We all know them. Those places of rest and reset, far from the madding crowd. Those places which bring peace even in recollection, providing a virtual refresh, no matter where we find ourselves. Here are five of my favourites, from around the world.
St James’ Churchyard, Piccadilly, London
Some years ago, I worked in one of the world’s busiest places in one of the world’s busiest cities: Piccadilly Circus, London. Fortunately, just down the road there was St James’ Churchyard, a garden of remembrance opened in 1946. St James’ Church itself opened in 1684: it is one of Sir Christopher Wren’s miniature masterpieces.
I would spend many a lunch hour in this park, sharing my sandwich with a robin or reading a book or just sitting still and following my breath, grateful to have stepped out of the turbulent waters of the living and into the still pool of the dead. If only for a time.
Komyo-in sub-temple, Minami-ku, Kyoto
Someone once advised me that if I wanted to experience true tranquillity in Japan, I ought to head for one of the sub-temples of the larger, more popular temples. And so it was that one summer day I found myself in the serene Komyo-in, founded in 1391 and a sub-temple of Tofuku-ji.
Contemplating Mirei Shigemori’s 1939 Zen rock garden, I sat barefoot and unencumbered on the wooden steps and listened to the songs of birds and cicadas and the occasional swishing sound from the caretaker’s straw broom. It was my first and last visit. But in my mind I often return.
Toodyay Bakery, Toodyay
Those of you who like to get there first thing on a Sunday morning, just after the bakery has opened, will know what I’m talking about. Grab a coffee and a pie or pastry and head upstairs. Step outside on to the balcony. Sit down, tuck in, and gaze out across Stirling Terrace and the Avon River to the hills and sky beyond. Relax.
Sit down, tuck in, and gaze out. Relax.
At this time of the day, there’s usually nobody else on the balcony. They’re all downstairs, most of them grabbing takeaways. As you leave, take a moment to look at the haunting photographs of old Toodyay, or Newcastle as it was then known.
Shakespeare and Co., Paris
American ex-pat Sylvia Beach opened the original English language bookshop and lending library Shakespeare and Company in 1919. The present-day Shakespeare and Company, near Place Saint-Michel, not far from the Seine, was established in 1951 by George Whitman and is still run by his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman.
It’s a magical place, overstuffed with books on every subject imaginable. Admittedly, it’s also overstuffed with tourists. The trick is to slip between the shelves — there are plenty of nooks and crannies to get lost in — pluck a book from the shelf and just disappear. I know: you don’t have to travel as far as Paris to have this same experience. Just about any bookshop will do. But we all have our favourites.
I don’t have any favourites. Parks and forests. Oceans and rivers. Mountains and valleys. The benefits of being in nature are well documented. And they are usually freely available to all. Perhaps because I’m a writer, one thing I do find relaxing in such environments is to stop, sit down, and try to describe in words what I’m seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling and tasting. Even if you don’t keep your jottings, it will ensure more vivid recollections for future contemplation.