An ancient trackway, old before the original Church of St Tegwyn was built, straddles the up ground. Once pagan and later Christians would have walked this route. No more, the people have moved, and all that remains is a glorious view and a strong sense of the numinous.
Is it possible to fall into the sky?
I was afraid I might.
Here, as I stood by St. Tegwyns,
It felt easily done
The sky so immense
The hill on which I stood
So dominating, small for sure
But dwarfing Aron Dwyryd
And mighty Snowdon?
Snow-capped it might be,
Yet so distant, so far away
So dwarfed by that mighty sky.
Everywhere I looked, sky.
A cloud here and there in that vast bowl
Of blue light, but the tug,
The ever-present upward tug,
strained at gravity,
and I feared I might fall in.
Oddly or perhaps not – further along, the River Nidd was the home of an almost Saint. Robert of Knaresborough (St. Robert) (c. 1160 – 24 September 1218) was a hermit who lived just further along in another cave (then known as St. Giles’ Priory). It is said that King John visited him and Trinitarian friars also venerated him.
A henge is a name given to the outer bank and ditch that usually surrounds stone circles such as Stonehenge and Avebury. They are not protective in the way that fortresses are protected by a moat. Rather they overlook the circle, and indeed some authorities believe they were used as viewing platforms for people to see the ceremonies are going on inside.
Henges were constructed in the neolithic and bronze ages, generally surrounding places of worship so it is unusual to find a Church built inside a pre-Christian, pagan era, henge, yet there are a few in Britain. This one surrounding Knowlton Church in Dorset is one such place.
Was it the new religion annexing the holy places of the Old? We shall never know, but interestingly there were around 35 henges in the surrounding area, making this the biggest concentration in Dorset. There is also evidence of an Anglo-Saxon graveyard nearby so there may well have been a church on this site almost since the introduction of Christianity into Britain.
Yet does the old still exerts its influence? Just behind the church are two yew trees, old and ancient as yew trees can be. And within their sheltering embrace, the trees have been decorated as the ancient Celts might well have done two thousand years ago.
Shown below are the colourful decoration. In the midst of the ancient Yew trees, they add a sense of the Divine and of human loss to this mysterious place.
The church of All Saints, at just 26 by 25 feet, is probably one of the smallest in the country. But it also has other claims to fame. It dates from the mid-12th century and shares a roof with an adjoining farmhouse. Most unusual perhaps is that for some time before 1820 the farmhouse was used as a pub called the Blue Bell, the bar being used as a vestry, with a door into the aisle. Through this door, it is said that “worshippers were accustomed to steal to refresh themselves.”
“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.
In distance, ten, twenty miles. In time, five, six centuries.
Here, a roofless church looks out across a fish pond.
Once, it would have supplied food for the winter, water for the mill.
Now, it provides, peace, tranquility, a place of rest and reflection.
Long, long ago the village of Wharram Percy would have been bustling,
busy with the affairs of the day. No longer.
Small hummocks speak of what was,
Houses, a manor even, now long gone, almost hid from sight.
A track, grass covered, runs through the mounds.
A whole village once stood here. Forty, fifty or more houses.
Vanished, gone. The Voices that once echoed from house to house.
Are stilled, long forgotten. Except in the graveyard.
A small bench provides a seat, a place to sit and ponder what was,
and to enjoy what is. The sound of birds, wind rustling leaves,
Sunlight, white clouds, green hills and woodland. The movement of,
Ripples crossing the pond, a sense of peace, a place of beauty.
Soon it will be time to return, back, back,
To the roar of traffic, the noise of people.
But not yet. Stay, stay a little longer,
For where else is found such serenity?
* It is hard to believe but there 3,000 or so known deserted medieval villages. The village of Wharram Percy was continuously occupied for six centuries before being abandoned in the 1500s. Now it stands deserted on the side of a remote and beautiful valley deep in the Yorkshire Wolds.
I know nothing. I understand less than nothing.
A whole lifetime spent searching, seeking,
Reading, practising, listening to the guru.
And for what? For what purpose, to answer what question?
Ah yes, the question, wait, I dimly recall, the question was “Why?”
Why, why, yes that was it. And the answer, well at times if felt close by,
Yet, whenever I reached out my hand to it, it moved away, vanished.
And now I laugh, for I know the cosmic joke. You are the answer you seek!
The words of the song speak the thoughts of the dawn.
Round, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel,
like the circles that you find, in the windmills of your mind,
Questions to be explored, layers concealing layers, perceptions dimly sensed.
Structured as if in a Tony Cragg creation,
The outer layer speaks, yet conceals what lies within,
Layer concealing layer, strata with its own timeline,
it’s own meaning, making a concealed contribution to the Whole.
What is it I fail to grasp? What moves just beyond my perception?
When I reach out to touch, what is it that moves away?
Elusive as a butterfly darting in the mind, one moment illuminated,
The next hidden, only the question remains, what lies below?
Below my ordinary perception, below the superficiality that surrounds,
Layer below layer, atom forming structure, concealing the quantum mystery,
Mystery wrapped within enigma. Is perception possible? Is it all an illusion?
Or instead, tantalising glimpses of the layers below?
Myth and legend swirl, concealing tradition and history,
One generation follows another, some forgetting, a few retaining,
Knowledge, understanding, but fast diminishing, leaving only distorted echoes,
Of what was once crystal clear. Now lost, only the faintest echo, sounds in the void.
What was there at the edge of my perception? In the dreaming swirl that comes,
As morning dawns, when the mind hovers between the clarity of the day and the dreamy mists of the night.
A glimpse perhaps of the hidden seams concealed within the mind? The magicians who move amongst the unseen layers?
Who make, form, breathes life into the mystery that is hidden? Come the dawn, the vision fades, grows faint, and only a diminishing echo remains.
I was fascinated by the way that Tony Cragg fashioned his sculptures. Beneath each layer, he places another layer, sometimes apparently unconnected with what went before, sometimes crafted by one of Tony’s assistants.
A different set of hands, eyes, meaning. Without seeing the creation from beginning to end in some kind of god-like way, how can anyone know the layers beneath the layers?
Know, let alone understand, what lies below? What is intended even? Just as we view a tree, not seeing the roots, the flow of the sap, the earth and air connections, and beneath all, the swirling movement of the Universe that embrace it and us.
(Tony Cragg is a British born sculptor who now lives in Germany. He is known for his exploration of unconventional materials, including plastic, fibreglass, bronze, and Kevlar. According to Art World, Craggs’ sculptures embody a frozen moment of movement, resulting in swirling abstractions.
I went to bed full of love and mystery and journeyed on the wings of Morpheus. Far , far beyond the towers of Avalon and the walls of Babylon. Then down I plunged into the layers of reality that lie beneath our perception, concealed strata that sometimes boil and ripple, but more often are quiet and just whisper to the soul, Look, and you will see me, listen and you will hear me.
Night falls, moon rises,
Owl wakes, fox stirs,
Tiny prey, fearfully forage,
All feed, some survive.
Comes the day, departs the dark,
Sun’s warming rays, banish fears of the night,
On green meadows, flocks safely graze,
Protected by the light, yet fearful of the night.
Dusk comes, darkness looms,
Feared hunters, fearful prey,
Night stirrings, dark destruction,
The pattern, repeats, repeats.