Conference at High Leigh

As with my coach trips with the National Trust Hampstead Centre, I was wondering how much “wild” I’d find at this year’s Conference of the National Network of Pastoral Musicians (NNPM)

These ecumenical gatherings of singers and instrumentalists have been happening every two years since 1996 – and I’ve been to all 11 conferences… in Birmingham, Chester and at Worth Abbey. This year we were at High Leigh, one the Centres run by the Christian Conference Trust.

I was delighted to discover that I needed to get the train from Liverpool St Station and go just one stop beyond the Freedom Pass boundary at Cheshunt – where I’ll be going in November for a Marylebone Birdwatching Society Local Outing to the Lee Valley. From the train, I noted Magpies, Crows, Wood Pigeons and Gulls and I happened to look out at the right moment to see a Tern.

From Broxbourne we were to take a taxi. I noticed 2 people at the station in addition to those who were obviously regular commuters. I didn’t think the woman with a simple plastic carrier bag could be going on a weekend conference – but she later turned up at the High Leigh. She’d walked/bussed/walked from the station and had decided to go non-residential as the journey was so easy from Greenwich!!

I asked the smart gentleman with suitcase if he was going to High Leigh and he agreed it would make sense to share a taxi. I was rabbiting on about NNPM weekends… discovered he was only staying overnight… suddenly wondered if he was our keynote speaker and that I should have recognised him… but, at the door to the centre, he wished me a good weekend. There was rather more than just the NNPM at High Leigh this weekend, notably a lively “Esthers for the Nation” conference though I suspect my taxi companion was one of a quieter smaller group discussing Christian education.

Greeted at NNPM reception by familiar faces Jennifer and Christine who remembered my name. I was given my folder, name badge and the key to my 2nd floor room. The view wasn’t promising for any “wild”.

Once I’d settled in my room, I went off exploring. Followed the signs for Willow Hall and Cherry Room which I knew we’d be using. Endless corridors and stairs. Back on the ground floor I realised it was raining!! Fortunately it was only a short downpour. By the time I’d found the Mulberry Room and Yew Tree Hall – and the dining room – and chatted to a few more old friends, I was able to go out.

The bar and coffee area actually opens out onto a vista of garden and beyond to field and woodland. I walked straight out and then more or less along a boundary fence and hedge, round the tennis courts and through to the front of the building.

Standing by the gate, I chose to look left to take the photo rather than right where I could see and hear heavy traffic in the distance. On my walk I noted Jackdaws, heard Goldfinch, heard Wren, hear the “chuck” of a Great Spotted Woodpecker and then saw it in silhouette as it flew over. And, best of all, I had an encounter with a fox. And it really did feel like an encounter – I didn’t just “see a fox”. I spotted the fox at quite some distance near a tree. I got my camera out and started walking very slowly towards it. It soon spotted me. It would stop to look at me. Take a few slow steps forward, as I did. Then it would return to feeding, sauntering along, sitting down. And then it would look at me again, and take a few more steps forward. I never really got close enough for a good picture but nor did the fox actually run away. We just chose to continue on our separate ways.

I thought that short walk might be my only opportunity to venture out during what I knew would be a packed weekend. But over the evening meal on Saturday, someone mentioned a lake which I’d not noticed. Our evening activity was to be an informal celebration of the NNPM’s 20th Anniversary so no need to be anywhere to set up with instruments for a prompt 8pm start. So I went out for another short walk, this time down towards the woodland to the side of the buildings.

I soon found steps down to a path round the small lake, part of which was green with duck weed. There was a little bridge to cross and round a dark corner I found a couple of Mallard to add to my meager bird list. I also heard a Green Woodpecker.

On Sunday, our morning prayer was to be a Pilgrimage of Song. I’d been to the workshop with the Hubbards on Saturday where they described a 7 mile walk in Suffolk, starting with an hour’s music workshop in one church, and walking across the countryside stopping at 3 more country churches, holding a short service in each as well as enjoying refreshment. Transport was laid on to get them back to the starting point for a hot meal together.

We did a mini-version starting at the fountain, walking down, led by oboe and drum, across the rough grass to stop under the shade of some trees to pray and sing round a rough cross. We walked on and stopped again in the darker woodland just above the lake. Our prayer there included the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. From there we walked straight into the open doors of the Yew Tree Hall for more singing in the final stages of our conference.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

One more bit of “wild” of a different sort! On Saturday evening we cut the birthday cake about 9pm and it was another 1/2 hour or so before our entertainment started. Most of our liturgies had been accompanied by an amazing array of instruments – keyboard, drums, recorder, 2 flutes, clarinet/saxophone, oboe/cor anglais, harp! … and not one but 2 cellos. These two cellists had not met before but, on Saturday night, they performed “Swan a l’Orange” – one providing the accompaniment to the other playing the tune of the Swan from the Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens. What made this a bit different was that, instead of placing his fingers carefully on the strings to accurately pitch the notes, he was rolling an orange up and down the strings! The lady in black was “virtually” turning pages of the music on an I-pad.


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