Since 5 April I have been “of no fixed abode”. I’m very reluctant to admit to this. I fear that people will think that I’m a tramp or some kind of vagrant, a scrounger or a beggar. Why does that worry me? I guess I myself don’t have enough respect for “tramps” and “beggars”, “the least of my brethren”, Jesus would say. I may feel sorry for them, but that isn’t the same as giving them just as much respect as I would give to any other human being. I clearly need to work on that.
I’m coming towards the end of a three-month stint as Resident Friend (“Friend” as in Quaker) at Claridge House, a Quaker centre for retreat, rest and renewal on the edge of Dormansland, a village in the southeast corner of Surrey. Guests frequently ask me where I live. I tell them that I’m living here just now. If they ask me where my home is, I say that I grew up on the south coast near Portsmouth. If they want to know more than that, it gets complicated. I was a meeting house warden in Evesham, Worcestershire, for seven years until the end of September last year. Then I was just six months in Brussels. I spent April and the first half of May at the Quaker Community at Bamford, Derbyshire (about three weeks altogether), on a sheep farm in Mid Wales (two weeks), and in the “1652 Country” in the northwest of England where Quakerism began (five days).
In actual fact, I’ve rather enjoyed exploring these four corners of Britain: the Peak District around Bamford, the “1652 Country”, Mid Wales, and the countryside around Claridge House. I didn’t know the Peak District at all, apart from climbing Kinder Scout when I lived in Hyde (Tameside, east of Manchester) for a year back in 1976/77. The view from the front door of the Quaker Community at Bamford is magnificent. I had spent a weekend there at the beginning of March, when there was snow on the hills and the snowdrops were out. I enjoyed long walks up onto Stanage Edge and another nearby hill. And I spent a lot of time working in the Community’s gardens. At the end of the day I sometimes wandered through the coppice woodland. The Community has 11 acres of land altogether, mostly woodland, but three or four gardens for growing fruit and vegetables as well.
Towards the end of my seven years at a Quaker boarding school (Sidcot), I went on the so-called “George Fox Pilgrimage” to the “1652 Country”. In April this year I retraced some of my steps and discovered some new places as well. I was especially impressed by the limestone pavement near Arnside. Firbank Fell was extremely windy and cold. The warden at Brigflatts Meeting House made my fellow “pilgrim” and me very welcome. The guided tour of Swarthmoor Hall was most interesting. It was good to get a sense of what life must have been like for Margaret Fell, her husband, Judge Thomas Fell, and the early Quakers who visited and worshipped there. And there were pleasant walks to Sunbrick burial ground and out onto the hills north of Ulverston.
After a week or so back at Bamford, I spent a fortnight helping out on a sheep farm between Newtown and Llandrindod Wells, where I have stayed quite a number of times during the past ten years. The elderly farmer is not in good health and my friend who lives there has her work cut out looking after him as well as the sheep. I helped with feeding the sheep and the ducks and the donkey. It was fun bottle-feeding some of the young lambs. I occasionally took the sheep dog for a walk up the hill. I thought I had lost him once or twice, but he eventually reappeared. I was content to spend most of my time on the farm, weeding the raspberry patch, etc. There were a couple of expeditions to Newtown and one to the hospital in Builth Wells. And on the Sunday I made a kind of pilgrimage to a nearby wood that belongs to one of my older brothers. I fought my way up through the brambles to a seat under a large willow tree at the top of the wood and held my own private meeting for worship.
After enjoying the daffodils in Mid Wales and at Bamford I arrived at Claridge House just as the bluebells were at their best. On one of the first evenings here I walked up past “The Plough” and into a wood, where I discovered a clearing full of bluebells. There was also a fine sunset. There are pleasant walks around here, but beware! The footpaths are not well sign-posted. I have twice found myself walking through private gardens – most embarrassing! I have been further afield on my bicycle, not only into East Grinstead, but also to Standen, a National Trust property south of the town, to Wakehurst Place, an outpost of Kew Gardens where I joined an excellent guided tour, and to South Croydon to visit my younger brother. And I have been even further afield by bus and train, to Eastbourne (including a walk over Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters and an evening meal with Quaker friends in Seaford) and to Hastings (including a walk along the cliffs east of the town and an excursion to Ashford to attend East Kent Area Quaker Meeting).
At least as significant as the landscape (and vegetation) of these four corners of Britain were the people whom I got to know. But that’s a whole other story!