Monday, 26 August 2013

A Room With A View

One of my eldest's shots from the living-room window at the top of the Torre Corso Donati
How’s that for a view from the living-room window? Well, it’s one that is available if you own a sensitively restored medieval tower-house in Florence. I don’t, I hasten to add, but I now know someone who does. We’ve normally been fairly abstemious when choosing where to stay on holiday, but this year we decided to push the boat out ... or, more accurately, to climb the steps ...

We all wanted to go to Florence. Pen’s been before and as both daughters were up for it – a remarkable consensus for teenagers – we thought it was too good an opportunity to miss. Who knows? it might be the last major family holiday before they start to fly the nest.

So, there we were, occupying the top three floors of one of the Torres Corso Donati, with spectacular views on three sides over Florence. The Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Croce, San Miniato, the synagogue, you name it. It was more than we’d usually pay for self-catering accommodation, but worth every Euro and the 90-odd steps up and the further 31 spiral steps up to the living-room perched at the top of the tower. 

You can find details of this splendid two-bedroom holiday let here.

We spent much of the time with our jaws dropped open. Sometimes I felt as if we didn’t need to go out at all. We could just stand there, staring out of the window.
The view of our neighbours' tower

The Torre Corso Donati is mentioned in Dante’s Il Purgatorio. I had his Inferno with me. One night, I sat up reading it, sipping some Tuscan wine, then stared out of the window as a huge crescent moon drifted between the towers of the Palazzo Vecchio and towards Giotto’s Campanile. On other occasions, I stood listening to the bells reverberating from San Lorenzo to Santa Croce and all points between. The solemn tolling rolled across the pan-tiled roofs then faded to silence.

Of course, we did venture out ... to the Brancacci Chapel, San Marco, the Uffizzi ...
I took myself up to San Miniato and joined the monks and the faithful for Vespers, and briefly, for the first part of the Mass. I also headed in the afternoon heat for the English Cemetery, dry and dusty amid the cicadas and the cypresses. A single English rose-bush grows alongside the grave of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning. I pointed it out to an elegant Florentine gentleman who loaned me the plan of the cemetery the nuns had given him. He’d not heard of her but he nodded at the appropriateness of the rose. It was a macaronic conversation in broken French, Spanish and English. I’m afraid I don’t speak Italian and my Spanish is very basic. I do lapse into a kind of pidgin, tourist-English I’m afraid ... for which my daughters rib me unmercifully.

A tranquil spot and a 'community of consolation' -
The English Cemetery
The cemetery is cared for by a delightful English nun who crossed the Tiber after her Anglican bishop ‘bulldozed’ her convent. She gets the Roma children to clean and tend the graves in exchange for teaching them to read. It’s really a very special place.

Florence in August is hot, dusty and full of tourists and queues. But we found the Brancacci Chapel, parts of Santo Spirito over in Oltrarno and even San Marco relatively free of crowds. Best of all, we had a tower to retreat to, above the busy streets and a view ... what a view ...

Bird's eye view

Dusk and the Duomo

Amy (left) endures the Purgatory of a portrait with her parents

Saturday, 3 August 2013

All Blisse/Consists in this

I’m reasonably up on church architecture. I can tell my nave from my chancel, generally recognise Perpendicular when I see it and can spot a Romanesque tympanum from a bowshot distance. 

I never know, though, what to call the space tucked away behind the altar that you get in large parish churches and cathedrals. Sometimes these contain tombs and effigies, at others only a few step-ladders and stacks of unused chairs. In some places, Durham Cathedral springs to mind, they’re used for works of art. 

At All Saints in the centre of High Wycombe, one end contains a ‘Quiet Garden’.

An indoor garden? Well, yes, but one consisting of pebbles, a meditative, trickling water feature and a Bible opened at a passage in Matthew’s Gospel. Very calming it is too. I learned from a leaflet that it’s there as part of something called The Quiet Garden Movement.

I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t aware that there was such a Movement. What does it do? What is it for? I know all about the charismatic movement and the so-called ‘house-church movement’ and lots of other theological and spiritual movements – but I’d never heard of The Quiet Garden Movement.

Again, I don’t know about you, but when I come across the term ‘Movement’ I envisage something fairly active rather than contemplative.

‘What do want?’
‘Quiet gardens!’
‘When do we want them?’

‘Two-four-six-eight ... what do we want to cultivate?’

So, I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only is The Quiet Garden Movement an international one, but it has its own newsletter – Quiet Places – and its own website. It has friends in high places. The list of patrons includes Richard Foster – of Celebration of Discipline fame – the Most Revd Vincent Nichols, RC head-honcho here in the UK and the delightful Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia. There’s also the wonderfully named Sir Ghillean Prance of the Eden Project and A Rocha, the botanist and Christian environmentalist.

The Movement has gardens all over the world. There are Quiet Gardens in France, in South Africa, Australia, Canada, the USA ...

People sometimes open their own private gardens for groups and individuals to use for prayer and contemplation and reflection. As the newsletter says, the aim is for gardens to provide ‘one possible channel among many encountering the divine.’

It’s easy to be put off, to be a tad cynical about this sort of language. Many of us, I’m sure, can remember the rather twee Dorothy Gurney verses found in the municipal parks of our youth:

The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth.
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.

I’m not sure we should let that rob us of an important dimension though, the sense that ‘we live as a world in which heaven and earth exist side by side.’

The word Paradise itself derives from a Persian word for a walled garden. The Quiet Places newsletter quotes the 17th century cleric and poet, Thomas Traherne.

All Blisse
Consists in this,
To do as Adam did:
And not to know those Superficial Toys
Which in the Garden once were hid.
Those little new Invented Things.
Cups, Saddles, Crowns are Childish Joys.
So Ribbans are and Rings
Which all our Happiness destroys.

I’ll be working in Wycombe for a while, a few days a week.  The Quiet Garden at the back of All Souls may see more of me yet.