Walking Back Home 3

There is something almost obscene about a rhododendron in full flower. With their massive blooms and brash, bright colours, they come on like some brassy, bosomy madam – only too eager to share their fulsome wares with anyone who’s around. It took a while for me to love them, as a gardener with a preference for the softer, more muted members of the garden family: but I do love them now. They are so…unabashed. So frankly loud. So gorgeously vulgar.

My walk this week, with two singing friends, Mary and Eileen, was in the grounds of Temple Newsam in East Leeds, a fantastic 1500 acre estate in East Leeds, which was first owned in 1520 by Lord Darcy, but is now in the gift of Leeds City Council. Power to the people – even if it took 400 years!  There is everything to enchant here, really, with the elegant Tudor buildings, a little farm for the children, walled gardens, a lake, and beyond that, miles and miles of rambling woodland. Also, most importantly, there is a tea room.

Since ‘walking back home’ is all about gaining strength and good humour, in recovery from a debilitating anaemia, I am not very interested in long hikes: at least, not yet. I still struggle with muscle aches – and the recent agonising addition of a Frozen Shoulder – which are all legacy of last year’s illness – and so short bursts of fresh air suit me better than the demanding rigours of “proper walking”.

Consequently we didn’t go far. We ambled. We took our time. Much like the cattle, and new calves, who came forward to meet us and say a lazy hello, after lifting their heads from their grazing, on the broad sweeping uplands in front of  the main house. The newborn of spring – birds, lambs, calves – are everywhere right now. And they bring a lift to the heart: all shiny, new and guileless. An absolute poem to the new and the hopeful in life.

Anyway, the undisputed stars today were certainly in evidence, by the walled garden, through towards the woods, and down by the lake. Rhododendrons. In all their gaudy glory. Shocking pink, sherbet orange, deep vermilion, thick, painterly white – with huge blossoms, and fat, gnarled branches and trunks, showing the strength and tenacity that supports all that technicolour showing off. (The picture I’ve included is of one of the quieter specimens, for sure.) All rhododendrons love the acid soil of Leeds, and are popping up in gardens – and in wilder spaces like Temple Newsam, Meanwood, the Hollies – with absolute gay abandon now. Go see them, if you are anywhere near. And take your sunglasses. You’ll need protection.

Here’s a longer feature from me on Temple Newsam, written a few years back –  exploring the wilder edges of the estate:


P.S. Apparently the rhododendron is the national flower of Nepal. Given the horror of their recent earthquakes, how much those people are in need of flowers: and of huge amounts of aid, and of healing. I dedicate this little post to them. 


Curious Lamb

Here is a very short post with a picture of a very plump lamb…One of the lovely sheep I mentioned in my previous spring post, Walking Back Home 2, about the creatures at Bolton Abbey. This little black-faced character was the most curious of all the curious beasts, stopping mid-munch, to step boldly forward and look us straight in the eye. He is a very pleasing fellow. And if he is a girl – then she pleases me even more! Be bloody, bold and resolute, young creature. Look at life with a steady gaze, while it is still in your gift.

My book ‘Old Dog’ (Simon and Schuster) is about another lovely beast, a little scamp of a dog called Muffin. She was curious about everything too…But she never chased a sheep in her life, honest!

Walking Back Home 2

I love trains. In particular, steam trains. So atmospheric. So ponderous and noisy and smelly – so labour intensive and gloriously pointless – going nowhere, slowly. Full of days-gone-by. Of dreamy ‘what if’s’ and ‘maybes’. The ghost of “Brief Encounter”, wafting poignantly into the twenty first century. They remind me of my childhood – most of which, as the only girl to two older,  railway-obsessed brothers, I spent, cold and wet, waiting on some god forsaken station for a magical train (with a coveted number plate) to finally arrive, so we could all, mercifully, go back home again. Nostalgia makes me dewy eyed. What bored me rigid then, enchants me now.

So my latest walk, last weekend, was a particular treat. It was preceded by a ride – with my friend Geoff, who likes a dreamy little, going-nowhere adventure quite as much as I do – on a tiny heritage railway, from Bolton Abbey, in the Yorkshire Dales, to Embsay. The journey was all of four miles. Then, after a twenty minute wait on Embsay station, whilst the little engine chuntered back and forth, to the click click clicking of the points and the busy, coal-faced scurryings of the volunteer drivers and guards… we went all the way back again, through the bluebell and primrose banks, to where we began. Into the station cafe for a cup of tea and a cake. Then, finally, off for a walk down the lane and into the hedgerows towards Bolton Abbey itself, a 12th century ruin now developed into a vast and glorious estate.

Everywhere the birds were singing fit to bust. And the lambs were picture book plump and curious, coming up close to peer at us through the brambles, occasionally breaking into a little skip and jump, but mostly lolling about by their mums, or snoozing in the impossibly juicy, grassy – quintessentially English – heartbreakingly beautiful, countryside green.

The combination of a very slow train and a very quiet walk to follow, was both mesmerising and reviving, all at the same time. Reverie is an essential tool in anyone’s life, and particularly that of a writer. We do need to dream. To enter a protected space in our heads. To let some kind of alchemy take place. And nature always helps that happen. Miraculously. Without fail. If you want something to change, to transform – get outside, take a journey, and walk.

The memory of  trains has stayed with me since I’ve come back to my city house and daily routine. I remember iconic railway journeys I took long ago – like the train I rode from Budapest back through Europe on my honeymoon in 1996, seeing everything through a miasma of heat and happiness and a huge, pálinka induced hangover.

And before that, when I was a student of Russian, in 1976 – there I was, setting off, on a Soviet boat, with a huge hammer and sickle on the top, from Tilbury docks for Leningrad (now St Petersburg), navigating the choppy North Sea, via most of Scandinavia: only to find that the boat was overbooked, so a few of us were dumped in Finland, and had to go the rest of the way by train. I got the top bunk, with about three inches to spare between me and the ceiling. When we reached the border in the middle of the night, and a Soviet guard came bursting through the door demanding passports and visas and shouting “Stand Up!” like the rattle of a machine gun in full, merciless fire, I sat up so fast and banged my head so hard, I don’t think I’ve ever been in my right mind since. Which explains everything  really. But doesn’t make me love trains – whether big and foreign and slightly scary, or little and local and charming – any the less.


Poppies are probably my favourite flower. I love the technicolour brightness of them. I love their furry, sexy, serrated leaves. I love the way the fat buds lurk in a mass of foliage, waiting, waiting, waiting…. for their moment to BURST out, in full technicolour, one lucky and glamorous day in May. Perhaps most of all, I love that they are both powerful and fragile, all at the same time. It seems, every year, that the minute my poppies come into bloom, they are savaged by sudden winds and rains, and resort to bending their gorgeous heads – bloodied, unbowed – as long as they possibly can, before shedding, dropping, disappearing for another year, sometimes after just a few days of flowering. They are a wonder.

I still wait for this year’s beauties to appear. Spring has been slow in its dawning. I stalk them in the garden, day by day, inspecting for buds, stroking their camouflage greenery, willing them to come out and join in the party, to break suddenly and stridently into song. The picture here is from last year’s crop. They are Tim’s poppies: grown and then transplanted from my old house, to the allotment, to my new house, all from a small plant given to me years ago by my husband, as a present for Mothers’ Day. So they hold a special place in my heart. They live on, though he couldn’t. They seem to shine in his honour, his memory, holding his curious mix of shyness and belligerence. And aren’t they bonny, with their red-orange skirts, their bold black hearts? Real warrior flowers.

This Bank Holiday weekend I have hardly been in my garden at all – though I feel fingers and toes itching to do so, the minute I finish writing this – because I have been up to my neck in a theatre festival, TRANSFORM 2015, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It was a wonderful event – full of international artists and cross-cultural conversations – which will form the seedbed (gardening term unintended, but entirely appropriate) for future collaborations between Leeds and the cities and countries of the world. The thing about theatre folk, however, is their tendency to talk. To be LOUD – if not onstage, then certainly off it. So now I want to be silent for a while. Now I am turning, once again, to the quieter form of theatre right outside my kitchen window: the green stage and sweet scenery of my own city back garden.

Everything is looking very lush and verdant now: the acid greens of the euphorbia, the sharp sword leaves of Crocosmia Firebird – which will, come July, rival the poppies with its sharp, scarlet, trumpeting blooms. The birds are going crazy for the birdseed: hungrier than ever, now that they are making their nests and raising their young. Swarms of warring sparrows swoop and squabble over my birdbath every morning; blue tits and coal tits swing insouciantly from the fat-filled coconut shells; and my favourites – the blackbirds – hop and bounce across the grass, in search of the juiciest grub, the fattest, sleepiest worm.

Every week I go walking in Roundhay Park, north east Leeds, with my dog friend Badger, whom I borrow for the day each Thursday. Last week we suddenly found ourselves caught inside a great shaggy circle of shining black crows, all intent on their foraging, down at ground level, on a large open slope above the glittering lake – and quite oblivious to the hapless dog and human trapped momentarily in the middle of them all. What would they be, this gathering of satanic masters: a convention, a concatenation, a coven? Whatever the word, they had a certain pleasing menace about them: and a natural dramatic presence. Theatre in the round. Black crows in Roundhay Park. Theatre, said Augusto Boal, quoted by a Lebanese activist at the TRANSFORM festival this last weekend, must be a “rehearsal for the revolution”. I just wonder what those birds – never mind the humans – are plotting to overthrow first?

Walking Back Home 1

This worn-out, regal, fin-de-siecle staircase, pictured above, is one I have tramped up and down many times over the past few years. It is the entrance to  my dear friend István’s top floor flat, in the VIIIth district of Józsefváros, in downtown Budapest. In 1988 and 1989, I spent a lot of time in Hungary, working in two of their big country theatres as a movement coach. It was still a communist country, very hidden and mysterious, and utterly beautiful. I fell in love with the place in an instant. But after returning home in the summer of ’89, just before the Berlin Wall came down – and when Hungary was already secretly opening its gates to neighbouring Austria, for the East Germans to pour quietly through in peaceful defection – I met my future husband Tim, and domestic life took over.

It took another 20 years for me to return to Hungary. But when I did, in 2009, I fell in love with the place all over again. So much had changed, in the meantime, with international capital (and now a determinedly rightwing government) having marched in, with chaotic gusto… But underneath the concrete, the new highways, the Mcdonalds and the Tescos – the smell of the earth, the passion and character of the people, the glorious musical cadences of the language, and the intricacies of its native culture – remained the same. It is a singular place.

Over the past five years, I have returned again and again to visit István, and the rest of the theatre community in Budapest, and to travel down to the south west country town of Kaposvár, where I used to work and live. I am grappling with the (fiendishly difficult) language, inching my way forward in conversations, plotting and planning, both to return for longer periods – and maybe to bring some of the Hungarian artists over to the UK, too: to showcase their astonishing, visceral, physical theatre.

Hungary, for all its foreignness, has somehow always felt like a second home to me. When I returned after such a long absence, I was welcomed so warmly, was folded in such a familiar, invisible embrace, that it felt hard to leave again.

But the “walking home” I am doing this year is much closer to home. After travelling so much – in my head, through such intensive language learning, and in reality, hopping on and off the plane to Budapest –  what I need to do now is feel the ground beneath my feet, here, in my own back garden, in  Yorkshire, in England.

Part of my plan, throughout 2015, is to simply walk myself back to health. Last year, in 2014, I started to feel very unwell. The symptoms slowly accrued, until a diagnosis finally came, of B12 anaemia (pernicious anaemia), and I crashed to the floor in a mighty tumble. For the first time, after years of caring for other people – my husband, through his ten years of cancer, my daughter, through her childhood and adolescence; and then, seeing both sets of parents, and several dear friends, fall ill and die – I succumbed myself to physical incapacitation.

B12 vitamin deficiency is dramatic. It makes your muscles ache and spasm, creates pins and needles in hands and feet, causes you to lose balance and strength. I am a dancer: but suddenly all movement tired me out. B12 also affects the nervous system, cognition. I am a writer: I couldn’t think clearly, let alone form coherent thoughts and patterns upon the page. And then there were my ears – inflamed and deafened from repeated infections, and painfully sore. I couldn’t sleep. I was anxious. Work, health, energy…Everything leaked slowly away.

But “in every winter’s heart there lies the seed of spring.” So it says in my meditation book. And nature indeed points the way forward. When my husband Tim died in 2004, I started digging in my garden and allotment – and wrote about that process in ‘A Handful of Earth’, a gardening diary of bereavement and recovery.

Now something similar is at work. I am no longer ill – simple injections can regulate the anaemia – but still feel in some kind of slow convalescence. The garden again provides a welcome haven. And the simple act of walking – in the park, in the countryside – offers strength and well being.

I’ll be writing about some of these walks – waxing lyrical about the garden – on this site, as the year progresses. Meanwhile, “home’ in Hungary remains a strong beating heart within. And “home’ in Leeds is a beautiful green landscape of new possibilities, new discoveries, new freedom.

“A Handful of Earth” (John Murray) is available on Amazon and elsewhere.

And here’s a link to a little piece I wrote about my garden a couple of years ago….


A Breathing Space

When I first trained in dance, in 1987, everything was about action and speed. All my Laban teachers were fast, and most of them half my height – so when they did tricky choreographies, going down to the floor and suddenly up again, I was still hitting the ground when they had bounced back up again and were off, like the White Rabbit, down an ever-disappearing corridor, and into something new…It was bewildering, such frantic, perpetual motion, for this long, lanky body of mine.

But the same year I lost my soul to movement and music, I also began training in T’ai Chi, with a wise, calm, Greek man called Andreas Demetriou. He saved my giddy soul! He still teaches in Brixton and remains my slow-movement mentor. Because T’ai Chi (literally peaceful energy) is everything that a lot of contemporary dance, and indeed contemporary LIFE, is not. It is grounded. Considered. Balanced and quiet. Like swimming through the air, it brings mind and body into an altogether more even and harmonious state.

T’ai Chi has followed me, for the past thirty years, through personal crises, changes of home and direction, through losses and re-discoveries, and offers a sweet, wordless philosophy, encapsulated in the reliable twenty minutes of its beautiful, graceful form.

It works for all the people I have taught – from jumpy drama students at the Oxford School of Drama, to mercurial actors in Hungary, to all shapes and sizes of folk who have come to me in draughty village halls – and now at West Yorkshire Playhouse – to learn its ineffable magic. The oldest person I’ve worked with has been well into her eighties. And Gerda Geddes, the person who first brought the T’ai Chi, Yang Style Long Form (the style  I practise) over to the UK in the 1950s (and was my teacher’s teacher), was still passing on its bodily treasures when she was over ninety. At 58 years old, I take great comfort from that.

Just look at the elderly Chinese people calmly practising their movements in China’s early morning outdoor spaces, and know that old age doesn’t necessarily mean getting hunched over, smaller, tighter, stiffer. It can mean just the opposite. Graceful movement and fluidity need not be confined to the very young!

Breathing Space. That’s what T’ai Chi offers. It brings our “monkey minds” into stillness, brings our worried selves closer to our own silent centres, and gives a little respite from the onward competitive survivalist surge.

The picture accompanying my post is me dancing. Not doing the T’ai Chi. Just having a play in a recent dance class. But even when improvising – or skipping the light fantastic! – the spirit of calm and breeziness first learned from my quiet Greek teacher somehow stays with me and reminds me… mostly… that it’s OK to expand into the present moment,  to simply enjoy being on my own two feet. Still standing. Still breathing. Moving steadily into spring.

Old Dog’ by Barney Bardsley is published by Simon and Schuster (£7.99)