The Rest Of What We Did On Holiday

So, I had a week to amuse myself while Mr Litlove made his chair. This year we both became members of the National Trust and I was keen to get some use out of my card, especially in order to visit more gardens. I am completely rubbish when it comes to identifying trees and plants and birds and I suppose I thought that visiting gardens would bring me the knowledge by a mysterious process of osmosis.

Getting in my car for my first visit, I realised it was a long time since I’d had to drive myself somewhere new, and I don’t have a satnav. Instead, I’d studied the maps and tried to commit the route to memory, something I was a little concerned about, given that these days I barely make it halfway up the stairs before realising I’ve forgotten what I’m going up them for. But I found my way just fine to Petworth House, an imposing stately home set in vast grounds designed by Capability Brown where the novelist John Wyndham lived (and his son, Max, still does).

What I didn’t realise was that I would undertake solo sightseeing as if I were a Marine commando on a mission against the clock. Memorise maps. Check! Drive to location. Check! Get map of house and grounds from National Trust lady. Check! Three times whilst said National Trust lady was trying to explain which path I should take to the house and what time the tea rooms closed, I rather thought she’d finished (prematurely) and made to take off on my mission. Eventually she asked me somewhat drily, ‘Are you in a hurry?’ and I said, no, no, sorry, just umm… And then I shot off into the grounds as if Big Chief I-Spy himself were in hot pursuit, waving his little tomahawk with menace.

After the glories of Parham, I found Petworth rather disappointing. It was a series of large, empty rooms, their walls thickly coated with paintings that were often hung too high or in strange shafts of light that made them hard to see properly. The paintwork in every room was in desperate need of refreshment and the whole place had a dingy aspect. There was plenty that was spectacular to see – you want a Turner? here’s five in a row. You like portraits of society beauties? Here’s a gallery entirely dedicated to them. You like wood carving? Here’s a room the size of a tennis court, with walls sprouting strange excrescences like a rampant if morbid form of fungi. The part of the house I admired most was the chapel, built in but sunk down a flight of steps, meaning you paused on the threshold at eye level with the scary pictures of saints and angels. It had a shivery power, inhabited by a vengeful god with a connoisseur’s eye for art.

At the end of the corridor that led past the great kitchen (where I doubtless slaved in a past life) and the shop and tea room, there was an entrance into the small town of Petworth itself, quaint and fairy tale-ish, its narrow cobbled streets built on a steep slope. And here I struck gold – the only book shop I found during the whole week, but the most delightful indie packed with excellent stock. I could have bought up the entire non-fiction section, but even I think I have a lot of books to read at the moment. So I made a concerted effort at restraint which I naturally regretted for the rest of the holiday. I bought Diana Souhami’s Murder at Wrotham Hill, a narrative non-fiction account of a crime that took place in the 40s, and James Wood’s short collection of literary essays, The Nearest Thing To Life. I spent longer in the shop than I did in the house and grounds.

The next day I had another stab at sightseeing, this time visiting Nymans and remembering to take the camera. It was a properly hot day and it took a while to get there, half an hour or so, a journey that began to seem to me like an awful lot of bother just to go look at a garden. I do realise I am not naturally gifted with the instincts of a tourist. Still it was a very pretty garden, and I saw it when the rhodedendrons (one of the few shrubs I can identify) were in flower.


I have a photo of much bigger specimens but it came out blurry! This was obviously the rhodedendron nursery.

Nymans itself was a much smaller place than either Parham or Petworth, and not many rooms were open. As we entered the hallway, the sound of piano playing floated on the dusty air, and there in the main drawing room was a little old hunchbacked lady, surely in her 90s, playing her heart out. It was both atmospheric and disconcerting. Inside the house it was like visiting your posh Granny, rather lovely portraits and small sculptures in niches, great quantities of chintz, tartan curtains, piles of books and magazines, a little too much furniture, cold slate floors but cosy throws and cushions.

IMG_2403Part of the house was a ruin, destroyed by a fire in 1947.

IMG_2406Outside the gardens were amazing, even I could understand that much. There were all sorts of features, a sunken garden, a rock garden, a long pergola, a rose garden (not yet in bloom), all sorts of outdoor rooms created cleverly.

IMG_2398I speed-walked my way around lots and lots of plants. Goodness knows what they were.


By judicious hanging around in the shop I managed to stretch my visit out to an hour and a half. I mean, I’d looked, it was lovely, what else was there to do? Mr Litlove asked me which parts of the houses I was most interested in and would most like to take home, and I said, the stories. The history of the houses does really interest me, but Nymans had to remain a mystery, as the guidebook the NT produces was out of print and they were trying to persuade the publisher to bring it back. I bought Patrick Barkham’s book Coastlines in lieu of it, even though there was no coastline in sight.

So Thursday it rained all day, and Friday was our last, and the one I had to vacate our cottage since it was a Friday-Friday let.Β  On our last holiday, I’d struggled under similar circumstances, waiting all day for our journey home and then too anxious to undertake it. So this year, we booked a hotel for Friday night, so I wouldn’t have to face the M25 on its worst time of the week. And yet, still I woke that morning full of anxiety. The owners of our cottage had kindly invited me to spend some of the day with them, which I did. And then late morning I drove out to Arundel for something to do (enormous castle on a hill, its petticoats full of tea rooms), and then I drove to Mr Litlove’s workshop for the afternoon. I was very tired and very anxious by now, though the workshop was fun in its way and I was glad to visit. Anyway, to cut a long story short I was pretty much gripped by anxiety until we were finally home early on Saturday (very early, I wasn’t sleeping anyhow so we thought we might as well do the drive).

What had gone wrong? I’d been fine all week. When I saw my reiki practitioner a few days later, she suggested it was a ‘safe place’ issue, and the light dawned. Most of you fortunate, normal people out there probably carry your safe place around inside you. Perhaps what distinguishes the phobic and the anxious is that our defences feel insufficient, and some other, physical, form of protection is required to reach basic safety levels. I was okay using the holiday home as a temporary base, but stuck in limbo on Friday my anxiety began to rise. And as anyone who suffers anxiety knows, it’s all too easy to reach the point of no return. Still, you live and learn, particularly when you have a preternaturally insightful reiki practitioner. And we did have a lovely week.


38 thoughts on “The Rest Of What We Did On Holiday

  1. Your description of your commando-raid style tourist visiting rang bells with me – I took myself off to Kew Gardens on my own last year and my visit, though lovely, was a bit like that. Armed with a map and a list of the things I wanted to see, I marched round the place for several hours, barely stopping for lunch or the occasional sit-down (or to read Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens at one point). Next time I go I’ll be a little more relaxed… πŸ™‚

    But glad you had a nice week and hope the anxieties are a bit more settled now you’re back home.

    • I remember that visit to Kew! I thought then what a lovely time you’d had, and I’m sure you did, even at a brisk pace. I’m very glad indeed to know it’s not just me. And thank you, much better now for being home!

  2. I tend to shoot around at a rate of knots when on my own, too. I think it comes from not having anyone to share observations with. I hope your reiki practitioner’s insights help with next holiday’s anxieties.

    • Ye-es, I’m not quite ready for the next holiday yet, but I daresay I will be in a while. I’m so glad to know that you also make light work of sightseeing – you’re right, it does slow a person down to have someone to compare notes with!

  3. After a childhood of being marched with military precision onto the next sight by my mother, I do have a tendency to do that myself (and pontificate endlessly whilst reading the guidebook), but I’m trying to calm down a bit. Glad you had a good week nevertheless…

  4. I have no problems taking things at whatever speed I wish when on my own! I love plants and botany (particularly that of the arcto-alpine regions) and indeed gardening. I have visited the gardens at Nymans twice, once in the company of a famous photographer who I worked with during my UG vacations and secondly on an NT organised tour to see the damage and their plans after the 1987 storm damage. I suppose asking you if you saw the famous Eucryphia Γ— nymansensis ‘Nymansay’ is perhaps not going to be useful, but I hope you did see it as it is a magnificent tree, but I think it would not yet have been in flower.

    I’m sorry to hear about your anxiety at the end; you are right much of my “safe place” lies within (and some of it lies near Geneva – but I am not referring to CERN however!)

    Take care Peter x

    • I can definitely say I saw trees at Nymans. Yes, I did. And some very big ones at that. I also heard a lot about the storm damage, which affected Parham badly too. They must have been in the direct path of the weather front with the result that a lot of damage was done. Poor them. And how smart of you to have another safe place the other side of a plane journey and near to CERN. I obviously need to cultivate safe places outside my own home more! πŸ™‚

  5. The gardens are lovely. You crack me up. You are like Bookman who can never remember what plants are called even though I tell him time and again. When he finally remembers something he is so proud of himself that balloons and a card would be in order πŸ™‚ Sorry to hear about the last day anxiety. At least everything up until then was good!

    • Heh, yes, I am very like Bookman! I can perfectly understand the need for balloons too! πŸ™‚ Your comment gave me such a great laugh, thank you!

  6. I love these kinds of travel posts by persons whose general outlook on things tends to be similar to my own. Sounds like the trip ended when it needed to, but I’m glad (and impressed!) that you went, and even more glad that you shared it with us.

    • What I love about my blog friends is that they share experiences and perspectives that are often close to mine and make me feel better about myself! Thank you!

  7. Nymans looks lovely, great photographs! I’m glad you had a good week but sorry to hear about the rise in your anxiety levels towards the end. I tend to get a bit stressed out when traveling – it’s the lack of familiarity and uncertainty that does it for me (I need to get better at dealing with the unknown in general). I hope things have settled down again now you’re back in the safe haven of your own home.

    • Oh absolutely, that pesky unknown. It bothers me a great deal, too! Thank you for the solidarity, and one of the great things about going away is that it makes home very lovely!

  8. I am a terrible sightseer. All I want are the bookshops and the tearooms, although these days I will give some time to a decent art gallery as well. And, if I do have to sightsee then the last thing I want is a guide (officious or otherwise) who tries to organise me. I think you did well to linger with her as long as you did. I must have missed the Wood essays. I’m off to look for a copy now.

    • Do look for the Wood essays – I loved them. I hadn’t read all that much by him before, but I’ll be looking out for his other volumes of criticism now. You are so right – tearooms and bookshops and the occasional gallery. That’s absolutely the highlights of my trip, too.

  9. Have been following you (and your stories of life with Mr. Litlove) for 8 years. Wanted to let you know–that after almost 10 years writing, and another 5 looking for a publisher, my novel, Ari Figue’s Cat was released this week by Deep Sett Press. Persistance matters. I look forward to more years following your reading life.

    • I am so pleased for you! Congratulations! That’s fantastic news. I hope you are still celebrating! πŸ™‚ Thank you for visiting – I do love the fact that I have blog friends I’ve known for years now. It’s very special.

  10. I was an NT member for years though of course no use being one now as I live in France. I often enjoyed the gardens more than the houses, and have visited and loved Nymans. It’s such a bonus when you find a bookshop — there was a fantastic one at a house I went to in Norfolk, the name of which I can’t remember. So sorry about the coming-home anxiety — hope you are feeling better now.

    • I certainly travel in hope of a good bookshop! I was intrigued by how many secondhand bookshops I found in NT gardens. They seemed to be flourishing in the area I visited. I know what you mean about the gardens – they can be much more reliably wonderful than the houses! Isn’t it a shame there isn’t something similar in France – or maybe there is?

  11. Oh I’m sorry about the anxiety, a shame that your holiday ended with that. I hope you’re feeling better now.

    Your account has been lovely, you write so evocatively. I love the petticoats of the castle. And the old lady playing the piano… And is it fanciful of me, or does the ruined part of Nymans look like Thornfield after the fire in the Orson Welles film of Jane Eyre?

    • But a good call, Helen, I can see exactly what you mean and it may have been used as an example of what Hollywood thought perfect for a ruined stately home! Thank you for the lovely comment, you are a dear heart.

  12. I’m glad that most of your holiday was enjoyable. I understand the speed walking thing. I now make a conscious effort to go slow, which I was taught to work on years ago. The mind and body are interlinked as you will know and to walk slow it is said will fight the anxiety which drives the unnecessary speed walking so they say. No use if you’re late for an appointment, but worth a try when you are supposed to be taking your leisurely time. Nymans is the number one garden on my gardens not yet visited list. I would want to go later in the year to see the annual border, possibly your next-to-last photo. It features in many garden border books, but would only be green at present. I also understand the issues at the end of the holiday. They always feature when there is change, but impact me less. And the chair – are we to hear of, see it?

    • I do want to post a photo of the chair, but the only one I have at the moment has too much Mr Litlove in it – according to Mr Litlove. I’m sort of waiting for him to do the finishing, but that hasn’t happened and he’s deep in rowing races so it may be a while… You would love Nymans! It’s an amazing garden, and you’d get so much more out of it, knowing all you do about plants. I like what you say about consciously slowing down. I have such a tendency to zoom into fifth gear and not be able to get out of it, though I can see how practising patience would be a good way to slow down the engine. Which is indeed the way forward to better health and serenity!

  13. Touring by oneself is a luxury and can be a soul-searching experience, as you wonder why these wonders aren’t evoking more of a sense of wonder from you! I’ve done a lot of solo touristing when Walker was at chess tournaments, and while it can be fun, it is certainly briefer than going around with a few other people.

  14. Aside from the anxiety it sounds like you had a wonderful time.

    I know exactly what you mean about feeling anxious about getting back and leaving places and trying to miss traffic. I am exactly the same. I think I enjoy coming home so much because that is my safe place, and where I am traveling to and from is just a vast potential for disaster.

    Any piccies of the chair?

    • Oh completely! I do think the road is a vast potential for disaster, and listening to just about any traffic report simply reinforces that. The M25 was really busy when we went around it at 8.30am on a Saturday – what’s all that about? Thank you for the solidarity. I do hope to have a piccie of the chair soon – I’m kind of hoping Mr Litlove with do the finishing (waxing or varnishing or whatever he intends) and it’s taking, ahem, a little longer than I thought it might….!

  15. I love visiting grand houses like the ones you describe here–and their gardens, though I am rubbish when it comes to knowing anything about the gardens. I often think it is too bad I have to be a tourist and would prefer to just pick one really nice garden and take my book and sit all afternoon, but then there is so much to see and you hate to miss it all… It sounds like a really nice time up until that trip home, which sorry to hear was anxiety ridden. I won’t admit to how long I sometimes spend in those giftshops which always make me feel guilty as I take away more than I should when I know all too well I really shouldn’t! Did you at least get in lots of reading?

    • Well, between you and me, I am also a keen attendee at the gift shop part of the experience. πŸ™‚ And actually, I think that taking a book and sitting enjoying it in lovely surroundings might be one the best ways to appreciate those surroundings. We get too hooked up on doing everything, I think, when really it’s the quality of experience that counts. Talking of which, I DID get lots of lovely reading done, and that was very lovely indeed. Lying on a sofa in the sunshine reading is definitely my idea of a good time!

  16. I love your travel writing. You tell it exactly as you see it (and feel it). I had a quick look online at Petworth and it looks quite fusty and a bit formidable. Sorry about the anxiety. I can definitely relate.

    • Aw bless you – I often think I ought to have a better filter for experience and at least understand how other people take it in and remove some of my eccentricities – which only makes me happier when my friends ‘get’ it. You’re right about Petworth! And thank you for the solidarity.

  17. What lovely pictures and delightful description of your holiday. The cottage is beautiful and I could probably have happily spent my entire week there. And I envy you the Windsor chair you most certainly carried home with you! Murder At Wrotham Hill you say?? Hmmm…now I’m on a quest.

    • The cottage was lovely and I was very happily ensconsed for the week there – I could easily have spent all of it on the sofa reading! The chair is a great addition, though I’m not sure yet where it’s going to live…. We’ll figure something out! πŸ™‚ And do let me know if you get hold of a copy of that book – we can read it together.

  18. It looks like you’ve seen such lovely places.
    I think it’s very brave of you to go on holidays although you know it can trigger your anxiety. It’s certainly true about the safe place. But you have it as well – the one inside.

    • Thank you! I wish it were a bit easier to do than it is, but I am definitely practising and doing my best to find the safe place inside. πŸ™‚

  19. Pretty pictures. What travel writing “lots and lots of plants. Goodness knows what they were.” Taking a long time to get anywhere just to look a garden is the story of the countryside, I think. Still, thank you for the lovely photos, you would never guess at all the heartache behind them. That is a great insight about the safe place.

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