A few years back, after several months of English city life, I had decided to take a small trip out into the countryside to relieve my mind of metropolitan stresses. I learnt that a beautiful castle, formerly owned by the family of a certain beheaded queen, had been transformed into a bed-and-breakfast for travelers in need of a restorative nature escape. My delight was quickly diminished upon seeing the cost of staying overnight, but the excitement of spending so much time in an old, elegant place drew me in. I could only afford one night, and so one night it would be.
I arrived in the afternoon by train. After spending the day touring the pleasant gardens, the preserved historic rooms, and the charming country roads themselves, I found myself at a small, old pub; the only place open and serving food for miles around. There are two things that my memory chooses to recall about this particular establishment: one, the deep plum-coloured walls with pinned butterflies framed in dark cases, and two, that the alcohol was rather inexpensive. You can imagine my delight at this discovery, after having become accustomed to city prices, just as I’m sure you can also understand that I ordered these libations rather enthusiastically after unearthing this news.
My short walk back to the castle grounds was in a pleasantly soft haze. I was already thinking of the bath I would prepare in the luxurious, claw-footed tub upon my arrival, when I noticed that there was no one around and that the castle property was closed for the day. Based on my swift deductions from the visible signs, guests were clearly encouraged to return to their rooms and indoor lounge spaces for the evening. It was at this time that my confidence grew awfully quickly, and suggested that I might prefer to instead return to the grounds and explore the landscape on my own, without other guests present. I agreed with myself, and chose the path leading away from my cozy room and empty bathtub.
The guard house was filled with two or three uniformed people, who were engaged in conversation and watching a program on a small television. I stepped carefully along the gravel path, tiptoeing with the most nonchalant posture I could manage. My gaze was fixed firmly ahead, my lips ready to let out a, “Sorry, what sign?”, should I be caught returning to the grounds. I only glanced back once I had passed the garden entrance, marked by welcoming hedges and flowerbeds. It was that night I learned that I am terribly good at being sneaky, post-pub.
Yet rather than staying in the garden, I noticed a path leading away from the castle for the first time that day. It pointed toward a crumbling staircase at the mouth of a forest, where greens and flowers twisted and grew wildly, untamed and unmanicured. Of course my feet were more interested in this direction, and I quickly found myself compelled to walk off the trail, in between the trees.
I touched leaves that looked soft.
I found a pink rose that looked like it was origami.
I waded through grass that led me to a cemetery, dark and angry crosses glaring.
I spied distant white stone cottages – or were they walls to defend the castle?
I got lost in bushes of verdant, outstretched arms.
I emerged into trails surrounded by tiny bell-like flowers.
I waited for faeries to reveal themselves.
I saw three different types of bees.
If it hadn’t been evening, I might have spent more time among those old trees, delighted by the little discoveries I was making. But I followed the light that streamed through the canopy, and ended at a fountain overlooking the castle lake. It wasn’t my first time there that day; I had sat at the fountain after lunch, although perhaps enjoying my ice cream more than the view. But now, the sun was setting the ripples in the water burning with fiery light, turning the incendiary waves amber, gold, and scarlet. The weathered stone seats of the lake-facing façade cradled me, and I wondered if they held the young queen the same way in her youth, bringing stillness to her tumultuous life. I sat for much longer than I had earlier in the day, letting myself drink in the world that I hadn’t seen at first.
I took the long way back. Passing the water maze and the archery range, I took pleasure in cutting through the long grass with my weary legs and expertly stepped over the low chain fence in a discrete and stealth manner. The warm light from inside the castle guided me, welcoming my return to the civilized estate. It felt like I now shared a secret with the space around me, and that the other guests mingling in the lounge wouldn’t know the truth about the property, the earthy magic hidden away from the formal and curated zones. I fell asleep thinking about that emerald world.