An unexpected step in a faith journey

So I went to a church conference for women last weekend.

For those of you who know me well, this is a fairly big deal for me. I have been out of a church environment for a long time, and am only just at the point of dipping a trepidatious little toe back in. I am at a point of having almost completely deconstructed my faith, only just starting to figure it out again in a way that makes sense to me. I have been, as Brene Brown says, in the wilderness, where I have been busy working out how I belonged to myself first, before I could take my place in a community of others.

So, yeah – when my beautiful Minister Ellie (also a dear and trusted friend) encouraged me to attend the Uniting Church Women’s Conference along with her, my initial reaction was – um, I don’t think so! But then I thought on it, and the idea kept nibbling at the edges of my mind, and I ended up saying I would go.

I had set the bar low. As long as no one cast any demons out of me or told me I had to submit to my husband, I’d be OK. (You may laugh – only I have had both these experiences at women’s conferences!) Ellie assured me neither of these things would happen (and I’m happy to report she was quite right).

And I can honestly say I really enjoyed it. I’m still processing my experience, but I thought I’d share some reflections.

I found like-minded people

I hung out with a group of women who discussed things like whether there was too much gendered language in the songs and prayers. I joined a group discussion on how faith can inform a non-fundamentalist view of sexuality. And another one on how complementarian theology intersects with domestic violence. I listened as First Nations women passionately talked about how reconciliation can never be divorced from justice. No topics or views were off limits. No one was rebuked for their opinion. No one felt like they had to control the discussion or the outcome. I felt like I could actually say what I thought. I felt like I could breathe.

I didn’t enjoy every single talk

Some of them I hung on every word, other speakers I didn’t connect with. And what was great about that experience was that it was completely OK to say that not every moment resonated, to vote with your feet, to leave a discussion or talk if it wasn’t for you, or you felt you weren’t contributing or learning.

Everyone’s voices were valued

In the official program, there was a thoughtful emphasis on hearing from a diversity of women, from all cultures, backgrounds and abilities, which I deeply appreciated. But then even in the small group discussions, there was a consciousness of ensuring we were thinking about issues from all perspectives. In one group, it was specifically called out that all of us currently participating in the discussion about a particular issue were white, heterosexual women, and how could we make space for the other voices that are often drowned out by our own.

What I appreciate about the Uniting Church is its commitment to unity in the midst of incredible diversity – from congregations which align themselves a more traditional, conservative theology, to the other end of the spectrum where the LGBTQI community are fully affirmed and embraced. It’s not an easy path, but I admire that these women are trying to walk it, and find strength and connection with each other in the midst of it all.

I’m glad I went, and I’m also looking forward to the next stage of this journey.

Love,

Em

 

The road to Inverness and finding Nessie…

After Skye, we travelled to Inverness and on the way stopped by to marvel at the beautiful Eilean Donan castle:

I think this is probably the most photographed castle in Scotland - with good reason!
I think this is probably the most photographed castle in Scotland – with good reason!

Then it was off to Inverness! Unfortunately, we only spent two nights here and used up a whole day doing really mundane things like buying the kids underwear and socks. So I feel as though I didn’t really see the best Inverness has to offer, although we did walk around the town a little:

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And of course we tried to find Nessie!

Loch Ness.
Loch Ness.
Found her!

 

And of course there was more gorgeous scenery to explore!

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As well as towns with awesome names:

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Don’t we all feel like that sometimes? Killiecrankie?

I was disappointed I didn’t get to Culloden, but you have to leave something for next time, right? 🙂

Wild swimming and seals in Skye

Throughout this trip, I’ve seen some of the loveliest countryside in the world. While I adored the prettiness of Chichester and the Lakes, and the gorgeous green of Wales, the wild beauty of Scotland satisfied a longing I didn’t even know I had. The Isle of Skye combines towering hills and wild heather, the black waters of the lochs, the slate-grey sea and skies, white “wee bothies” and the stunning greens you find elsewhere in the UK in a kind of untamed beauty that I’ve never seen anywhere else. We stayed four days on Skye and I loved every minute of it. The journey from the Lakes was long (note to others – you have to book a spot on the ferry to Skye, otherwise you’ll find yourself backtracking three hours’ worth of driving to get across the Skye Bridge… just saying) – like 10 hours long. But I have to say the kids were fantastic (Souljourneyboy had arranged the luggage in the 7-seater in such a way that no child was touching another. It paid off big time). And with photo opportunities like this we had to keep stopping anyway:

Many times we had to slow down and give way to the sheep!
Many times we had to slow down and give way to the sheep!

The Fairy Pools

Our first outing on Skye was to see the famous Fairy Pools, at the foothills of the Black Cuillans. This was such a wonderful day out. They are just gorgeous:

One of the waterfalls at the Fairy Pools.
One of the waterfalls at the Fairy Pools.

I’d told the kids the local lore which holds if you swim in the pools you become a selkie, so Little Miss was the first to brave the near-freezing water:

She's a selkie now!
She’s a selkie now!

 

The Fairy Pools are clear as glass and just stunning.

The water was such an interesting shade of blue-green.
The water was such an interesting shade of blue-green.

Wildlife boat trip

We decided to book a boat trip to see some of the famous wildlife up close. The beginning of this trip was somewhat worrisome, as we could not make head nor tail of the skipper’s thick Scottish brogue as he told us something very important about life vests and boats. Fortunately we had need of neither, and soon we were speeding cross the sea, which is unlike any colour I’ve seen before. It looks black, and cobalt blue where the light strikes the surface. Anyway while you can never really guarantee what you’ll see in a wildlife tour, we were delighted to see white-tipped eagles:

Luckily we had the camera out at just the right moment to capture an eagle fetching his dinner!
Luckily we had the camera out at just the right moment to capture an eagle fetching his dinner!

And we also saw seals! My favourite animal.

I love seals!
I love seals!

As well as some other sea creatures:

Bookworm was trying to be excited about holding a crab :)
Bookworm was trying to be excited about holding a crab 🙂

Dunvegan Castle

The seat of Clan Macleod, Dunvegan is a wonderful little castle. The grounds and castle were just the right size for us to really enjoy, and I particularly liked the game they had arranged in the castle for the kids, where they had to search for a key in each room. Such a simple game, but loads of fun for them. Sadly we couldn’t take pictures from inside the castle, but my favourite item was the castle’s treasure – the fairy flag, which legend holds was given to the MacLeods  by the fairies to protect the Clan.

The gardens were delightful, and the best castle gardens I’ve been to. They were wild and rambling, and just perfect:

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The water gardens at the castle.
The water gardens at the castle.
I loved all the little hidden walkways in the woodland.
I loved all the little hidden walkways in the woodland.
Beautiful Dunvegan Castle!
Beautiful Dunvegan Castle!

Exploring Portree and the countryside

Driving around on Skye is like being inside one giant Kodak moment. Some of the best pictures we took were just us pulling off on the side of the road:

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We also loved the little working harbour of Portree which is sweet and quaint but kind of gritty as well.

The famous coloured buildings on the Portree Harbour.
The famous coloured buildings on the Portree Harbour.

All in all, the Isle of Skye is my happy place 🙂

Literature and laundry at the Lakes

After our delightful stop in Wales, we next headed to the Lakes District. I had only booked two nights here, and mainly as a stop to break up the journey to Skye, with the added bonus of seeing Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top Farm. In hindsight, however, I should have booked another night – especially as I lost half a day to getting laundry done! I loved the Lakes, actually more than the Cotswolds, which really surprised me. The scenery is stunning of course, and Lake Windermere is beautiful, and the little town that winds along the lakes is full of interesting and quaint shops filled with eclectic arts, food and memorabilia. Here’s what we loved about our short stay.

Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top Farm

I had looked forward to visiting Beatrix Potter’s home since planning the trip a year ago, and it was so wonderful to finally be here. The scenery of Near Sawrey is just so pretty:

Surrounded by scenery like this, it's not hard to see why Beatrix Potter was inspired to write Peter Rabbit.
Surrounded by scenery like this, it’s not hard to see why Beatrix Potter was inspired to write Peter Rabbit.

And Hill Top Farm is gorgeous.

The front door to Hill Top Farm.
The front door to Hill Top Farm.
Beatrix Potter's garden, which I just loved. Rambling and overgrown, this is my perfect kind of garden.
Beatrix Potter’s garden, which I just loved. Rambling and overgrown, this is my perfect kind of garden.

It was so delightful to walk through the house and see many rooms and scenes which have been recreated in her stories. The house has been maintained exactly as she left it, and so you are able to get a real sense of Beatrix Potter as you walk through.

Beatrix's writing desk.
Beatrix’s writing desk.

Lake Windermere

After defeating the piles of laundry, we headed down to Lake Windermere for a stroll and a swim. After pottering about in the town, the kids were dying to find somewhere they could cool off (it was actually quite hot!) Despite the pebbly riverbed, they really enjoyed themselves.

As the kids were swimming a family of Swans floated by!
As the kids were swimming a family of Swans floated by!
Little Miss cooling off.
Little Miss cooling off.

And after that our time in the Lakes was done! It really was too short, and next time I’ll be definitely staying longer.

Lost in wonderful Wales

After leaving Stratford-upon-Avon, we figured we’d be at our next destination – the Welsh town of Llangollen – in about three hours. Sadly, that was not to be. We got horribly lost on what one local called the “gnarly” roads, and after six hours our car was the location of a high level of stress (most of it mine, I confess!) At first we marveled at the stunning countryside:

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Then we were just frustrated. Poor Souljourneyboy had to drive down roads where hedges on either side brushed the car – and we hoped and prayed no vehicle needed to come the other way! We seriously don’t know what actually happens when two cars need to use the road at the same time.

Despite the hassle, we finally arrived and got settled in, and the next day explored the gorgeous little town of Llangollen on the River Dee. Here’s what we enjoyed:

The horse-drawn water boats

These little boats are drawn up the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct by horses which walk alongside the canal. We all loved this boat trip, and our lovely horse Hercules who was quite naughty and kept stopping to eat the grass instead of pulling the boat along.

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The steam train

While it was fun to ride a steam train, I personally don’t think it was worth the 50 pounds we paid, as it just goes up and down the mountain. On the way back a tree had fallen on the track, and we were delayed quite a while as a gang with chainsaws had to slide down a 60-foot hill to get to us! I think it was the most excitement the Llangollen train crew had seen in years.

The Llangollen steam train!
The Llangollen steam train!

Enjoying the town and surrounds

We had great fun trying to pronounce all the Welsh names and words we saw everywhere. If the roads are gnarly, then the language is more so – check out the sign above the shop:

It was a gift shop - we think??
It was a gift shop – we think??

 

And where do you even begin with words that have no vowels? Truly a non-intuitive language!

Conwy

On our last day in Wales we decided to visit the walled town and castle of Conwy, and it was an absolute delight. Walking along the walls and right down into the castle is an amazing experience. I think this was my favourite of all the castles; you experience such rich, untouched history here. And with the sea on one side and Snowdonia on the other, the scenery is breathtaking. We also enjoyed a visit to Plas Mawr, the ‘Great Hall’, built between 1576 and 1585 for the influential Welsh merchant, Robert Wynn. Plas Mawr is the finest surviving town house of the Elizabethan era in Britain, and is a fascinating, interactive exhibit.

Beautiful Conwy Castle.
Beautiful Conwy Castle.
Going down into the prison tower!
Going down into the prison tower

We loved our few days in Wales – I can’t wait to come back and explore more of the Welsh countryside!

Cotswolds and surrounds

After Bath, our next stop was the Cotswolds. A collection of pretty towns with the quaintest names, there are quite a few Cotswolds villages to choose from, and our first stop was Stow-on-the-Wold. We had a wander around to soak up the atmosphere and indulged in some lunch at a quintessential Cotswold tea room:

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All the buildings are so pretty!

We didn’t really get the chance to visit any other Cotswolds villages, which I would have enjoyed, but while they are very sweet they are all quite similar, and I didn’t feel as though I needed to visit more. Instead, we decided to visit Blenheim Palace, which was truly stunning.

Blenheim Palace

This Palace is the birthplace of Winston Churchill, the principal residence of the Duke of Marlborough and the only non-Royal house to hold the title of “palace”. Set on 11,000 acres it is simply monumental. Not only is there the palace itself to explore, there are also the amazing gardens, two huge lakes, a maze, adventure playground, lavender and butterfly house, water terraces, secret gardens, formal gardens, Italian gardens, a waterfall… we spent almost a full day here and did not see everything there was to see. The great thing about Blenheim Palace is that there was something for all of us.

The kids loved the maze!
The kids loved the maze!
Just one aspect of the palace.
Just one aspect of the enormous palace.
The water terrace.
The water terraces.
The bedroom Winston Churchill was born in. There was a fascinating exhibition about Churchill's life while we were here too.
The bedroom Winston Churchill was born in. There was a fascinating exhibition about Churchill’s life while we were here too.

 

 

 

 

Stratford-upon-Avon

On our way to Wales on our last day, we stopped by Shakespeare’s birthplace. We almost gave it a miss and I’m so glad we didn’t – it’s such a cute little town which totally pays homage to the Great Bard. Another time – perhaps on the literary tour of the UK I am planning with Soul Sister – I will go into the museum and find Anne Hathaway’s actual house, but for this trip we were content to wander the medieval market town and spend up big in the gift shop 🙂 Bookworm was delighted to find a book of Shakesperian insults, which certainly made the journey to Wales interesting. The kids were also delighted to find a magic shop which apparently helped inspire J.K Rowling’s Diagon Alley. As I write this post, they are making up spells to write in the little spellbooks they bought from the shop… there’s so much to inspire the imagination here!

Wandering through Stratford-upon-Avon.
Wandering through Stratford-upon-Avon.

Beautiful Bath!

As Catherine Morland proclaims in Northanger Abbey, “Oh, who can ever be tired of Bath?”

Indeed Jane Austen was right in this, as she was in so many things.  We just loved Bath. It’s not quaint like Chichester and Arundel are, but it is elegant and graceful and brimful of fascinating history. The wonderful thing about Bath is that it is such a compact town. Everything is within walking distance, and it’s very easy to get around. A word from the wise; if you take a car, as we did, it’s not worth the extra money to stay right in town. We ended up having to pay a fortune in parking, and the only overnight car park was a 20-minute walk from where we stayed (at the YMCA in the centre of town, which was overpriced in my humble opinion). It would have been more cost effective to stay outside town, and drive in and park for the day. Anyway here were our highlights:

The Jane Austen Centre

Words cannot express how happy I was to visit the Jane Austen centre! To be surrounded by fellow lovers of Jane! It was wonderful to have such an entertaining glimpse into her life, the years she spent in Bath, and how her view of the town evolved through her works, most notably her first novel, Northanger Abbey, and her last, Persuasion. I also peeked into the Pump Rooms, where it was very easy to imagine Catherine taking a “turn about the room”.

The model of Jane Austen, my hero!
The model of Jane Austen, my hero!

The Roman Baths

I’ll be honest, sadly the kids weren’t overly enamoured with the Jane Austen Centre! However ALL of us LOVED the Roman Baths! I had been concerned the kids would get bored, but of course they cater so well for children, with special audio guides and activity packs, and my kids are always very happy when there’s a gifts shop insight! The Roman history of the baths was absolutely fascinating, and its brought to life so well in the museum attached to the Baths. We all thoroughly enjoyed leaning about Roman life, seeing the Great Baths and even sipping the water, which was a little disgusting to be honest 🙂

The Great Baths.
The Great Baths.
The Goddess of the Baths, Sulis Minerva.
The Goddess of the Baths, Sulis Minerva.

 

 

 

 

The Parade Gardens

These beautiful gardens overlook the River Avon and Pulteney Bridge, and are very pretty. They were a great spot to unwind for a few hours, and let the kids have a play. There are deck chairs available as well, and like everywhere else in England, lovely tea rooms serving cream tea. It does cost to enter, but it’s well worth a stop.

The beautiful floral displays at the Parade Gardens.
The beautiful floral displays at the Parade Gardens.

Bath is also very well-known for its glassworks, and Souljourneyboy took Picasso and Bookworm to a glass blowing demonstration, which they really enjoyed.

I can’t wait to go back to Bath one day, and spend a little more time exploring this beautiful town.

The amazing architecture.
The amazing architecture.
And great food! Picasso enjoying a traditional meat pie.
And great food! Picasso enjoying a traditional meat pie.