Welcome the light


Reflections on loch Linnhie

I was away more days than at home during November.Both were rich and welcome times. A personal retreat on the Moray Firth gave me time to delve deeply into my own heart,  surrounded by  the rich natural world of the Highlands – red kites, otters, dolphins and one red squirrel.


Reflected light on the Moray Firth

Then later in the month   we went on a long planned trip up the West Coast of Norway to the Arctic Circle. And yes we did see the Northern Lights, aswell as having our own personal sightings of sea eagles.


Arctic sunshine

Returning home I was launched immediately into the busyness of life, with the gospel of Thomas group, 2 retreatants, and friends of Stephen coming to stay.   Ian, being a Marxist, engendered lively and friendly discussions about Marx’s theory of alienation, and the way of life we each aspire to living. He proposed that a retreat is really a “holiday from alienation”. In a sense that is true, but I also see it as a time to connect with our sense of alienation from ourselves.

One of my favourite quotes is from Thomas Merton: “At the center of our being is a point of … pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, … This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God written in us… It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven.”  It is this “center” that we can more easily access in meditation, in solitude and on a retreat.

Despite feeling on the back foot as December began,  I committed myself to taking an hour of solitude each day, using a daily reflection on a saying from the gospel of Thomas. It’s amazing what a difference it’s made, quietly working my way through seasonal preparations and for once being able to hold a space that  so easily gets filled with pre-Christmas busyness.

Northern light

Northern light

Merton goes on to say “It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish.”

As the solstice approaches, we welcome the return of the light to the natural world, and as Christmas  approaches we can simply, if nothing else, welcome the light that is within us all.


Early December light on the river Dart

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Magical encounters with seals

I love autumn. I love the changes that go on, as the weather wildens, the river swells and bursts its banks, trees shower us with vibrant colours, storms delight us from behind closed doors. Summer is of course lovely, but towards the end of the season things start to look jaded, the river drying at the edges, leaves dull with lack of rain, and a kind of foot tapping goes on inside me as I anticipate the adrenalin rush of autumn. It came on cue, as we visited Cornwall, enjoying amazingly warm and balmy days as the night winds howled and rain lashed the windows.

Reflecting on what to write about, the most memorable recent events revolve around  my first sighting of seal pups. Last year I saw  seals in Cornwall for the first time, from a cliff top walk close to Lands End. A year later, to my extreme delight I came across seal pups for the first time, in south Devon. A year ago I wouldn’t have known seals were to be seen in Devon, and certainly hadn’t a clue that this is the season for new births.  Not the easiest of time for them, as the seas start to rage,  50% will die in their first year. But they manage to find safe passage into this world in caves and on beaches.

Female seal hauled out on S Devon beach


Same female and pup a few weeks later

We first went to a cove in S Devon in September, where I was pleased to espy a female seal hauling out onto the beach. A few weeks later returning to the same place, we found 2 pups on the beach, one with its mother, the same female we had seen before looking for a good place to give birth. And more recently a phone call alerted us to a weaned pup on another Devon beach. This encounter was magical, being able to see the pup close up, standing at a safe distance with Selkie, as it lumbered towards us snarling and snorting. Seals look so cute, they are fierce beasts to be respected.


Weaned pup on another S Devon beach


Selkie & I encounter the weaned pup

As I write I return in my thoughts to the story that launched me into this phase of my life, almost 15 years ago: a common story in cold northern sea-climes called “The Seal Maiden” or “The Selkie Story”. In her version “Sealskin, Soulskin” Clarissa Pinkola Estes says “ In the story, the old seal rises out of its own element to begin the call. It is a profound feature of the wild psyche that if we do not come on our own, the Old One will come for us, calling and calling until something in us responds. This feature of tales and myths encourages us to follow the call, even when we’ve no idea if where to go, in what direction, or for how long. So maybe we stumble around in the dark for a while, trying to find what calls us, but because we have managed not to talk ourselves out of being summoned by the wild one, we invariably stumble over our soulskin. When we breathe up that “soul-state” we automatically enter the feeling state of “This is right. I know what I need”.

She goes on to say, “The vehicles through and by which we reach “home” are many: music, art, forest, ocean, sunrise, solitude. These take us home to a nutritive inner world of ideas, order, and sustenance of its own…. time to contemplate, to learn, and uncover the forgotten, the disused and the buried.  There we can imagine the future and also pore over the scar maps of the psyche, learning what led to what, and where we will go next

A retreat can be just the right time and place to enable  our own particular “sealskin, soulskin” awakening. Another magical encounter.


Close up of weaned seal pup

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One thing leads onto another

Recently a couple came to stay, and during a conversation I was asked where they could see kingfishers.

First kingfisher photo downstream from Totnes

First kingfisher photo downstream from Totnes

The question came about because they had read an earlier blog (Seeing with New Eyes) and that led on to another question about hiring a boat on the river. I was sorry to say I didn’t know where they could hire a boat, but walking away from the conversation I was inspired to ask Stephen if he’d like to take them out. Yes was the answer. It made me very happy to find a way to “marry” our skills like this: he a skilled naturalist, who knows the river intimately and knows where bird and other wildlife is likely to be found, with the retreat space and experience on offer at Retreat by the Dart. 

It links to something I’ve been reflecting on, on and off for the past year.  Just over a year ago, browsing a book of quotations from St John of the Cross, I  read these words : “And this is the greatest delight of this awakening – to know the creatures through God, not God through the creatures;” .  I was brought up sharp by this, knowing it was an important insight, but finding it difficult to fully grasp. 

Early morning on the Dart below Totnes

Early morning on the Dart below Totnes

In “The Wisdom Way of Knowing” Cynthia Bourgeault talks about the traditional binary way we operate “which views God and creation as rigidly separate” and which has increasingly alienated people from Christianity as we become more aware of our responsibility to the environment. She talks about “an energetic continuum running through all of creation” and “the presence of divine consciousness at every level”. She quotes Barbara Brown Taylor, who speaks of her radical shift in her image of God brought about by her exposure to quantum physics, “Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place… up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light, not captured in them, but revealed in that singular vast net of relationships that animates everything that is”. (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Luminous Web).

Heron on the river bank

Heron on the river bank downstream from Totnes

This idea of knowing creation through the creator takes us into a non-dual space, a place where there is no separation between ourselves and the created world.  In  brief moments I’ve felt a bodily knowing  of this swimming up at Hembury Woods, a favourite stretch of the river Dart upstream from here.

The Dart upstream at Hembury Woods

The Dart upstream at Hembury Woods







On a retreat there is the time and space to immerse ourselves in nature and receive her Wisdom, and now thanks to one thing leading onto another, here at Retreat by the Dart we are happy to enhance that experience by offering wildlife trips on the river Dart in Stephen’s little boat “Snow Feather” (time and tide permitting).


Snow Feather's debut as a retreat guide

Snow Feather’s debut as a retreat guide

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Oystercatchers revisited

10 years ago I went on a month long retreat in Northumberland close to the East Coast Holy Isle, Lindisfarne.  The seeds of desire for change were slowly germinating during that very cold month of January, when show fell on the beach.  I deepened my love of nature and  oystercatchers being abundant they were one of the first birds I identified. And without knowing where I would end up, there was a clear call to start to surrender the tight grip of the ego and allow the soul a chance to take the lead.

10 years later.


Oystercatcher chick and parent on the Holy Isle beach

I have just completed a retreat on another Holy Isle, this one off the West Coast of Scotland, close to Arran. The oystercatchers were here too, this time my slightly sharper eye caught sight of a young chick being loudly and fiercely protected by its parent.

I’ve spent many years exploring both professionally and personally, different expressions of spirituality. But at some point along the way, not that many years ago, I was challenged by something I read  along the lines of “find a tradition and stick with it”. I chose despite strong reservations to return to my faith of origin, Christianity. Not long after that on the first night of a 2 year course I’d started in Canada, I asked a tutor what she was reading. “Cynthia Bourgeault” is your woman, she said, I hardly knew how to spell her name at the time.


Mergansers on the water

The course was disappointing, but reading Cynthia’s books excited me, it was almost a reward for the decision I’d made. I managed to secure a place on a “wisdom school” retreat in the States in September 2012. That was equally inspirational. So when a place came up on a similar retreat with Cynthia in the UK, I signed up wondering all the  while whether this would be “more of the same”. Despite these thoughts, I stayed faithful to my commitment to being there, all the time enjoying the wonderful wildlife on the island.

One of the first things Cynthia said, and it could have been directed at me personally, was “it’s not about learning more, but more of our selves learning”. Despite giving intellectual assent to this, I found myself at times thinking  “oh, not that again” or “I’ve done this before”.


Young common (actually not so common) gulls on the beach

One of the subjects Cynthia talked about, that I didn’t recall from the previous retreat, was “ three centred knowing”. It’s a teaching from Gurdjieff, in a nutshell, and very simply, the idea that spiritual truth comes to us not only through our intellectual centre (mind), but also through our moving (body) centre, and our emotional (heart, not feelings) centre. To engage the moving centre we did manual work for an hour each day. My job was collecting seaweed off the beach for the compost “cake”, a very happy time, seeing more of the bird life as we worked.  The emotional or heart centre is not at all about being in touch with feelings, they being rather a distraction, but developing through meditation, prayer, lectio divina, chanting, surrender, what she calls “the organ of spiritual perception”.


Black guillemots at Brodick harbour, Arran, returning home

On return to Devon I was preparing for a small group that meets fortnightly here to reflect on a saying from the gospel of Thomas. I normally send out an email with the saying for the session a couple of days before. One participant emailed back to say we’d already looked at this particular logion, or saying. My immediate thought was that I’d lost the plot. And looking back I realised it had come up in the first session as part of the introduction. But instead of scrambling around to re-arrange the session, I knew instantly what to do. We would stay with the saying, and let more of our selves learn.

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A Magical Start to the Day

As luck would have it I’m an early riser and since Stephen left I’ve got in the habit of going down for a swim about 6am. I’ve learnt that “early is best”, for seeing wildlife that is, and this morning did not  disappoint.  Of course it’s cooler, both the air and the water, but it’s quiet, there’s no-one around yet, and that makes all the difference.


Getting in – the difficult bit!

As Selkie and I approached the weir, a heron flew up and away. It was there yesterday morning, the first time I’ve seen a heron since February, preoccupied as they’ve been with raising their young.


Female mandarin duck


Male & female mandarin duck

Swimming upstream ,  I could see a line far ahead of me that looked like an adult duck and chicks. I couldn’t identify it, but as I got closer I saw that it was a female mandarin duck and two young. That was a huge delight, as we had seen an adult pair of mandarin ducks further downstream a few weeks ago, and noted that we hadn’t yet seen any ducklings. As they turned to go downstream I swam along side them for a while, gentle breast strokes as quietly as possible. Just as I thought I should leave them be, I saw ahead another female, mallard this time, with 5 very new chicks. This must be the one I saw with Marion on Sunday evening as we walked along the river. Strangely I had thought then it might be a mandarin duck. Her young were quite small and I watched her gather them behind her in an opening on the river bank. I swam on.


Enjoying the swim

A brief float on my back, and as I turned a kingfisher flew past me. I thought it was going away, but it flew back onto a low hanging branch by the riverbank. So I swam towards it as quietly as I could until I was only 4  or 5 feet away. I stayed treading water watching it. A beautiful, stocky bird, bigger than I thought it would be, with its orange chest and stunning turquoise blue green back. I didn’t want to move, I was frankly awestruck by the experience. But a chilling down of my body eventually caused me to move and the kingfisher flew off across the river to another branch. I guess it was looking for food for its young.

I started to swim across, and as I did so a dipper swooped close by, landing like the kingfisher on an overhanging branch. I watched it fly from branch to branch as I swam slowly back to where Selkie was waiting patiently for me on the river bank.

I had a boiled egg for breakfast to celebrate! Seemed a bit early for champagne, but the excitement of such a magical start to the day would certainly have   warranted it.  

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Seeing with new eyes

There was a very moving story recently about a woman who had been deaf from birth. New technology had enabled her to hear again, and she was filmed at the moment of hearing the first words spoken to her. She broke down in tears, as did most of us who watched.

I feel somewhat like that with my sight. Not that I have anything particularly wrong with my vision, which is  pretty normal for my age.  Perhaps not quite as radical a story, but my recent experiences of life on the river seem like seeing for the first time.  Or perhaps more like seeing with a new or more focussed lens. I admit the new “lens” is my beloved man, so I may be biased. But what we’ve seen together recently has been memorable,  thanks to Stephen’s intimate knowledge of the river Dart and its environs.


Heronry and egret colony along the Dart


Egyptian geese and their young along Bow Creek


The duckling “nursery”

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been out in our little boat “Snow Feather”, both downstream and upstream from Totnes where the boat is moored. On our trip downstream we motored as far as Stoke Gabriel, passing by a heronry combined with a colony of little egrets, their white dotted throughout the tree, alongside the grey outline of the young herons. Returning via Bow Creek (after tying up for a hot drink at the Maltsters’ Arms) we came across a pair of elegant Egyptian geese with their four young. Upstream the following day we rowed past a pair of mallards with what seemed like a whole “school” of ducklings – about 13 of them bobbing and scuttling around unaware of the danger they might be in.


Female goosander chasing her ducklings upstream


Canada geese and young close to Staverton Mill

And when not out on the river we’ve been getting up early to walk along the river bank close to the Coach House to see what new life is emerging on our stretch of the river. Out walking a few weeks ago, we literally stumbled across a female mallard with a large brood of chicks quite early on in the hatching season, but sadly we haven’t seen any of them again. There are two broods of goosander we know of, one pair with 3 young of a few weeks old, and another with 8 more recently hatched. We’ve seen the older brood a number of times, yesterday after a brief swim at Still Pool, on our walk back we followed them along the river, watching the mother chase the young upstream (remarking how unlikely we’d be able to swim upstream at that spot).  And as we walked back to the house, a pair of Canada Geese with their young were nibbling at grass close to Staverton Mill. Another delight is the kingfisher, which zips up and down close to the surface of the river, sometimes as we are swimming higher up, a brief flash of vibrant plumage over the more muted river colour. It makes those days when swimming is more of an effort worth every moment. Only a few days ago we were thrilled to see a pair of dippers at the weir, with 3 young. We often see dippers along the river, but I’ve never seen a family before. 

goosander chicks on mother's back

Goosander chicks on mother’s back


Pair of mandarin ducks on the river bank

Then, as if we hadn’t feasted enough, we saw the female goosander with her 8 chicks again, 2 of them on her back as she swam along. Can’t get better than that!  Our last sighting before Stephen left for his work in the Antarctic, was a pair of mandarin ducks, pottering about on the edge of the river. My job now is to keep watch with my new “eyes”.

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The Art of Noticing

I was asked by a friend to write a short piece for the local rag, to be published during Lent, I thought I’d share the content, “noticing” the time lag since I last wrote. So after watching a stunning sunrise, I cranked up the tiny bit of knowledge I have of posting blogs and set to.

Sunrise over the river

Sunrise over the river early this morning

Without skipping a beat, I’d have said Lent is associated with giving something up. So my first thought was, how about suggesting something creative, or healthy, a positive approach to this rather dour season.
But this is starting to feel like New Year all over again. Only a couple of months on, we are at the rag end of resolutions made and already abandoned.  I somehow don’t think in a frenetically active and goal oriented world there’s a need to add in anything virtuous, however beneficial to mind body or spirit during Lent.


A delicate carpet of anemones in the woods close to the river

I’d rather propose simply the idea of “noticing”. Not the latest extreme sport, new form of yoga, meditation, or any other self-improvement technique. Nor is it about looking, for that you need to be focussed, hoping to find something, something lost, or hoped for, or desired. Nor is it simply seeing, scanning your eyes around to see what’s out there, glancing at “nature” out of the corner of your eye.


Pussy willow on the track to the river

Noticing is a simple, but intentional act. It does involve slowing down  a pace, and making sure your dog doesn’t run off chasing ducks as Selkie did today. It doesn’t involve anything other than observing what’s around more closely. It can be done in the garden, on a walk, even from a window ledge.


Early butterfly in the log bag!

And this hint of spring time is a perfect moment to practice the art of noticing. As the ground slowly and imperceptibly opens up its spring treasures – notice buds pushing out, a slight greening of the ground, the noisy dawn chorus, colour returning – yellow daffodils and celandines, the pretty white carpet of anemones. It can start with small forays into nature, it can be done in a few minutes and as time goes on if it appeals, it can provide an opening into a more reflective way of living.


Amelanchier, my favourite spring tree budding outside the meditation cabin

Well, I guess I would say that…..

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A River Romance

Still Pool at Staverton on the River Dart
Last September as the builders had almost finished, and I was much recovered from surgery, I took time out for a retreat in a beautiful location on the Moray Firth. On that often tricky penultimate day when nothing seems quite clear, I noticed in my creative doodling, clear masculine and feminine sexual imagery. My guide Joyce suggested I look at what might emerge from bringing the images together. True to form, looking for “content” rather than “process” I immediately jumped on the notion of “new life”. I felt sure that some new direction, or clarity about the way forward with the challenges I was facing, would emerge. I chose to do a slow walk around the labyrinth in the garden. As I sat quietly in the centre the words “Don’t bypass the lovemaking” came tumbling into my consciousness. I almost laughed out loud, the words were direct, clear and intriguing. 
I didn’t have any further insight, but returned home happy to let the words take their own shape in their own time.

Seals playing,  off the Cornish coast
I had just started swimming at Still Pool again and with the mild autumn was still going down to the river in October. One morning  a local friend Clare was there with Stephen, a friend of hers I’d met swimming back in the Spring. I noticed a little frisson of excitement on seeing him again after a 5  month gap. Usually when I swim, Selkie, my young retriever, spends her time sniffing around the bank. I called her at one point, and Stephen asked “Why do you call her Selkie”? I told him of the importance of a “Selkie” story I’d read back in 2004 on a long retreat in Northumberland.  It was a pivotal time for me, and the interpretation of the story summed up the life change I was embarking upon. Little did I know that it was the start of a journey that would ultimately bring me to Devon and….  

On the rocks, Cornwall
Back to Stephen who replied “Well I study seals” (an understatement, as it’s something he’s been doing for the past 25 years). The “coincidence” was ringing bells for both of us. The next time we met, he was alone. We swam together and walked back up the lane to his car, where he asked me for my phone number. The rest as they say is history. As we’ve embarked on a relationship together, those words on the retreat “Don’t bypass the lovemaking” seem to have taken on a form that is full of delight, exhilarating, challenging, and truly lovely. I couldn’t have wished for a happier outcome! 
On one of our first walks along the Dart

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Just Sit There Right Now

Downriver from Staverton Bridge
Out with Selkie on a beautiful late autumn day, enveloped in the stunning surroundings that embrace this place – the quiet river, rich bird life, last golden leaves hanging on trees like decorations, magical stillness, soft cushions of fallen  leaves underfoot .

The walk was a commitment to an early morning promise prompted by a poem I read.
sit there right now.
Don’t do a thing. Just rest.
For your

separation from God

is the hardest work in this world.
Let me bring you trays of food and something
that you like to
You can use my soft words
as a cushion
for your
It might seem to be the wrong time to be thinking about resting and “trays of food”, in this slightly frenetic last two weeks before Christmas. But I wanted to pause and reflect. This time last year the garden was a mud bath, the retreat spaces were a half-finished job, and the building project dominated my life. The year since has been fuller and busier than many years recently, and I often wondered how that fit with my desire to live a more contemplative life.

Since early October,  I found myself in a new phase. The works were finishing, the first guests retreating, and I was viewing a garden created into a pleasing shape with new plants, trees and structure.  I said to a friend “I’m wondering what to do next” and she looked at me somewhat horrified and said “why not just enjoy what you’ve created”. Ah, there’s something the planner/achiever hadn’t thought of ….

The garden is bare again, but full of promise with 100s of daffodil and tulip bulbs planted in the soft earth, waiting for their moment to join in the celebration.  

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Outer and Inner Renovation

It’s over 20 years ago since the seed of an idea for offering a retreat space came into my consciousness. Where it came from I don’t know,  but being strongly connected to achieving in the outer world, I thought in terms of bricks and mortar and had a house built. At the time I was immersed in the publishing world and the seed lay dormant.
The new entrance to “Retreat by the Dart”

Throughout my publishing years, I had a longing for “something else” but after I left publishing to pursue that elusive calling, I found myself in a creative void, not a comfortable place for a goal oriented person.  A chance conversation reminded me of that original “seed”. With huge enthusiasm and alacrity I embraced a new flow of creativity, searching hard to find the place where the seed could fully germinate and grow.  I sold my house and home of 18 years, moved from Hampshire to Devon, and embarked on converting a former coach house to create a retreat space (is there a pattern here?!). I was back in my “comfort zone” – focussed, busy and happy with what I was doing. Strongly into the achieving state, but this time with a sense of vocation. I thought that was good enough.
A transformed garden

At the start of the renovation project a little voice in my head said “Are you sure you want to do this?” Full of enthusiasm I ignored the hint. For a long time felt I was pushing myself to complete the job, so keen was I to make a start. I was oblivious to the signs of illness putting my chronic tiredness down to the demands of the project. After a blood test, the GP told me to go straight to A&E (do not pass Go!) where after 48 hours, acute appendicitis was diagnosed. A large scar later, I emerged hardly able to walk. Long term convalescence was a whole new experience, and not part of the plan. 
The” inner” space outside
The early stages were comparatively easy – it was obvious what I could and couldn’t do, sympathy abounded, and I really had to rest. But as time went on, words of “are you better now?” were falling on a slightly scared me.  Recovery was clearly going to take months not weeks and now all my energy was going into the healing process. But ironically it was in this place, where it seemed I had to let go of everything I’d been planning and working for, that “something else” was really able to emerge.  
Looking down the garden to Dartington Estate
The Stables bedroom 
Last year I had spent time reflecting on the parable of the talents. I easily identified with the guys with plenty of “talents”, when it came to “poor missy one talent” I found myself fiercely protecting her. What was that part of me “hidden in a hole in the ground”? And as I was convalescent, it was as if  I could sense something new emerging out of the raw edges of illness: a space opening up within myself. She is the “something else”, the one who is able to slow down the pace, see things through a different lense. In an e-course on The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault suggests that the parable of the talents is not so much about finding out what we’re good at and going for it, rather it’s more about inner transformation. That seems to be the lesson I’ve been learning this past 6 months. You could say I’m learning to be on retreat in my own home.
Looking out of the Stables retreat room

A year since we started the house and garden renovation, the outer work is complete and the retreat space is open. The inner work continues.
The Stables Kitchen 
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