Interview: Esmé Page, founder, Cornwall Hugs Grenfell

12 April 2019

‘So many guests say that Cornish kindness is the most healing part’

The idea just plopped into my head, like a divine download, really, as I was watching the footage on the morning of the [Grenfell] fire: “They’re going to need a sanctuary, a place to be and to grieve — they’ll need some kind of hope on the horizon.”

I resisted the idea for a few days, but God seemed very insistent: “I want them to have this. You don’t need to know how. Just take the first step.” I thought of the verse “With my God I can scale a wall,” from Psalm 18, then we prayed briefly, and I posted on Facebook: “Imagine if we could put a Cornish holiday on the horizon of every Grenfell resident and firefighter family: a time to rest, a time to let our beautiful county bless these people and work its gentle magic.”

A tidal wave of kindness came back: there were hundreds of offers in 24 hours, from individuals and businesses. Cornwall Hugs Grenfell, offering holidays of hope, was born.

My husband had prayed: “If this is of you, blow wind in the sails. If not, let it be becalmed.” From the moment of posting, it was like a gale-force wind: immense provision, team effort, hope, love, and mutual blessing — drawing together people of all backgrounds, and professions, of all faiths and none.

The vision was to offer our beautiful coast, fresh air, and sand and sea as a sensory antidote to what they’d experienced. It’s also about family reconnection and making new memories that are post-trauma and can offer resilience and hope.

I’d foreseen that the natural environment of Cornwall would be healing, but not the huge part that Cornish people would play. So many guests say that Cornish kindness is the most healing part of the holiday, because, beyond the trauma and loss, there’s also the wound of not having been heard in their plea for safety measures in the Tower, and feeling their lives didn’t matter.

We’ve welcomed more than 360 people for a week’s respite, in individual cottages, or as groups with structured activities: survivors, the bereaved, displaced neighbours, firefighters, and some burned-out support workers. Of those who survived the fire, 29 per cent have now been to Cornwall through the project.

Over 1500 people have been involved directly in Cornwall as hosts, donors, or volunteers. With churches who’ve prayed for Cornwall Hugs, and everyone who sang our song of solidarity, “Grenfell From Today”, in school assemblies or choirs all over the world, you’d probably top 10,000.

This year, we’re bringing about 90-plus more survivors and bereaved. The inquests in September and October will be another intense time; so these breaks are really important.

A Canadian five-year-old sold lemonade, and sent us £12. A 91-year-old sent us £100. A Year 6 boy, Cayden, whose school raised £1800 doing a sponsored run, told me: “We’re so lucky to live here, we just want to share it with them because they’ve got nothing like this.”

God’s provision’s been extraordinary. The railway has been immensely generous with fares, as well as companies like Megabus, who brought down bereaved primary-school children and their families.

Almost none of our guests had ever been to Cornwall before, but I was amazed at how brave they were, pulling on wetsuits for the first time, running straight into the water, children and adults alike. What moved me most was the courage of mothers determined to kayak or paddle-board with their children to give them fun, despite their own exhaustion and overwhelming grief.

Our guests have included Christians of various denominations, Muslims, Buddhists and people of no faith. Cornwall is very non-diverse, but we’ve a long history of welcoming people of different backgrounds, and being welcomed ourselves as migrant miners all over the world.

Several guests have cooked for us, and hosting others after months in hotel rooms was really significant.

It’s still hard for many in Cornwall to make ends meet, with so much work being seasonal. That was also the experience of many people living in the Tower.

Cornish people are hard-wired to pull together in trauma and loss. You can’t live surrounded by the sea and tin mines, and not understand what it is to experience a hopeless dawn, waiting, watching, and coming to terms with the awful truth.

I’m starting to get what Paul means by “immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine”, and God’s speed and sense of humour. The difficulty has been keeping up with God.
 

I had a very outdoorsy childhood in Cornwall, learning to swim in the harbour, walking to school by the sea every day, rain or shine. My mum used to tell us to breathe in big breaths of sea air against the wind.

I worked in business in Europe for ten years, and then moved into counselling and personal development, and had some experience of holiday letting. These last two years I’ve had to focus on Cornwall Hugs, and two wonderful women, Tina Bessell and Rebecca Allsworth, help me part-time.

I was confirmed at St Mary’s, Penzance, and then went “up the road” to the Chapel Street Methodists’ more lively youth group, with toasted tea-cakes. The church was having a revival — packed-out services, people being healed, very dynamic and warm.

Although I’d seen God answer prayers, I’d always played it rather safe. This project’s been very different. A friend said to me, a few months before: “God made us for adventure,” and that made me curious. I went to a 24/7 pop-up prayer-room in Penzance, and remember praying: “Break my heart for what breaks yours.” And God did, a few months later.

The sound of sea birds means I’m home. The pure sound of the choir at evensong in Truro Cathedral, just a few minutes’ walk away, runs like water through my cluttered mind and makes space for God’s peace.

If I dig under my anger, I find hurt or fear beneath it. When prejudice is modelled to children, it really upsets me — the burning of the Grenfell Tower effigy last 5 November caused huge pain to the W11 community. I’ve learned a great deal from the Grenfell survivors: they have so much to be angry about; yet they embody grace, dignity, and courage at every step.

Watching people truly connect or regain confidence makes me happy. I remember a survivor from the Tower managing to stand up on the paddle-board, reaching up triumphantly, and beaming at his teenage daughter. Knowing what he’d faced to get his family out, to see them trying something new and celebrating their success together was sheer joy.

This project has been my most courageous step: over a chasm, trusting the bridge of God’s provision will pop up. It always has done, but at the next chasm, I can feel like a wobbly toddler again, spiritually.

The children of Grenfell give me hope for the future. They’re so articulate, emotionally aware, and many have such faith. They’ll be the leaders of tomorrow. The survivor group, Grenfell United, fills me with hope, too. They’re now a formidable force for good in Whitehall, working tirelessly to make sure that the 400-plus tower blocks in the UK with flammable cladding are made safe.

Prayer has been an absolute necessity. Often “Help!”; but also for wisdom, protection, the blasting away of barriers. Once, when I wanted to put on a holiday for bereaved children, I was at my wits’ end about accommodation. I finally sent out a WhatsApp saying: “Please pray for group accommodation, it’s just not happening.”

Within an hour, a stranger, the manager of Towan Valley Resort, phoned and said: “My wife was just watching an item about Grenfell, and said: ‘Why aren’t you doing something about that?’ So, what do you need?” That holiday was a real turning-point for many of those bereaved children and their parents.

I’d love to spend time with Mary Magdalene. I’ve wondered what a full Gospel by one of the strong women around Jesus would be like. I’m not sure a few hours would be enough.

Esmé Page was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. www.cornwallhugsgrenfell.org

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