Daily and Sunday Telegraph writer and editor Andrew Baker tells us how we can find calm in solitary spaces.
A couple of weeks ago I went to a 90th birthday party for an old family friend in a village in Hampshire called Nether Wallop.
It was a joyous occasion and a great opportunity to catch up with good friends, some of whom I had known for half a century, but many of whom I had not seen for any years.
There was good food, cake and candles and lots of multi-generational fun. I had a great time.
But when I left, as the party was breaking up, I did not head straight to my car to drive back to London.
I had spotted a little sign just down the road from the village hall where the party had been held, and I was on a mission.
The sign said “Saxon church”, and it pointed up the hill behind the hall. Five minutes’ gentle ascent brought the little church into view, nestled in a dell in the hillside, with the village spread out beyond it.
All was silent as I walked up to the church door, to which a little handwritten note on a card had been pinned. It read “You are welcome to come into our ancient church. But the latch is stiff!”
So it was, but on the third attempt the old ironwork lifted, and the heavy timber door creaked open.
I’ll tell you what I found inside in a moment, but first a little about what I was hoping to find.
I’m not a religious person. I have not been baptised, or otherwise inducted into any established religion. I don’t believe in any deity that I can name or identify – but I have nothing against those who do believe, and I respect all faiths and those that follow them.
What I have come to recognise is that from time to time I need peace and calm, and space and time for reflection, and while looking for this I have developed quite a taste for small, quiet, peaceful spaces. And little old country churches fit the bill very well.
It seems a bit selfish to admit it, but I prefer churches when they are empty. Then I can be alone in the space, alone with my thoughts, and best able to shut out all distractions, loosen my ties to the realities and responsibilities of the world outside the thick stone walls, and seek some peace.
First of all I might walk slowly around, getting the measure of the building, admiring what there is to admire – the play of light on the walls, gentle colours of stained glass, smooth textures of worn stone, motes of dust floating in a shaft of sun.
Often I know very little about what I see – I am not an expert of any kind on church architecture or the significance of religious symbolism. But it seems to do me good to soak up the benign energy that often exists in such a building.
Then I’ll settle in a spot that seems to suit me and let go of the world for a little while. I try to become accustomed to the idea that for a short space of time I am gloriously powerless – that nothing I do while I am in that space can change my life, so I can let it all go…
… and I feel my shoulders lift a little as whatever burdens I carry are shrugged off for a while, and I can breathe more easily and feel peace and calm start to flow through me.
I might say a few words, out loud or to myself, or I might say nothing and drink in the silence.
When the time seems right, I’ll start to look around again, and perhaps examine a detail or two to find what makes that particular place or building special and memorable. It might be a beautiful stained-glass window, an ancient carved stone font, an inscription…
… or, in the case of St Andrew’s, Nether Wallop, an angel.
Above an archway, painted on the wall, a simplistic head and shoulders with wings extending behind, the expression on the face calm and resolute.
It had been painted, a nearby notice explained, in around 1025, and had survived countless redecorations and remodellings, reigns and reformations, weddings and wars.
The long human life I had been celebrating that day – 90 years and counting – had been surpassed 10 times over and more by the little figure watching over the peaceful little church.
That really reset my perspective on human life – another example of the useful power of quiet spaces.