I open the door of my flat as quietly as possible and pad downstairs, taking care to tread silently and not disturb any guests sleeping in the rooms to either side. I pass through four doors to reach the kitchen, each one closing quietly behind me and in so doing giving me a small swell of satisfaction that my DIY skills have in this case paid off. Often, it is the small details that matter most; in my quest to create a place of peace and tranquility I am as likely to be found fiddling with the closing mechanism of a fire door as I am contemplating how to create a positive spiritual atmosphere.
Like so many other tasks in my daily work, completed by rote day in and day out, my hands are well-practised with the rhythm of laying the kitchen for breakfast. First I place the teapots and cafetières, cups and saucers, followed by the granolas and fruit; then an artistic pile of sourdough bread slices, piles of plates and bowls, and finally everything from the fridge: organic yoghurt, local preserves, juices and milk. In a matter of moments the room is transformed and my duties complete.
Mornings are a sacred time at All Hallows. After laying the breakfast I meet my wife Jo back in our flat where we share a cup of tea and reflect on the previous day. Eilonwy, our resident Pembroke corgi, expects to be allowed on the bed during these morning rituals, squished between us chewing a favoured toy. I can hear the guests stirring, the distant close of a door in the corridor or a whispered greeting.
I have learned to lean into the snatched moments of quiet that interrupt the rhythm of constant work. But when my tea is finished I know it is time to carry on. I coax Eilonwy downstairs and outside while the heat of the day is a distant threat and the air is still cool enough to exercise in comfort. I wheel my bicycle out of the shed, dodging the overhanging ivy (a reminder of another unfinished task) and taking care not to be too noisy, knowing the windows are open above me and sound travels further in the stillness.
Eilonwy and I sneak out the side gate and I close it behind me before mounting the bike. We have done this often enough, she knows what to expect and anticipates my movements; after all, we only ever go one way: down the hill, across King Street and over the Lady Julian Bridge to the paved walkway along the River Wensum, that ancient thoroughfare into Norwich that has brought cathedrals and castles and riches to this Fine City from distant lands so long ago.
Our cycle ride only lasts fifteen to twenty minutes; when encouraged, Eilonwy can match my speed on the bike for short bursts and the mile and a half return journey is more than enough to wear her out for the day. I pass other early risers exercising along the river, or on their way to work or school; I am used to the smiles of surprise as they watch the red and white corgi, tongue lolling, tearing up the pavement as she races alongside the barefoot cyclist. I enjoy the exercise, though it is more for Eilonwy's sake than mine. By the time we reach home she is panting and thirsty and desperate to climb into bed (she has three, but her favourite day bed is made from an old suitcase and lives in my office, close enough to the action to not be left out, yet able to be left undisturbed for hours on end).
If I have timed it right, I am just in time to lock her in the office and head down the hill to St Julian's for morning prayer. The service lasts fifteen minutes, though we sometimes get chatting afterwards; I enjoy it while I can, knowing it might be my only opportunity for social interaction until the evening. As I walk back up the hill my thoughts are already racing ahead to the list of jobs that await me. I check my watch; it reads five to nine. The house is only just awaking so I have time to walk to the market to replenish breakfast supplies.
No doubt I could find a way of getting fruit delivered; many people would see this as a waste of time, or an unnecessary burden. But I enjoy it, the tradition of it, the sense of connection with past generations. It is a brisk ten minutes to Norwich's 900 year old market, still a hive of activity after so many years. I am a familiar sight at the fruit and veg stall, with my bare feet and Julian of Norwich jute tote bag. I smile and wave in recognition at Mike, the fruit seller. I assume that's his name, it's what it says on the sign; but I've never used it, and we've never been introduced. We only ever speak about business, and yet we feel like old friends.
Our transaction is the work of a moment, and then I'm on my way marching back to All Hallows, but this ritual has become foundational to my routine. It feels like a cornerstone, an opportunity to engage with the businesses on our doorstep, a chance to buy fruit without wasteful packaging, an opportunity to relish city living, and a breath of fresh air and a few moments to think. It might be the only few moments I spend away from home all day, I'd best enjoy them while I can. As I crest the hill and begin the descent towards home, I glance at the glistening white stone of Norwich's Norman castle above me, a sight that I, as a medievalist, refuse to take for granted.
The rest of the morning happens in a blur. As people begin to check out there are beds to be stripped, washing to be done, showers and toilets to clean, emails to write, and then I'm back in the kitchen dismantling the breakfast I laid out only two hours before.
Afternoon comes, and I can feel my stomach grumbling; I rarely eat breakfast, so by one in the afternoon I have begun to get hungry, but with an endless list of things I could be doing I rarely summon the effort needed to stop and eat. On days when Jo doesn't work she will insist we stop and have lunch together, but even then something usually interrupts us, a phone call or the doorbell.
When the clock strikes two I breathe a sigh of relief; check in time has begun, which means I have to have finished the rooms and showers already, so I can pause and do sedentary work while I wait for the first guests to arrive. On a good day, there's time to tackle the list of non-urgent tasks, or even spend some time reading or enjoying the garden.
If I don't time things right, on bread-baking days I can get trapped at home even after the last guests have arrived, waiting for the loaves to finish so I can be released. Of course, like the time-wasting expense of walking to the market I could find another source for quality bread, but I stubbornly insist on making my own: not only does it taste better than most, but amidst all the humdrum and busyness of the rest of my work I like to know there is at least something that my hands have made that I can offer to guests who come to visit.
As the afternoon wears on, there comes a point in any day in which I am at last free to go. I have learned that to have any time off I have to leave the premises, and as a self-confessed delighter in real ale I have found my second home in the snugs of the many quality pubs spread throughout this Fine City.
After a pint (or two) and a chance to talk through the day, Jo and I head home, before we lose our resolve to cook and find ourselves accidentally at one of Norwich's countless excellent eateries.
On some evenings, we are joined in the sitting room after dinner by guests, and together we tell tales and find connection with people from every walk of life, from celebrities on TV to tourists, locals looking for a retreat, and even at times those for whom All Hallows has become a temporary home. As the day draws to a close, I am satisfied: in the knowledge I have done my best; in the belief that we offer a truly special experience to anyone who seeks it; and with the choices and chances that have brought me to this place at this moment in time.
The day ends much as it began: I walk silently up the stairs and down the dimly lit corridor, past guests already asleep or preparing to take their rest, down to the end. I wince as the handle of the door to our flat groans and open it quickly to get it over with, slipping noiselessly inside as though trying to avoid being observed. Holding my breath, I turn the lock and exhale. Another day in the life of a guesthouse complete.