle of Arran), where two weeks of teachings and events will be run over this year's festive season. With about 60 guests if it's full, and ten or so residents. So more the size of St. Audries than Conishead.
Transport is a ferry to the Isle of Arran, followed by a little motorboat across the water to Holy Isle.
When the weather permits.
And no roads, trails, shops, TVs, cars, or politicians (well, I suppose there could be one amongst the guests, it's allowed I think).

That'll do nicely.

Posted by Ken Thomas at December 17, 2011 08:28 PM GMT

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