Imagine a room – the light comes from the fireplace and from the candles placed in different corners of the room. There is a table with a few chairs, and there is a bed and a small window with curtains. A few people are gathered together to hear a story. You are among these people and now you will meet the storyteller. The real storyteller, the professional one who can tell you story after story, fairytale after fairytale with a calming voice. And all that will make you feel like travel across time and the universe. I was as surprised as you are right now when meeting Nana on Instagram.
Usually, you can hear Nana Tomova telling fairytales from different corners of the world but today you have the opportunity to hear her own story, telling you about her favorite places in Sussex, the hidden gems in this part of the UK, telling you more about herself and what power can one fairytale can bring. I hope you will feel the energy that Nana brings with her wharever she appears.
How do you imagine the perfect om trip?
The perfect om trip is one filled with nature, walking, sunshine, coffee, and good food. For me a good trip has to have a little of the character of a place, to meet its inhabitants, and not all of them have to be human. To taste the foods of the place, even better if you can handpick or forage some ingredients yourself from the local places that allow this.
Is it possible to take an om trip to Sussex?
Absolutely. Sussex is beautiful and full of history. Grab your walking shoes and come and join me. Don’t forget your umbrella!
Three things to take with us when traveling to Sussex.
There are more names for mud in the English language in Sussex than anywhere else in the UK. That tells you something! They include Clodgy – muddy and wet, like a field path after heavy rain; Slob – thick mud; Swank – a bog. If you want to visit the countryside which is beautiful you will definitely need waterproof boots or wellies! Sussex is the sunniest part of England so you may want your sunglasses too. Also, a waterproof coat is a must.
What should we try when we are in Sussex, UK?
Sussex is known for its many independent breweries which make craft beer or pale ale, I would definitely try something by Abyss, which a brewery a mile down the road from me, or from 360 degrees. Being by the sea, Fish and Chips is a must. And of course the English desert of Sticky Toffee Pudding.
Where would you take us for a cup of coffee/or tea?
For coffee, you must head to Brighton. They have dozens of independent local cafes, from posh places to organic vegan places, to hippie artist joints. There is something for everyone. You can try ‘Starfish and Coffee’, named after the Prince song; ‘Café Coho’ in the South Lanes is a great one to go to if you want to people watch from the windows upstairs, Julien Plumart cafe, near the train station has the best French delicacies.
Sussex has many hotels which offer ‘Afternoon Tea’, which constitutes of English tea, small finger sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and tiny cakes. I would recommend that you go to West Sussex for this, perhaps Arundel, which is very quaint village. If you go there, you need to dress up. Or you can take a flask of tea and head to the Brighton Beach, The Seven Sisters in Seaford, or amongst the meadows of the South Downs National Park.
We can’t miss the museums and the galleries in Sussex, which are your favorite ones.
One of my favourites is Charleston near Lewes. The whole house is an exhibition of a group of artists and writers including Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Virginia Woolf. Charleston was a gathering point for some of the 20th century’s most radical artists, writers, and thinkers known collectively as the Bloomsbury group. The house, studios, and garden are beautiful.
Which book will be most suitable for our trip to Sussex?
There are many. You could read something by a local writer such as Virginia Woolf, or Olivia Laing’s ‘To the River’, the story of the Sussex River, the Ouse, in which Virginia Woolf drowned in 1941. Olivia Laing walks Woolf’s river from source to sea. “Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austen was partly set in Sussex too. Of course, you may wish to pick up a copy of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ in many of the vintage book shops. “Winnie the Pooh’ is set in the Sussex Ashdown Forest. You may also read a book of folk tales, I recommend Sussex Folk Tales for Children by local storyteller Xanthe Gresham-Knight. They are of course not just for children!
Special places in Sussex you’d like to share with us.
I love The Seven Sister Cliffs in Seaford. They are so called, because they are joined next to each other, like Seven Sisters. They each have a name, and there are local stories about them, including one about a shepherd who falls in love with a dancing maiden, one of seven dancing sisters who whirls on the cliffs. Over time he gets jealous and loses her, only to find her and her sisters in the sky, having formed the constellation the Pleiades.
Another place is the Long Man of Wilmington. It was thought to originate in the Iron Age or Neolithic Period, but we now think that it’s from the 16th Century. Quite close by is the Litlington Horse, a white horse carved in chalk against the hill.
England has sadly very few forests left, but Sussex contains the biggest biodiversity of trees in the country. The most astounding trees are the Yew trees found in Kingley Vale. It contains the most impressive natural yew woods in Europe. The trees are thought to be between 900 and 2000 years old. It is a sacred site to the modern Druids who live in Sussex, and other spiritual groups. The trees are protected, and are known locally as the ‘Walking Giants’ as it seems that their limbs are transporting them across the landscape. Over hundreds of years they move.
You studied Introduction to Meditation and Buddhism at the Brighton Buddhist Centre. You also have your regular meditation practice. Do you practice yoga? Where would you take us for a yoga practice in Sussex? Where can we practice yoga outdoors?
I did meditate regularly about ten years ago, but I find meditation very difficult now, except when it is at the end of a yoga session. My yoga studio which I visit weekly, is across the road from my house. It is called Soulfit and they offer in person and online classes. When the weather is good we go to a local park and practice there. ‘Brighton Yoga’ offers outdoor classes near the beach, and there are many Yoga Retreats in beautiful, forested areas.
Storyteller, Pharmacist, Researcher, Lecturer – where is the link between all these activities?
The only link is me. I bring a part of me to all of these. I see my work as a bridge between the banks of a river. Scientific enquiry and medicine on one end, and mythology and spirituality on the other. In ancient times, the two were combined into one, hence the roles of the medicine woman, the apothecary, the philosopher, and mystic. Now we have hundreds of specialties according to organ system classifications. A specialist of the heart will not really care about the health of the mind. Yet the two are interlinked, like a rich web. Stories tells us this. In folklore, the Hawthorn is known to have medicinal properties of the heart. It is thought to lower blood pressure, to lower cholesterol. People also used to drink its tincture for a broken heart, after the death of a loved one, or a death of a love affair. Stories carry memory as old as time, we just need to listen to remember in our bones what we have always known.
When I heard you tell a story it was like traveling across time and space. I felt it like a meditation, like a return to a familiar place. Words can be so powerful that they can be considered medicine. From where does their power come? What do you think?
The oldest stories are thought to be at least 5000 years old. They are the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’, 2700 BC and the ‘Exultation of Innana’, 2300 BC, both from Sumeria (Modern day Iraq). Stories are as old as we are. The word contains such power, it commands, it makes spells, it breaks spells. Humans have always gathered together and shared stories. There are stories for birth, for death, for marriage. There are cautionary tales about bad husbands, humorous folk tales about how to survive difficult marriages, wonder tales about going down six worlds to the seventh and facing dragons. There are stories about skins being burnt, stories about the world ending due to the sun becoming too hot, stories about facing a death in Baba Yaga’s hut.
We know when we hear this, there is such symbolism and the human ear and human heart are acutely attuned to this. We are made for stories. They say that it is due to the invention of central heating that people stopped coming together to tell and listen to stories. Each could be in a separate room, without dying of the cold. But something died with this, and so we all have an inner longing. It seems that stories answer a call, even if for just a moment. They speak of human suffering, human love, human hope. We know then that all humanity has known what we know. Has felt what feel. We are connected to our great-grand mothers, to our lineage, to the land that has carried us, to all that has come before and to all that will come after. That is what stories bring us.
It is said that Scheherazade saved her life through stories. She told one story, or a portion of one story each night for 1001 nights. Stories saved her life, in their telling she saved the lives of 1001 women. They would have otherwise been married to the Sultan and in the morning when his desire had been quenched and an emptiness followed, he would have had them beheaded. This is the power of stories. They can save a life. They can remind us of what it is like to live.
You are a professional storyteller. In today’s crazy busy life, your projects are so grounding. What can people find when choosing to be part of your events as the story walks, for example?
People tell me that they feel connected to something larger, inspired, humbled, relaxed. They describe it as soul-warming. If you join me on my Story Walks, you will experience some beautiful nature locations, hear about the folklore and medicinal properties of local plants and hear traditional stories (usually Bulgarian) while your back is supported by the bark of an old oak or a tall beech. Don’t be surprised if a robin lands on your shoulder, if the sun comes out to smile on a grey day at a certain part of the story, or if the wind responds. Story Walks are restorative. They have been described as ‘balms for the soul’, ‘elixirs’ and ‘medicine’. I witness how people breathe slower, speak more tenderly, and have a soft look in their eyes at the end of one. The shell has cracked just a little, to reveal a certain beauty and softness that they carry in their heart.
If you join me online, you will join me from the comfort of your home, where your computer will transform into a magic carpet and we’ll journey together to far off lands. At the end, I will bring you back safely to your home. All will be the same, but you, will be slightly different. You would have been touched by the wings of story.
You know a lot about folklore from different cultures. Do you find the common things between the cultures? Which are they?
So many. Some things never change – the Sun is always revered, the bringer of light, the bringer of hope. The Moon, who in some cultures including Bulgaria one is associated with the cow. She (being female in many cultures) is wise, old and young. Shapeshifting and associated with childbirth and the creativity of women. The dew is thought to have healing and beautifying properties both in Bulgaria and in Ireland. Women go and bathe in the dew on the Summer Solstice (Inyovden) in Bulgaria and Imbolc (St Bridgit’s Day) on 1st February in Ireland. Water, stones, forests all have big symbolisms in each culture. And the egg was thought to be how the world was created – the two halves symbolising the sky and the earth, with the yellow yolk in the center being the Sun. Today we still celebrate the egg at Easter, and in Bulgaria we offer the first red egg (the colour of blood and therefore life) to the Sun in return for a fruitful year.
Speaking about different cultures, what enchanted you the most in the Bulgarian traditions?
I love the ritual of ‘Peperuda’ and the related ritual of the ‘Guerman’ in the Spring. They are both rituals for rain, in the form of a prayer. During ‘Peperuda’ a young girl will be decorated with greenery, usually Elder, which grows near water, and specials songs will be sang by the village women. It is called Peperuda, as an homage to the Pagan old god Perun – the god of thunder and rain. If that doesn’t work, then the task is given to the old women. Then they make a male figure out of clay, called a Guerman, who is well endowed, a sign of fertility. They bury the Guerman, they hold a funeral for him and they weep. They cry and wail, the lament so that the sky may hear them and open. At this time of the earth warming, they seem to be such potent rituals.
What do you think has influenced you the most in shaping your unique style as a storyteller?
I am influenced by everything. The books I read, the customs I immerse myself in, the other storytellers I listen to. My most influential teacher is called Shonaleigh. She is a Jewish tradition bearer, from a women’s lineage and she carries 3000 stories within her, all interlinked like a web, or a tapestry. In twelve different cycles, they contain all that we may need in a lifetime. She is a wordsmith, and her stories make me weep like nothing else. You won’t find them in a book, they are passed orally down through the generations from grandmother to granddaughter. She is the last tradition bearer of her lineage in the world, being Jewish, history tried to bury the stories. Thankfully she and the words she carries live on.
Being born by the Black Sea, I have an affinity with water. Sometimes I think that the motion of the salty waves can be heard in the rhythm of the stories I tell. I learn from the land, the trees, the wind. They enter the stories I speak. The wind as I’m learning, is associated with the word for breath, for voice, for soul. So I am listening a lot more to the wind these days. I have a lot to learn.
You mainly work with words. Can you describe your life here and now just with one word?
Where do you find inspiration?
Other stories, music, nature, films. I love reading as well, and I adore fiction inspired by mythology, for example the series that commences with ‘Bear and the Nightingale’ by Katherine Arden. The Slavic folklore in that book really inspired me. I also love poetry and the late Mary Oliver is my favourite. I often read her poems on my story walks. Sitting by a tree can be very inspirational for me also. It is so difficult, just to sit. No phone, no notebook. Just sitting. Back against bark.
What is your recipe for happiness?
I don’t know if I have one yet. I am working on allowing happiness to be when it arrives, rather than actively trying to keep it. I’ve realised that small things make me happy. The caress of the sun, the song of a robin, a welcome touch on the hand. The smell of honeysuckle, the taste of sun kissed cherries. After all, these are the things in Bulgarian Folk songs, and in the words of the great poets. Perhaps they are not so small after all.
Where should we go after visiting Sussex?
Well, if you like architecture, busy streets, nightlife, and Michelin Star restaurants, go to London. If you like mist, ruggedness, wild horses, and getting lost – head to Dartmoor in Devon.
Who is Nana Tomova?
Nana was born by the Black Sea and carries in her bones old Bulgarian stories of dragon breath and maids made gold; quests in iron shoes and bread of tears.
Nana is an internationally acclaimed Traditional Oral Storyteller and a Nature Connection Guide. She loves stories of the wild, and her favourite place to tell them is out on the land. She is the creator of the Story Apothecary Podcast, where she dispenses stories as medicine. Nana has performed in the Brighton Fringe, her story walks have been featured in the Guardian, Coast magazine and Country Homes magazine.
“An Enchantress…Her mesmerising voice is transporting me to some faraway places” The Guardian