Body, mind and spirit – living life to the full

My interview with Hannah Spalding made me realise that I am interested in people who do what they love – not just the nine to five thing, but work which they are passionate about.  So when my mother in law suggested that I interview a school friend of hers who has set up a holistic, beauty and spiritual training centre, and is hugely enthusiastic about it, I was intrigued.

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Elaine Collier, together with her friend and business partner Gill Moss, run the Como Centre, which is based in Oxfordshire.  They provide a wide range of accredited training courses, as well as workshops and other events.   Their mission statement says:

We work within the mind, body and spirit sector and firmly believe in the following:

  • There is more to life than meets the eye
  • We all need to become more empowered and do more of what we love
  • We need to take more care of our own health and wellbeing
  • We need to be happy

The ‘we need to be happy’ bit was exactly what I was interested in!  “I think it’s really important to be on your own journey, to come to your own conclusion that you are happy and comfortable with”, Elaine tells me.  “Some people tell me that, if I’m going to be a spiritual person, I shouldn’t eat meat, or drink alcohol, or smoke or take drugs.  Well, I don’t smoke or take drugs, but I do eat meat and I do have a drink from time to time, and I don’t think those sort of restrictions are helpful.  I think it’s more a case of, if you’re taking your spiritual development seriously, you’re going to be careful about how you behave, about how you live your life.”

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Gill Moss and Elaine Collier

The range of training courses and workshops offered by Elaine and Gill is comprehensive, and covers most areas of complementary therapy and spiritual development.  Topics include mindfulness, massage, healing, beauty therapy, meditation, angel workshops, reflexology, past life regression, sound therapy, tarot and reiki.  The Como Centre’s latest initiative is an online programme, Flick Your Switch, which aims to guide participants “towards greater clarity, perspective, peace and happiness in your life.”

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The Como Centre’s approach is more than just a training course – participants are part of a community, a family, and Elaine and Gill are there for people throughout the programme and for as long afterwards as they need.  Facebook groups are a big part of how the Centre works.  “You’re getting what you need to give you confidence and get you energised, and ready to put into practice what you have learned – and you can contact us at any point afterwards if you have a question or a problem.  The personal connection is really important to us.”

I asked Elaine how she had come to be involved in this sector, and she recalled how, many years ago in her native St Ives, Cambridgeshire, she and a friend had started attending the spiritualist church “for something to do.”  Initially deeply sceptical, what she found there opened her eyes: “there’s more to this life than we think.”

Over time, Elaine and her friend moved into leadership roles at the church, including healing, while she worked as a PA to the director of a research institute.  Following the birth of her son, divorce, and redundancy, relocating for work brought Elaine to Oxfordshire.  Then, she says, “everything changed.”  She met Gill through a google search to find a hopi ear candle therapist to deal with her ongoing blocked ears.  She became enthused about reiki, and a friend suggested “you could do that,” so she trained as a reiki healer.  At last, says Elaine, she was fulfilling her purpose, “what I’m here to achieve.”  The Como Centre was founded 8 years ago, to help other people fulfil their potential.  At the end of 2019 Elaine and Gill are moving from their current premises to work out of two new locations in existing complementary practices, as well as increasingly online.

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We talked about how the mind/body/spirit sector is becoming more mainstream.  Elaine feels that there is a growing interest in how all aspects of life are connected.  She also sees people taking more responsibility for their own health and wellbeing, rather than turning to medication in the first instance.  “It’s not just for hippy types now – it’s becoming the norm.  Mindfulness and meditation are being taught in schools now, which is great, and will help to make it the norm.”  People are realising that there is more to life, says Elaine, than “being born, going to school, working, having kids, watching TV, and waiting to die!”

How does Elaine feel about her work? “I wish I’d done it years ago – but then again, I wouldn’t have been ready,” she says.  When I ask about her working day, she says “We have a ball! There’s no such thing as an average day – most of our sessions run at weekends, but on other days I’ll be replying to emails, creating new material, or going on courses myself to keep my skills up.”

Find out more about the Como Centre by visiting their website (where you can also download a series of meditations) or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

All images are taken from the Como Centre website with permission.

Norfolk Lavender – where farming meets fragrance

If you drive along the A149 near Heacham in north-west Norfolk during June and July, remember to wind down your windows as you approach the traffic lights.  Not only will you see row upon row, field upon field, of purple lavender, but the fragrance will fill your car and your senses.

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You would be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported to the lavender fields of Grasse in France.  But here, amid the wheat of East Anglia, is Norfolk Lavender, the UK’s largest commercial lavender grower, with nearly 100 acres under production, and it’s been here since 1932.  Lavender growing had almost died out after the First World War, when demand had peaked due to the use of lavender oil in dressings because of its antiseptic properties.  Local nurseryman and florist Linn Chilvers had a dream to establish a lavender farm, and in partnership with landowner Francis Dusgate he planted the first six acres with 13,000 plants.  In 1936 they bought vintage French stills dating from 1874, and began to distil lavender oil.  Those same stills were in use until 2009!

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When I visited earlier this week, I was shown how the current still is used to extract the oil from the lavender harvest.  Maurice, who has worked at Norfolk Lavender for six years, explained that the 2019 harvest is about a month late because of the wet June.

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Maurice talked me through the process.  First, the harvested lavender is loaded into the boiler.  The whole crop is used – stems as well as flower heads – in order to allow air pockets for the steam to circulate.  If only the flower heads are used, it becomes compacted and the steam wouldn’t be able to vaporise the oil.

The steam circulates through the lavender in the boiler, vaporising the oil and rising into the condenser.  At this stage, the steam/oil is cooled, turning into a liquid mixture of water and oil.  This goes into the separator, where the oil floats on the water, ready to tap off.

One boiler-full (roughly a ‘dumpy bag’ full) can yield between 100 and 700ml of lavender oil, depending on the variety.  On that day, Maurice was processing a variety called Maillette, which is high yielding and produces oil which is used in the company’s candle production.

After distillation, the oil has to mature for up to two years – rather like fine wine or cheese!  Maurice handed me a sample of the freshly distilled oil to sniff.  It has a quite ‘green’ or ‘vegetable’ fragrance, with a suggestion of mown grass, definitely lavender but not the deep, warm fragrance we are used to in lavender essential oil.  This depth and complexity develops with maturation.

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Maurice told me that they have already sold out of the essential oil from the harvest two years ago.  Demand for lavender is increasing, especially amongst younger customers, as a new generation rediscovers the beneficial properties of lavender.

So, what’s so special about lavender?  Its use goes back to at least Roman times, when it was used medicinally, in massage, and in worship.  In fact, its name (lavandum) is associated with the Latin for ‘washing’, as lavender was used in the hot water of Roman baths.

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Lavender was a staple of the medieval ‘physic garden’, where it was grown for its medicinal properties.  By the sixteenth century, it was being used as a moth repellent, air freshener and toothpaste (mixed with charcoal – maybe not to the taste of 21st century consumers).  It was also believed to help keep the plague at bay, and demand for it was therefore high!

By the nineteenth century, lavender’s appeal was mostly its fragrance, and it was widely used in perfumery.  Modern fans, however, also appreciate its reputed properties in reducing stress, inducing calm, and promoting sleep.  Lavender is widely used in aromatherapy, and in a wide range of products – many of which are made by Norfolk Lavender.

As part of its commitment to the continuity and heritage of lavender growing in the UK, Norfolk Lavender is also home to a National Collection of lavenders, with over a hundred varieties of lavender, many of which are available to buy in the Plant Centre.

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Norfolk Lavender is next to the traffic lights at Heacham.  At the heart of the site is Caley Mill, a watermill built in 1837, which ground flour right up to 1923.  Most of the building is now offices and stores for Norfolk Lavender, but the old miller’s cottage has been converted into an excellent tea room (The Lavender Lounge).  Don’t miss the truly amazing lavender cake (complete with lavender-coloured icing!).  And in case you were wondering, no, it doesn’t taste like soap – it’s just fragrant and delicious.

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There’s also a large gift shop, which a seasonally changing selection of gifts as well as a large range of lavender-based products, including many of Norfolk Lavender’s own lines.   With the adjoining gardens to explore, and with Unique Gifts & Interiors, Walsingham Farm Shop, Farmer Fred’s Adventure Play Barn, and a rare breeds farm sharing the site, there’s something for everyone at Norfolk Lavender.  It’s good to see that this company, started from the vision of a local man with a dream, is thriving over 80 years later, providing a high quality visitor attraction and creating new generations of enthusiasts for lavender.

For more details of Norfolk Lavender, take a look at their website.

Why Three Hares?

Why, you may well be asking, have I chosen ‘The Three Hares’ as the title for this blog?  I confess, it’s a bit of a self-indulgence.  It has to be called something, so it may as well be something I’m passionate about!

The motif of the three hares has fascinated me ever since I first encountered it, and I have been intrigued by its mysterious history and ambiguous meaning.  The motif consists of three hares (or possibly rabbits, in some cases) running in a circle, either clockwise or anti-clockwise, with each hare having two ears – but there are only three ears in total.  The ears form a triangle at the centre of the design (very occasionally, there are four hares sharing four ears, which form a square at the centre).

I first came across them in Devon, where there are nearly 20 examples of medieval roof bosses featuring the three hares in churches across the county.  (They are sometimes called “Tinners’ Rabbits” in the Dartmoor area, but this seems to be a bit of a red herring, as the origins of the motif are much older).

So, first, the history:  the earliest examples have been found in caves in China, which are believed to be early 6th century.  The theory is that the motif travelled west along the Silk Road, appearing in southern Russia, Iran, eastern Europe, Germany, France, Switzerland, and finally crossing the Channel to England and Wales in the early 14th century.  The hares transcend religious traditions, from Buddhism, through the Islamic world (where the motif appears on metalwork, glass, ceramics and textiles), Judaism (18th century synagogues in Germany have the motif, alongside the riddle “Three hares sharing three ears, yet everyone one of them has two”) to Christianity (they feature in churches across Western Europe).

The meaning is much more mysterious than the history.  Hares have had many associations, including as a symbol for resurrection in Chinese mythology.  The hare was the animal associated with the pagan goddess Oestara, along with the moon, possibly because the hare was believed (erroneously!) to have a gestation period of 28 days.  This association may account for the naming of the female cycle (oestrus) and the principal female hormone (oestrogen).  This female imagery may be the reason that the three hares are often found juxtaposed with the Green Man in English examples.  In another legend, the hare was believed to have laid the Cosmic Egg, which may be the precursor of the idea of the Easter Bunny, and Easter eggs!  And latterly, the three hares were believed to be a symbol of the Christian Trinity.

I leave you with my own interpretation, in a linocut print, of the three hares and moon motif, which is the logo for this blog, and some links to articles which have informed my understanding of the three hares and which you may find interesting.  If you are really lucky, you may manage to track down a copy of The Three Hares: A curiosity worth regarding by Tom Greeves, Chris Chapman and Sue Andrew, published by Skerryvore Productions but now sadly out of print – if you do, can I please borrow it?!

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The Three Hares Project

Legendary Dartmoor

Wikipedia article

New Scientist article

The Three Hares Trail, Dartmoor

An artist’s blog about the three hares

The three hares as a Chines puzzle

Liverpool – impressions

I’ve recently moved to Liverpool – quite a change from rural Somerset!  I had been visiting regularly for a while, so I realised that my Honda CR-V, while perfect for yomping across Exmoor and tackling fords was possibly not the idea vehicle for parallel parking in the city.  So I test drove a range of ‘normal’ cars, which all felt like driving a go-cart by comparison, eventually settling on a middle-aged VW Golf.  Moving to the city has increased my car insurance by roughly 60%.  Cars up here seem to be much newer, much more likely to have chrome and tinted windows, and there is a conspicuous absence of mud…I am going to have to get used to the idea of spending money at the car wash if I’m not to be horribly conspicuous in my road-grimed car…

Today the sun was shining and I could justify playing hookey and going into the city centre.  Public transport here is the best in England outside of London, but I am driving most of the time at the moment as it’s a great way to familiarise myself with the geography of the city.  Today I parked near the Anglican cathedral, and walked down Duke Street to Liverpool One, passing the great gate or paifan of China Town on the way.  It’s the largest outside of China, as befitting the oldest Chinese community in Europe.  Nelson Street is garlanded with red lanterns in preparation for Chinese New Year this weekend.

Next stop was the Tate, on Albert Dock, where I wanted to look at the Tracey Emin/William Blake exhibition.   The red brick of the older buildings in the dock area glowed warmly in the winter sunshine, and despite being off season there were still tourists from all over the world – in a few minutes I’d identified Korean, Japanese, French, Spanish and German being spoken.  I love the cosmopolitan vibe in this city!

I had some Christmas gift vouchers to spend, so from the Tate I walked the short distance to Liverpool One and indulged in a little retail therapy.  Midweek in January is an excellent time to shop – lots of sales, but relatively few shoppers.  It’s fair to say that am not an enthusiastic shopper, but it’s a much more pleasant experience when it’s peaceful.  To celebrate having successfully tracked down all three items on my list, I carried on up the hill to Bold Street in search of lunch.  Bold Street is a hub of ethnic restaurants and quirky shops.  To be honest, I generally feel a bit old and un-hipster when I go there, especially at today’s trendy lunch venue: Leaf.  I’ve been there for tea before, but not for lunch.  I opted for Moroccan chicken sandwich with broccoli soup on the side, and it was not disappointing – full of flavour and fresh ingredients.  A nice touch is the tap water (I was being stingy).  It comes with a tang of fresh mint, dispensed from a giant glass jar with a tap, which is on the bar so you can help yourself to refills.

Twenty minutes’ walk took me back to where I’d left the car, and I drove home in the sunshine, feeling glad to be in such a beautiful and vibrant city.  There is so much more to explore: the range of world-class museums and galleries, the library (to research my father’s family who came here from Wales in the late 19th century), and the constantly changing panorama of the River Mersey.

All change – new year, new home, new start – the opportunities for simplicity

Regular visitors to this blog may have noticed the absence of new posts recently.  This reflects a time of upheaval in my life, both professionally and personally.

The cat and I have found a delightful character cottage in a small town in Somerset, near to the M5 and mainline railway, and at the heart of a thriving community with shops and services.  I wanted to find somewhere that would be a real home (rather than just somewhere to live) as I embark on this new life, so I was delighted to find somewhere which was not a soul-less new-build on an anonymous estate.

The cottage comes with a nearby garden, complete with potting shed, and there are already two big vegetable beds and scope to grow-my-own on a significant scale.  There is a wood-burning stove to supplement the gas central heating.  And a lock-up garage/wood store across the road.  I appear to be all set up for The Good Life…

I moved from a large house, and so I haven’t needed to get much in the way of furniture.  However, living in big houses for the last several years has inevitably resulted in Too Much Stuff, and this has been a wonderful opportunity to galvanise me into action – the biggest decluttering exercise of my life is underway!  Ebay, Gumtree, charity shops and the dump have all been involved in my campaign to reduce my Stuff by at least 30%, and preferably 50%.  Fortunately, the timing coincided with the Christmas and New Year break, which has given me time and space to do at least a couple of hours’ decluttering every day, and make significant inroads into my Stuff.

I have before me, therefore, a challenge and an opportunity.  I may not have actively chosen this whole ‘life begins at 45’ experience, but I am determined to embrace what it offers me, and the first thing it offers is choices.  What do I want in my new home?  How do I want to live my daily life?  I am being offered the chance to live much more simply, which (as readers of this blog will know) is something which has been exercising me for some time.  This is my chance to make a fresh start in the way I live.  I have often said that I aspire to William Morris’ maxim to ‘have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’, and now I have the opportunity to put it into practice.

The white goods do need to be bought new because I really need them to be under warranty.  The other bits and pieces I am consciously buying mostly vintage or second-hand.  I acquired a handsome day-bed on Gumtree, and a leather armchair on eBay.  My bedroom curtains are being re-purposed from a pair of 1950s Welsh wool blankets.  I am now the proud owner of a very beautiful Deco chest of drawers, which I expect will outlive me.  And I am being very disciplined about how much furniture, and how much Stuff, will fit into a small cottage and still allow me enough space and order to actually live in it.  And work in it – the second bedroom (with stunning views!) will be my studio and office.

So – over the next few months, I hope this blog will chronicle my first steps in my new life, and I hope you will accompany me as I make choices, face challenges, and work out how to live simply in my new home.

Vintage Home Shop – sharing the love

Last week I had a thoroughly enjoyable morning visiting Sarah-Jane, who trades as Vintage Home Shop (follow her on Twitter @VintageHomeShop).  Based at her home in Somerset, she presides over an Aladdin’s cave of vintage goodies.  Her main passions are 50s Meakin and Midwinter china, vintage mirrors, and also luggage – I have never seen so many vintage suitcases and trunks in one place!  Other vintage home items find their way into her emporium too, such as curtains and textiles and kitchenalia.

What made my visit particularly enjoyable – apart from drooling over the vintage treasures, of course! – was Sarah-Jane herself.  Vivacious and articulate, she is genuinely passionate about vintage, striving for a slower, more considered pace of life, and a more sustainable lifestyle.  Her period home has been adapted for contemporary family living with a deep respect for the form and features of the house, without being too precious or formal, resulting in a space that is homely and welcoming while also giving more than a passing nod to the generations whose home it has been before.  Having known Sarah-Jane for some time on Twitter, it was a real pleasure to meet her in person, and to have a glimpse of the person behind #vintagefindhour (Twitter, 8-9pm on Wednesdays) and the stream of interesting vintage-related tweets!

The items she has for sale are high quality and in good condition.  She has a genuine eye for the quirky, the pleasing and the usable, and it’s easy to see how her pieces would look fabulous as feature items in a modern home, or as part of an all-over vintage style.  For example, the luggage looks great as it is, but could also be used for its original purpose, or as stylish storage (and who doesn’t need more storage?!).  Vintage kitchenalia is eminently practical and usable, generally much better made than the modern equivalent, as well as making an attractive display in your kitchen when you are not using it.  And everyone knows that food tastes better when eaten from gorgeous vintage china!

Sarah-Jane has a website at vintagehomeshop.co.uk (new shiny website coming shortly) but if there is anything in particular you are looking for, it is worth contacting her as her Aladdin’s cave is so extensive that inevitably not everything makes it to the website!  And if you are in the area, Sarah-Jane welcomes visits by prior appointment.  I had enormous fun meeting her – it’s great to spend time with people who have a shared passion for vintage – and yes, of course, I bought something!  This delightful wooden chest is now storing wool in my textiles studio – Sarah-Jane had tweeted its picture and once I saw it had my mother’s initials on it, I just knew it had to be mine!

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New favourite shop: Sally’s Vintage Chic in Minehead, Somerset

I’ve been to Minehead a few times, but mostly by steam train, and have rarely ventured off the Avenue.  However, this week I was there to meet up with an old friend and went by car.  Consequently, I was driving round Minehead looking for somewhere to park, and that is when I spotted it – an inviting shop front in Summerland Road (turn off the Avenue at Westcott’s flower stall and you can’t miss it) emblazoned with the name Sally’s Vintage Chic.  So once I had found a parking place, and had coffee with my friend, I went back to investigate.

Sally welcomed me into the shop, and an hour later I was still there – there is simply so much to look at, admire and be tempted by.  Her painted and distressed furniture is absolutely beautiful, some of the nicest I have ever seen for sale.  There is a good selection of vintage costume jewellery, ceramics and homewares, but for me the star attraction is the vintage linen.  Customers are encouraged to open the drawers in the display furniture, and are rewarded with high quality, beautifully laundered and pressed embroidered and trimmed table linens.  Linens which are too threadbare to sell as they are have been cut down and imaginatively re-purposed as cushions and bags, complete with vintage trimmings, or as colourful bunting (before I left I gave in to temptation and bought a length of bunting made from pieces of an embroidered tablecloth).  I am still contemplating whether I can justify the romantic, nostalgic rose-printed eiderdown, or whether the cat would appropriate and destroy it!

Visiting Sally’s Vintage Chic was a real pleasure, and this is now one of my Favourite Places (friends, beware – Christmas and birthday presents are likely to come from here in future!).  Apart from the quality of the items for sale, and the loveliness of the shop interior which shows them off to best advantage without being overly cluttered, Sally is delightful and very knowledgeable about her stock, with a real passion for all things vintage.  The shop was opened last summer, and I hope it goes from strength to strength, which is one reason why I am sharing it here!  Sally has at website at www.sallysvintagechic.co.uk and is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SallysVintageChic.  She promises to be on Twitter soon too.  Mail order is available, but for the full experience do visit the shop – why not make a vintage day of it and travel to Minehead by steam on the West Somerset Railway? http://www.west-somerset-railway.co.uk/