Touchstones: Defining Moments

It took me by surprise. Unbidden, my eyes filled with tears and my voice became thick with emotion as I scanned the rolling hillside traversed by ribbons of drystack stone walls. Familiar silhouettes of majestic oak trees and horse chestnut trees dotted the pastoral landscape while berried hawthorns bejeweled every hedgerow. Flocks of sheep bleated contentedly in the patchwork of green fields and wood pigeons cooed comfortingly from their hidden perches. I hadn't realized how significant these common postcard-type snapshots were to my soul. Yet deep within me something fundamental stirred – these were a few of my touchstones to my country of birth – England.

When Mum passed away in 2015 I thought that my connection to England was forever lost. I have no more living relatives in that country – no cousins or aunts and uncles – no-one. That sense of loss compounded the deep grief of losing my last parent and I really wasn't even sure I would return to England again. When an unexpected opportunity to visit the UK for work was offered to me, I realized it would be the first trip I had made in 22 years that wasn't for a family emergency. I could be a tourist! I could visit friends – but would anyone remember me – or even worse recognize me?!

The best of friends and still having fun with Jill – Yorkshire Dales

Initially I traveled on my own to the Yorkshire Dales in order to spend time with my childhood best friend Jill. We've known each other since we were 4, lived just up the road from one another, and our mums were best friends too. As we walked, talked, laughed, and cried the healing I didn't even know I needed began.

Holy Trinity church at Ashford-in-the-Water dates back to 1205 although there was probably an older timber structure on the site before this stone building was erected.

My husband joined me a few days later and together we drove to the Peak District, Derbyshire, where we used to live before emigrating to the United States in 1996. We re-visited many old haunts including our tiny stone cottage in Ashford-in-the-Water. As we parked outside the village church, we heard one of my favorite hymns "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah…" being sung in rousing four-part harmony. So many memories came flooding back as we listened – it was all I could do not to join in the chorus "Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me til I want no more (want no more)….".

Dating back to Queen Victoria's reign, this "pillar box red" post box is a familiar icon. This one is set into a stone wall in Ashford-in-the-Water

We managed to surprise both an elderly ex-neighbor and a special friend, Vikki, who had no idea we were in the country. (Facebook helped me coordinate the surprise with her daughter – social media at its best!). We hadn't seen Vikki for 22 years, yet it seemed mere moments as we chatted, laughed, teased, and drank coffee together. (She assured me I hadn't changed…..just not sure that was entirely a compliment as I was trying to round her up for a reluctant photo at the time!!)

View of Castleton from Peveril Castle. We used to love hiking from Mam Tor (far left) across the ridge and into the village, especially at Christmas time when every store had a twinkling Christmas tree on the sidewalk

After a couple of days of independent sight-seeing that included a visit to Peveril Castle in Castleton and the spectacular Haddon Hall, which dates back to the 12th century – a particular favorite of mine, we went to stay with good friends in the delightful village of Calver.

Chatsworth House and gardens set in the heart of the Chatsworth estate, a favorite spot to walk when our children were small

Together we visited Chatsworth House and gardens, enjoying the bountiful kitchen gardens while also catching up one evening with dear friends, Keith and Sue, whom we hadn't seen for 18 years. It was as though we had only parted yesterday. This was one of those powerful moments when you realize that friendship – true friendship, knows no time limits or geographical boundaries.

A very special reunion with dear friends: Keith and Sue

As we left Derbyshire and headed south I felt lighter, freer. It was as though I had been given the gift of sight – the ability to see England with new eyes and to cultivate new, happier memories.

Watching barges pass through Marlow Lock on the River Thames

Our final night was in Marlow, a short drive yet a world away from Heathrow airport. A series of crazy coincidences had made it possible to reconnect with a friend with whom we had lost touch 30 years ago!! He drove an hour and a half each way to spend the evening with us, and once again I was struck by how easy and natural it was to pick up as though only a few weeks had passed. (Let me just point out ladies (men don't understand…) – it is pretty nerve-wracking when the last time someone saw you, you were a lithe 27 year old!!! Talk about pressure!)

Somewhere in the wee hours of the following morning I lay awake reflecting on the trip and came to a profound revelation. I may not have blood relatives in England anymore, but I do have family – very special friends with whom I can pick up and be myself even after 30 years. Those bonds give me a connection to the country of my birth that I thought had ended when mum died, but I see now the connection will never be broken. Likewise the essence of the English countryside is deep within my soul. It is a part of me. No-one can take that away. These are my touchstones.

The tiny (by American standards) English robin symbolizes the English countryside for me.

Definition of touchstones:

  • Person of importance. Significant other. Your constant, the person who completes you and makes you whole. A true friend without criticisms and judgements, who loves you unconditionally. (Urban dictionary)
  • A fundamental or quintessential part of feature (Merriam-Webster)

Making connections

I know this post is a departure from my usual garden design related posts, but I wanted to share it with you because I think many of you will identify with parts of my story and I hope it will be an encouragement to those who need it. As a designer I try to create gardens that homeowners will experience and feel connected to,  helping you create special memories in those spaces. My deepest wish is that you all can discover touchstones in your life. 

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul" – John Muir
Interested in visiting England?

Join me on the adventure of a lifetime! Read more here.




  1. Ron Davis on September 4, 2018 at 5:44 am

    What a beautiful story of your journey Karen, your connections to old friends and the realization of your lasting bond with England. Thanks for sharing this personal part of you and the beautiful pictures of the English countryside.

    • Karen Chapman on September 4, 2018 at 8:01 am

      I'm glad you enjoyed the post and photos Ron

  2. Craig Hoffman on September 4, 2018 at 5:52 am

    Thank you for sharing your trip and re-connections with us. It is heartwarming to hear!

    • Karen Chapman on September 4, 2018 at 8:00 am

      Thanks Craig. Glad you enjoyed it

  3. Kathy on September 4, 2018 at 6:08 am

    Lovely story Karen…thank you for sharing the gorgeous photos and beautiful words. Cheers!

    • Karen Chapman on September 4, 2018 at 8:00 am

      Glad you enjoyed it Kathy – you and Brad should visit sometime!

  4. Patricia Mickelson on September 4, 2018 at 7:15 am

    Karen: I loved your story and the pictures. I was in the Cotswolds and Cornwall for two weeks just this past June so I especially loved your pictures of the beautiful English countryside.

    • Karen Chapman on September 4, 2018 at 7:59 am

      Thanks Patricia – glad you enjoyed the post. The Cotswolds and Cornwall are equally picturesque aren't they?

  5. Mary B Perez on September 4, 2018 at 9:28 am

    Hi Karen, a beautiful post on so many levels. Loved the photo of you and Jill. It's high summer in Sonoma, neighbors are begging each other to take zucchini and tomatoes.

    • Karen Chapman on September 4, 2018 at 9:29 am

      Hi Mary – lovely to hear from you and glad the post touched a chord. I'm begging people to take peppers!!

  6. Annette Hallen on September 4, 2018 at 10:56 am

    I emigrated from England 60 years ago and the last time I went back was 30 years ago. Seeing these pictures made me homesick.

    • Karen Chapman on September 4, 2018 at 11:35 am

      Time for another visit perhaps?

  7. Maxine Mitchell on September 5, 2018 at 9:05 am

    Karen, it was so great to see this other side of you! Your "audience" always sees the prim and proper Brit, but that picture of you and your childhood friend is priceless! You should let your guard down more often, girl! Welcome back!

    • Karen Chapman on September 5, 2018 at 5:01 pm

      Hopefully more 'professional' than 'prim and proper'!!

  8. Vickie Griffin on September 12, 2018 at 7:16 pm

    What a great story. One that feeds the soul.

    • Karen Chapman on September 12, 2018 at 7:19 pm

      Thank you Vickie. So many people have emailed or commented to tell me how much this post spoke to them. I'm glad it touched you too.

  9. […] the beautiful English countryside near Harrogate, Yorkshire, so of course I just had to visit while I was there a few weeks ago. I wasn't sure what to expect but found myself totally charmed and impressed by the varied […]

  10. Sue Montgomery on September 29, 2018 at 10:07 am

    Beautiful heart, full of soul, and life giving story Karen – thank you so much for sharing the wonderful rich moments of touchstones in your life and helping us all remember God's gifts of grace.

    • Karen Chapman on September 29, 2018 at 10:10 am

      I'm so glad it spoke to you Sue.