As a writer I find that a change of scenery is one of the best ways to induce new ideas. On one such “change of scenery”, I booked myself into a retreat in the North Norfolk village of Walsingham. A religious establishment attached to the “Our Lady of Walsingham” shrine. I had stayed in a convent in Rome and it had been a most creative and enjoyable stay. And I saw no reason why this weekend should be any different.
But my first impressions of the retreat in Walsingham were that the place was rather sinister. It had a very much closed atmosphere. I guess this was made worse by the fact it was mid-November and Norfolk can be a rather cold place even in summer.
The village was prime twitching net curtains terrain with I am sure dark deeds going on in the dank cellars of the chocolate box style cottages.
I was somewhat shocked to discover that there were no cash machines in the village and there was a red old fashioned public phone box in the square opposite my hostel. It was a twenty minute drive back to what many would call modern facilities. I thought how much can change in a 20 minute drive. I was now in a religious retreat and could in all honesty be in an episode of Mid Somer Murders. By tea time someone in the Roman Catholic Shrine to our Lady of Walsingham would be dead. In fact probably six or seven would be dead.
Even the receptionist was creepy with his odd, very odd nervous laugh. I couldn’t decide if it was the fact I mentioned being a writer that made him nervous or if that was his usual disposition. Or perhaps when he handed me the times of the religious services on a sheet for the weekend it was the way I dismissively said. “Oh no I won’t be needing them.” was what caused him to start coughing nervously.
It was fortunate that I had packed light, because he showed no sign of assisting me to take my case up the old wooden stairway to my room.
He showed me to my cell and I could see that very little inspiration would be forthcoming from there. I was disappointed with the crucifix that hung on the wall over my bed. I had wanted a wooden crucifix that I could wax lyrical over how the carpenter had brought the piece of wood alive with the spirit of Christ, but instead I had the strange feeling that Jesus resembled an Aussie surfer; his loin cloth seemed to have morphed into a pair of Bermuda shorts.
At the evening meal it became apparent there was a fundamental flaw in my religious retreat idea. How on earth was I going to pretend to the other guests that I was a real Roman Catholic Pilgrim? I decided to admit pretty quickly that I was a writer who had come away for a much needed rest.
I have to say I had a great evening chatting away to a lady from Malta and a postman who had just returned from a trip to Israel, where he had upset the Israeli customs by saying his mother had packed his suitcase for him. Which if he were sixteen may have been acceptable but he was forty!
The pleasant evening was almost aborted by the postman suddenly saying to me, “You know at your age, taking holy vows would be the best thing. You would be looked after in your old age. You wouldn’t need to think about a care home.”
Did I blink an eye before I replied? Well almost, I think a nervous twitch began to form around the eyes and my mouth. And the thought that it was now glaringly obvious why the Israeli customs were so annoyed with him.
“I don’t think I am a suitable candidate for the bride of Christ.” I demurely replied.
“No but you could repent of your sins, and the convent would look after you, a job, a roof over your head and three meals a day until you die.”
I already have died I almost said. A vision of a life that I had never contemplated flashed through my head. I hadn’t been able to commit to one mortal man, let alone one allegedly immortal one, that even rose back from a possible deadly smack on the head with a frying pan!
Fortunately for the postman, he was such an endearing character I let the whole thing pass swiftly over my head. After all this was a religious retreat and he was genuinely a pilgrim. I didn’t mention that I thought that the representation of Jesus hung on my wall resembled an Aussie surfer either!
The situation over the lack of cash machines worried me so much so that at seven o’clock in the morning I crept out of the place like a teenager who had spent a night of debauchery with her boyfriend whilst his parents were away, to search the North Norfolk coast for a cash machine. Fortunately I didn’t need to drive too far. And I soon returned back to Walsingham, and headed for the library to embark on some serious writing. And for 2 and half hours I studiously word pecked. I wrote the first draft of a short story called The Mermaid Hunters. The lead character recently divorced woman encounters the ghost of a fisherman on the salt marches of Wells next the sea. His boat is called the “Mermaid Hunter“. I felt rather pleased with myself. And at lunch time I headed for one of the typical English pubs in the village. It was called the Black Bull. And that’s when things became really strange.
The pub was busy with customers who I assumed were regulars. I found a table and ordered a large glass of wine and Sunday lunch. Whilst waiting for my food to arrive I watched the rather bizarre scene of several young men kissing and hugging the local Bishop whilst he tried to eat his meal. The language and the banter were lewd to say the least but the Bishop seemed to endure this with a certain amount of stoicism. Even the, “Ooh come on kiss me Bishop, hard on the lips. You know you want to.” seemed not to faze him at all.
Although the sight of the young man trying to force his tongue through the Bishops pursed lips fazed me a great deal.
My meal came and I ordered more wine. And then a fabulous idea came to me for a story, The Taking of Walsingham” where the inhabitants are taken over by dark satanic forces rather like the “Midwhitch Cuckoos” and only one new resident, a lonely newlywed from London remains untaken.
I began to write freely and with a certain amount of speed knowing the literary juices may just stop flowing at any time. Writing about how the local butcher’s window no longer contained meat, just the faint sinister promise of something more. A pink dyed sheep’s fleece and the dark tan hide of a cow. Shrines that had once been adorned with summer marigolds, void of all embellishments. Or still with the dried remains of the last visitors offerings, slowly crumbling into decay.
Wooden status of the virgin Mary were made up like harlots, their lips painted red, cherry red, blood red, scarlet, all shades of red that a woman could use to snare a man with.
My writing flowed like it rarely did after a day’s work at home. I was completely engrossed. A few hours later I left the pub and returned to my room. Afternoon drinking has always made me sleepy and so I had a late siesta.
I awoke to darkness and to find I had missed the chance of an evening meal. So I left the hostel to search for a place to eat. The whole village seemed closed up. No lights in the quaint cottage windows. No signs of noise, no dogs barking, no cats fighting and caterwauling, no wayward teenagers loitering on street corners. I found a pub called The Golden Lion, empty of customers, but the barmaid seemed cheerful enough and I could at least get a sandwich and a pint of decent cider.
Walking back to my retreat I pondered on this village where the only shops sold religious artefacts of the crucified lord and his virgin mother. The village had a feeling like it was wrapped in an invisible shroud. But not one of purity, something musty and fetid. Its soul had died. I wanted to just leave and arrive at the chaos of my Uncles place in Taseborough where life was loud and chaotic and emotional.
Monday morning revealed the rather annoying fact that the notes written Sunday in the pub had become virtually illegible after the 2nd large glass of wine, but I decided to give the pub another chance. And I returned for lunch on Monday afternoon.
There was no sign of the Bishop or his irritants. I pondered on my weekend’s literary attempt and concluded that all in all, baring the illegible notes it had on the whole been a success. I had two first drafts of two stories. Not bad.
The following morning I drove across the bleak Norfolk landscape to drop down to my Uncle and Aunt in Taseborough. As I left Walsingham I peered out my rear view mirror. Slowly people were coming out of their weekend slumber, standing in the square looking round them almost as if they were saying, “Just how the hell did I get hear? And how the hell do I get out?”
I didn’t stop and I have to say I was relieved to arrive at my Uncles. And it was now my turn to behave like the local lads had done in the Black Bull. Except rather than irritate the hell out of a Bishop it would be my Uncle I would be annoying. And that was really fun and not an Aussie surfer in sight!