The Welsh Harp had been intriguing me for a while. I’d never been been before. Not long ago, I was coming down the stairs at Willesden Library when I saw inscribed on the wall ‘Bear escapes from The Welsh Harp in 1871’.
So, unusually for me, I looked up the history beforehand. More mundanely the Brent reservoir, it was built in 1835 to supply the Grand Union Canal. The Old Welsh Harp Tavern was the name of the inn on the A5 side of the area – a pub is still there – and apparently, it was so opulent with ornate pleasure gardens that the Prince of Wales used to pop down and do a little pigeon shooting. My dear. It was the height of fashion.
Ah, the bear? The bear escaped from the Welsh Harp menagerie in 1871. Menagerie, a little zoo type affair. So underused as a word these days. I remember my father in the 1960s referring to our household – a 3 storey terrace house in Yorkshire – as a menagerie meaning we were chaotic. We had tortoises, a goldfish and guinea pigs, but I think he was talking about us, the children, rather than the actual animals.
Karen Liebenguth is a Green Space life coach who has offered me a session. Usually, she would choose a green space – park, woods, heath – in London and you would both meet up there. This time, I have chosen this site of special scientific interest – it’s 17o hectares of open water, marshes, trees and grassland apparently – because I want to know what it’s like. The Welsh Harp, that is.
The idea of life coaching in a green space? “I love the outside,” says Karen, “and people relax and open up more easily when surrounded by trees, grass, water. It also de-intensifies the session. We can stop and breath at times, and appreciate the landscape. It’s good to come to coaching when you are at a point where you want to move on. Often people will have traced the background of the problem, but now they are ready to move on. Life coaching can give you a blueprint for your future. Whereas counselling and therapy focus more on delving into the roots of the difficulty.”
Sorry, but we arrive by car. We park at the Youth Sailing Club on Cool Oak lane. It has the air of having seen better days. Bits of litter, information boards covered in grafitti, but a wonderful view of the reservoir. And no-one around. Karen is looking for somewhere to have a pee. Will she go wild or not?
“I was walking with a group of clients once,” she says, “and they wanted to go to the toilet and there were no facilities. I suggested the bushes and they were shocked and a bit scared. I showed them where to go, and they were fine. It made me realise that there are people who are frightened of green spaces in that way.”
She emerges from a wooded corner, and we set off towards the reservoir. Somewhere here there is a breeding colony of Great Crested Grebes but I have feeling we are not going to find it today. There are weeping willows instead – so deliciously green – and she asks me what my area of focus is today.
I decide to take a risk, and tell Karen, I am having difficulty opening my heart to men. And that’s what I want to change. I’m single. I’m happy and single. But I’d like to be happy and in a relationship with a man, so I want to address whatever it takes in order to allow that to happen.
As we’re passing a noble swan paddles across the reservoir, and a Polish family wander over to feed him with bread. At that point, Karen asks me what it would feel like if my heart was open. In a quiet, caring voice. She has a very graceful, compassionate presence.
I’m usually good at answering questions, but this is quite difficult. And the start of many similar ones. “Expanded,” I say feeling that is a very limited reply, so I continue, “when I’m camping in summer with a group of friends doing emotional work, I always feel expanded, and because I’ve just done lots of crying and laughing with others, my heart is more open than it normally is.”
I’m circumnavigating her question. She persists. “What would that feel like?” she asks as we notice a sign saying ‘Beware Blue Algae’. Oh dear, not so green after all. The Blue Algae is reflecting my fear of answering that question. I could have said ‘like ice melting’ or ‘like wood disintegrating’, but I can’t quite feel it.
And then we come across the most inspiring sight. A meadow of blue and white vetch. It’s almost unreal, it looks so untouched by fertiliser or gardener. We stand and take it all in – in silence.
This is the point. Difficult questions followed by enough space to reflect a little. We walk on, and talk about what has happened to me in relationships with men. “I’ve been hurt,” I explain, “so I closed my heart to protect myself. I needed to have time to recover and also for my heart to beat gently on its own, without needing another to relate to.”
“What is stopping your heart opening around men now?” she asks. I reply:”Fear and a fierce critic that can find fault with men.”
Are you afraid you are a little too independent now? “Well,”I say, “I know what I want and it doesn’t have to be conventional in terms of a relationship. I don’t need a man to move in. I would be content with someone who has their own projects and passions, but wants to spend some special times with me. I’m at a time in my life where I don’t need to have a relationship but I would like to.”
“So you sound like you know what you want,” she says. And I do.
We stare across the water as moor hens and mallard ducks pootle around. I like that word. It’s an idyllic afternoon.
I wonder where around here the naturists used to gather in their glorious nudity between 1921 and 1930 when some puritanical locals objected vociferously? 200 angry anti-naked voices. This was known as the Sun-Bathing Riot of 1930.
We turn back on ourselves now but via a different route away from the water. We see a group of ancient oak trees and allow ourselves to be truly fascinated by them. In that innocent, wondrous way.
I start to tell Karen about my last true love affair which lasted 5 years, which was torturous and extremely painful. He really couldn’t give in the way that I longed for. “It sounds as though you opened your heart too much to this man,” she says, “and it was wounded for a while, but now you are ready to try again.”
Exactly, I agree. At this moment, we’re walking very slowly and we stop.
Well, I do have a date with an artist this weekend.
This was like manna to a life coach who is eager to give to her clients.
“I’d like you to imagine how your heart would feel if it were really open to this artist?” she says.
I have to close my eyes and really let myself into a situation where my heart is soft. “What does your heart look like?” she continues, refusing to let me off the hook.
“My heart feels like a rose where the red petals are falling off to reveal its centre, and it smells very fragrant,” I say as I sort of sway in an involuntary swoon. Oh gosh, I’m really getting the Mills and Boon of this now.
Will this satisfy her, I wonder. No, no, not quite.
“And how will you know if your heart is open when you meet this artist?” she says.
I have to stop again and really allow myself to feel. “I’ll feel a golden, warm feeling flowing from my heart to his, “ I reply like a true heroine.
Now she seems content. She remarks that I was doing a little dance at the end, and she likes that.
But back to my critic. “What will I do if I feel critical about something to do with him?” she asks.
“I do feel a little critical already,” I say laughing. “because he smokes. And I do smoke but only occasionally when I’m at a party.”
This throws her a little. “Ah, well, there’s criticism and there are value judgements,” she says, “for me, personally, I couldn’t go out with a smoker.”
Ah ha, well, we’ll have to see.
By this time, I can see the Sailing Club car park appearing amongst the trees. “How will you deal with your critic if she raises her head whilst your on the date?” she asks. I suggest I have an internal dialogue to ascertain how worthy the criticism is, whether it’s coming from a value I hold dear, or is arising from my fear that I will get hurt if I get close to this person.”
Oh good, she’s OK with that. “Yes, remember, an internal dialogue is a great resource,” she says finally.
I want to come back to the Welsh Harp, there are butterfly and moth walks that I’d like to go on. I feel as though that was just the beginning.
And as for Karen’s coaching, I loved being asked lots of questions. Usually, I ask the questions. I revelled in having to reflect, and go through a mini-process with her.
PSThe date was cancelled because the artist injured his back whilst pruning errant roses! So you’ll just have to watch this heart space.
PPS Heard Robert Elms’ on Radio London today declare that he had one of his first jobs cutting grass at the Welsh Harp!
Green Space Life Coaching was set up by Karen Liebenguth. Karen offers life coaching while walking in London’s parks and green spaces, indoor coaching and group workshops to reconnect with nature. The next nature connection country walk will take place on Sunday 16th October in Kent, meeting point at Charing Cross Station. See website for details http://www.greenspacecoaching.com or contact Karen 07815 591 279 firstname.lastname@example.org