“It was highly pressurised but really creative, and I was living this fantastic life in London. I’d a gorgeous flat in Notting Hill, I was going to all these celebrity parties, working with amazing musicians. I mean, what could be better?
“I was on a roll and then I’d come back to Elmfield and there was just something that fed my soul here. I realised there was something seriously missing in my life in London and I started to think about what that might be,” she explains.
Evidently influenced by her parents’ commercial acumen, Jane had always hankered after running her own business, but struggled to work out what that might be.
“So I started analysing the job I was doing and realised I enjoyed the creative side and working with people but I didn’t like the finance part,” she laughs. “I considered a foundation arts course at Saint Martin’s in London, thought about becoming a counsellor… and then one night we were doing a vodka promotion in a nightclub and I started chatting to the woman standing next to me.
“She told me she was a craniosacral therapist. I asked her ‘what’s that?’ She told me and literally in that moment I knew that’s the training I wanted to do. I jumped with both feet.”
Over the next three years Jane used up holiday leave to complete a part-time training course before a fortuitous turn of events at work helped to cushion her transition to her new career. “Henry’s House is a sister company of Simon Fuller Management and Simon asked Julian Henry, our MD, to become his communications manager. Amid all that, I was offered a lucrative freelance role that enabled me to finish my training and set up my own business.”
Two decades later, Jane is one of the world’s foremost practitioners in biodynamic craniosacral therapy, which uses light touch to support the body to release tensions built up over life’s adverse experiences. “Safe relational touch allows the body neurophysiology to shift towards balance and wholeness,” she explains.
She’s also a Jungian psychologist and for 12 years co-organised the international Breath of Life conferences, which included speakers such as Gabor Mate and attracted 2,000-strong audiences.
Her clinical practice focuses on helping people recover from trauma. “That can range from emotional trauma and child abuse to Troubles-related trauma, perhaps being injured in a bomb.”
For some time Jane prevaricated about where to base her Elmfield Institute business, considering locations in Canada, America and south-west Cork, then back at home one day she glanced at the dilapidated courtyard buildings and realised the answer was staring her in the face. Over several years they’ve been painstakingly converted — while retaining many original features — into a bespoke conference/events centre, also available for corporate events and weddings.
Steering the estate into the future has fired Jane’s passionate interest in its past.
A Georgian house originally stood on the site, but the current residence was built by one of the Dixon brothers, of the Dixon, Dunbar, McMaster firm that owned Gilford Mill. “Another brother built nearby Gilford Castle, which is practically identical,” says Jane.
“However, the Dixons ended up in the High Court over a dispute they lost so had to sell Elmfield not long after they’d built it. It was then owned by a prominent linen family, the Uprichards, but they’d to sell it too. The last owner went off to war, came back with what I suspect was PTSD, his marriage broke up, he drank and gambled and the estate was lost. It was then bought by the Calverts, of nearby Calvertstown, who had been intending to build a factory on it but that didn’t work out.”
Fittingly, the recent renovation work feels like the final piece in the vast restoration project carried out by her parents.
Jane’s father bought Elmfield in 1958. “By then it had been derelict for 10 years. There were trees growing through the hall, the roof was off, the gardens were overgrown. It had been a prisoner-of-war camp. The Nissen huts and barbed wire were still there.
“But when dad came along with his dad to view it, they were struck by its peace and beauty. The trees were magnificent and when dad saw that he thought there must be something very special about the soil.
“He was only in his early 20s yet had this vision to farm beef here. Then mum came on the scene and together they restored the house, the gardens, the farm, bit by bit.”
Jane grew up with older sister Catherine, now a doctor specialising in mental health who lives at Seaforde, and younger brother Christopher, who works in finance and is based near London.
“When we were children in the Seventies, we were still living in just three rooms of the house. We could tricycle around it, scribble on the walls, it wasn’t precious at all.
“I spent a lot of time on the roofs around the courtyard. It was quite a feral childhood, but a very privileged one in that we were free to do whatever we wanted. We’d find things relating to the history of the place and make up stories. It was just wonderful.”
A declaration of interest — I first met Jane when we sat beside each other in form 1E in Banbridge Academy in the Eighties. Indeed, I have a vivid recollection of a French homework where pupils were asked to write about our homes and include a photograph. Perusing young Jane’s effort, Mrs Phillips exclaimed: “Maision? Non. Chateau!” After O levels Jane followed her sister to Marlborough College in England.
Back then Jane had a neat chestnut bob, but four years ago alopecia caused her hair to fall out. Initially she was devastated. “I hated being seen without hair. I see now that I withdrew inward and stopped going out. People often stare at me. My social life has become very limited.”
In fact, I’m struck by how Jane radiates intensity and grace and her appearance only sees to accentuate that. “I’ve really noticed what it feels like to look different but it’s also been a great opportunity to learn,” she explains. “I have had to dig very deep to connect with something unseen in myself.”
The Elmfield Institute launched in 2018 but frustratingly the pandemic stymied progress for a while, which makes the launch of the market tomorrow all the more special.
Customers can buy seasonal produce from local suppliers, including Yellow Door and Ballylisk. Foods include grass-fed meat, fruit and vegetables, artisan breads and cakes, Irish cheeses, jams, chutneys, oils, oysters and smoked salmon.
There will be stalls selling natural and organic self-care and sustainable living products and artisan crafts plus two wellbeing bookable workshops, Yoga with Sayon Cheung Mulligan and Art for the Senses with Geralyn Mulqueen.
Once again, Shaw references her parents’ influence. “When we were children, dad grew half an acre of vegetables in the garden and we’d eat the beef that he reared. With dad playing hockey and mum’s work as a physio, they were very orientated to health.”
Jane shares her father’s passion for Elmfield’s trees. “The energy from them is something else. Dad has really attended to them over the past 60 years, planting lots of new ones and caring for the older ones so their lives could be extended for as long as possible.
“Dad goes out in the morning at six o’clock and sits in his walled garden, listening to the birds with his dogs lying at his feet. Always, that’s his start to the day, connecting with something bigger than him. My parents are quite religious so dad would talk about it being God. I might not use that term — I don’t go to church but I’m not anti-religion — but all my work is informed by that sense of the sacred too.”
Farming has ceased at Elmfield, but Jane clearly feels a sense of destiny that the same beautiful countryside that sparked her father’s imagination now inspires her vision. “It’s about sticking with the feeling of the land but transitioning it into a place of wellbeing.”
Elmfield certainly feels like a sanctuary. Jane leads evening meditation walks through its grounds, and in August she and Belfast-based therapist Rosie Burrows will host a one-day ‘Who do you think you are?’ retreat for women. “It’s for people asking, ‘What have I done? Where am I going next? How can I do it so I’m thriving not just surviving?’”
As the conversation turns to the many old wells discovered during recent renovations and the Victorian garden that Jane is bringing back to life, she adds: “The work that I do is about helping people to come home to themselves and while I’d say I’m still a work in progress I too have a definite sense of finally being home.”
Elmfield Market, Gilford, tomorrow, 10am-3pm, and on the second Saturday of every month. For
further details go to www.elmfieldestate.com
**First published in Belfast Telegraph 10 June 2021**