Retro Blog: Why we spent a night in a greenhouse

We were married exactly 18 months ago, with friends and family from all across the world gathered to help us celebrate at Fríkirkja by the "pond" in downtown Reykjavík. The historic church that would be the venue for our sacred vows had also over the years been the host for many incredible bands, including Daughter, and 16 years earlier, one of the first Sigur Rós shows. Our wedding was simple but a beautiful day with the people we loved and later we would eat, drink and dance late into the night to the live sounds of Június Meyvant. 

Like most people planning a wedding, the weeks leading up to the big day were very stressful, lots of last minute changes and errands and panics were all part of the journey. What many people didn't know is that we were virtually broke and a week before the wedding still had nowhere to spend the wedding night. However, thanks to some last minute help from some generous family and friends we were able to find a location, located in Mosfellsbær just outside of Reykjavík. 

It was a little apartment in a big greenhouse, and probably the best kept secret in Iceland. It made a perfect and memorable location for us to spend a few days relaxing after the wedding, especially as we were not taking a honeymoon immediately. 

In every corner, nook, and cranny, there was amazing attention to quirky detail without ever feeling contrived or over the top. I don't have much to write as I think the only way really to communicate this beautiful place and the memories is in pictures:


Retro Blog: The eight essential elements of an English village

"Where are you from?" 

This is the question I often get asked at my workplace when people here my English accent.

"England" I normally reply, slightly tongue-in-cheek.

"Yes, but from where in England?" they will respond if they are British. 

"Well, originally from Essex" I begin, "then I lived in London for 8 years..." but before I can explain my nomadic history they normally have fixated on "Essex". "I thought so!" they say, "bet you couldn't wait to leave!", or sometimes they just smile or nod, or even look a little sympathetic.  Essex has always had this certain reputation, not entirely undeserved, but a reputation that has stuck, to the point where "Essex Girl" and "Essex Man" even have their own wikipedia entries. It even leads to feeling sometimes I should make a self-depreciating joke to apologise about my county of origins.

I grew up in the sprawling commuter belt of the Thames estuary, the epicentre of all the predictable stereotypes and jokes. 

But, once you begin to leave the suburbs and take the country lanes, a different picture emerges beyond talk of white stilettos and Ford Mondeos. This picture is one of weatherboarded cottages, thatched roofs, mystical marshes, historic churches, vineyards, rivers, boats, farms on rolling hills, picturesque pubs, cricket greens and duckponds. This is the romantic rural England that is found on wall calendars and postcards, and it's alive and well in Essex. 

Nowhere represents quintessential village life more than the villages of Thaxted and Finchingfield in the north of the county. Jess and I visited my family few weeks before our wedding to finalise some arrangements, and we decided to have one afternoon to escape from the wedding stress and calm ourselves in this tranquil setting. Here are just a few photos from that afternoon.

Through the pictures of these villages I will share with you eight essential elements that make up an English village. 

1. Colourful houses

This is a feature shared with Reykjavik where I live. Here in Iceland colourful houses tend to be in primary colours, bold and bright to shine out in the darkness of winter and the white haze of snow. In England, they tend to be painted in pastel shades, but with bursts of colour for those who like to make an impression. 

2, Quaint independent stores that have withstood the changing times

3. A historic building over 500 years old

In Thaxted this is the timber-framed Guildhall, dating from around 1450. 

4. A Windmill

Windmills are often associated with Holland, but they are a common feature in rural England, particularly in the south and east. Thaxted's windmill dates from 1804. 

5. Thatched cottages

Thatch was the only roofing choice available to people in rural England until the late 1800's and there are many exampled of thatched cottages remaining from this era.



6. An old Church with a big spire

England is packed full of historical churches. St John's in Thaxted is a huge parish church, which towers high above the pastoral countryside. Composer Gustav Holst used to lead the choir and play the organ here..


After finishing our pleasant walk around Thaxted, we moved on to Finchingfield, another picture postcard perfect village. 


7. A duckpond

Having some water in the middle of the village adds a calmness to an already tranquil setting. The duckpond is something which raises the prettiness levels off the charts and also honours our feathered friends by recognising their need of a place to call home. We have a large pond in the centre of Reykavik, but it just doesn't match up the the rural England version. Just don't feed them too much bread...

8. An old pub with crooked floors and lots of flowers

The final quintessential element of an English village is the village pub. Not so much a place to get drunk as a place to meet and centre the community life over some mild English ales, you sit outside on wooden tables in the warm summer months, and gather round the fireside in the indoor months. They are one of the things I miss most about England, and other nations just can't replicate no matter how many "English pubs" you see in cities around the world. 


Retro Blog: Berry picking in Hvalfjörður (summer 2016)

Just got done editing photos from summer 2016, in the few months before Jess and I got married. 

In this blog, I look back at the sunny, warm day we went berry picking in Hvalfjörður, just north of Reykjavík. It was our first time foraging for berries. Growing up, I had a suspicion of berries. I remember being told not to pick them as they were probably poisonous. My only previous experience was as a kid going to a "pick your own" strawberry farm, coming home stained in red juice, and with more strawberries then a family could eat. But that was in controlled conditions, all the strawberries were edible. Here, we were in the wild. But Icelanders assured me there are not many poisonous berries here. Just pick purple ones and not red, and you will be fine. 

A friend suggested Hvalfjörður was full of berries, so we set out in our old Suzuki jeep for a day in the countryside. Our initial attempts at finding berries by the side of the road proved unfruitful (if you excuse the pun). So we decided to pull down towards the shore down a dirt track. The berries seemed to elude us but we did find a nice beach...

We drove on a little further and remembered a natural hot pot in the side of the fjord, and after a few wrong turns, we eventually found it. I'm afraid I can't reveal the location because I want to keep it a secret. But, once you get in, feeling the warm water and looking over into breathtaking Icelandic scenery, it takes a long time before you can summon the willpower to drag yourself out again.


Eventually some other people discovered our secret spot, which gave us the impetus to drag ourselves out the hot pot. On our way back to the car, we spotted what turned out to be hundreds of crowberry plants (krækiber in Icelandic). They are similar to blueberries, but a bit more tart and smaller. We got to work picking us many as we could fit in our Bónus carrier bag, but soon realised filling the bag would take several hours, so we contented ourselves with about a quarter of a bag full. 

With enough berries to last us for the winter, we made our way home, stopping to take some photos of more beautiful landscapes on our way home. 

If you are stuck for a date day in Iceland this summer, then you can't go wrong with a leisurely day berry picking and hot spring bathing! 

Retro blog: Vienna (October 2015)

Two years ago I spent a weekend in beautiful Vienna. I was at a conference and didn't have too much photography time, but wanted to share a few shots from the city. It's definitely a place I barely scratched the surface of, and long to go back and spend more time exploring the alleyways and history of this elegant capital. 

I don't have too much to write in this blog, but far more writing and shots coming soon! 


Engagement Story

For years I had imagined the day I would propose. Influenced by stories I had heard of friends who had used candles on the quayside or boats on a creek or fireworks in the forest or some kind of intricately orchestrated treasure hunt, I imagined elaborate ways I could make proposing to somebody an occasion to remember. Engagement is, after all, a significant moment in the journey of two souls deciding to commit to one another for the rest of their lives. 

With all of my imaginations and ideas, the day my inner romantic had often daydreamed about finally came, abruptly, on the 4th March, 2016. 

Jess and I had been outside of Iceland for a month or so because of Jess’s visa problems and we had talked regularly about marriage and spending our lives together. Although it seemed like the natural step to take, I had experienced a lot of anxiety, not wanting to lose a great relationship, but struggling with the idea of committing to somebody for the rest of my life. In 21st Century Europe, marriage is almost becoming counter-cultural to a commitment phobic generation. By nature, we are fickle creatures, wanting the joys of relationship highs but wanting a way out during the lows. That’s precisely why I whole-heartedly believe in marriage, a way in which relationship can be confirmed by a covenant, where the mutual commitment gives us a goal and wider sense of purpose than temporal romance or butterfly feelings. 

Feeling that Iceland engagements had become almost as cliché as an enagement on the Eiffel Tower, I had planned to propose during a trip to Northern Ireland, where we were staying with members of an amazing 24-7 Prayer community in Belfast. I had ordered a hand-crafted engagement ring from Greece, and I wanted to surprise Jess with a romantic day trip into the countryside, probably to the Causeway Coast or Mourne Mountains. I would find a lookout or pretty rock or deserted beach where I would swoop onto one knee, pull out the ring and create a moment to remember for the rest of our lives. 

Then came the the day.

My vague, idealised plan soon evaporated when I looked out the window and saw what can only be described as an Irish version of a monsoon, with heavy rain lashing down from thunder grey skies. The idea of driving out into the coldness of the Irish countryside and finding a slippery wet rock in the storm somewhere seemed about as romantic as proposing in a Tesco’s car park. Plus, I was without an engagement ring, as it had taken longer to arrive from Greece than I had anticipated. 

Plan A was slipping through my hands, so I had to rapidly form a Plan B. Our first stop was a little caravan on an industrial estate which the prayer community use as a mobile prayer room. My first thought was that I could propose here, the most unlikely of places, and also highly symbolic of a movement that had shaped both of our lives in a significant way. Something I have failed to mention is that Jess was expecting me to propose, just because she can read me like a book and knew that I was uncharacteristically nervous. But the image of a cold caravan by a warehouse just didn’t seem to fit the romantic ideal that I was still clinging on to, so after a few long, awkward silences I decided we should head into the city centre. The day before I had spotted a quaint little alleyway somewhere in the city centre, now I had to somehow find it, keep calm, pick my moment and pop the question. 

24-7 Prayer Caravan

Shortly after we parked up, we had an argument outside St Ann’s cathedral. I can’t remember what it was about, but most likely a mixture of my anxiety, and Jess being “hangry” and both of us being cold and wet. But I do remember thinking that this day was becoming more and more distant from even the most liberal definition of romantic idyll.  After a few minutes we made our peace, and I decided that a nice lunch would be the best thing. We had a delicious meal at organic restaurant “Made in Belfast”, and we talked and I began to remember actually why we were getting engaged. We were two unlikely, quirky friends, whose paths had somehow converged in Iceland, and we were just deciding that we would like this to continue into the future. That somehow we were stronger together than apart, and loving companions for the adventures (and trials) the future would bring. That the journey was more important than the moment. It’s easy to try to create perfect moments when beauty often lies in the imperfections, the stupid arguments, the things that go wrong that ruin our best laid plans. 


After we had filled our stomachs and paid the bill, we wandered out into streets of Belfast. I soon found my alleyway, with it’s pretty lights strung across between old brick buildings on each side of the path. 


I nervously picked my spot and was about to drop to my knee, but realised we had an audience of bored looking locals in the pub staring out the window as they ate their lunch. I awkwardly asked Jess to go a bit further, but then we were faced with an army of businessmen who suddenly appeared at the end of the alley. Frustrated, and feeling a bit like I was in a movie trying to lose the bad guys, I remembered a quirky little side alleyway and took Jess’s hand and led her down there. The alleyway was painted with all kinds of murals of just about every famous person from Belfast you have every heard of (and probably more you have not). It had absolutely no symbolic significance whatsoever, but it was spontaneous, and Jess loves spontaneity. It was here, as larger than life image of Gloria Hunniford looked on, that I dropped to one knee, with an imaginary ring, and asked Jess to marry me. 


Now, with the advent of “engagement photography”, I pictured the proposal moment lingering in the air, that maybe I would spend several minutes on my knee, that there would be a magic in the atmosphere that transcends time, and that we would go on to run through cornfields, hand in hand, dressed in pastel shades in the evening sunlight.

In fact, the moment was one of the most anti-climactic either of us can remember, and over in less than five seconds. Jess said “yes” before I had barely asked and we were left standing in the alleyway wondering “Was that it?" Before we had time to even enjoy the moment, a hidden door in the mural opened, and a rather grumpy looking lady came out and lit a cigarette right next to us. It was like an actor inappropriately walking onto stage in completely the wrong scene, Romeo and Juliet turning into Shakespearean farce. We were left, a strange trinity in the alleyway, me, Jess and the sullen smoking lady who had unwittingly become part of our engagement moment. All the heroes of Belfast from the ages stood by, silently as perplexed as we were. 

After Engagement


Feeling a little awkward with our new companion, we quickly moved on through more rain and went to drink some really good coffee together. Sitting there, simply enjoying the friendship, I realised the secret to a successful marriage would be in these small moments of talking, listening and being together, rather than trying to invest all my emotion and energy into one faltering and brief moment in time. Maybe I had failed as a dramatist, but I began to look forward to giving all I had to succeed at being a good husband. 






Transforming Life in Ordinary Places. A week in the life of 24-7 Prayer Stanford.

"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" asked Nathaniel to Philip at the beginning of John's gospel. "Come and see" said Philip. The same question was in my mind as I got ready to spend a week with a 24-7 Prayer community in deepest Essex "Can anything good come out of Stanford-le-Hope?".

I decided to go and see.  

Stanford-le-Hope and Corringham are two conjoined towns just 10 miles from where i grew up in Essex, England. Despite their proximity to my hometown, I don't ever remember visiting. I had no reason to. The A13 highway bypasses the town on its way to London, and friends of mine would dismissively call the town Stanford-NO-Hope. It was somewhere I would glance at from the car as I whizzed by without giving it much of a second thought. For those of you not familiar with Essex, the county is one of those places whose much-maligned inhabitants have given rise to endless jokes, with the overplayed sexist stereotype "airhead" Essex Girl and gelled-haired, lowered-suspension car driving Essex Boy providing easy one-liners for comedians struggling for material. It's politically conservative, but brash and loud and opinionated. There is even a not-too flattering reality TV series called "The Only Way is Essex" which only serves to confirm the cultural stereotypes of people who have come into money but not had the class to match. So, to hear about a new community-transforming prayer community springing from the depths of my home county was something that couldn't help but spike my curiosity. 


I have been journeying with the 24-7 Prayer movement for the last sixteen years, since its humble beginnings in Chichester, England in 1999. Six or seven years ago I began to meet people with familiar Essex accents at the annual 24-7 gatherings, and heard more and more stories about this dynamic Boiler Room community in, of all places, Stanford-le-Hope. I had got to know the leaders and original pioneers, Robb and Sally Harman, and now at last I had got the opportunity to sit down with them and hear the whole story. 


"We were just turning forty and we were just at that stage where we were talking together, praying together and thinking things through- what does the Kingdom of God look like?" explained Sally "And how do you grow? And you get to forty and you were going to change the world, but you haven't. So do we give up? Go on amazing holidays and look after ourselves and have a great life? Which was one option. Because it’s not worked, it’s never going to work, you might as well just drink champagne everyday and carry on with life. Or should we have a further push-in to what all this God stuff is about?". 

The fact that the Harmans and their friends chose the second option is the reason I and my fiancée found myself here with the now thriving Stanford Boiler Room to experience life in the community and to discover the story of changed lives and a changing town. 

"We thought…our God is bigger than this, there must be more than this" says Robb. "And maybe we had matured and grown as Christians, but we were definitely in a plateau phase. We were about to drop off the end of the church we were in, thinking 'there must be something wrong with us. We need to go and find God and then come back'. And we shared that with a few other people, and they said “we feel exactly the same”. We were thinking “it’s us”, and we didn’t want to hold people back. And then there’s other people saying “we feel exactly the same”". 

We are sitting in a beautifully decorated living room in a large, high-ceilinged old house, I imagine from the 1920s or 30s, set back in a large garden just off a main road in Stanford. Robb and Sally are a combination of motherly and fatherly wisdom, hospitality and straight-talking, combined with a youthful exuberance and childlike belief that it's possible for a few people to change the world. They excitedly interrupt each other as they tell the story of how they acquired the house as a base for the 24-7 Prayer Boiler Room. 


"We always looked at this house and thought "that’s amazing'" continues Robb. "One day I ran across the road and said to the owner “You’ve got the best looking house in Stanford. If you ever sell it, I live over there." I didn’t even ask his name, I didn’t tell him my name and I thought “the kids will leave home, Sally and I can rock around in there as a retired couple, that’s going to be amazing, we’d love it”. I didn’t think any more about it, that was August time, 2006. It was summer. In early December there was a knock on the door, Sally answers, and the guy says to her “your husband wants to buy my house!”. I hadn’t told Sally about it, I remember her shouting up the stairs: “Rob!!!" So I came running down and the guy says “you want to buy my house?”. 

"And he said that when Robb had first approached him, he walked back into the house and said “it’s time to sell”. says Sally, pausing for effect. "He never put it on the market." 

Robb and Sally found it impossible to sell their own house, which didn't seem to make sense as it was a sought-after type of property in that area. 

"So we couldn’t sell, and then i remember him phoning me up ranting “you were going to buy my house!" and I said “don’t worry, our bank manager’s coming on Tuesday, it will be fine”. I have no idea why I said that. This was pre-crash days and the bank manager came in and I explained to him the situation, and he said “well, do you want it?” We said “Yeah”, and he said “well sign here and its yours!”". 

Robb and Sally then found themselves with two houses, and having to trust God to meet their financial needs. "So we took this step of faith to do this. Christmas we got the keys, embarrassingly we had two houses, but we had no heart to really move in here...we were not comfortable with pursuing commercial rent, we didn't feel peace at doing that. Whoever moved in there we wanted it to be a blessing to them. But we felt like God sent “don’t”, even though it’s a massive amount of money. So that March, our friend came and said “have you thought about making it into a boiler room- a prayer house”. And we just knew. We both knew that second. “yes”." 

At that stage their community was not too familiar with 24-7 Prayer, but they opened their doors as a prayer room on 1st April 2007. "We didn't know what we were doing" laughs Sally. 

At the beginning, they simply met to eat and pray together and welcomed guests to come and stay. They learned as they went along. People wanted to use the boiler room for birthday celebrations and parties, and the house quickly became buzzing with prayer, community and celebration. 

"We thought “I think this is it, I think this is the Kingdom and it was really exciting". We weren’t unversed, we’d been in church forever, but there was this new sense of God opening new doors for us. So we were praying, and we were practicing community. And we read Dietrich Boenhoffer’s stuff on community and we thought “Yes, this is it!”. And it was something that was seeded in us when we were eighteen, nineteen, this is what we wanted. And we just started to gather people. And people were coming alive." explains Sally.

"It was about fanning back into flame" continues Robb. "I think one of the early gifts of the Boiler Room, was that people who were lukewarm Christians, people on the edge, they were fanning back into flame something that was alive in them. It was dormant in them but now we were fanning it back into flame. And I think that’s where individuals came and prayed, and we wanted to pray corporately as well, so we started to build in all these 24-1’s. 24-7’s. Individual prayer slots. Praying after meals. This was something people wanted to do and it gave some real life" 

The fledgling Stanford Boiler Room adopted the six core Boiler Room practices of Prayer, Mission, Justice, Hospitality, Learning and Creativity. They recall being nervous at the visit of one of the 24-7 Prayer leaders at their first visit to the boiler room:

"We thought he was going to be Boiler Room hotel inspector!" says Robb. "Ok, Hospitality, yes you are covering that! Creativity, could do a bit better. Learning, yes you seem to have that together. So starting now, you can put above the door “24-7 Boiler Room, 2 stars”. That’s what I thought. So Pete Greig [the founder of 24-7] came down, and we sat across the row, I’m on a little stool, sitting at his feet. I said “Pete, we just got this boiler room, what do we do now?”. And he said “I have no idea”. And I was devastated. I said “If you don’t know then I’m sure we don’t know”. So then we realised we were doing something really pioneering. And pioneering something is scary". 

One of the things that strikes me about Robb and Sally is how down to earth they are. They have no heirs or graces, and their honesty about the Boiler room Journey is refreshing. 

"Sometimes it feels good, “we can do anything!” and other days “we don’t know what we’re doing!”." says Sally. 

They talk about some of the pain caused when they left the church they had been part of for decades, and how they could have handled it better. But now, their relationship with their former church is thriving, and they are fully supportive of what they are doing. It was a tough process, but as I listen to the story, I can't help thinking of what Jesus said about new wine needing new wineskins. It seemed obvious to me that God was doing something new, and the Boiler Room was the appropriate wineskin to hold that new wine. 

Impacting the community

After being established, the Boiler Room soon got busy reaching out into their community. They hosted teams doing the 24-7 Prayer "Transit" course and one of the students, Charl, ended up moving back to Stanford soon after and, incidentally, would become the Harmans' daughter-in-law.

Robb has for many years been a governor at one of the local secondary schools, Gable Hall. His good standing with the school opened doors for the community to partner with the school. Robb and Charl soon found themselves meeting with the head teacher and asking "how can we serve you?". They began with organising and running an after-school café once a week, which the head even insisted they put a prayer space in! They regularly have over two hundred pupils through the doors. 

We joined the team as they ran the after-school café. There is a snacks and drinks menu, but the main draw seemed to be the free toast. I was quickly put to work transforming slices of thick-sliced bread into hot toast ready to be buttered by Sally to meet the demand of hundreds of hungry pupils. Other team members were chatting to students, praying in the prayer space and selling drinks or handing out food. It seemed that sixteen loaves had met their match with a horde of ravenous teenagers. Many students just came, ate and left, but others lingered around, wanting to talk and connect. Some were eager to use the prayer space too. In Stanford Boiler Room, everything revolves around teamwork and every person being actively involved, and that ethos was eminent here. 


After they begun running the cafe, the chaplaincy ministry soon followed. 

"They gave us the troubled kids to meet up with, we would take them out of lessons, sit with them for an hour, hand them back, we were given five kids a day each, so ten hours." said Robb. 

As a testimony to the simple effectiveness of the chaplaincy, Robb tells a story of when he and Charl went in to talk to senior teachers in the school. While they were discussing chaplaincy, the head teacher exclaimed about one of the students they had been seeing "this boy, it's he's had an encounter with Jesus!". 

"This is a very troubled family in Stanford. He’s the first of three sons to actually attend a normal school. And through 24-7 he got through school. Just.". 

This is just one of many stories the Harmans share of changed lives through 24-7 Prayer's partnership with the school. Their chaplaincy service was even mentioned in Gable Hall's latest Ofsted School Inspection Report as being "particularly helpful" to the students.

During my visit to the community I was invited to join some of the community in a weekly course they have been running for some of the students. The Aspire Course is run out of the Boiler Room's second property, known as "Number One", which was my home for the week. The Aspire Course came about as a way to constructively help some of the students in danger of expulsion to be able to learn in a different environment, and is staffed by members of the 24-7 Community, led by the talented Charl. The thing which really makes this special is that none of the team are trained teachers or education experts, but have an enthusiasm and genuine desire to see the students succeed and believe in themselves. 

The day we join them, the students arrive, exactly how you would imagine a group of disengaged thirteen and fourteen-year olds to arrive. Some are chatting and joking and winding each other up. One girl sits down in a foul mood, arms folded, face scowling, not wanting to have any conversation. The team are unfazed and skilfully manage to calm them down and get them talking and interested. After an interactive teaching session, complete with a film excerpt, we continue on to a music studio in nearby Tilbury, where the main day's activity is taking place. 

The studio manager seems well suited to dealing with groups of excitable teenagers and finally their motivation appears from the midst of apathy as they set to work on learning how to build loops and rhythms on a computer and record themselves singing (and rapping) over the top. They also get to go crazy on the studios drum kit, and my heart warms when I see the girl who was previously scowling, break out into a big smile which lights up the room. This may not look like regular education, but I think it serves perhaps an even more important purpose right now- to help the students to believe that they have talent, and are worth something.  

Later on in the week, we join Charl and her team for another course they are doing to help a few Year 11 students who have already been excluded from school through their final year of GCSE´s. Each week they take them through lessons from a curriculum on Health and Social Care. The environment is different, more adult, but the same passion and care for the students is evident from the staff. 


It strikes me that, for a town like Stanford, this is what community transformation looks like. Sitting down and investing time in small groups or individuals that desperately need the attention, love and care they are not getting elsewhere. School pupils from the café and prayer spaces have already been drawn into the community and have found faith. It was a privilege to sit down with a girl from the school and have communion later in the week, knowing that it was the love and faithfulness of the Stanford Community that had helped her to find faith in Christ. They don't go in, all guns blazing, trying to preach at people. But they carry something infectious, a passion and love for Christ, that is bringing peace and hope to the community. 

Meals and Multiplication

At the heart of the community are prayer, shared meals and hospitality We were invited to four meals over the course of the week. The community has multiplied and now consists of two Boiler Rooms, just called "217" and "Number 1" after the houses in which they are based. 

Sally shares the story of how the community multiplied to become two.

"So we kind of had this vision. And we were at about thirty-five at that point. So we thought we should start another boiler room".

They talk about a natural group that seemed to be forming within the community, which they describe using the analogy of a rib, from the Biblical creation story where God forms Eve from Adam's rib. It's the same DNA, the same essence but at the same time a whole new entity, not a clone. 

Robb continues the story: "So literally we kicked them out of the house and said “you can’t come to house meal, you can’t come and pray. You can have your own house meal, you own little prayer time. We used to pray for twelve hours on Friday nights and first of all they were in this wilderness area. They were praying where they should be in this town and then pray about where they were going to meet. So they ended up believing they should be in an estate over by the school where there are a lot of students, and should be getting involved with the college. A lot of them were living out that way, so they felt that was the place to be". 

Once again, God provided a property as a base for this new community in a surprising way. Sally was chatting to a local businessman, who had some inheritance money after the death of his father. His kids had been helped by the 24-7 community. She told him the story of the first house and he was blown away. He then offered to buy a house with his inheritance and rent it to them. Nine months after the second community started, they had a house ready to move into, the same length of time as a pregnancy, Sally points out. 

It's this house that now provides my accommodation for the week.  It is a semi-detatched house typical of this area, but has been decorated with care and attention for a particular focus on hospitality, a value held at the heart of all the Boiler Room does. Visitors are allowed to stay for a maximum of two weeks, as long as they take part in the community and spend time praying in the specially dedicated prayer room on the ground floor. My bedroom is welcoming, with clean sheets, towel, an alarm clock, a welcome leaflet and a comfy bed. It would not be out of place as a commercial guesthouse, although Corringham is not the kind of town in which I can imagine there being a great demand. There is a kitchen downstairs and large living room for community meals and meetings. 

Over the course of the four meals (two with each community) we get to meet a diverse bunch of people of all ages and backgrounds. The house is certainly alive with people, prayer and hope. One particularly articulate ten year old boy talks to me about his family. He comes with his mother and siblings to one of the community meals "We don't have a religion" he explains, "but we like coming here because of the people. We usually leave before they pray!". I'm encouraged that this is what God's kingdom looks like. Once people make a decision to follow Jesus, they are committed as disciples with everything they have, but the welcome of the kingdom is inclusive and extended to others without condition. 

The prayer room in the house, is utilised for a day of 24-hour prayer at the end of the week. I always feel at home whenever I walk into a prayer room anywhere in the world, and this one is no exception. In fact, the multiplication of prayer rooms around the community is the long-term vision. We had already got chance to go to the nearby village of Horndon-on-the Hill and meet Lisa Anderson, who, along with her husband Phil and their family, have a heart to see a similar community form there. Lisa runs an art gallery in the village and they are already becoming established there, meeting for prayer in the local Anglican church. 


"Obviously we would love to see two, three, four boiler rooms in five years, I would hope. Honestly I couldn’t imagine one, I couldn’t imagine two so I’m just going with what I’m sure God’s saying will happen" says Sally. 

But it is not a vision of trying to lure people out of the wider world and into church. The vision is for church to become part of the very fabric of the community: 

"For me..our heart has never been that the school kids come and join us. We want them to have church in that school. So we want them to be praying in school, serving in school, worshipping in school, being missional in school, learning in school. That’s what I want. There’s fifteen hundred people in that school and we want them to function as church. If that is happening then they go home to their mums, dads, grans and families are impacted. Someone talked to me about a tipping point- there’s a percentage. It was something like fifty or sixty people, if they are really on fire for God in that school, it’s inevitable that there’s a real move of God. That’s what I think we are looking for. The prayer house then is a place people go to, function, have a meal with friends and encourage them to go back."

Reflecting on my impactful week with 24-7 Prayer Stanford, the thing that really inspires me is the incredible influence a small group of people who seek God can have on their community. I have been to countless meetings where people cry out for revival or think to trigger a move of God we need more services or meetings. The story of this community is quite the opposite. Pray, eat together, share life in meaningful relationships and then go out and in any small way you can, love and serve the people of your neighbourhood. It will look different for every community, but the principles are the same. Seek God, love each other, actively serve and love those around you, whatever the cost. In the midst of this, faith is found and people come alive. Robb and Sally Harman and the others in the community are just normal people like you and I who have decided not to hide their light under a basket. They didn't need to travel to the other side of the world but decided to make a difference where they were. My hope and prayer is that as you read this, you will be inspired to do the same. 







New York, New York. Ten tips for exploring NYC on a budget.

New York is probably my favourite city anywhere in the world. So much city packed into a relatively small space. It's big AND tall. It's almost like a nation unto itself. Kind of like America, but even better. Nothing beats seeing the New York skyline for the first time. It's a city which boldly announces itself, but needs no introduction. 

These photos and tips are from a visit where we pretty much followed our noses around the city last September. There are an infinite number of places to see and things to do, so these are just to help you make a small but significant scratch on the tip of the iceberg. We were staying with friends in the uber hipster neighbourhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but the extensive subway system makes it easy to get from place to place. 

#1 Take in the view of Manhattan from Brooklyn. There are several places along the East River in Brooklyn to take in the breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline. These shots are taken from East River State Park in Williamsburg. 

#2 Wander the streets of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Discover great coffee and eats, vintage stores, street art and just about everything in between. 




#3 Ask locals where to eat and find great hole-in-the-wall places like Vinnie's Pizza (This branch is in Williamsburg, Brooklyn). It looks like the kind of place you want to avoid as if your life depended on it, but the pizza is top notch and great value. 


#4 Get lost in Central Park. Central Park is huge. It's 183 acres of green-ness, an oasis of calm in the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. My advice is to pick a section and enjoy that rather than trying to see every corner, which will exhaust you unless this is the only activity for the day. When we visited there was a stage ready for the Pope to speak the next day. So, go to Central Park and follow in the pontiff's holy footsteps! 


#4 Visit Times Square, but don't stay long. Times Square is the equivalent of Piccadilly in London. Alongside the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building, it's one of NYC's icons, with its huge screens and big crowds. In my view, it's worth seeing once, it is a little impressive but you feel a bit like you are in something created for tourists and the bombardment with advertisements is overwhelming and almost feels a little violating. It's good for some photos though. I recommend not to eat around here as everything is more geared for tourists and you will be overcharged for underwhelming food. Instead, do a bit of research ahead of time as to where the hidden eateries are (see #3 above).


#5 Enjoy Yoga in the heart of Manhattan. Ok, so yoga is not my thing, but it seems to be really popular here. So much so that they have huge yoga sessions in parks. So if it's your bag, bring your yoga mat and sweatpants and join other like-minded people, and get photographed by people like myself


#6 Spend some time wandering around Manhattan and see what's happening. There's always something happening. We stumbled across a big queue of people lining up as far as the eye could see, weaving in and out of blocks and streets. I thought it was a new store opening, but after seeing some nuns and asking people, I soon realised it was a queue for the pope who was performing/preaching at Madison Square Gardens. 

#7 Walk the High Line The High Line is a 1.5 mile linear park built on an elevated section of a disused railway line. It was pretty crowded when we visited, but enjoyable all the same. Just being a little higher than street level helps you lift yourselves out of the stress of the city somehow. 


#8 Reflect at the 9/11 Memorial. It's a sobering thing to stand at the very spot the twin towers once stood and view the poignant and beautiful memorial waterfalls that have been built in the footprint of the towers. The names of those killed in this world-changing event are engraved around the edges of the memorial. I can't think of a more fitting way to remember this event. There is a museum as well, but we didn't have time to visit. There is a new tower that has been built near the site, known as One World Trade Center, or The Freedom Tower. It is the largest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere. 


#9 Walk the Brooklyn Bridge

This is one of the most iconic structures in New York, with black and white photos of this on probably at least every other friend's wall across the globe. The only way to appreciate it is to walk it:


#10 Discover DUMBO, Brooklyn. If you walk across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan (#6 above) then you will find yourself in the district of DUMBO. It's not named after the animated flying elephant, as I first thought, but is an acronym which represents "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass". It's a trendy new district which includes some good coffee at Brooklyn Roasting Company and lots of boutique shops and independent cafes. And you also get this famous view of the Manhattan Bridge 


Mid-West Photo Journal Part 4: KENTUCKY and TENNESSEE

Ok, so the title of this blog is misleading. When I started this blog series I was thinking mid-west, but after Indiana we crossed the border into the South. So this blog should really be South USA Photo-journal part 1 (of 1). Just for those of you who are pedantic, like myself. 

The border mid-west/south border lies on the Ohio river. And in reality, the change in accents is quite distinct, making me imagine a historical scene where new settlers  had to speak to some kind of sheriff or state official, and if you had a southern twang you went to Kentucky, and if you sounded more mid-west then you went to Indiana. I know this almost certainly didn't happen, but in my world I like to think things like that happened. 

Anyway, enough of my over-active imagination. Here are some photos of Kentucky: 

After an hour or so of beautiful driving down undulating back roads, we made a short photo stop at the Rough River Dam State Park. "Rough River" must have been named on one hell of a wild day, when we visited the name seemed entirely misleading as we watched people fishing in the still blue waters: 

We continued our drive through western Kentucky amidst rolling hills and rich pastures in the evening light. Looking at the map, it seems the be the very first foothills of the Appalachians to the east. Nothing dramatic, but very pretty and deserving of its own road trip soundtrack. 

We stopped with another amazing couchsurfing host, this time in Bowling Green. His house was like an African-themed luxury hotel, he cooked us a vegetarian meal (a theme of all our couchsurfing hosts) and he seemed to love just exchanging travel stories with us and inviting the world into his living room.

The next day we made a short 2 hour journey to Nashville, our final destination. 

Nashville is one of those places which, in my mind has legendary status for its music scene. I was kind of excited to find out what the city was like. Initially it seemed to be a concrete jungle of intersecting interstate highways angrily crossing each other at stress-inducing junctions. As soon as we turned on to a highway, we had to cross 5 lanes to the left and take another exit on the opposite side, a procedure which seems to keep repeating itself every few minutes. We stopped in at Eighth and Roast, where Jess's friend is a barista, and the following day decided to check out the city centre. 

The central area is clichéd Nashville, to the point of wondering if it is trying to parody itself. Honky Tonk bars, cowboy hats, giant flashing neon guitar signs, country rock music blaring out from overpriced bars. I'm sure a lot of people come here and love it, but it left me feeling a bit disappointed. This wasn't the cutting edge city I thought it might be. We wandered around the riverside area while I gathered my thoughts: 

With the benefit of a more recent visit to Nashville for a second time I can tell you that below the surface and the veneer there is a city buzzing. It is a city that's always on the cusp of something, and that cusp generates excitement that keeps it moving. It's full of people on their way to being someone, to being noticed, to being signed, to making a name for themselves. Hope is too virtuous a word to describe it, so instead I'll call it optimism. It's a city where optimism is needed to participate, to be part of it. Lose that and you've lost the city. It's that optimism that is bringing 83 people per day to move here, a growth that seems unsustainable but is characteristic of thriving cities. It is also responsible for the growing craft coffee scene characterised by newly established icons such as Barista Parlour and Crema, a burgeoning micro-brewery movement, rejuvenated inner-city suburbs, flourishing record stores, countless gig posters for bands you've never heard of (but may do in a few years) and this young, creative Nashville vibe that seems to somehow flow seamlessly with the old, already "arrived" Nashville but may soon overtake it. What makes Nashville Nashville is that it is a city trying to better its already famous self, and having fun in the process. 

The following day we visited the more sedentary town of Franklin, a hub of musical celebrity and affluence. I like its vintage small town feel, even though everything seems incredibly overpriced. A friend of mine from Iceland told me he bumped into Miley Cyrus once in the street here, several years back before she reached infamous status. 


We also spent some time hanging out with some great friends in Nashville, but I enjoyed their company so much that I forgot to take photos. So here is one of their house instead: 

We decided to take the quick way home to Nashville, if you consider 8 hours to be quick. Our road tripping mojo had been exhausted so we were eager to get back to Ohio and sleep, stopping only once for coffee in Louisville. 

I'll end this blog with some final photos of small town NW Ohio, to bring the mid-west theme back in again and finish this series. Thanks for reading and I'll be posting a blog about New York City very soon!