Friday, 27 July 2012

Being There ..... Where The Divine wants us to be!

There is something very spiritual about being separated from normal life. Some of the people at college have been on retreats and isolated themselves purposely. The idea is for some uninterrupted time to be with their god and their own sense of self. I’m told the experience is very cleansing but I’ve never done it myself. I can’t tell how much difference there is between such intentional retreating and an unexpected isolation but my own recent experience of being ‘cut-off’ was certainly a valuable learning.

My Partner Pat and I had booked a holiday cottage in Dorset, a beautiful little village called Winterbourne Steepleton. The weather had been a little wet in the days leading to our departure but we didn’t see that as a problem. We were looking forward to some time away and the opportunity to visit places like Stonehenge and Glastonbury and even visit my childhood favourite of Western-Super-Mare. Neither of us are sun worshippers, we are just as happy in wet weather as we are in sunshine, although we would both prefer the latter.

On the drive down it rained a little but it was quite warm in the car. When we made a stop for lunch, the clouds gave us a little respite in order to keep our dog, Harry, dry (he doesn’t like the rain, in fact, he doesn’t like water in any other form than to drink).

As we neared the end of the journey we suddenly hit a problem. The ‘Sat Nav’ was telling us to use a road that the police had closed due to flooding. How do you tell technology that it needs to think of an alternative? Pat rang the cottage owner on her mobile to advise that we were going to arrive later than planned and see if they could guide us as to an alternative route. While she was on the phone I decided to back track and go round Yeovil the other side so that Brenda (which is the name we have given to our ‘Sat Nav’) would have the opportunity of considering our journey from a different point. As our journey expanded by 20 miles, Pat chatted to the cottage owners like old friends and it became apparent that they would not be able to meet us at the cottage as originally arranged because of some flooding at their end (in Dorchester). They told us the code for the key safe and apologised for the unexpected difficulties, especially the fact that they didn’t really know how to solve our journey problem. In the meantime, I did the re-route so well that we started seeing signs for Winterbourne Abbas, which we knew was the next village along from where we were heading. Brenda was redundant.

We found our little cottage and despite a little more rain we unloaded the car and set about investigating the cottage and garden.
Harry’s nose covered the entire floor-space. It had been a long journey and so, once we had familiarised ourselves with our surroundings, we spent the evening relaxing with a glass of brandy. Having a cigarette was a little tricky as the rain had returned with a vengeance and so we had to stand outside (due to the laws on smoking) and tuck ourselves as close to the cottage wall as possible in order to gain some cover from the eaves. We had taken our Chess set with us and we set that up on the kitchen table, ready for what we hoped would be a week-long game. The table was not anticipated as being required for meals as, in good-old holiday mode, we had decided that our meals would be while we were out and about and we would only be having sandwiches or small nibbles in the cottage. We had already agreed to attend the Unitarian Chapel in Bridport the following morning, having previously enquired as to whether Harry would be welcome, and so, having had such a long day and with an early rise required, it wasn’t very late when we decided that ‘bo-bo’s’ would be a good idea.

The following morning was beautifully bright, sunny and warm and it really felt like the holiday had begun. We got washed and dressed, got ourselves and Harry in the car, got to the end of the lane and turned on to the main road and that’s when we had to stop. There at the side of the road was a hand-written sign saying “Road Flooded – Turn back”, it wasn’t wrong!
The road ahead had become an extension of the little river that ran through the village. Having stopped the car, we both just sat there trying to think of what to do next. As a stroke of luck walking just a yard or two in front of us was a woman and young boy who obviously saw our distraught faces and approached the car. “You won’t get through, it’s too deep for your car and goes on for about quarter of a mile” the woman told us. Pat enquired as to whether there was a route in the other direction to which the woman replied “it’s even worse that end”. The conversation established that there was only the one road in or out of the village, we were stuck. I have to admit that such a situation had never occurred to me before and I was completely blank about what this all meant. Luckily, Pat was more on the ball and told the woman that we had only just arrived on holiday and had no supplies. It was then established that the woman lived on the lane in which our cottage was situated and we were about to learn how people in small communities really do ‘pull together’. Names were exchanged, the woman now identified herself as Tara and the boy was her son George. “If you want to write a list of what you need, my husband will be going to the farm-shop shortly. We’ve got a tractor and it’ll get through.”

Back at the cottage, Pat had to find pen and something to write on, and although we had no idea what supplies a farm-shop would have, she wrote down as much as she could think of for an emergency supply.
George came and collected the list about an hour later and Pat and I retreated into the garden to sit in the sun. Twenty minutes later we heard a tractor engine start-up somewhere over the back of the cottages and guessed that George and his Dad were on their way. In the meantime, the couple next-door had obviously realised that we may have a problem and the husband (who we later identified as Colin) came to ask if there was anything we were desperate for. “Milk” said Pat, she was desperate for a cup of tea. Within five minutes he returned with a pint of milk. It was such a hot and lovely day, the whole scenario didn’t seem to make sense but on the plus side we had found fellowship from half the residents of the lane. It took about an hour before Tara and George appeared at the door with a bag of supplies. Most of Pat’s list was unobtainable “It’s only a little farm-shop Pat” was Tara’s comment. There was at least enough to keep us fed although it was very basic.

Later in the day, we took Harry for a walk. We knew that if we turned right out of the lane the flood was about sixty yards in front of us, but we hadn’t been the other way and our curiosity was as strong as Harry’s need to stretch his legs.
We managed to walk about two hundred and fifty yards up a slight hill and down the other side before we decided that to continue was not safe as a pedestrian. The road rose again to a sharp turn and with there being no pavement, on-coming traffic could be a hazard if travelling at any speed. We turned back, much to Harry’s frustration, and returned to the main part of the village. We walked round the small grounds of the village church which was situated at the end of the Lane and then returned to the cottage. Despite the situation, by the evening we both felt more relaxed and spent the evening in the garden with a brandy and Harry trotting around. Tara had suggested we listen to Wessex Radio as they were known in the area for giving detailed reports of what was going on and we would be kept up to date with the flood situation. We decided to leave updates until the morning. Pat switched the television on and we had that going on in the background until the evening cooled off and we withdrew back into the cottage to watch, this was when we realised just how far spread the floods were in the area and how many people were in a much worse situation than us. Up the road in Winterbourne Abbas the houses were flooded, the entire village was cut off and desperate. The local petrol garage was closed as water had forced its way into the fuel wells and contaminated the petrol. It was very humbling to watch, especially when we reviewed our initial reaction to our situation. Our first day had not turned out as expected but we were safe, dry and now fed and I had a wonderful feeling about the humanity and generosity of the people around us. In our naive way, we began making plans for the next day, somehow convincing ourselves that the water would disappear over-night . . . . wrong!

Monday morning came. I tuned in to Wessex Radio and realised that I may be hoping for miracles regarding our plans for the day. Harry and I went to have a look as to the flood situation at the end of the lane. Nothing had changed.

As the day wore on, I began to notice how uncomfortable Pat felt about being so isolated. She was almost continually on Facebook using her mobile phone and even rang a friend for a chat. The fact that I was quite relaxed and absorbing the humility of village life, I had to come to terms with the fact that my partner was not getting the same kind of spiritual nourishment from the situation. It felt strange that after ten years together we had never discovered such differences before. I found myself learning about myself and Pat and our expectations of each other. On the flip side of this, Pat must have found it frustrating that I wasn’t worried about our situation and even appeared to be enjoying it. Sometimes spiritual journeys can teach us things about ourselves that we would rather not learn, but it was an important learning and we both grew from it as well as complimenting each other’s outlook.

Tuesday morning and Wessex Radio confirmed what Harry and I fully expected, the water looked mildly shallower but not enough to even contemplate driving through. I met
Colin at the bottom of the Lane with his dog ‘Poppy’ and he confirmed that the water was not passable yet. We got into conversation about what was happening and his past experiences of the village being ‘cut-off’ although the last time was snow. While we were chatting, George and his Dad Steve came through the flood water on their bicycles. Apparently there was a small shop just outside Winterbourne Abbas that had re-opened. The conversation was friendly and I felt like I had known these people for years instead of hours. More supplies turned up with the owner of the cottage who was desperately worried about our situation. Norman and his wife had driven as far as they could and then he had got on his bicycle and with tins and packets packed in a rucksack he had cycled through the flood to reach us. He didn’t need to do that. How much more kindness could two people handle?

Later that day, Pat and I decided we would get in the car and find out what the flood looked like in the other direction. We hadn’t seen the flooding towards Martinstown. We drove for about two minutes, up and over the hill which we had avoided on foot and there was a puddle. “Looks like the water has gone at this end” said Pat. A bend in the road brought to light the reality. The entire road was like a lake and there were cars abandoned in it with water up to their radiators. We returned to the cottage, Pat was quite obviously feeling stressed about how long we would be stuck. It may sound a little bit ‘over-the-top’ but I began to feel that God had designed the situation in order to be part of my learning. That this holiday was not in any way our making apart from the location, I realised the importance of understanding everything that was going on around me.
The spirituality of the whole thing reached fever pitch that evening. Pat is far more psychically sensitive than I am in that she sees orbs. It is very rare for her to have such an experience outside of our own home but on this occasion, they had joined us in our solitude. Not being able to see such things myself, I’ve always had to rely on Pat’s commentary of where they were and what they were doing. This time Pat was not alone in her observation. Harry could see them as well and started trying to chase them. Whoever our visitors were decided that teasing the dog was more fun than tending to us and began purposely bouncing around the living room to get Harry excited. They teased him for a good five minutes before departing, leaving Harry completely exhausted.

On the Wednesday morning, Harry and I went to view the flood again. I stood and watched while a van stopped, a young driver got out, took off his shoes and socks, rolled up his trousers and began to wade through the water. He disappeared around the corner for about three minutes before returning. By this time another car was behind his van and he went to advise the driver of his findings. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity of finding out if it was passable. I waited for him to finish talking to the other driver and watched as the car drove ahead. “What’s it like round there?” I asked him. “I only walked a few yards round the corner, I can’t tell how far it goes on for but the bit I walked seems passable as long as you keep hard to the left.” I didn’t need convincing. I returned to the cottage and told Pat “We’re going, get packed.” All the supplies that we had left were put in a bag and I took them to Tara’s house. “We’re going, would you like our left-overs?” Tara thanked me for the bits and pieces which would come in handy and we got chatting. “Steve went to work this morning, the water is drivable but you need to go slowly. If you’re going to go, today is the day to do it, there’s more rain on the way and the water will rise again.” She advised.

About an hour later, everything was in the car, including us and Harry and I turned to face what was left of the flood water. The first few yards were ok, it was like driving through a large puddle, but then, round the corner, the full extent of the flood was still evident and I was now committed. It has to rank highly amongst my most scary driving experiences. Our car is not small and yet I could feel the pull of the water. It was like a tide. The sensors were beeping like mad as the water danced over and around them. I was beginning to wonder if I had made a mistake. It took about ten minutes to go through half a mile of flood water. What I had been viewing on the road in Winterbourne Steepleton was only the end of it, I had no idea how far it stretched until now. My heart was in my mouth. As the road ahead became dry I could see our turning which would take us up hill toward the main A37. Both Pat and I were relieved as we began our ascent and I just wanted to get home.

I should feel robbed of a holiday which had cost a lot of money to book and ‘acts of God’ are not covered for a refund, but instead, I reached Manchester aware that I had learnt more than any teacher or lecturer could ever divulge. Although I have had to shorten the telling of our experiences during those four days, I hope I have managed to capture at least a small part of the value of what should have been a disaster. There is a line to a Lorie True song which Pat and I often quote when things happen that we don’t understand and our Dorset experience certainly deserves the quoting: “God’s got a plan and it’s bigger than this.”

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