Quiet #writephoto

For a moment, the world was quiet,

like a breath inhaled.

There was no hum of traffic, no roar of planes, no rumble of trains

in the valley below. Instead there was birdsong, the buzzing of bees, and

the breeze making music through the branches and long grasses.

Water rippled, silver, clear for the first time in years, like

the sky, no longer gasping with dust and smog and exhaust,

and the world was quiet.

We trod lightly, for the most part, as our ancestors once did, when

The land was our home and we respected it as such. Before

the darkness came, the spreading stain of factory and mill and

blackened tower and we forgot what it was to smell fresh leaves and

sweet flowers and to feel the breeze hum against our skin, the way

water rippled like silver snakes, the sky clear above us.

But now, perhaps, we remember again. We turn away from black tower and

rumbling traffic and clogged skies and we’re reminded

of how it used to be, when the water rippled silver, and the birds sang,

and the world was quiet, once more.

This is my response to Sue Vincent’s weekly #writephoto challenge. Sue’s photo this week helped me to articulate something I’d been thinking about for a little while. We’ve been given a chance to see what the world looks like when we slow down – what will we do with that information going forward?

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Circles Beyond Time – Sorrow

img_3591This is the continued story of my weekend away with The Silent Eye. Please click here for instalment one and two.

After the visit to Carl Wark and an excellent dinner, I returned to my hotel unable to do anything other than watch TV for a while before falling asleep, thoughts of finishing my short story gone in the face of my experiences on the hill. Besides, I thought, I can look at it tomorrow.

img_3588Despite all the travelling the previous day, I woke early, and was one of the first people down for breakfast in the old oak-beamed dining room. Once finished, I realised I had an hour or so to spare before being picked up, so decided to take a look around Hathersage. Sue had mentioned that I should visit the church, so I upon leaving the hotel I headed left, taking a cobbled path between stone cottages towards where Google Maps told me the church should be. I came to a long muddy road and turned left again, following a glimpse of spire above the trees. After being splashed by an enthusiastically muddy spaniel, I found a gravelled path leading past mossy stone walls. The sign on the tree helped, too. ;-D

img_3590The path led towards a walled enclosure, a grove of trees crowning the hill where the church hid. I wandered up, dodging cowpats and taking care to close the gates behind me, enjoying the views across the village, thinking what a lovely place it would be to live in.

img_3601When I reached the church, I wandered around the graveyard for a little while. It was peaceful, the gravestones grey with age and lichen, family names appearing again and again speaking of an uninterrupted line of existence linked to the village. I love to read old gravestones – the stories they tell of lives lived, of loved ones and families – and there were plenty of fine examples. I didn’t find the Eyre family, which was a shame, but I did find one rather famous fellow.

img_3608This is the grave (reputedly) of Little John, he of Robin Hood fame. As you can see, it’s a very long grave, in keeping with his fabled height, and the gravestone tells the story of how he once lived nearby. Well, why not? I thought, as I took the pathway back towards the gate, smiling at the ladies decorating the ancient stone doorway with flowers, no doubt in preparation for a wedding later that day. But I had somewhere else to be and time was ticking, so I walked back to the hotel, collected my pack, then joined the companions for another day of exploration.

img_3609This time we were heading to Gardoms Edge. I didn’t really know anything about it, but, as we walked through the fields towards to the gate, Sue filled us in. Gardoms Edge was once a Neolithic village – stone hut circles, walls and other evidence had all been excavated and mapped by archaeologists, then left in place for the lichen and heather to cover once more. This sounded fascinating, and I couldn’t wait to take a look.

img_3623We entered via a farm gate, then walked among trees and tumbled stones, hut circles and walls ancient remnants of the people who once made their homes here, thousands of years ago. This would have been a nice place to live, I thought, looking out to the view across hills and valleys, the high ridge protected by virtue of its location.

…until the painted people came…

But as the land started to rise, and we moved towards the edge of the cliff, anxiety began to curl in my stomach, my breath hard to catch. I swallowed, frowning, wondering what the hell was wrong with me. After the release of last night, I had thought to find something similar today. But this was different.

Sue turned to me. ‘You don’t like it here either, do you?’ I shook my head, realising I was almost treading on her heels in my haste to get through this place. The stones here were larger, some piled precariously on the cliff edge itself, other placed in groupings, some alone. Apparently, Sue explained, this was thought to be the place where the bones of the dead were placed, a sacred spot. The valley below was peaceful, green-clad.

…yet she could see people falling, spread-eagled like starfish against the dark green below, pushed from the cliff edge to break upon the desecrated bones of their ancestors, their deaths taken from them, their sacred space destroyed…

Later, when we spoke about the place, I likened it to how a concentration camp felt, invoked 9/11. At the time, when we reached the gate in the modern fence, waiting for the rest of the group to join us, all I could say was that it felt defiled.

‘Do you not feel well? Stu asked, looking concerned.

I shook my head. ‘I feel sick,’ I said, bile rising in my throat as I looked back to the cliff edge, our companions still walking among the stones, taking photos. I had taken no photos, just wanting to get through the place.

‘It took me the same way, when I first came here,’ he said.

…she took a moment to regroup, wondering at the morning she’d had, visiting two places of the dead, one still sanctified, the other not. The dead are revered among all cultures, ceremony and ritual used to send them on their way, the origins of such practices lost in time. And to destroy such a place of ritual is to commit the deepest sacrilege. The reverberations of such an act still resonated in the land, millennia later, affecting her to her core…

As we went through another gate, a fence separating the cliff edge off from the wooded area beyond, I felt the sickness and fear start to ease, my breath coming easier. I didn’t want to go back through there again, though. I followed Sue and Stu through the woods until we stopped at a large standing stone in a clearing. It was set at an angle, notches carved into the head. A bit like a sundial, really…

img_3626

Circles Beyond Time – Release

This is the continued story of my weekend away with The Silent Eye. For the first instalment, please click here.

img_3545We left The Fox House in a small convoy of cars, heading towards Carl Wark. It’s a Neolithic site, designated a hill fort despite the fact it is like no other hill fort in the area. As we left the cars and started along the trail, we passed between two large stones. Though they were set far back from the path, they nonetheless felt to me as though they marked a gateway of sorts, the beginning of a path.

As we walked the curving path, talking among ourselves, the landscape opened up. To the right the stone was tumbled and jagged, evidence of more recent human activity, blasting into the natural rock for building materials. It felt unnatural, like a scar on the landscape when compared to the sweeping natural beauty to the left of us. Then the path changed, turning down towards a narrow stream that cut the valley in two. A low stone bridge was the only way across. But it was blocked.

img_3581A figure stood there in robes of wool, hair wild, a symbol bound on his brow, his staff held out to bar the way. We stopped. The figure looked like Stuart, and it sounded like Stuart, but there was an echo there of an earlier time. ‘Under the weather indeed,’ we muttered, equally entertained and enthralled by the spectacle. It was well done, as was the next part – each of us taking our turn to cross the narrow bridge and be welcomed into the land.

Ritual can be as simple as a few spoken words or a silent acknowledgement – it does not need to be complicated. And so it was here, words spoken and a welcome given, along with a name – a reminder that she was stepping back in time. As she crossed the water and began to ascend, her mood changed, emotion running high. Her fingers strayed to two rings on her right hand, gifts from her two beloved grandmothers – they were quite valuable, but she had felt bound to wear them. Tears prickled her eyes as she touched the golden circles, reminded of their love.

img_3551We ascended through heather and bracken, the path boggy in parts, large stones seeming to mark the way. I was feeling more and more teary for some reason, and I turned to Sue, who was behind me. ‘This is quite an emotional place, isn’t it?’

She nodded. ‘So you’re feeling it too.’

Ah. Yes, I was definitely feeling something. Sorrow, but an old sorrow, as though I were releasing a pain long held. I told Sue, though I don’t know why, that I had brought my grandmothers with me. She responded by telling me that was a good thing, as we were going to be working with the ancestors. Hmmm.

img_3549As we neared the summit, the scale of the stones crowning the hill became apparent. Large blocks and shapes were placed precariously along the edge, including one that stood out and seemed to change as we approached – one moment a fish, then a bird, then a curling shell, it drew the eye from every angle. Finally, we reached the top, and were greeted by an extraordinary Neolithic stone wall. After taking a few photos, we entered the enclosure to find stones placed everywhere, shaped and carved, defining pathways and areas to sit and take in the views. Yet the large stone perched on the cliff edge stood out, and it felt strangely as though it were watching me.

…all at once she could see that the stone was a raven, wings furled, beaked head turned to greet her. She caught a glimpse of blue and cloth of gold, the raven’s eye following her wherever she went.

‘Kneel.’

The command came, and in her mind’s eye she knelt, weeping as two ravens, living feather and bone, flew past, black against the smoky valley below.

img_3561My eyes were full of tears, emotion rolling over me. Stu and Sue came back along the path and I whimpered something incoherent about ravens and grandmothers before wandering further in, gradually regaining my calm. Eventually, we gathered once more as a group, taking shelter from the wind among a cluster of huge boulders to hear more about the history of the place, and to share any poems or readings we felt might be appropriate. There were a few poems read, then one of the group gifted us with a song, his voice rising with the wind across the valley, a lovely serenade to the landscape. When he finished we all applauded, then Sue invited us into a meditation.

…the great stone seemed to rise and fall beneath her, a movement separate from the buffeting wind, from the rhythm of the song. As though she leant against the side of some great beast, breath blowing in and out, a creature of earth and rock. She spiralled back through the years, travelling out across the valley to the high ridges beyond, a silver thread connecting her back to the group at the rocks…

img_3576We were going to stay and watch the sun set, but the wind was growing stronger and the low grey clouds meant there probably wouldn’t have been much to see other than a darkening sky, so the decision was made to head back to The Fox House and see if we could get our reserved table any earlier. We headed back to the stone wall for a group photo, then started back down the slope. As we crossed the bridge over the stream we each paused, taking a moment in our own way to mark the sanctity of the place we’d just visited. I felt quite different than how I had when I ascended, something I had been carrying a long time released.

img_3570When we reached The Fox House, they were happy to accommodate us. Amid the good food and conversation, I mentioned to Sue that I’d written a poem for the weekend. ‘But it didn’t feel the right time to read it,’ I’d said, ‘plus I think there’s another verse.’ There was certainly another line – ‘Sleepers awake! Tell us your dreams.’ It turned round and round in my mind, and I knew it had to be included somehow. I pulled the notebook from my bag and gave it to Sue to read. She did, then passed it on to Stuart. He read it, then nodded at me.

‘We can work with this tomorrow, if that’s okay with you.’