“A Thin Place” was a Celtic pre-Christian term for a place where the gap between this world and the Other is at its thinnest. I was fortunate enough to discover one of those places and to linger for a little while in its embrace.
The first indication that this might be such a site are the remains of an Abbey. Destroyed as so many were by Henry VIII; now all that remains is a forlorn but graceful arch reaching its cupped hands silently into the sky as if in prayer.
There would have been an assembly of monks working here and praying to God for five centuries until its dissolution in 1538. Yet this did not feel like a thin space. A nearby sign points in the direction of a hermit’s cave. I walk the 170 metres in the direction it indicates and disappear into a grove of trees. Quickly the ground rises steeply upwards and there it is in front of me.
It is a cave, hewn into the side of the rock face, still secluded and hidden amongst the grove of trees.
The hermitage was first mentioned in the 12th century. It is believed that it was created by a baker from Derby named Cornelius. He had a vision which told him to go and live in Depedale (the old name for the nearby Dale village). When he arrived he found the place was a marsh, `exceedingly dreadful and far distant from every habitation of man’. He carved a small dwelling and altar from the sandstone rock, and lived there `by day and night, he served God in hunger and thirst and cold and nakedness’.
The simple cave has openings for a door and windows, and a cross engraved on one wall. When I went inside I was surprised how dry and sound the cave looked. It also felt as though its occupier had just stepped outside for a few minutes and might be back shortly.
I stopped and directed a silent prayer toward the wall marked with the cross, which also looked surprisingly fresh, as though it had been only recently created. Then a few minutes of silent reflection before I stepped back out into the summer sunshine. As I did so, something vigorously stirred the fallen leaves at my feet. It was as though a voice had said, “Welcome stranger, I bless you for your prayer.” Perhaps it was just a breeze, you might say? Well, perhaps it was, though I do not recall seeing the leaves of the surrounding trees moving. And the feeling that accompanied the rustle of the leaves – a feeling of – otherness. Perhaps that too was simply my imagination.
Or perhaps not, because such things happen in a thin place.