The course is run by the Art of Living organisation and this is one of their Part 2 courses. You need to have completed a Part 1 Art of Happiness programme to be able to attend because you need to know how to do the meditation and breathing techniques. I'd recommend that everybody do the Part 1 as it's such a wonderful experience and is fantastic for helping to cope with stress. The Part 2 takes things a step further by involving a two and a half day silence as part of the course; the point of this is to remind yourself that everything that makes you happy comes from inside yourself, not from outside. Nobody else can make you feel anything that you don't want to feel. It's a powerful thought and is liberating in itself before you even begin to do anything else.
Seaford is on the south coast, a long way from Winwick. It's a four hour train journey through London, involving the Underground and lots of train changes, but I was well-prepared with my latest sock project, a picnic and my iPod so that I could catch up on some radio programmes that I'd missed. Once I finally got to Seaford station, a short taxi ride took me to Florence House where the course was to be held. It's a beautiful place.
Would you like to take a look around? Come on, then, let's go in.
Through this welcoming front door is a cosy sitting area with a wood burner where we spent quite a lot of our free time. The course is structured in such a way that you get regular long breaks throughout the day where you can spend time as you please; outside in the fresh air - the beach and the cliffs are minutes away and the house is set in lovely grounds - or inside watching the flames, or in one of the other parts of the house.
All of the meals are provided as part of the course. Everybody eats together in a comfortable dining room, and everyone helps to prepare the food, wash up and set and clear the tables - all without speaking, which actually isn't as difficult as you'd imagine. There are course leaders around who can speak and Katie the chef who gave plenty of instructions; all you have to do is listen and then join in.
The food is delicious. It's vegetarian, organic and Ayurvedic so it's about as healthy as you can get. I don't know about you, but I find that often at home I just make the same dishes week after week as I know the family will eat them, I have the ingredients readily to hand and I know I can make them quickly. It was quite a treat to be able to try different dishes - I had no idea what they were (and couldn't ask!) but they were full of vegetables that I don't usually use. We had two different types of squash - look at the colour of this one, isn't it wonderful?
All of the bread was sourdough bread. I've got out of the habit of making it since we came home from our summer holidays; I need to re-start my starter and I haven't quite found the time to do it. The sourdough we were eating was much softer and fluffier than mine, so at the times we could speak, I took the opportunity to ask questions about how I could improve mine (it seems that the key is to have the dough as wet as possible).
Florence House is used year-round for retreats and weddings. It's got a very special feel about it; a lot of their courses are to do with healing the mind or body and you get the sense that everyone who comes here leaves feeling better. There are several acres of grounds to walk around, including a walled garden. I always think that gates in walls are very inviting.
There was always something to see in the gardens despite the lateness of the year. I enjoyed looking round the vegetable plot and guessing what had been growing during the year. I found this wood pile against one of the walls - that's a lot of wood!
I love the way the wood has been cut; it's been split with an axe and because it's pine, it's quite knotty so it never splits quite evenly. I love the uneven-ness of it all.
On the other side of the house are large open gardens and windswept trees. It's quite easy to see which way the wind comes in from the sea! The trees remind me of something from a Dr Seuss book.
The weather whilst I was there was lovely; generally mild and sunny and totally unlike last year when the rain came in horizontally and the wind rattled the windows. The whole of the bottom of this side of the house was where we spent most of our time, either meditating or sitting and listening to videos or the course leader talking. Sometimes we took part in an exercise designed to illustrate something we'd been learning about, and in the evenings we all got together to sing and play music (singing is allowed because of the positive energy that's generated by a room full of singing people - ask any choir member!). It's a fabulous room which gets the sun for most of the day - could there be anything nicer than spending the weekend wrapped up in your ripple blanket with the sun warming your face while you forget all about the stresses of real life and the pre-Christmas mania?
It's taken me a few days since I got home to feel as if I've reached the same speed as everyone else again (tackling the Underground at rush hour with a large suitcase on my journey home was quite an adventure!). I feel as if I'm in a much calmer place to face Christmas now, though, and I'm very grateful to have had the opportunity to go on the course again.