The search for tranquillity used to have three perfectly simple rules, principles that had stood the test of time since first expressed by the Greek master of mental calm, Epicurus: don’t fear death or God, spend plenty of time walking in gardens with friends … and buy the kids an Xbox. Like so many other aspects of our lives, however, those wise old nuggets no longer offer a route out of the tossing maelstrom in the way they used to. Head out early to your local park and chances are every favourite tranquil corner is occupied by another cabin-fever escaper.
The lockdowns have, I reckon, made us more aware of the need for tranquillity, and the threats to it. The drop in traffic noise has been a blessing, particularly in the first lockdown. When you consider that a 2007 survey found UK cities to be shockingly noisy – at 80 decibels, Newcastle upon Tyne’s traffic was the equivalent of an alarm clock forever clanging in your ear – it’s little wonder we have noticed the difference, and liked it.
And perhaps because nights have been so quiet, we’ve looked up to the sky more, and any light pollution has seemed more intrusive. In fact, according to the 2016 report Night Blight (by CPRE, the Countryside Charity), the land area of England with dark night skies has dwindled to a measly 22%.
So what is tranquillity? CPRE research found that the essential elements for most people were “natural landscapes”, “birdsong” and “peace and quiet”. Dividing the country into 0.5km2 squares, it generated a map showing England’s most tranquil spots. Unsurprisingly, they were in the same places as the dark skies and silence. Here are my top 10 serene spots.
Ronan’s Way, Glendun, County Antrim
My first instinct is to head for the hills, somewhere like Glendun near Cushendun on the Northern Irish coast. Essentials of peace like woods, streams, the sea, and birdsong are found in abundance on Ronan’s Way, a trail created in tribute to local farmer Ronan MacAuley in this north-eastern corner of the country, 50 miles north of Belfast. The 3½-mile route (with two shorter options) winds up to some fine views – over to the Mull of Kintyre on a good day – and will inevitably be accompanied by the sound of birdsong: merlin, hen harrier and curlew if you’re lucky.
Afon Goedol, Snowdonia
Even in the hills, the golden rule when seeking peace and quiet is to look in places close to some hotspot attraction that draws the crowds. So it is with almost every Welsh mountain that is not called Snowdon. Walking south from Blaenau Ffestiniog down the Afon Goedol stream, you reach some idyllic ancient woodlands, parts of which are nature reserves and home to lesser horseshoe bats, orchids and many birds. Once busy with slate miners heading up to the Blaenau quarries, the area is now deeply peaceful. When things are more normal, work your way down to Tan y Bwlch and catch the Ffestiniog steam train back up the hill.
Fen Drayton, south Cambridgeshire
Although that first instinct to go to the mountains is understandable, tranquillity is also available in flatter forms. The area south of Cambridge is home to some quiet countryside. The Wimpole Estate is a lovely old house and grounds, but 335,000 visitors a year (in 2019) is a bit high for true tranquillity. A better option may be one of the county’s numerous nature reserves. Fen Drayton certainly passes the test for most improved on the peacefulness scale, as it was a noisy gravel extraction site until 1992. In 2020, this extensive system of lakes and reed beds was visited or inhabited by 169 species of birds.
Stour valley/Dedham Vale AONB, Suffolk
The seeker of serenity could do worse than select a decent guru to follow and John Constable (1776-1837) might be a good candidate. The artist’s own hope was to depict “the calm sunshine of the heart”, a delightful meditative ambition in an era of revolution and war. He particularly associated peacefulness with Suffolk’s Stour valley. These days the looping walk upriver from Manningtree to Dedham and back still gives plenty of the natural landscapes and birdsong that Constable knew, including Flatford Mill, once owned by Constable’s father and painted by the son several times. Since this lovely rural walk is unavailable to some of us at the moment, it does raise the possibility of enjoying a little vicarious peace by admiring Constable’s paintings, those holy icons of tranquillity, online or, eventually, in Tate Britain.
Norham Castle, Northumberland
Equally active in seeking the arcadian corners of Britain, Constable’s rival JMW Turner (1775-1851) headed north to Norham Castle, returning again and again to paint the ruins. Ivy-clad, roofless towers and crumbling battlements are, of course, ideal for escaping the riot of human activity. Besieged at least 13 times, Norham has had more than four uninhabited centuries to ruminate on past glories. From the village of Norham (on the south bank of the River Tweed, the Scotland-England border), head east for the quickest route to the castle or explore other idyllic riverside walks in the area. Turner’s serene evocation of the place, Norham Castle, Sunrise, 1845, is in Tate Britain (and online) and makes an excellent surrogate.
Jervaulx Abbey, North Yorkshire
If ruins make great theatres of meditation, Jervaulx is one of the finest stages. These darkly evocative ruins were once a great Cistercian abbey famed for its horses and its wensleydale cheese. The days of prayer, contemplation and delicious accompaniments to cream crackers were not to last, however. The abbot, Adam Sedbar, protested about the dissolution of the monasteries and was incarcerated in the Tower of London in 1537. He carved his name – it’s still visible – in Beauchamp Tower, before being hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. Since that tumultuous episode, peace has returned. If there are no other cars in the tiny car park, you’re in luck. To get the full effect, it is necessary to dress in the manner of John Keats and lie swooning on the lawns on a perfect summer evening as soaring swallows give way to owls and bats.
The stars that ’twixt the rise and fall,
Like relic-seers, shall one by one
Stand musing o’er our empty hall;
And setting moons shall brood upon
The frescoes of our inward wall.
That’s not actually Keats, but I would look even sillier dressed as Alice Meynell.
Kensal Green Cemetery, London
The aforementioned Meynell, suffragette and poet, is buried in Kensal Green, north-west London, along with dozens of other luminaries and people who ought to have been Dickensian characters, William Scamp and Barnabas Daft included. But a good cemetery can be a perfect place for the living to seek tranquillity, too. Perhaps it’s the density of weeping stone angels in the cemetery’s 29 hectares, including two conservation areas, but the atmosphere at Kensal Green is significantly more hushed than on the nearby A40. Stroll down the central avenue, admiring the handsome monuments, and muse upon the Epicurean goal of a life of pleasure pursued intelligently, ethically and without fear. It feels like a perfectly modern message. For more time to ruminate, head out along the towpath of the nearby Grand Union Canal. When looking for solace and calm in our cities, I do recommend canal networks.
Pollok Park, Glasgow
With almost four-fifths of Scotland enjoying dark skies, finding tranquillity ought to be easy. But what about in the centre of Glasgow? There is a canal network, but nothing like those of Birmingham, Leeds or Manchester. So where to go? In Gaelic the city’s name means “green place”, and it does boast more than 90 parks. Saint Mungo’s Zen garden is a little-known gem, with boulders and pebbles to recreate the serenity of nature. But, as it’s temporarily closed, I’d head for 146-hectare Pollok Park on the south side of the Clyde. It’s a lovely place for a stroll and, when things open again, home to the estimable Burrell Collection.
The Japanese garden, Gatton Park, Reigate, Surrey
For some, Zen gardens are the epitome of peace. Founded on the three principles of simplicity, naturalness and austerity, they feature large stones and carefully raked pebbles to create restful patterns. I like the curves and textures, but prefer something shaggier and greener: a Japanese garden hits the spot perfectly. Gatton Park’s example was built in 1909, then abandoned and not rediscovered until 1999. Restoration is ongoing, but this is already a lovely, restful place within a much larger park where there are many fine walks. A no-travel alternative is to start building your own zen garden – that would be a worthy lockdown project.
Kedleston Hall, Derby
If any element of a garden is able to inspire serenity, it must be the trees, especially the ancient giants. After all, the Buddha achieved enlightenment under one. In the churchyard in Crowhurst, East Sussex, there’s a venerable old yew that took a direct hit from a cannon ball during the civil war, and yet it has never complained and lives on peacefully. Estimates of its age vary from 2,000 to 4,000 years. At Croft Castle near Leominster in Herefordhsire there is a stunning array of comparatively youthful 400-year-old sweet chestnuts, and at Kedleston Hall, just five miles from Derby city centre, ancient ash trees are quietly fighting to survive their own pandemic: ash dieback. The 2.6-mile Wilderness Walk is particularly good.