Almost all of this exists only near the wilder frontiers of the management's imagination. Though a folder of photographs of tide-mills and the like has been snaffled from the internet and some stylish 1:24 scale Chinese dolls house furniture has been acquired.
There are relatively few tide-mills still in existence compared to more normal watermills. Any mill is at risk of flooding and tide-mills are susceptible to quite dramatic coastal storms. The mill at Glandford, north Norfolk, was tidal (more pedantically, in later years the mill wheel was hindered by the tides). It was seriously damaged by the 1953 coastal storm and never restored. The nearby mill at Letheringsett might once have been tidal, but this has been restored to operate from the 'normal' flow of water.
Glandford mill in 1956.
The trackbed for the one-time West Norfolk Junction Railway passes close to Caley Mill, now the main building for Norfolk Lavender. Despite its proximity to the coast there is no indication Caley Mill was ever a tidal mill.
The location of the tide-mill-cum-Daoist retreat invoked below is further downstream, closer to Eaton St Torpid station. Indeed the lake of Old Hall (in private grounds to the west of the church) could plausibly have once been the mill pond of this entirely fictional mill (although in reality this lake was almost certainly constructed as part of a major landscaping 'make over', presumably in the eighteenth century).
The story so far
Not far from Eaton St Torpid station, on the banks of the River Creake, are the ruins of a tide-mill – although with more surviving than the scant remains depicted in one of Rowland Emett's illustrations (see above – although he may have intended it to be merely the remains of a common-or-garden watermill, not a tide-mill). The management of Whittlecreek and Eaton St Torpid Heritage Railway acquired this dubious asset with vague plans to restore the building and machinery to provide an additional attraction for visitors to the railway. But a full restoration would take far more time and money than currently available. So the mininum amount of effort was expended to make the roof as watertight as possible, to minimise further deterioration. Although, as the scaffolding was the most expensive cost, one of the trustees loaned enough to cover the cost of replacing the worst of the windows. However, from a distance nothing much had appeared to change.
During the summer of 2019 the management went out to check on the mill as one of the volunteers doing permanent way activities on the track nearest the old mill had been surprised to see some whiffs of smoke from the chimney. Someone must be squatting in the somewhat better-preserved upper floors – even though there were no stairs to gain access.
Expecting to encounter some dubious drug-fuelled vagrants surrounded by rubbish, the management entered to see a curiously-designed, but recently made, wooden ladder leading up. Unlike British ladders, it was much wider at the bottom than the top. It was for all the world like a traditional Chinese ladder. To add to the oriental impression, the smell of sandalwood incense was drifting down. Were some New Age travellers chilling out? Abandoning caution, the management simply climbed up the ladder. And was astounded. Indeed, lost for words…
Far from drugs, rubbish, New Age travellers, there was a rather stout grey-haired man dressed in a traditional Chinese robe and hat, sitting in deep meditation on an elaborately-embroidered cushion. He seemed unaware of the management's presence, and all-but exuded a sense of awe. There was some simple but stylish furniture – mostly doubling as storage, an unlit fire laid in the cleaned-out fireplace, and several Chinese landscape paintings hanging on the walls. The management know just a little bit about Chinese painting – at one time having dabbled themselves – and these were pieces of a quality which would reach useful prices in an auction house.
After a few moments of taking in the scene, the management had a strong sense that they should finish ascending the ladder and take the spare seat. Not that anything had been said – the old chap was still meditating and, seemingly not even breathing let alone talking or moving.
After sitting down as quietly as possible, a sense of complete serenity overwhelmed any other thoughts. However long the contemplative recluse would continue meditating was not at all clear, but this ceased to be any cause for concern.
After a few moments – maybe a few minutes – the man suddenly turned around and, in the same moment, spoke. 'I am sorry to keep such august company waiting for a mere dabbler in the Daoist arts to complete his routine, but I am most grateful that you have been so patient.' Without allowing time for a reply, he continued, 'Would you allow me to make tea for us both? I have recently acquired some of the most excellent oolong – reputedly picked by monkeys from bushes which grow on an inaccessible cliff – and it would taste so much better if shared.'
The management could hardly respond to such a disarming opening remark with a question such as 'Why are you squatting in this building?' or even the slightly less mealy-mouthed enquiry to the effect that did he know he was talking to someone from the organisation who owned the building. A rather ineffectual 'Well, yes, that would be rather nice – if I'm not interrupting your routine any more than I have done already.'
'Not at all, not in the slightest. I was expecting you to arrive, though I had rather lost my sense of time while in meditation. I am pleased to meet you. My friends call me Lao Weng, which means "Old Gentleman" – although it has other connotations too. You, if I understand correctly, are from the management of the heritage railway which plans to run trains again to the old station.'
'Erh, yes, indeed I am. How did you recognise me – I don't make a habit of people taking photographs of me.'
'Oh, not it's not from your photo. I have my own ways of knowing who my visitors are. I think you are well aware I was able to make you feel serene while I kept you waiting. It isn't the only 'trick' I've learnt over the decades.'
Chinese tea-making appareil
The next hour or more was spent in slightly overly-formal conversation, with frequently self-deprecating remarks from Lao Weng. When asked about which part of China he was from, he guffawed with laughter – not for the first time – and revealed that he was known to his family as Nigel and had grown up in 1960s and 70s suburban housing estates in Leicestershire and Hemel Hempstead. At the age of about 25 he had first encountered Daoism and had taken an increasing interest in the extensive literature and techniques of meditation. By the time he was in his fifties his ambition was, once starting to get his state pension, to find somewhere where he could live a simple life close to flowing water and away from noise and modern distractions. It seemed an almost impossible ambition as properties in such locations seemed to sell for improbably vast amounts of money. But while on a rather impromptu visit to north-west Norfolk he had strolled away from the footpaths and discovered that this mill was not as ruined as it looked from the outside. He had moved in several weeks ago and hoped he could stay until such time as the management were ready to restore the property.
Frankly there was no reason to turn down the request. Since the repairs to the roof the council had unhelpfully started charging council tax, exactly as if a large family was living there. Having someone unobtrusively occupy part of the building would reduce the chances of it being trashed by decidedly less-sympathetic visitors.
And, anyways, if the old station to the south of the magical light railway running from Etwell-juxta-Maris could become an Eastern Orthodox shrine and centre for icon painting then why couldn't the Whittlecreek and Eaton St Torpid Heritage Railway help create a Daoist retreat with a sideline in Chinese brush painting?
St Seraphim's, the former station at Walsingham.
Having spontaneously offered 'Lao Weng' the opportunity to continue living in the tide-mill, there was the tricky issue of informing the Whittlecreek and Eaton St Torpid Heritage Railway's Property Manager of this decision taken without prior consultation.
While generally most affable, she could adopt a seriously intimidating demeanour when occasion suited. She'd once said she'd only taken the job because it made her 'The PM'. The management weren't entirely sure she was joking – she certainly wasn't doing the job for the modest salary. Her efficient way of running any number of repairs and renovations while keeping everyone enthusiastic was laudable. There's plenty of organisations which would pay well for such abilities. But he never dared ask her she was serious about wanting to be 'The PM'. At the same time he never again used the acronym and always referred to her as the Property Manager. When praised about her organisation skills she'd cheerfully reply. 'Oh, it's all on my spreadsheet.' As if…
A suitably roundabout start to the conversation built up to the moment of 'fessing up. Clearly the tactic worked as, surprisingly but with a great sense of relief, there was immediate agreement and the meeting soon concluded.
About twenty minutes later there was a knock on the management's office door. The Property Manager, with brimful tea mug in hand, stepped just inside, smiled wryly and said 'I've been thinking.' This seemingly-innocuous phrase always preceded some sort of bombshell. The full mug of tea confirmed this might take some time. 'Come in and take a seat… '
'If we give the "Old Gent" you call Lao Weng – and his mother presumably calls Nigel – a licence to occupy then he won't just be squatting. And we can set out some simple terms and conditions which means, if we really had to, we could give him notice to move out.'
'Yes, that seems a very good idea. I once had a licence to occupy my father's house, so I know of what you speak.'
'Oh good. Most people haven't a clue such things even exist. And it would be even better if he was an employee.'
'What! Nearly everyone here is a volunteer. Can't imagine what the reaction would be if we started paying someone to seemingly squat in a ruin!
'No, I wasn't thinking of paying him. Just some sort of zero-hours contract with a clause that he acts as some sort of caretaker for the mill. Nothing arduous, just enough "duties" to justify a hour or two each week. The licence to occupy effectively amounts to "grace and favour" accommodation in lieu of wages.'
'OK, if you think that will all be legit, then seems fine to me. Except I don't think we should call him a caretaker.'
'Sounds like a euphemism for someone who cleans the toilets and mops the floors. I think Lao Weng would prefer if we refer to him as the "custodian".'
'OK, if you think he'd be happier. Perhaps you can put it to him. Speaking of toilets – if we're offering a licence to occupy and trying to make things seem legit then we'd better provide some sort of basic sanitation. I seem to recall the Permanent Way crew have one of those portable chemical loos. You know, bright blue plastic.'
'… and known to the maintenance crew as the Turdis. Seem to recall it was in anticipation of some girls coming to help with the track maintenance… '
'… but the girls didn't stay long and the lads just carried on doing things in the, ahmm, manner to which they were accustomed.'
'So it seems. I'll ask if the Turdis is sufficiently dimensionally transcendental to be moved through time and space to the mill. There's space inside the ground floor of the mill so it won't stick out like a prop from Dr Who.'
'What about potable water? Presumably Lao Weng has been dangling a bucket in the river. We'd better get hold of some of those barrels-on-wheels that campers use and fill them up once a week or so. At least we can claim to be looking after his well-being.'
'Sounds good also. Leave it with me. I'll stop by and have a chat. I'll let you know what response I get.'
Intrigued by what the response might be, the management found a need to pass nearby later that day, so parked up and walked the trackbed from the level crossing then, after a couple of hundred yards, took the path towards the mill. But the ladder had gone. As, seemingly, had Lao Weng. But a faint whiff of incense was just discernible, more because it was such a distinctive smell. As fragrances are wont to do, it brought back memories of their amiable meeting. Had Lao Weng left for good? The management felt a wave of disappointment that their meeting might have been just a one-off occasion. Perhaps, now someone knew of his presence, the attraction of living there as a recluse had palled? Or had Lao Weng just gone shopping and hidden the ladder to stop someone walking in and taking his belongings? Making a mental note to bring some sort of ladder next time to access the upper floor and take a peek, the management slowly walked away.
A couple of days later and, even after realising a ladder might be needed even though this had otherwise been forgotten, the management started strolling towards the old mill. By the time he got to the gate from the trackbed he could see that once more a hint of smoke seemed to be rising from the chimney. The management couldn't stop there and then as this would have meant missing a meeting with Bill Wainwright, the
Whittlecreek and Eaton St Torpid Heritage Railway's Workshop Manager. Bill was having a little difficulty with the designer of the Bulrush dining car, who kept coming up with what he called 'better ideas' even though the construction drawings had been signed off over a month ago. Well, trying to come up with what seemed to be the world's first Art Deco dining carriage was always likely to require a few 'afterthoughts'.
However Bill's concerns were easily addressed – seems he was mostly worried about the project slightly over-spending the very tight budget – and, even though it was already quite late in the afternoon, a walk to the tide-mill on the way back seemed necessary. The ladder was back. And there were sounds of movement. Lao Weng's face appeared above the ladder and immediately broke into a big smile. Despite the overly-humble greetings which he had clearly adopted from Chinese practices, the pleasure at seeing a visitor seemed genuine. He repeatedly apologised for his absence a few days before, then continued
'I'd like to think I was "cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown" as the old Daoist hermits who went wandering in the mountain forests were fond of saying. In reality I was hidden by a sea fret but quite aware of my location along the coast path up near where so-called "Sea Henge" was found. But, in my mind at least, almost as enchanting as being lost in a rocky forest.'
After the preparation of tea – approached by Lao Weng as if it was a reverential rite but nevertheless seemingly more an act of spontaneity than rigid ritual – followed by the somewhat formal but nevertheless light conversation while drinking, it was time to raise the topic of legalising Lao Weng's residence. He seemed visibly moved that the Property Manager was not only accepting of his occupation, but wanted to make everything 'proper' without trying to make things so straight he no longer wanted to be there. However, the notion of a bright blue portable toilet didn't initially go down well. Even the scatological nickname produced barely a smile. But having explained that the railway couldn't allow someone to live there without providing such facilities, the management remarked that whether Lao Weng preferred to use 'alternative facilities' instead was, of course, his prerogative.
Lao Weng uttered one of his charactistic guffawing laughs. Quite clearly he had already worked out some satisfactory 'facilities' in the time he had been living there. There was no need to ask what they might be.
The suggestion that he might prefer to be a 'custodian' rather than merely a 'caretaker' brought on a wave of happy laughter. '"Custodian of the Abode of Mysterious Origination" indeed,' he managed to say, in between laughter.
'Abode of what… ?'
'Oh, the Abode of Mysterious Origination is a rather mystical expression from the T'ang dynasty, which refers to the place where the whole of creation is in a constant state of emergence. But it just struck me as a suitable name for this home.'
The real meaning of the name sounded most intriguing, but this would have to wait for another occasion.
Lao Weng seemed even more moved – this time triggering a whole string of self-effacing remarks – when the management suggested that he might be willing to take on a little 'property improvement' – if Whittlecreek and Eaton St Torpid Heritage Railway supplied the materials – as, judging by the ladder he made, he seemed to have real skills as a craftsman.
'Truth be told, even if my skills are as nothing to real masters of their crafts, making and repairing things gives me my greatest pleasure. But it's the one thing I can't do much of while I'm here. Yes, tell me what you think needs doing and I'll say if I think I could help.'
When Lao Weng revealed that the wood to make the ladder had been 'blagged', it was the management's turn to laugh out loud, explaining that Whittlecreek and Eaton St Torpid Heritage Railway restoration projects often relied on materials which had been 'blagged' in one way or another. 'You could be a real asset, Lao Weng!'
'Oh, I could never think of myself that way. But, on the basis that I might in some trivial way be of some minor assistance to the maintenance of the railway's property, might I ask one favour? You are, of course, at liberty to decline. Could I arrange for the occasional letter to be addressed to the railway's offices? I would of course collect about once a week. It's odd that I can order something which comes in a package using a mobile and opting for click-and-collect at a local shop but I can't expect the Post Office to deliver letters to a seemingly-derelict mill, especially as I might be out when they came and, as you are well aware, there isn't exactly a front door with a letter box.'
The management quickly concurred, noting that the hypothetical postie would have to walk a couple of hundred yards alongside the heritage railway's tracks, jump over a locked gate clearly marked as 'No public access' before discovering there was no door or letterbox. The management was about to recite one of his favourite passages from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy about the planning notice for the destruction of Earth being on display at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'. But then thought better of it.
There was access to the mill through the grounds of the Old Hall, but the owner, though generally very ameniable, would probably not be overly-happy about Post Office vans driving the length of their garden, which would be the only practical option. Back to more immediate matters. How would Lao Weng know when letters had actually turned up? Wouldn't it be better if they were dropped off in a day or two, which might coincide with replenishing the potable water containers?
'And if I'm not here I'll show you a hiding place that you can use. And if you leave a distinctive piece of old wood – I'll show you where it is normally – on the ground near where I set up the ladder then I'll know to check the hiding place. Even if there's no letter and you just need to leave me a message, then the same arrangement would work.'
Presumably Lao Weng had been thinking about this, as it seemed a little too good to have just been made up in the moment. This seemed almost certainly the case when he continued
'Although I rather like the name "Abode of Mysterious Origination" it would be best if this was just between you and me. If the letters are addressed to the "Valley Spirit Hermitage" care of the railway offices then would this suffice?'
The management couldn't think of a more fitting name – not least because of this too borrowed a somewhat mystical phrase from Daoist literature, although one that would be known to anyone who had read the Dao de Jing – or Tao te Ching as it used to be romanised.
After more enjoyable conversation it was time to return to the road. A bit tricky as it was now almost dark. But Lao Weng lent one of his torches. He understandably had several. Two things the management must do. Keep a torch with the hi-vis jacket he donned before walking down the side of the track. And have a chat with Tony, the owner of the Old Hall, to let him know the old mill had a custodian living there. Though probably best not to say he was a Daoist hermit.
What should have been just a quick phone call to Tony to pass on the information that Nigel – he deliberately used Lao Weng's ordinary name – had been employed by the railway to act as a live-in custodian while the interior was being restored soon took off in an altogether different direction.
'Ah, pleased to hear progress has resumed. Thanks for letting me know. But I suppose the real purpose of this call is to ask me for another ten grand?'
'Well, actually, it wasn't.' The management could feel themselves blushing for not even thinking that this might be Tony's expectation. Caught completely offguard he could only blurt out 'But if you were feeling that way inclined then I'm sure my finance officer would be pleased to hear from you.'
In all honesty the management had not even thought about 'tapping up' Tony for yet more funds. After all he'd effectively given away the old mill, and paid the farmer who owned the adjacent field for enough land to make an access track and – at some time in the very indefinite future – a halt at the side of the line. Not to mention making a major contribution to the cost of the scalfolding and re-roofing, which was then matched by two different grant-giving organisations – plus a useful donation from one the railway's trustees – so the windows were repaired or replaced and the walls repointed where necessary as well. Without Tony's deep pockets the mill would most likely still be rotting away.
Though, as Tony reminded the management, this was not entirely altruistic. If the mill had remained in his ownership then he would have had to restore it as if it was a listed building. Not that it was listed – thank goodness – but because it had been legally part of the curtilage of the Old Hall, which was indeed Grade II. Simply by selling it – more or less giving it away in this case – changed its legal status. Although the management realised that Tony still thought about the mill as if it was still part of his property. Indeed from the hall it was visible at the far end of the park-like garden. Tony reminded the management that paying part of the costs of getting the mill restored was both much cheaper and easier than organising the restoration himself.
Tony was indeed happy to 'make a contribution' on the understanding that the railway applied for grants to at least double his money. Although such grants were very time-consuming to apply for, with no certainty that the time would not have been totally wasted, if successful then quite significant improvements to the inside of the old mill could be accomplished as the money would mostly be spent on materials. A surprising number of volunteers with experience of doing up buildings could be called upon by the management team. Lao Weng seemed to have added himself to their ranks.
Plans for the rest of the morning largely went out the window and instead an hour or so was spent putting together a list of what could sensibly be achieved. What was left of the mill machinery would just have to stay as it was for the time being. As the ground floor was always at risk of flooding there was little point in doing anything more than had been done already. Top of the list for the inside was replacing the staircases as the old ones had mostly rotted. The lower part of the one up to the first floor had suffered badly from flood damage and had been removed to prevent an accident, which is why a ladder was needed to get in.
However if this staircase was replaced then a secure entrance door on the first floor was necessary. This might be the trickiest part as the door which was there was flimsy and hung from a frame which could be easily dislodged. But where there's a will there's a way…
The best way to deal with the inconsistent state of preservation of the floorboards would be to cover them with plywood. A lot of plywood but cheaper than redoing the boards. The ply could always be lifted in the future if a full restoration of the floor was necessary. The floorboards in the top storey were especially ropey as prior to the roof restoration birds had been nesting, pooping and dying there. Indeed, clearing out all the 'crap' (literally and otherwise) had been decidedly unpleasant and very time consuming. And, to make things as cosy as possible for the custodian, the old living quarters could be drylined and the ceilings renewed.
Lao Weng would have to put up with volunteers being around – the Turdis would be essential. And a lockable steel tool store would have to be set up outside.
A chat with the Property Manager before talking to Lao Weng seemed the only sensible strategy. Should anything be added to this list? Making a quick guess about costs – but not assuming any special discounts or other generous offers from suppliers which, in practice, were likely to arise – then this seemed to be be about the right scope for the amount Tony had offered. So any grants could be used to fund the tricky matter of getting mains water all the way from the road. And burying a septic tank to deal with the water after it had been used. Being so close to a watercourse did create problems when it came to disposing of anything resembling sewage. An electricity supply seemed unnecessary until such time as the mill was likely to be opened to the public, and that still seemed a long way off.
Knowing that these proposals would not necessary fit in with Lao Weng's idea of a quiet life the management broached them rather gently. Seems Lao Weng's woodworking skills had been acquired in the 1970s, when he was very much still Nigel and working as a chippie on building sites in West Yorkshire. This was in the days before power tools had taken over the construction trades, so he was ideally suited to supervise a project on a site which would have only a generator to call upon.
No, this wasn't the management imposing a generator on Lao Weng. The not-so-gentle whirr of a small portable generator had greeted his arrival. It had been one of Lao Weng's first online purchases after getting the thumbs up to stay. 'How else can I recharge my mobile and torches?' had been his response. The tool store, most surprisingly, had been welcomed – so long as he was told the combination for the lock as he now had a bicycle to conceal. He made two stipulations about volunteers. Firstly, that only a small number knew about the fact he was living there, and were sworn to secrecy. Secondly, they would not arrive before nine in the morning and would be gone by five in the afternoon so his daily routine for meditation was not disturbed.
As the volunteers were most unlikey to arrive that early, and no doubt would be quite happy to leave by five, then that was easy. Ensuring secrecy might be trickier… The management left with the impression that Lao Weng was entirely happy with the plans for him to coordinate the restoration of 'his hermitage'.
After the management had been visiting for nearly two months, and the conversation was flowing amiably, the moment seemed appropriate to ask a question which did not seem to have an obvious answer.
'Excuse me for asking, but what exactly do Daoist recluses do?'
'Such a silly question!' Lao Weng roared in mock indignation, 'Be very sure we do not!'
'Do not what?'
'A Daoist's cardinal principle is wu-wei, often translated as "non-action". So asking Daoists what they do is like asking Christians which sins they prefer. But we do have our own way of doing. A more informed translation of we-wei is "action rooted in the Dao". Which means that we avoid calculated activities but happily engage in seemingly intuitive and spontaneous ones, especially those responding to immediate needs.'
'I see,' was the hesitant-sounding reply, with the tone of voice suggesting that clarity of insight might be lacking.
'Spontaneous actions arise from a mind that resembles a deep pool of stillness with barely the wind ruffling the surface. This comes from meditation practices before dawn and after sundown. These induce circulation of the ch'i or qi – the subtle energy which gives its name to both Reiki and Tai Ch'i. Which is why I rise about two hours before dawn. Although when the sky is clear I am often up much of the night anyway.'
'Yes the stars can be seen quite clearly here when conditions are right – sometimes even the Milky Way.'
'Indeed. Though the Chinese know it as the Sky River and it's by far the most important part of their sky lore. Did you know that one name for Daoist monasteries was kuan, which has the literal meaning of "watch places" or observatories?'
Without waiting for an answer, Lao Weng continued
'By the time of the T'ang dynasty – when England was still in the middle of the Anglo-Saxon era – Daoism had something of a heyday. And astronomy was to the fore of Daoist interests at that time. T'ang sky lore is something which especially interests me.'
Which, the management surmised, was Lao Weng's characteristically self-effacing way of saying he was something of an expert.
'Depending how one choses to translate an account from 710 AD, they could recognise noctilucent clouds. It took till towards the end of the twentieth century for occidental meterologists to make the same recognition. Get some good ones from time to time here, has to be said.'
Lao Weng was clearly in his element. But, sensing that his visitor's understandings of such matters were not sufficient to sustain the conversation, he seemingly changed topic.
'Did I tell you I saw a hoopoe not so long ago?'
The management's enthusiasm for birds knew that such sightings were not uncommon in Norfolk, but still notable.
'In China the hoopoe is a Daoist sylph. It's like seeing the spirit of a Daoist Immortal, dressed in an archetypal crane-feather cloak and star hat. In Western mythology the hoopoe has a much more limited role – acting as a go-between for Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Rather an interesting role, has to be said, but not a patch on how the Chinese view the hoopoe.'
Seems Lao Weng's understated expertise extended beyond arcane aspects of Chinese culture. He wondered if Lao Weng had managed to acquire a crane-feather cloak and star hat. Whatever that might be. Seemed a little unlikely but not totally impossible. But perhaps it wouldn't be polite to ask.
Things steadily evolved according to plan. A grant was applied for but with the pessimistic thought that who knows how many iterations of 'jumping through hoops' would be needed. As it happened the phone rang just a few days later. 'You've got the application wrong,' sounded the rather jolly voice at the other end. The management's heart sank. How do you deal with women who sound so jolly when delivering bombshells. 'You could apply for a bigger grant if there's anything else that needs funding.' The management's heart seemingly missed several beats…
Apparently their way of calculating match funding took into account the value of the volunteers' not inconsiderable time. It was agreed that the application would be resubmitted after getting an estimate for the cost of laying both a water supply and an electric cable – although the cost of the latter really was likely to be too high. And so it came to pass without any undue ado. The grant would cover the interior renovation and the water supply. But anything else – including a septic tank – would have to wait
The local timber merchant said 'Leave it with us' when asked for a price for all the materials. Then came back with generally sharp prices, apart from the biggest item – all the plywood for the floors – which was offered at a price just a small fraction of list. Seems it would be worth importing a whole container load and, after 'offloading' what was needed for the mill, enough profit could be made from the rest of the delivery. Most helpful – the 'left over' money would go a long way towards the septic tank.
Only one detail changed. The sheer difficulty of regularly swapping over portable loos where there's no easy road access meant that the Turdis never made it to the mill. It would be much easier to buy a portable 'potty' as sold for camper vans and create a simple cubicle for privacy. In the event one of the volunteers had a friend with an old caravan he needed to dispose of and offered to tow it to the mill so it could go into retirement serving double duties as a toilet cum 'mess room' for the volunteers.
None of the railway's previous projects had ever come together so smoothly.
When the management reported the surprisingly easy progress Lao Weng cryptically replied 'But I told you this was the Abode of Mysterious Origination.'
After allowing the perplexed silence to continue just a little longer than was comfortable for the management, he continued
'You remember. The Abode of Mysterious Origination, when it's not merely a fanciful name for my humble abode, is the place where the whole of creation is in a constant state of emergence. You – and the restoration project – are all part of the Dao so everything flows nicely according to we-wei, "action rooted in the Dao".'
'Well, if the smooth progress is anything to do with your rituals and observances then the railway is as grateful to you as we are for your assistance with the restoration, supervising the volunteers while doing a large proportion of the trickier carpentry yourself, if I've been informed correctly.'
'Well, it's my pleasure to help in whatever small ways I can. But I can take no credit for making the project go smoothly. You must give your thanks directly to Great Master Po Yuen. Come with me. I've been waiting for an opportunity to introduce you.'
Oooh errr. Lao Weng had invited at least one of his cronies to stay. That wasn't part of the licence to occupy. Following in a silence that could easily have been thought stony, they went down the ladder then over towards some undergrowth which followed the boundary with the Old Hall gardens. Set on a plinth made from old bricks piled up without mortar was a stone sink. Or, rather, two fragments of such a sink which had been bound together with rope in such a way that they were able to hold soil. But not just soil. Within the small confines was a complex landscape of fantastically-shaped stones, alpine plants, a miniature tree, a model of a Chinese bridge in ceramic and some other curiosities. It all melded together to be something much more than simply the sum of the parts.
Lao Weng bowed down low and muttered some formal greeting which the management failed to catch.
'It's best if you follow custom and bow down before the Great Master, apologising for disturbing him while he is at home.'
The management did their best to emulate Lao Weng's earlier posture, feeling a little bit of a fraud for it not seeming at all natural.
'Not that the Great Master seems to be at home. Po Yuen had human form in the seventeeth century but as an Immortal he chooses to assume the form of a small dragonfly, although one which is generally invisible.'
The management were at a loss to know how seriously Lao Weng believed this. In all their previous conversation there was an erudite understanding of Daoism, for sure, but nothing as, well, whimsical as the idea that the spirit of a famous Daoist who had been dead for over three hundred years had chosen to live in a beaten-up Belfast sink near the Norfolk coast. Although it had been done up in a way which a small dragonfly which was generally invisible might well think was attractive…
Lao Weng brought some incense out from his robe and then some matches, and proceeded to let it burn at the front of the sink, then invited the management to thank Po Yuen for all his assistance. Happily – although perhaps a little unconvincingly – the management acquiesced. More bowing and polite obsequences preceded their departure.
To restart the conversation the management remarked that Lao Weng had done an excellent job of making the badly damaged sink into a shrine to Po Yuen.
'Oh no! It's not a shrine to Po Yuen. The sink – as it was once – is indeed now a shrine, but one dedicated to the Supreme Consort of the Yin-numen Jade Purity of the Nine Quintessences, who sits within the Dipper with purple mists swirling about her divine figure. I am honoured that Po Yuen wishes to make my modest assemblage into his earthy abode.'
If the management had been both perplexed and bemused before, then both those sentiments were quadrupiled.
'Do you have time before you go for some more tea?' asked Lao Weng, breaking what might have been a heavily pregnant pause in the conversation.
Later that evening, after the somewhat bemusing visit to Lao Weng, the management thought again about what he'd said about the Abode of Mysterious Origination. In some hard-to-pin-down way, since the 'Old Gentleman' had manifested at the old mill – heaven alone knows how and why he discovered it – the whole railway seemed to be moving forwards much more smoothly than hitherto. Even Bill, the Workshop Manager, who was known for being a tad tetchy at times, had become more relaxed about any changes and modifications which proved to be necessary. And it seemed the volunteers were rubbing along together, even the ones who had not been sworn to secrecy about what exactly was happening at the tide-mill so – presumably – knew nothing about its custodian.
It was if – and this sounded far-fetched – the whole railway operation was now safely in the Abode of Mysterious Origination. Could what Lao Weng said really be real? Indeed, could he have meant far more than he said? That alone would be quite typical of his usual modest way of speaking.
Progress inside the old mill was surprisingly swift. A team of three volunteers – not always the same chaps – usually turned up Wednesdays and Thursdays. In between Lao Weng did what he called 'this and that'. Which was seemingly far more than the four of them could do in two days. But this wasn't some supernatural ability to turn lengths of timber and sheets of plasterboard into drylining and new walls (the plywood flooring had been laid first).
It turned out that Sal, who in the tourist season made and sold pots from her 'emporium' of two grounded coaches at Eaton St Torpid station, had volunteered to lend a hand on some of the days when 'the lads' were not about. Turns out she and Lao Weng got on well. 'But not in that way', insisted Lao Weng, 'I'm well aware I'm old enough to be her grandfather. It's just that we're both creative people at heart. And she turns out be nearly as useful with wood as she is with clay.'
Sal, in turn, had said that it gave her something to do other than look at the walls of her little flat until it was time to start making pots again. And she was keen to learn about Daoism from Lao – 'It's going to help me make better pots,' she had said. Everyone except the management called him by this abbreviated form of his adopted name, despite his protestations that he would prefer to be 'Weng' not 'Lao' as that meant 'gentleman' rather than just 'old'. But no one seemed willing to call him by a name which seemed like a surname, so 'Lao' had stuck.
The caravan proved useful as more than just a mess room and toilet once the nights had got really chilly. It was easier for Lao to use the Calor gas fire in the 'van than keep a wood fire alight all night in the mill. And far less draughty. But he still did his meditation sessions in the mill, with thermos flasks of black tea to hand as his main way of keeping warm. The volunteers joking said that on Wednesdays and Thursdays they spent more time boiling up the kettle for Lao's seemingly insatiable thirst for his preferred way of taking tea than they ever spent working with wood or whatever. But once the dry lining had been completed then Lao moved back into the mill. But he did say that the biggest outgoing he now had was buying loads of firewood – and the most amount of exercise was getting it shifted from the road all the way to the first floor of the mill. The management promised to have a word with Tony and see if deliveries could be made through the grounds of the Old Hall. And, although he hadn't admitted it, Lao had already blagged some rope and planned to get the mill's original sack lift working again – though without the original water-powered arrangement.
In the event Tony not only said 'Of course! Just ask him to tell my housekeeper when a delivery is expected.' Then followed up with 'But why's he spending good money on firewood? There's enough stacked up here by the gardeners to keep him going for a couple of winters at the very least. But it will need cutting down to more sensible lengths. Can Nigel use a chainsaw?' Generous as ever, Tony gave the mobile number of the head gardener so Nigel could sort things out. 'But I hear that most people call him "Lao" not Nigel,' Tony continued. The management explained as briefly as they could, without quite saying that the intention was to set up a Daoist hermitage. But, knowing Tony's astute ways of thinking, he might guess as much anyway.
The Property Manager herself had put in a few visits to check on progress. Lao had persuaded her that it would make sense to fit electric wiring and sockets, as well as the basic plumbing, before finishing off the dry lining. He was well aware that connecting the water supply might take a little time and electricity somewhat longer. But until then the wiring could be fed from the generator, so long as it wasn't overloaded. Installing these services later could be done but would be trickier. The plumbing he could install, so long as plastic pipes and push-fit joints were acceptable. But the electrics would have to be supervised and signed off by someone qualified. For once this was a project not lurching into over-spend so this eminently sensible approach was quickly approved.
Word went out among the local contractors to keep an eye open when replacing a kitchen sink, loos, wash basins or a shower to pass on anything which was still serviceable. It took less than a fortnight for several of these to appear at the railway's goods inwards – along with lengths of pipe, assorted joints and other things which the tradesmen said were spare to their requirements and 'just might come in handy'. More than enough of each appeared – the loos alone came in a variety of styles and colours – along with three cooker hobs, two ovens, no less than four extractor hoods (one brand new) and a fridge-freezer. One thing about folk in this part of the world, they were happy to help the railway in any number of small ways. The electrician also said he'd do the job for as little as possible – which turned out to be £60, even though he'd spent the best part of two weekends working with Lao. The budget for the water supply was still untouched.
And so it continued. The farmer whose land had been acquired for the access from the railway track was happy to allow the water pipe to be mole-ploughed into his side of the boundary. 'Let me have a word with young Dave. From what his dad, old Dave, said I don't think he's got that much work on right now. If I offer to pay for his diesel then we just might get it done for a few beers. Well make that quite a few beers. Still acts like he's a young farmer, even though he's turned thirty.'
There was still the tricky issue of getting the water alongside the track to the road, but the 'pee-ways' (the Permanent Way team to those not in the know) saw no reason not to run it through the concrete conduit which otherwise had only the signalling cables in it. 'And we'll know which is which because the pipe will be blue and the cables are black. So no one should cut through it too often.' A wry comment which recalled a recent accident when compacting ballast which had led to one of the trains being stranded on the way back from Whittlecreek when the signal cable had been severed. 'And while we've got the lids up we might as well drop the power cable in. Is the chap who's mole-ploughing the water pipe in also handy with a backhoe attachment too, so we can bury the cable? That ways we'll know where the water's been run and there's no risk of cutting it when the trench for the 'lectrics gets dug.'
The combined savings in expenses here, there and almost everywhere meant that the not inconsiderable cost of the cable and whatever Dave or a mate might want for a day or three with a big JCB would just about be met from what was in the pot. OK, there wasn't enough left in the kitty to pay for the water and electric to be connected just yet. And the septic tank would just have to wait. But no doubt 'something would come up' in due course.
And indeed. Within a month planning permission was granted for a new cafe and much-needed toilets for visitors to Eaton St Torpid Bay. Nothing to do with the railway – except that running trains to the Bay had greatly increased the number of visitors there, hence the need for the loos. Which the local council had tied-in to the permission to build an equally-necessary cafe. A discount on the business rates by offloading the need to clean and maintain the 'facilities'. Just might work…
Of course the cafe and loos required water, electricity and sewage. And to get from the road to the site these would have to pass underneath the railway tracks. Not too long afterwards a suitably formal letter from the developer requesting wayleave arrived on the management's desk. Knowing that such letters in effect say 'Name your price – we haven't got much choice except to cough up' the management chose instead to pick up the phone to the person whose name appeared at the bottom, above a suitably imposing job title. Opting to throw all formalities out the window, the management started 'Hello. It's the Whittlecreek and Eaton St Torpid Heritage Railway here. Can we do a deal?' Indeed, after less than a quarter of an hour of amiable discussion, rather than part with the modern day counterpart to hard cash, the developer was quite happy to meet the railway's costs of connecting up water and electricity by the level crossing as well as to his new property. And even to dig whatever trenches were needed to get from the road to the concrete conduit. 'Leave it with me,' the bigwig at the other end of the line said, 'I'll drop you a line confirming all this.'
So the mill would be getting everything needed except the sewage arrangements. No need to panic about that just yet though. 'Something good will turn up', as Wilkins Micawber would have said. Was Dickens aware of wu-wei when writing David Copperfield? Probably not.
Yes, the railway could have requested a tidy sum of money for wayleave – and probably got it. But then there would be the hassle of getting the water and electrics suppliers all organised, plus the potentially even bigger hassle of organising contractors. Far better to take what might seem like less, but to leave nearly all the effort to someone else. There was enough for everyone involved with the railway – staff and volunteers – to do without doing something would could more easily done by an outside organisation. And, no doubt, the developer would be happy for his 'bottom line' to look a bit better than he anticipated. And, if so, perhaps creating a small reserve of 'goodwill' which might be called upon at some future occasion…
Lao's living arrangements were approaching completion – once the water and electrics had been connected then only the septic tank still needed to be sorted, and the paintwork actually painted. But the 'Old Gentleman' himself was rarely to be seen. Was he spending more time with Sal, despite everything that they'd both said? But no, when the management stopped by at her 'emporium' – it was already time to start renewing stocks of pots in time for Easter and then the main tourist season – she said she'd only been getting the occasional email from him. Seems he had family down on the south coast and needed to visit 'Before they pop their clogs,' as he'd put it. Lao had been vague even to Sal and she thought it wrong to ask more. But she also said that, although he'd greatly enjoyed working on the refurbishment, he was happy that there wouldn't be volunteers around two days a week. Lao had said he could 'rub along' with Sal, she reported, but found 'blokes' more difficult. Not that there was anything difficult about the volunteers, Lao just had difficulties with engaging with most other people.
Oh, thought the management. Does Lao think I'm a bit too much of a 'bloke' too? He'd never thought it might be the case. As if reading his thoughts, Sal said 'But that doesn't include you! Lao said he's never met anyone who seems to be so understanding. I think I can see what he means.' Caught slightly off-guard, the reply of 'Oh well, that's good to know,' seemed decidedly understated. 'If you get a chance, let me know when Lao's back. I'd like to have a meet up just to check if there's snags which need sorting, and what the next phase – beyond the all-important sewage arrangements – could shape up like.'
In truth, the management needed to have some idea what Lao's ideas for the greatly upgraded 'hermitage' might be. It wasn't important that the railway made money from the premises and any thought of creating a money-spinning tourist attraction was in the indefinite future as this needed the mill equipment to be at least partly restored, and for the halt to be built as well the path to be upgraded. Could there just be a way of 'quietly' promoting it as a Daoist retreat? At most, offering a few 'exclusive' weekends for those interested in learning more about, say, Chinese paintings? The management would not be in the least surprised if Lao had not already had some thoughts about what he would like. And, more importantly, what he would not like.
Sal once again seemed to be right on the ball. Without any prompting she asked 'Lao did say, once the toilets are properly plumbed, he was going to ask if he could run a few "weekend retreats" for some of his Daoism students. Well, you know how modest he always is, so he doesn't call them "students". But a rose by any other name, and all that. I think it's all by invitation – nothing so common or garden as advertising in the Sunday papers.' The management said, 'Well, that's certainly something we can discuss when he's around.'
In truth it fitted in well with how the old mill might be used. There was just the practical issue that, unless the means could be found to improve the access then, to conform with the law, each of Lao's 'students' would be required to wear hi-vis while walking alongside the railway track. Not perhaps the apparel of traditional followers of the Way, for whom daopao robes, crane-feather cloaks and 'star hats' would be the norm. But he didn't see it as a deal-breaker. Anyone working or volunteering with the railway was issued with hi-vis as a matter of routine, although most of the volunteers working on the mill, because their day jobs were in construction trades, already had a full set of safety gear in their vans. Lao had simply responded to the request to comply with law by offering to wear his reflective cycling 'tabard' when alongside the track. He seemed to have passed the suggestion on to Sal. Both of them used bikes to get around so their hi-vis tabards were always with them.
The management were getting used to this improved way of getting the bigger projects done. 'Young Dave' was as good as his word and did a full stint of mole-ploughing and trench digging. When asked how much he'd spent on the fuel a small wad of twenties was offered. 'Here. That's twice what you've spent on fuel. I understand the driver might need refueling on beer. Have a few on us.' Genuine surprise and appreciation duly followed. 'Are you sure? I thought the railway was a charity and needed all the help it could get.' To which the management responded, in all truthfulness, that his help with the JCB had been worth far more.
Young Dave then said if there was anything else he could help with then just ask. And it was only appropriate to ask if he might be willing to dig the hole for the septic tank.
'Of course I'd be happy to. When's it being dropped off?
'Well it's quite a big one – we've been told to get a 5,000 litre job in case we ever get lots of visitors. Is that a bigger hole than you were thinking?'
'Well, a hole's a hole, in'it? Some come big and some come smaller. No worries, that'll just keep me from under the feet of the missus for just a little bit longer.'
After telling young Dave it would be a few weeks yet as the tank hadn't yet been ordered the management reiterated it was most a most generous offer and he'd be in touch when he knew more.
Back in the office he duly reported back to the Property Manager. 'Ah good! I've been sitting on about £3k of the maintenance budget in case your work at the mill went overbudget. I know what you're like… But seems things are staying on target for once. It'll soon be the next financial year so anything unexpected in the next few weeks can be funded from next year's budget. Shall I raise an order for the septic tank and pipework using that spare money?'
'Well, I'm hardly going to say "No" am I? I won't rise to the bait about my well-honed abilities to keep expenditure to just a little the wrong side of agreed limits.'
The conversation dealt with some practicalities of whether to trouble Tony for access via his garden or to offload at the roadside and use a Telelifter to get it along the railway track and down the track to the mill. 'Perhaps we should put a shout out for someone who has the right equipment before we commit to offloading by the road, just in case there's no one willing or able to help.'
'Don't see why we won't get an offer of help. There always seems to be one of those Teleloaders in front of me whenever I'm trying to get to the main road in any sort of rush, so there can't be a shortage. Would be a first if we couldn't get the necessary assistance.'
'Indeed. I can't understand why the local lads involved in some aspect of construction or another almost bend over backwards to help the railway out. Can't seem to do enough for us. Not that I'm complaining!'
'You know why that is, don't you?'
'No, not a clue.'
'Surely you're aware of what the railway has done for the locals like them? We've brought almost as many tourists to the top left-hand corner of Norfolk as the RSPB. And ours spend more in the shops, cafes and pubs – the twitchers tend to bring a flask and sandwiches. As some of that money goes straight out again as wages and building maintenance and such like, a proportion of what's spent by the tourists does another iteration through the tills of the local businesses. As one of the pub managers said to me, "What's good for the railway is good for everyone who lives and works round here." And I doubt very much he's the only one who thinks that way.'
'I'd never thought about it like that! Too busy trying to keep the show on the road, or the wheels on the tracks, or whatever.' A sobering thought that setting up what still aimed to be the world's whackiest railway could have such an impact – and a generally positive one at that – on so many people.
'There's at least one other reason too. It's because we're meticulous about giving each of them a thank you on the railway's web site.'
'Really? Is that all it takes?'
'Well, yes and no. Seems they're more than happy for what is tantamount to free advertising. But one of them told me last week that there's a bit of "needle" going on between them. If one of them hasn't put in a few days volunteering for the railway – at least the ones who don't have full-on commitments to young families or such like – then there's a bit of ribbing until they do a stint, or donate something useful, or whatever. Just pointed remarks like "I've not seen you up the railway for a while."'
'So to be one of lads means helping the railway out? Well, can't say I have any objections! Though I do hope no one feels unduly pressured.'
'No, seemingly not. From what the chap I spoke to said it seems the sorts of jobs needed to help the railway make an interesting change from building extensions or whatever their usual trade entails. A bit of "job satisfaction" combined with kudos with your mates – not to mention the buckshee publicity – and all seems to add up to make working for free for a few days worthwhile. Perhaps helps that some of the ones I've met are winding down their businesses as they get older. And there can't be enough paid work to fill every day of every week for all of them.'
'Whatever. Here's to keeping the "tradition" going. And I wonder if there's some sort of "needle" among the local suppliers too? Getting all that plywood for the floors for next-to-nothing wasn't the first generous assistance. Remember when we were doing up this place and a whole roof's worth of trusses and purlins were offered at about half the proper price? And then, when the invoice hadn't arrived after nearly three months, I mentioned this to the branch manager when he was quoting for something else. "Oh, haven't you seen it? My dog must have ate it. Difficult for me to raise another one now. Just don't mention it to anyone and everything will be fine."
'You never told me that before.'
'Well he said not to tell anyone, so I haven't before. I asked him to thank his dog for being so generous, and he couldn't stop laughing. So far as I'm aware the chap's never had a dog. I could hardly ask. But one day, much later, when I went to collect something or other, he was on his computer and clearly in a bad mood. "The dog's just eaten an invoice again!" There was no indications of an offending hound. "Oh dear," I said, 'Can you raise another one? "Not easily, that's the problem. The daft 'a'p'orth what wrote the software hadn't a clue. Would you believe there's an option to cancel an order even after everything's been delivered? And no undo button if you click it by mistake. Interestingly it doesn't put the cancelled items back into stock – 'cos they've been delivered – so effectively they've just evaported. I did it by mistake just after I'd joined. The Devil's own job to reinstate the order to be able to invoice because the system – rightly – blocks using the same order number twice. I had to mistype the order number to sort out that pickle. After about a year or so I wanted to see if the bug had been fixed so I clicked on it on purpose when your invoice for the roof trusses came up. Knew that it wouldn't be causing you any problems, like." And smiled enigmatically. "As you gather the bug was still there. Just don't expect it every time else the twenty-somethings in shiny, pointed shoes who do the audits might just think it's a bit of a coincidence."
'Wicked!' responded the Property Manager. 'Not heard the expression "daft 'a'p'orth" since my dad was alive! "Half-a-penny's-worth" must have been an expression used in the 1930s, probably when buying loose sweets and the like. Latest it would have had any real meaning would have been the 1950s. Anyways, thinking of people about the same age as my dad, when was the last time you spoke to the chairman of the parish council?'
'Why? What have we done wrong now?' The management recalled some, let's say, 'fiesty' face-to-face meetings way back in the days when everything was at the planning stages.
'Far from it. Seems the current incumbent is gunning for us. Not quite literally. But I'm not entirely sure about that.
'Heard on the grapevine that the people who moved in to the house just up from the level crossing about five or maybe six months ago wrote a snotty letter soon after they arrived about the noise every time the level crossing gates are about to come down. Turns out the chairman and two of his councillors turned up in person on their doorstep and told them the error of their ways. "Everyone who has lived here for some time is very happy we have the railway to help the shops and businesses." From what was said to me that wasn't what this couple wanted to hear. "We moved from London to live in a peaceful rural area, not to hear a siren go off twice an hour. We'll be talking to our solicitor."
'Blimey! How did you get to hear about this?'
'Never you mind. One of the chairman's "heavies" was celebrating his wife's birthday in the West Norfolk Inn and his talking tackle was well-lubricated. Seems the chairman said something to the effect that now they'd moved to a rural area then unless they started to blend in then they'd need bodyguards as well as a solicitor, because "The lads round here still do things the country ways." "Fit in or get out" was the gist of it. The parish council have never heard from their solicitors.'
'They wouldn't have a leg to stand on anyway – the crossing was there long before the house went on the market.'
'Maybe so. But now word's reached us, a few words of thanks might be in order, as and when your paths cross.'
'Indeed, indeed. Do you happen to know the current chairman's name? I know the information is supposedly online but such things can be out of date. The person who knows the passwords for the web site leaves and then no one can make any changes. One county council not a squillion miles to the west of here had to change its domain name and set up an entirely new web site because they'd made the IT team redundant and everything was locked behind unknown passwords. Slightly embarrasing for an organisation which, in almost all respects, is about admin.'
Ignoring this aside entirely, the Property Manager continued '"Peaceful rural area" indeed! Perhaps they'll get their solicitor to write to the RAF to stop them sending their jets over at zero feet lining up for the bombing range just off the coast north of here.'
'Well as the RAF only seems to fly during the week, perhaps they're out at work then and aren't troubled by them. For all you know the chap flies one of the ruddy things. Who knows?'
Lao duly reappeared. Apart from when he went out rambling, which seemed quite often – even when the weather was less than clement – he was mostly at home and could be relied on to prepare some tea prior to a chat. Rather than acknowledge that Sal had let the cat out of the bag about Daoist retreat weekends, the management suggested that perhaps he might want to do some weekends teaching people about Chinese landscape paintings. This brought a frown to Lao's face. 'Not something I'm able to make any useful contribution to, I'm afraid. Much as I enjoy looking at the scrolls I have here, and I know that they are regarded as quite good, they were all gifts from well-meaning friends.'
So clearly this was not Lao's customary modesty, he simply wasn't that knowledgeable. But Lao did venture to ask if, now the sinks and loos were about to be connected up, small groups of these friends could come to stay for long weekends? How did that fit in with his licence to occupy? Ah, thought the management, 'friends' must be the euphemism for 'students' that Sal had primed him about. The management said he didn't think it would be a problem, and if there were any obstancles the Property Manager would no doubt find a way around them.
'Ah, yes! "The PM". Quite a character isn't she? Can't imagine many osbtacles remain in her way for very long. Hope she's never thought of you as an obstacle – I wouldn't like to come up against her, wonderful as she seems.'
After reassuring Lao that he and the Property Manager had never seen each other as any sort of 'obstacle', he raised the sensitive topic of what sort of money Lao might be charging for these long weekends. If the building started to be used for what the council might deem to be 'commercial purposes' then the business rates would be horrific. But that thought was not shared. Lao's reply was characteristically laconic.
'Well, some could pay – probably easily – while some would find it difficult, and a few wouldn't be able to pay at all. But we could work that out between us. Anything we've done before involved hiring village halls and staying in one of the more affluent friend's biggish house. It's really always been about covering any costs with an entirely optional donation to myself if they are willing and able. Most do, some of them very generously – as the paintings confirm – but I don't think any the worse of the ones who don't have any spare dosh.'
Weekends with no more than a dozen 'friends' at any one time seemed sufficiently low-profile not to create any obstacles. Accommodation, it was agreed, could not easily be inside the mill itself, apart from perhaps a few who could not afford any other option than dossing down in sleeping bags. Lao was well aware that the better-heeled would use local hotels and B&Bs, or rent a caravan as they preferred. Ideally, Lao said, it would be good to have some caravans to temporarily park next to the mill to provide accommodation – or, better still, some yurts as these could be packed away when not in use – as staying right alongside the mill would enable their daily meditation routine to be performed at the customary times of dawn and dusk without worrying about when breakfasts and evening meals were served in the real world – 'Always just when we're doing our thing,' Lao wryly observed.
There were legalities to check over and cost implications if the railway needed to stump up some yurts or second-hand caravans. However, seemingly some of Lao's 'friends' weren't short of a grand or two, if the management's guess about the price of the landscape paintings was anything like right. Presumably they might respond favourably to a request for donations to cover the costs of some yurts. The management's catch phrase 'Leave it with me' seemed to cover everything that needed to be sorted for now.
The Property Manager confirmed that for less than 28 days a year of camping then a planning application wasn't needed. But the yurts may be exempt anyway, on the basis that, in the eye of the law, they were 'tents' were being used in connection with the owner's dwelling. Although, as Lao wasn't the owner, but legally a licensee, then that might not hold water. 'Just tell Lao about the 28 day limit – they don't have to be consecutive, of course. If he's thinking of setting up a "glamping" business, we need to put him straight.' The management laughed. Yurts or not, he really could not imagine Lao's friends – whatever the word really meant in this context – turning up merely for poshed up camping.
After the niceties of preparing and drinking tea – the management especially liked Lao's current batch of pu-erh – the conversation turned to yurts. Lao said he'd been working out how much it would cost to make one. Quite a lot of wood, and the tarpaulin covers might need to be made to order, but he'd sent out a few emails and put together a budget price.
Lao then asked how difficult it would be for the railway to deliver and collect his friends to the trackside closest to the mill. 'Then they could park their cars near the station, instead of parking up from the level crossing – which certainly won't please the neighbours. And save them carrying luggage from the road alongside the railway track. I'd make sure there was an assortment of wheelbarrows to help move anything heavy along the path from the tracks to the mill. And it would be rather magical to arrive at the Valley Spirit Hermitage in one of the more eccentric of the railway's carriages. And arriving that way, my friends would not realise that it's actually not that far from a road – you're simply not aware of it when you're here at the mill. I'd make sure there was money for tickets in the basic price for the retreat.'
That all made a lot of sense. Lao had clearly been thinking things through rather effectively. Some simple wooden steps would allow passengers to get off safely before such time as a halt could be constructed – although this had always been part of the plan. And now the mill was in good enough shape, perhaps the halt should be the next phase of funding?
The management did suggest that if necessary they would create a Chinese counterpart to the Hogwart's Express and renumber one of the platforms at Eaton St Torpid as 'Platform 9 ¾'.
Lao was clearly not impressed, so the management apologised then, in a roundabout manner, managed to get an indication of how many of these 'retreats' Lao thought he might run in a year. Assuming he got about ten people on each of them then a 'contribution' of, say, thirty pounds a person to cover three day's parking at the railway and transport to the mill would generate enough to cover the Council Tax the railway were required to pay on the building. Of course there were other costs – the railway wasn't passing on the costs of water and electricity consumption to Lao as he had contributed so much time and effort getting the building done up – but, overall, if finances were closer to breaking even that would be good enough for now.
Not too long afterwards the septic tank had finally been dropped in its hole and the pipes from the mill were being connected up, so the management stopped by to inspect. 'Would you care for some tea?' enquired Lao. There was no reason to refuse. After the customary rather inconsequential conversation while the beverage was enjoyed, Lao said
'Seems my Dad was worth worth more than he knew. After he died last Spring we had to send his collection of militaria off to auction. Not an interest I ever shared with him, I'm sure you won't be in the least surprised to hear. Well, seems he was sitting on rather a lot of items that other nerds were trying to outbid each other to get their hands on. Even the auctioneer was a bit taken back. Not that he was complaining, as you might guess.
'And most of the costs of putting my Dad in a box and all that malarky had been covered by some pay-up-front scam he'd been taken in by. So once I've done the oath to finalise probate then I'll have enough in my bank to pay for putting together about five yurts and all the kit to go inside to make them habitable. But only if you and The PM are entirely happy with that many. And they'd need to be stored away when not in use – is it possible to keep the steel tool store here? Unless you can think of a better option?'
The management couldn't see any reason why not. It's not as if the pee-ways had been asking when they could get the tool store back. And they were easy enough to acquire. Lau then, in an even more periphrastic manner than usual, raised the topics of toilets and maybe showers.
'The one's inside the mill are fine, of course, but not really enough if we have about ten people in the yurts. I'm not sure whether you'd consider this. But the ground floor of the mill is, I understand, unlikely to be used for anything which won't withstand the occasional flood. But campsite toilet blocks are designed to be reasonably 'water resistant'. Could we put some cubicles and a shower or two inside? I know the drains are easily accessible, because I helped put them in. Probably best to put some concrete screed down to improve the floor, but that's not rocket science. If it's OK with you and The PM then I could rustle up the hardware and do the installation when I'm not doing anything more useful. Which, as you know, is much of the time.'
Actually, thought the management, Lao didn't 'help' put the drains in, he'd done most of the work himself with only a small amount of help from others. Anyways. 'Yes, that certainly saves having to apply for planning permission for a toilet block. Will have to clear it that there's no need to apply for change of use. But as the amount of camping we're planning on running is within the regs, then I can't see why having a suitable number of loos would conflict. What does the council expect – the campers to pee into the hedge?'
Lao smiled a little sheepishly. After all, till the caravan had appeared he'd had little choice apart from 'peeing into the hedge'. Or wherever…
to be continued…
The entirely fictional account of the management meeting 'Lao Weng' (a.k.a. Nigel) was inspired by John Blofeld's Secret and Sublime: Taoist mysteries and magic (published in 1973) and a sequel, The Chinese Art of Tea (published 1985). Both are well worth tracking down and make absorbing reading. Blofeld recounts how, in the 1930s, he was put at ease – while his mind was 'read' – while waiting for Daoist masters to conclude their meditations.
Much rubbish about Daoism has been published in New Age books and the likes. Modern scholarship, by academics writing from the 1990s onwards – such as as Harold Roth – is far more rewarding. This reveals there have been many types of Daoism over the millennia (just as there have been many variants of the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – over roughly the same timescale) so there isn't merely one concept of Daoism.
If you have yet to encounter the wonders of T'ang-era Chinese astronomy then Edward H. Schafer's Pacing the Void: T'ang approaches to the stars is essential reading. First published in 1977 it was reprinted by Floating World Editions in 2005 and copies are usually available online.
Some additonal information about the management's interests in Daoism can be found here and here.
Taoism and Daoism are the same. Originally Romanised with a 'T' (but pronounced 'D'), modern spelling uses 'D'. The actual phoneme is somewhere between 'T' and 'D' – a sound used in Chinese speech but not in European languages.
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Text and previously unpublished images copyright Bob Trubshaw 2018–2020