Old Post (2013): The Proposal

Just northwest of Chichester is a hill top that rises out of a village called Halnaker. It looks south towards the coast and on a clear afternoon you can see to Brighton in the east and Portsmouth in the west. To the north rolls the downs, blanketed by thick forest that invites adventure. Swallows dart about the hill top in the summer, and in winter just the odd magpie or gull passes by. No matter what time of year, people come and go to see Halnaker’s famous old windmill.

On a surprisingly warm February afternoon, just as the sun set, I stood before that windmill, looking down towards the coast. A gift of quiet and stillness was given to me as I stood on my own (almost) and texted my dad:

Pa, I’m about to ask the biggest question I’ve ever asked. Just thought I’d let you know… Wish me well! I’ll let you know how it goes.

This is a blog post to record how that day went down. It’s descriptive of what was, until then, the happiest day of my life. Following this post will be a somewhat rawer look under the bonnet, a reflection on my worries and anxieties and hope as I offered my life to Laura. It’ll appear on here in a few days…

Valentines day, Thursday the 14th of February, two days before I proposed, was a self-determined flop. I was being cheeky. I laid out a miserly offering of a meal, with a few candles scattered about my messy room in my messy lads’ house. I think the boys where even in that night as well. Laura didn’t seem to be too disappointed, but she must have felt my lack of effort and attention. It was all I could do to withhold a mischievous grin. I was setting her up, hook line and sinker.

In the build up to me proposing to her, there was a lot of lies and deception. That weekend I was (supposedly) heading off to see my mates from back home and go to walking in the Cotswolds. Laura on the other hand was heading home, to West Sussex to see her good friend Tabi who had asked to meet her there. In reality, I wasn’t heading to the Cotswolds, and the invite to West Sussex hadn’t originated with Tabitha, it was my idea.

Friday morning I sprang into action, charging about Canterbury to purchase bits and bods, trinkets and decorations. I can’t remember why but this took longer than I intended and I wasn’t ready to leave Canterbury until mid-afternoon. I threw my housemates — my dear buddies Laurence Turpin and Dave Cowen — into the car and we shot off on the motorway. M2 then across to the M20, M26 onto a very slow moving M25, traffic slow around Heathrow, come on come, laughter and sarcasm from the boys, I laugh a little, it’s getting tense, then off onto the M4 and shocking speeds from my trusty little black hippo (the ol’ Nissan Micra, R reg).

David holds my phone close to my ear, over the speaker-phone I chat panicked with Tabi. We’re cutting it close, where can I park, which route in will avoid the traffic? We’re heading to Bath to pick up the engagement ring. I bought it from Bath, where I first threatened to marry her and where, from a hill top overlooking the city I told it that I would steal her away! To buy a ring from Bath would be special, she studied there and leaving the city was a big sacrifice for her … and more so, it’s a uniquely cut stone that looks like a flower, designed by a Bath jeweller.

Tabi directs us past Bath racecourse and down the hill. I spy a parking space and swing in, cash borrowed from the boys into the meter, then quick step through town. I reached the jewellers by 5pm and they have fifteen minutes till closing. I pay for the ring, then off to buy my dear companions a posh cookie to thank them. Neither of them can believe how beautiful the city of Bath is. The sun sets and illuminates the Bath stone buildings and relenting rain clouds provide dark blue drama in the orange sky above. We head up to Alexandra Park above the city and I call my parents to tell them what I’m doing. I don’t always feel like it’s easy to speak to them about my life — I worry about what they think — but I tell them and they’re pleased and let me know they’re proud. I tell them I love them, mum cries, even Dad gets emotional … I have a lot to thank them for.

Dusk ushers in the night and Bath lights up down below us. I tell the boys about my conversation with the folks and they’re pleased for me. I’m so glad to have my lads with me. Then, in a petrol station, Laura calls me. Where am I, what am I doing? I lie and tell her I’m in north London but not sure where quite. She’s suspicious and cross with me. The call is short and tense and I feel it but suffer it nonetheless. We head off south out of Bath and take the three hour drive to West Sussex.

The view from Bath’s Alexandra Park

Stopping along the way, I get up google maps and find a random borough of North West London and text her my supposed destination, tongue in cheek. I’m pushing my luck…

We get to West Sussex at 9 and go to stay with Laura’s Dad and his wife Liz. As we arrive Pete is frying nine fat sausages, attending to a mountain of mash-potato and a pan full of think dark gravy. What a father-in-law! I warned the boys that Pete is passionate about ecology and mankind’s stewardship of resources and the environment — I wasn’t joking, and the boys enjoy a mini lecture. Pete is great, they’re interested but it’s been a long day. Laurence finds that Pete’s cats are giving him an allergic reaction, it makes us all laugh. Poor Laurence. The boys eventually retire to the caravan on the front drive. The logic is that it will be less catty … little do we know that the mogs have slept there all day. Pete and I go out to the wooden cabin in the back garden; we enjoy a beer and he plays me early Bob Dylan songs on the acoustic. I ring Laura, who by now is with Tabi and the two are staying with Laura’s Mum, Val, only fifteen minutes away. I’m out with Jake and Muller, enjoying London pubs and much fine ale. I push it too far and claim an usual amount of pints consumed. But you never drink that much! My lies are pushing it and she gets cross with me. I try to calm an argument whilst maintaining my cover. It’s difficult, and the argument actually gets to me a bit … last minutes doubts?! No, my resolve is firmer than even I thought. I love her and go to bed, look at the ring one last time, struggle to sleep with excitement… Saturday the 16th arrives.

Up I get and after a quick breakfast with the boys we’re off to check out Halnaker hill and it’s windmill. Laurence struggles with his breathing as I drag him up the fifteen minute climb — damn cats. The view from the hilltop is beautiful and the mill is striking … but inside it’s hollow and the floor rather muddy. It’s not the most hospitable and we wonder about it … eventually we decide we can throw long grass down on wet muddy patches and soak it up, also with candles and decorations the mill will glow. We head off and meet with three other Canterbury friends who come to help.

I didn’t plan the day on my own. I drafted in friends to think it through with me and to help out. The ideas were mostly mine, and I had the final say, but others contributed in significant ways. Is this cheating? I don’t think it is … I think it’s good to be romantic, but it’s bloomin’ hard at times. To be original, to pull all the punches, to do something different requires help. So I think it’s good that men and women chat with their friends and family. Wisdom is always best shared and passed on. Besides that, I’m not the most creative or crafty … but the effort and time count nonetheless. Joining myself, Laurence and Dave was Matt and Helen Spocchia, a married couple who are dear friends of ours, and Helen is very gifted when it comes to crafty creativity. Mr Spocc is a good laugh and was a real encouragement to me as I panicked about arrangements and plans; he kept me focused on what mattered, a real big brother. The Spoccs also brought along Laura’s very special friend Naomi who was super throughout.

After some comical miscommunication, humorous and haphazard rendezvousing, and a near miss of us all bumping into Laura and Tabi, we returned to the hill to set up. Together we took many trips up and down the hill, enjoying and decorating the path as it tunnels through ancient looking woodland before opening up to a wide expanse, the vast Sussex sky and old Halnaker mill still standing proud.

Then, four o clock came. The winter sun turned and began its slow sink to the horizon over to the west, and Tabi let me know she was leaving Laura at Val’s. Making sure all the decorations were coming close to completion, I walked down the hill to meet Tabs. As I did I passed our five dear friends working hard to put our plans into play and I thanked them. It was very special to have them there.

Meanwhile, Laura text’s me and says that despite last night’s argument and the sadness of her dear friend leaving, she’s now waiting for me to come join her and she’s excited to see me. I don’t reply. She snuggles on the sofa with Val who by this time is worried as she hasn’t heard from me (she’s in on it, but my plans were vague). Next, Laura receives a call from Tabi: I’ve broken down, my car was doing funny things so I pulled off the A27 and ended up in some village called Halnaker. I’ve called the AA, but they’ll be ages. Can you come join me? Laura ponders if this is suspicious, but decides it probably isn’t. At most it just Matt arranging a surprise meet up. She sets out and it’s a short fifteen minute drive to Halnaker.

Laura passes through the village and finds Tabi pulled up in a layby. Tabi’s smiling, she can’t contain herself and straight up apologies for tricking her friend. Matt’s waiting for you at the top of the hill, she passes her a little note from me: time for a new adventure my love, follow the lights up the hill.

Now I’m trying for high romance here. There is an idealist in me. Laura beautiful levels me out. She confides amusedly to Tabi that she needs a wee. So right there, by the roadside she slips into the bushes and relieves herself. She can’t approach such a momentous moment with a full bladder apparently. After that she sets off.

First the path makes it’s way through woodland, a tunnel sloping up the hill. It feels like an ancient corridor and the trees seem to prepare you for whatever experience lies ahead. Along this part of the path Laura found coloured pom-poms hung from trees and arrows made from twigs on the ground. Further up, as the tunnel splits into several wooden pathways, a wooden style covered with fairy lights glowed in the descending dusk, marking the way. Under overhanging branches signs calling out Love Love Love leading her upwards whilst referencing a favourite song of ours by the band Avalanche City. A few more styles covered with twinkling lights and the path turns to an open vista looking up the hill side. Here you get your first glimpses of the windmill, however Laura, distracted by the lights and signs, missed it. Following a candle lit pathway she eventually saw it and she tells me she beamed. A windmill was the winner of a choice because Laura has an affiliation with them — someone once prayed over her the characteristics of a windmill, odd as that might sound. They’re beautiful but functionary, they do hard work and what they produce is a blessing to people.

As this takes place our friends are hiding out in a little ruin not too far from the mill. I stand before the entrance — which glows in candle light from the inside as the dusk darkens — and I pray. As Laura walks up the hill she spots a wandering deer across the next field. The deer stops and the two look at each other, in the west the sun sets and then Laura comes to Halnaker mill. I see her: hey my love, would you like to come to the windmill with me. Characteristically she answers no. I go out to her and bring her to the mill. My heart feels full and it’s very difficult to say anything. I take her inside the mill, now a glowing cathedral of flame light from over a hundred candles lit in there.

We talk. I say things to her which are only for her to hear. Promises mainly. I ask her if she would be Mrs Fell and she says yes. We kiss and cry and enjoy the moment. Then we step out into the newly arrived night and I pull out of the bushes a Chinese sky lantern. We light it and announce to the West Sussex downs that we’re getting married!! As we do so we launch our sky lantern. Then soon after, following it, emerge five other lanterns from a nearby mysterious ruin. Laura askes whose in there but jovially I say no-one. One of the sky lanterns rises, but quickly falls to the ground. A shadowy figure scurries out to lift it up again. Laura senses the loveable Laurence and I, laughing, turn us around to look out at the view. We clime the beams inside the mill, walk about it, kiss, talk, enjoy the moment. It’s very special and I do gloat some about setting Laura up as I did. We laugh at all my lies; it’s certainly borderline shady and it is discussed that such behaviour isn’t a great foundation for marriage. But I think I’m forgiven. It’s really the happiest moment I can think off. I text my dad to say so.

It’s getting chilly.

It is … well, I’ve booked us a table for a curry. (we love curry)

But I want to go tell mum and phone people…

No my love, let’s just have some time you and I. (I lie again).

As we walk down the hill, as man-and-wife-to-be, we enjoy the full effect of the candles and fairy lights in the dark. I think to myself that I really do owe my friends, who have sat in the cold of the hill top ruins all this time. Helen is in fact heavily pregnant at this point and is struggling with her pelvis. They really do love us! Matt later tells me that he and Laurence sneaked over to the mill and peaked in thinking that we’d gone. We hadn’t, and they narrowly avoided being seeing by us.

Down the hill we have to separate to get into our cars. I drive off, leading the way but really taking my time as we drive to the beautiful medieval town of Arundale. We park beneath the castle and together walk round to the curry house. Two familiar looking shadows panic me a little and I stall for a minute or two for a kiss. When the coast cleared we continue to the curry house. In we go, I state our reservation name and they lead us up stairs where Laura and I are meet by a crowd of our closest friends and family. Soon after, Dave and Laurence, Nay, Matt and Helen join us too. We have a very happy meal although I’m exhausted by this point.

I hope this hasn’t been a smug account. I realise it’s been long. It’s mainly been my own gratitude for the day that has caused me to write like this. Enjoyment is often fulfilled through the descriptive sharing of it with others. I don’t think I’m a profound romantic, I got a lot of help from others, and I see all these things as gifts that I don’t deserve. Being a Christian and believing in divine grace, I see mercy at every corner; the goodness of things experienced always as gift. It was a really happy day.