Sabbatical 2022: England

The first stop on our sabbatical trip was London, England. I rented us an Airbnb apartment in Belsize Park, as it is located close to the centre of town, and near Hampstead. I generally like to rent an apartment, rather than stay in a hotel, as it gives you the option to eat in, and a comfortable place to come back and relax. After arriving in mid-day, our first job was to stay awake until the evening to combat jet-lag.

We spent our first afternoon exploring Hamstead, a quaint residential area long loved by academics, artists and media personalities. The high street offers a range of shops and places to eat. We particularly enjoyed exploring Mary’s Living & Giving Shop, a small boutique that offers quality, upcycled clothing and furnishings. We then continued onto Hamstead Heath. It is a large park that sprawls over 800 acres, offering some of the most spectacular views in the city. The site inspired C.S. Lewis to write The Chronicles of Narnia.

The next morning, we caught a double decker bus for a tour of the sites. Whenever I travel to a big city, I find it useful to take one. It offers you a great overview of the key cultural sites, all within an hour or so, with the option to hop-on and hop-off, so you can stop and visit any attraction. I personally like to take the full tour of the city before disembarking, as it helps to orient you at the start of the trip. In the afternoon, we made our way to the V & A Museum, which is focussed on art, design and fashion. We caught the Fashioning Masculinities and Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature exhibitions, followed with tea and scones in the museum’s magnificent glass-ceilinged cafe.

On our third day, I took my daughter to visit of the Harry Potter set tour, as we are big fans of the books and films. The Warner Brother’s set is located half an hour from the city centre: easily reached by train. Although I do not generally love to visit theme parks, I had heard a lot of good things about this one, and we were not disappointed. The visit takes several hours, as you make your way through the sets, special effects and costumes. It was fun to walk through the Great Hall at Hogwarts, Gringotts bank and Diagon Alley; but what particularly struck me was the section featuring the artists who successfully translated the page to screen. It showcases their intricate drawings and models: revealing the inner workings of their vivid imaginations. It was the most inspiring part of the visit for me.

On our last day in the city, we visited Camden Market. With over 1000 shops and stalls selling fashion, music, art and food, it is a massive undertaking. We only experienced a small part of it but it was fun to explore. I ate the best falafel pita sandwich of my life at Magic Falafel. If you love middle eastern food, make sure to go there! I also discovered Celtic Dawn, London’s specialist shop in Celtic jewellery. It offers a lovely selection of pieces designed in the UK and Ireland: both my daughter and I left with something special.

We then headed over to the West End to catch a show of Moulin Rouge. The quality of theatre experience in both London and New York is unparalleled in the English speaking world. I wanted to share it with my daughter and this particular show did not disappoint. It was a sumptuous display of music, costumery and sets, featuring incredible singers and dancers. We were on the edge of our seats throughout and it received a standing ovation at the end. I felt deep gratitude to be able to return to the theatre, after two years of pandemic, and experience it live.

The next day, we caught the train north to the Lake District, where we were booked into stay at a beautiful little hotel in Grasmere located on a working farm. Twenty year ago, I lived in the north of England. I attended the University of Lancaster for my junior year abroad, I returned to complete a Masters degree, and I stayed to work at an art gallery, for a total of six years. When I started to plan my sabbatical, I knew that I wanted to return to this special place.

The Lake District is a region and a national park located in Cumbria. It is famous for its glacial lakes, rugged mountains and historic literary associations (e.g. Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter). People travel from all over the world to walk their hills. We were fortunate to have lovely weather during out three-day stay and we spent a lot of time outside exploring.

In my time living in England, I met some wonderful people; and during this visit, I reconnected with a handful of my friends that still live locally. It was incredibly special to see them again. I am always amazed how, even after long periods of time, it is possible to pick up with a good friend where you last left off. This was definitely the case on this visit and we had a lot of fun catching up. Some highlights included walking the Grasmere and Rydall Loop, and the Helm Crag Loop, as well visiting Hill Top, the farm previously owned by Beatrix Potter. The time flew by, and before we knew it, we were headed on the train up to Scotland for the second part of our sabbatical adventure.

Holding Pattern

Photo by Leonardo Yip on Unsplash

Life these days reminds me of the film, Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character becomes stuck in a time-loop, and he is forced to live the same day over and over again. There is so little variance in daily life under COVID; it all feels the same. Our social circles are tiny, if not non-existent; we meet with colleagues via Zoom or Teams and rarely see people in person. Many of our activities occur within the walls of our own homes. I sometimes feel like a passenger gazing out of the window of a plane, circling above the airport, waiting for permission to land: waiting for “life” to start again.

We recently marked one year of living under COVID restrictions, and despite the many challenges, I have been reflecting upon the unexpected benefits. I can take my daughter to school in the morning and I am here when she arrives home. I no longer make the commute twice a day; and it is an easy transition from ending work to beginning our evening routine. My workplace has fully adapted to online collaboration, something which normally would have taken another decade, or more, to come to fruition. Our lives generally move at a slower pace. Less driving. Less commitment. Less rushing.

My main source of joy at the moment is spending time outside with friends and family in nature. We cannot currently do any of the things that we would normally do, such as travel, gather for dinner, or attend events, so the outdoors has become our playground. There is something so nourishing about being outside together. We hike and explore in sun, rain and snow. All it requires is a pair of waterproof hiking boots, a warm jacket and a trail app. My daughter has also become quite the little walker, so it is something we now look forward to doing together. There is so much beauty to discover in our local area, surrounded by trees, water and sky.

I have also discovered the joy of cold swimming. This global phenomenon gained traction at the start of the pandemic when people sought new ways to connect and combat depression. Coldwater therapy is known to support a range of health benefits, such as promoting good mental health, boosting the immune system, enhancing circulation, reducing stress and inflammation. I am hooked. I regularly meet with my friend for a weekly plunge in the ocean and it is always a fun and memorable experience. Not only is it a wonderful opportunity to catch up but my body feels electric all day after a swim.

Although “regular life” currently feels like it is on hold, I am grateful for the opportunity to discover new ways of spending time with loved ones, despite the restrictions. Nature is a remarkable phenomenon that should not be taken for grated. This pandemic has taught me to appreciate each and every day and to seek joy in unexpected places. I have also been reminded of how precious our natural surroundings are and how we all need to work together to actively protect these gifts: both for ourselves and for generations to come.