Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, Eskdalemuir, Scotland

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I came across this place when looking online for places to visit on a short break in the south of Scotland. It burst onto my monitor in a multi-coloured flash and at first I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought my Google search had brought up a rogue link to a place somewhere in the Himalayan foot hills, not the rolling green hills of Dumfriesshire. Closer inspection showed me that Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Monastery did indeed have a Dumfries post code. I was hooked!

The magpie in me has always been attracted to the shiny and colourful, and this place had it in abundance. The bold, ornate temple with its dramatic art and sculpture jumped off the screen. I decided I had to go there to see for myself.

I had spent many happy childhood holidays in the Scottish border regions where my family had a static caravan. My memories are fond and include more recollections of grey skies and rain than sunshine in the blue. I’ve always found brooding grey skies and hill mists powerful and compelling.

As the little bus makes its way along the narrow road, passing through miles of uninhabited heather-covered moorland and vast forests of fir, my anticipation grows. I try to picture the spectacle of this bold oriental structure against the pastoral landscape.

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The temple comes into view. First I see a wide driveway with entrance through a grand ornamental archway. Lines of red, blue and green prayer flags flutter in the breeze. It all looks surreal. Entering from the road via a different route I find myself almost immediately in front of the temple building. Large and imposing, it is every bit as colourful as the photos suggest. This fascinating construction is a sight to behold; a feast for the eyes.

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Stepping inside, the interior is stunning. Red and gold dominates, especially in the inner sanctum where a large golden Buddha statue sits in pride of place within a glass display cabinet. Offerings of food items and trays of candles are placed before the statue which is surrounded by manifold images of saints and deities. The richly painted ceiling is a stunning canopy. Look too closely and too critically and of course you will see that all that glitters is not gold. Grandeur or bling? Artistic or tacky? Ornate or pale imitation? What would the wise man say? Maybe he’d say, ‘Don’t look to closely and just enjoy the experience.’

Outside again, I am free to roam around the site with the only ‘off- limits’ areas being the residential apartments for the monks and visitors on retreat. A flock of small birds catches my attention as they settle on a strange object placed on a balcony. I climb the stairwell to investigate. The birds take flight as I approach and I am none the wiser as to the nature of the foodstuff upon which the feathered collective has been feasting. It most resembles a small pile of melted candle wax. Descending the steps again I pass a shaven-headed monk in full garb accompanied by an American woman I’d earlier seen inside the temple. I receive a look of disapproval from the monk; perhaps I am out of bounds.

The extensive monastery gardens are a mix of pleasure and practicality. Wildflowers, sunflowers, marigolds and lavender are just a few of the flora in bloom alongside the beds overflowing with marrows, cabbages and lettuce. Some areas appear to be a work in progress. A cement mixer and piles of flagstones suggest grand ideas not yet made manifest. A brown hare appears on the path ahead where bracken has taken over and nature rules. It stands perfectly still, almost like an illusion, before darting away at the sound of approaching footsteps. Statues of the Buddha and deities and demons of Tibetan folklore turn this Scottish garden exotic and mystical. Strips of pretty fabrics adorn tree branches, prayers and wishes moving in the wind. Insects hover above the lily pads of a still pond traversed by a pretty wooden bridge.

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The ‘Tibetan Tea Rooms’ had looked very inviting on the website and I am looking forward to a wholesome veggie lunch prepared (hopefully) using the organic home-grown produce I’d seen in the vegetable garden. I am most disappointed to discover that the only food on the menu is Danish pastries and cheese & onion pasties. The enthusiastic young man who serves me informs me that there is usually soup and sandwiches too, but all the kitchen staff are new and still learning. Two packets of crisps and a refreshing bottle of elderflower cordial have to suffice. It doesn’t seem to matter in the scheme of things.

On my way back to the road I pass an intriguing building, a sort of corridor with prayer wheels arranged along one side, and what is essentially a columbarium along the other. Within glass-fronted cabinets stand rows of urns and other receptacles containing cremated remains. Most have alongside them photographs of the  people and pets whose remains are housed here, presumably members of the Buddhist community and their companions in feather and fur. Exquisitely decorated vases, bejewelled caskets, Chinese-style lacquered boxes, even hand-painted cardboard tubes all repose in the recesses. Smiling faces look out from gilded frames as the prayer wheels spin in sequence, carrying a thousand heartfelt wishes onto the breeze.

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Conishead Priory, Cumbria: a magical place

Conishead Priory, home of the Majushri Kadampa Buddhist Temple and learning and meditation centre, has experienced several incarnations in its own right. On a hot day in August in a secluded corner of the temple’s wild flower garden, it is easy to experience a sense of nirvana.

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Built on the original site of a 12th century Augustinian priory, the grade 2 listed Victorian gothic house was for hundreds of years home to many generations of Cumbrian aristocracy. It has also been a hydro-hotel, described as the ‘paradise of Furness’, a convalescent home for miners and was used as a hospital in World War II.

The Priory is about 2 miles from Ulverston Station. On their website, Conishead Priory recommends travelling there by taxi and even provides an ample list of local taxi numbers. Based on prior (no pun intended!) experience of poor taxi services in parts of Cumbria l had looked up a few more for good measure. Onthe fourth attempt I got through to a chap who sounded quite put-out that I had disturbed him, but said he would be with me in 10 minutes and was good to his word, though surly with it.

I was surprised at first that the Priory house was not older; I had misunderstood the blurb and had thought it was 12th century, but that was the when the original Augustinian building was erected. The existing house is early Victorian. Tours are available but I didn’t partake.

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A short walk across the car park leads straight into the gardens and outdoor dining area. The café is situated inside the conservatory. Monks and visitors alike sit and chat, appreciating the vibrancy of the garden and enjoying food together. The café offers a selection of vegetarian sandwiches, snacks, homemade soups, cream teas and cold drinks and ice creams.

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The gardens are beautiful in a very understated and natural way, not artistic or flamboyant, but tranquil and vibrant without trying too hard. I particularly enjoyed walking in the wildflower garden (as wildflowers are my favourites) and the many and varied pots on the terrace.

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The pleasant stroll to the beach is by way of a path which is a bit steep at the start and probably not suitable wheelchairs or prams. Follow the signs through the wood to the pebble beach; although it’s an inlet, you can see out to open sea.

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In one sense, the temple seemed so strangely incongruous in that English-country-house setting, yet it is perfectly at ease there. It wasn’t as large as I had expected and not as ornate. It’s modern and airy and has some religious art and beautiful displays. On entering, I was welcomed and given the choice of removing my shoes or covering them with the disposable covers provided. Everybody is made welcome, Buddhist or non-Buddhist alike.

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After more peace and quiet time spent looking out over the lawns behind the temple, I decided to call a taxi in plenty time to get back to Ulverston Station. After four unsuccessful attempts I managed to book a taxi which arrived about 20 minutes later.

Conishead is well worth a visit and I would defy anybody to not find something there that appeals to them, be it the grand house, the beach, the temple or the wonderful gardens.

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