Hidden Gem: Shap Abbey

Shap Abbey, Cumbria

You know those places that you take for granted? The ones right on your doorstep, which you've always known about and therefore never really think about too much? 

For me, Shap Abbey is one of those. I grew up just a short walk away from it - just a couple of fields away, in fact. (Yes, I do live in the sort of place where distances are measured in fields.) A couple of weeks ago, I used what might be the last of this summer's sun to wander over there with my mum and my camera, with the intention of looking around. And I mean really looking around, the way it's easy not to look when a place becomes familiar. 

It's a fascinating piece of history to have on your doorstep - definitely somewhere I should visit more often, especially given the distance (or lack of it). 

But for me, the historic ruin is not the abbey's only attraction. There's also the stunning natural surroundings (pretty much a given in this part of the world, on the border of the Lake District National Park - although by no means less significant because of their expectedness). There's the fact that the nearby bridges and the next-door farm are impressively built using reclaimed stolen stones from the Abbey, which makes for a beautiful grandeur in the stonework. But my favourite part has to be the sheep dip. 

Yes, you read that right: sheep dip. 

A Quick Peek at Carlisle's Guildhall: 700 years of history

Carlisle Guildhall Museum

I love old half-timbered buildings. I love the way they smell, of wood and a faint mustiness. I love their top-heavy feeling of branching out, as the upper floors jut over the street below. I love their sounds: the way they're never fully silent, even when they're empty. 

Carlisle's Guildhall Museum is one of these. 

You enter via a small door leading out on to the pedestrianised city centre, then climb a steep and narrow staircase to the first floor. (The ground floor is occupied by an Italian restaurant.)

On emerging, the first impression is one of dark wooden floors, worn smooth and polished by years of treading feet. The second is of light and windows - unusual for a building of this period, which would have been subject to the infamous window tax. (Simple equation: the more windows and the bigger they were, the more tax you paid. Hence the term, 'daylight robbery'.)

As the very helpful person on the desk informed me, it is in fact the city's third oldest building (after the castle and the cathedral), and dates from the fourteenth century. That makes it between 600 and 700 years old. Not bad going!

Monday Wisdom: Be Not Afraid

Carlisle Motto: outside Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery

'Be just and fear not.'

Google this phrase, and your results are likely to be largely inspirational quotes on tumblrs and other blogs (like this one, I guess)! Originally, however, it comes from one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays: Henry VIII. It's said by Cardinal Wolsey, if you must know. 

But that isn't where I first came across it. The above mosaic is outside Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery in Carlisle, right opposite where I work. It's the official motto of the city of Carlisle. 

Well, I guess it's all very well as a motto to live by. But if I were to edit Shakespeare (heaven forbid!) to create a motto which I would want to live by, I would make it this: 'Be creative and fear not.'

Maybe that's just because my whole life and chosen career centre around creativity - but for me it's about taking risks. 

I don't mean stupid risks, like running off with suspicious-looking strangers, or climbing a hundred-foot rock-face without a harness (though if that's your bag, well, I guess it's up to you). I just mean the everyday risks. Most often for me, these come in the form of trying something new, whether that's taking an unusual medicine in Singapore, or jumping out of a plane, or moving to a new country. In terms of creativity, it's a case of trying something new: either in a big way (I mentioned recently that I'm currently collaborating on a musical, which is definitely a way of branching out and challenging myself), or in a much smaller way (such as having the courage to use a surprising verb or adjective in my poetry). 

True, the risks don't always pay off. Not everything turns out well, and it would be foolish to pretend that it did. But most of the time, I've been glad of the risks I've taken. Most of the time, overcoming that fear has paid off. 

Do you have a motto that you live by? I'd love to hear it - please share below :-) 

10 New Items on my Bucket List

Beach in Tasmania, Australia

Just before I created my Bucket List back in April, I talked about some of my reservations with it, and the reasons that I had never yet written one down. 

One of the things I mentioned was the impossibility of ever completing a Bucket List - there are just far too many amazing things to do, and incredible places to go. How do you cross everything off a list that just keeps growing? 

I still don't have an answer to that question. In the 5 months since I wrote the list, I've managed to cross off a grand total of 0 items. I've also added 10. Most of these are destinations - but not all. And I'm currently in the process of completing number 24 (although admittedly in the very early stages). 

But does it matter that I'm adding items at a quicker rate than I can cross them off? 

Personally, I don't think so. There's always time, and where I am in my life at the moment, I have other priorities and other things that I'm spending my time on - and that's ok. (I talked about this a couple of weeks ago.) I'll get them all crossed off in due course. And if I don't? Well, at least I'll always have something to aim for. 

Here's my updated Bucket List, with the added ten items in bold. 

1. Visit Antarctica
2. See the northern lights from the Arctic
3. Drive across the USA
4. See a sea turtle in the wild
6. Visit Morocco
8. Publish a poetry pamphlet
9. Publish a Mills & Boon style novel
10. Eat snails
12. Visit Barcelona
14. Snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef
16. Visit South America
17. Yosemite National Park
18. Go behind a waterfall
19. Stay in a lighthouse
20. Visit Pitcairn Island
21. Visit the Faroe Islands
22. Explore Canada
23. Explore Alaska
24. Co-write a musical
25. Drive around Iceland's Route 1

Have you done any of these? Let me know what you think! 

Postcards from Tasmania: Australia's Undiscovered Gem

[throwback: 2011]

Tasmanian devil on the beach, Tasmania, Australia

With Australia looming large above it on the map, it's easy to forget about Tasmania. Nestled underneath the enormous country like a child peeping from under its mother's skirts, this island is undoubtedly one of the less well-known jewels in Australia's crown.

Despite being just a fraction of the size of the rest of Australia, Tasmania contains vast tracts of wilderness, with forest so thick and tangled as to make it virtually impassable. There are places in Tasmania where no human has ever set foot.

I visited Tasmania with Adventure Tours in 2011. It was a whirlwind week, visiting sites all over the state - and yet it felt calm. Australia in general is famous for its laid-back attitude, but Tasmania has something more: a sense of peace; a slow pace of life; that feeling of perfect contentment which for me always comes from being unhurried and in stunning natural surroundings.

From mirrored lakes to rugged mountains, rolling dunes to rocky shores, Tasmania has it all. But what stood out for me was the wildlife. I don't really know a lot about wildlife, about habitats or about how creatures might behave. But one thing I do know is that Tasmania has wildlife in abundance.

Of course, there's the famous Tasmanian Devil, and the (possibly extinct) Tasmanian Tiger, but there are also fairy penguins, wombats, wallabies, pademelons, kangaroos, the notoriously shy platypus... The list goes on and on.

Oh, and did I mention? The whole place is utterly stunning: