I sometimes feel, living in our little outcrop of rock in the middle of the North Sea that other countries have so much more nature than we have. You know, America’s Rocky Mountains, the brilliant white beaches of Australia, the myriad species of the Galapagos Islands. Now, trust me, this isn’t a ‘move over David Attenborough’ moment. More a case of wanting to feel some communion with the great outdoors. And preferably without getting on a plane and pumping vast amounts of CO2 into our already overloaded skies.
And before y’all living in Wales or Scotland or even my neighbours in the Peak District of Derbyshire protest indignantly that we have plenty of nature, thank you, I know. I’ve just been feeling a teeny bit housebound and wanting to talk to a few squirrels. I regularly read other writers' blogs and feel more than a twinge of envy when they say they step out of their front door of a morning and take a mountain hike for a couple of hours, before returning, much refreshed to write ten thousand words before coffee.
Anyway. To scratch this itch, we decided to book a break at Centre Parcs, a short drive from our front door where you have the promise of four days living the life of a simple crofter in a cabin in the woods. Apparently the first Centre Parcs was set up in Holland in 1968 by Dutch entrepreneur Piet Derksen who owned a sports shop. Being somewhat socially minded, he erected a few small tents in the woods behind the shop so that his workers and their families could have a family holiday. The idea soon caught on and so he upgraded to bungalows built around a central square with a few amenities. He sat down and thought, ‘I know. I’ll call it Centre Parcs’ and in time, people will pay exorbitant sums of money after a global pandemic to come and stay as there isn’t anywhere else to go, but at least they will feel they are getting away from it all and communing with nature.’
These first Centre Parcs therefore were trying to give people a well-rounded experience and tend to their social, physical, emotional – and – get this – spiritual needs. The early ones even had a church on site with Sunday services although they keep quiet about that now.
So we set ourselves up in our cabin in the woods, and were soon very busily communing with nature all over the place. The wildlife is so used to humans that they were soon hopping around our patio on the lookout for any crumbs from the table – small birds, big birds, ducks, squirrels, rabbits. In fact, it was such a Disney-esque tableau that I half expected them to strike up a number and start singing and dancing in a chorus line.
Now I know this is camping-lite with a capital ‘L’. There were no bears or mountain lions as far as I could see. We didn’t have to forage for kindling but put a log on the burner at night and stretched out (almost) under the stars. Cars are firmly parked for the duration and punters expected to walk or cycle everywhere, and although the site at only 400 acres is the equivalent to an Aussie’s backyard, it felt much more spacious. The forest around us afforded a dark cloak of protection, the tall trees, so much older than this latest incursion, sheltering us from the excesses of wind and rain.
This is what people want. And, shoot me down in flames if you like, it’s a form of spirituality. It’s acknowledging that there is something there, much bigger and more powerful than we are. We want to connect with this life-force, we want to communicate. We Christians call this ‘God’. Our God who loves us and who we can love back.
That’s why I think places like Centre Parcs are so hugely popular right now. A way of going to church without being in church. A way of exploring sensations and feelings crowded out by the pressures of ‘normal ‘life. A way of reflecting on another kind of life, a simpler, more contemplative way of being.
That’s what it was for us anyhow. And as a fledgling soon-to-be-noviced Franciscan, a firmly dyed-in-the-wool city girl who could hardly tell a sparrow from a starling two years ago, it was a time of understanding how wondrous God’s creation is, even without mountains and turtles. Just sleeping in the woods along with our furry and feathered friends, our brothers and sisters (according to the ‘Canticle of the Creatures’), gave me a such a sense of warmth and joy. (Less so Sister Spider who dropped in for a house call but I’m a work in progress. Francis would have made her welcome.)
My Franciscan journey is long and slow and exciting and revealing as I grow in both faith and trust. And gradually open myself to whatever God wants me to learn and do.
So we're booking to go again. In winter this time. There aren't any bears.