every once in a while, it’s necessary to escape and seek a little refuge – even in stuff you know nothing about.
THE unobtrusive building gave nothing away. Just seconds away, on a blustery winter’s day, from bustling Oxford Street, a steady stream of warmly wrapped-up Asians had been filing in since 10.30am.
It was the first day of Chinese New Year. The heritage-listed High Victorian building looked like any other along Margaret Street, except for the red lanterns outside.
The lion dance was about to begin, so we were asked to wait by the corridor. After the performance, we explored the four floors of the temple that is one of 200 worldwide branches of the Fo Guang Shan Monastery, originally founded in Taiwan in 1967.
London’s Fo Guang Shan Temple propagates the Dharma of Humanistic Buddhism. The goal is to live the Bodhisatva way, as energetic and enlightened beings who strive to help us liberate ourselves. The tenet was not only in their brochure but seemed infused within the building’s four walls, too.
A similar aura emanated from the solicitous volunteers and mindful devotees. Each person passing through its doors accommodated others unconsciously. Lunch in silver bowls was silently passed from hand to hand. Inclusive mantras were chanted, but prayers were kept private if people wished. Every interaction was kind, gentle and considerate. It was hard to leave.
Similarly, more than religion is on offer at 850-year-old St Mary’s Church, with one of Britain’s finest medieval spires. Located in the old town centre of a Hertfordshire “new town”, the Norman church took 40 years to build and proudly proclaims that the church is not just a building, but rather a living community of people professing and living their faith.
Vestries, porches, windows and doorways have been added, like parishioners and tombstones, through the centuries. The Friends of St Mary’s, a voluntary association, was set up in 1980 as a charitable association of people wishing to preserve the beauty of the building, while adapting it to contemporary worshippers. But the tombstones are a stark reminder of the people before us who passed through the doors of the same church seeking refuge.
Just like The Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, built in 1875 and in very good shape after surviving two wars.
Majestically dominating the western promenade of the seaside town more known for pensioners than parties, today, the grand old dame stands proud. Withstanding the elements of winter winds and rough seas, it offers its select guests an olde-world escape from contemporary life with its elaborate exterior and lavish, Victorian interiors. Ornate chandeliers, log fires and traditional afternoon tea remain.
The hotel in its time has hosted famous visitors such as French composer Debussy and Thailand’s King and Queen. Ensconced in its cloistered confines of thick, draped curtains and hard-backed armchairs, oak-smoked haddock, real ladies’ cloakrooms and unparalleled service, you escape into another world.
So take the path less travelled. Seek out an unknown cultural experience. Go to an out-of-the-way place. Visit a venue you have driven past many times. Sometimes, your sanctuary lies in the most unexpected of places, if only to serve as a reminder why we need to get away in the first place.