A Dorset Weekend With The Silent Eye – Part 1

I know. It’s been a while since I’ve been here. And I’m still officially on a blog break. However, a few weeks ago I spent a weekend in Dorset with The Silent Eye, which I really wanted to write about, so here we are.

It usually takes me a little while after such weekends for me to process everything that happened. There are layers upon layers, some of which only become apparent once I’ve had a chance to reflect. There is magic, and impressions – whether they are valid or simply a product of my over-active imagination, I’ll leave to you to decide. There is always joy. And so the weekend began…

I took a train, as I usually do – I don’t drive much and there is something I love about travelling through the landscape where roads don’t tend to go, seeing the way the colours change, subtle tints of leaf and stone and sky. This trip was a long one – first into the bustle of London, then out, past glimpses of the Houses of Parliament and the Thames before heading south through leafy suburbs into open countryside. We crossed the New Forest, past wild ponies grazing in tree-lined clearings, skirted the coastline at Southampton before turning right and ending up in Dorchester, where Sue and Stuart were waiting for me.

It was such a pleasure to see them again. The sun was shining, and it seemed an auspicious start to a weekend that would be spent exploring a sacred landscape close to the midsummer solstice. Once I’d decanted my luggage into the car, we hit the road, heading for our first stop, Cadbury.

South Cadbury is a small and charming village located just over the county border in Somerset. It’s a quiet place with houses built of mellow golden stone, where roses climb and foxes dance along thatched roofs. It is also, according to long-standing tradition, the location of the legendary Camelot, court of King Arthur (I’m not 100% sure about this, as there are several other solid theories, but that’s another blog post). There is a ‘castle’ here of sorts – Cadbury Castle, an impressive Iron Age earthwork crowning the hill that overlooks the village. Evidence suggests it has been inhabited since Neolithic times, and excavations in the 1960s did, in fact, uncover an Arthurian-era feasting hall on the site, reinforcing the legend. We were going to make the trek up the hill to the castle, but our first stop was the small church that sat almost in the shadow of the hill. And so the companions converged…

…the church was quiet, empty feeling. Pretty enough, with roses and tree avenues, views out over the long fields. But there was no power there…

It was a lovely reunion with familiar faces, as well as new, with two lovely Americans making up our group of seven. Once we’d exchanged greetings and spent some time in the church, we took a short walk along the road to the entrance to the castle. It is accessed via a track with a gate – there is no entry fee and the way is deep and hollow, trees curving along its length. I started up the steep path and…

… it was as though she were being pulled up on a string, forging far ahead of the group, feet sure on the rocky path, a hollow way of green. As she neared the end of the path, her attention was drawn to two high points to the left of her, festooned in leaves and branches. Yet there seemed to be someone up there, a host of presences waving their arms. ‘You are welcome here,’ they cried. ‘We are so pleased to see you all! Come join us’. And she knew that on the field ahead there would be tents as far as she could see, white and blue and cloth-of-gold, all come to this place for the dance. But when she reached the field, it was empty, and sorrow overwhelmed her. ‘Do not worry,’ they said, still smiling, still welcoming. ‘We are still here. Come, join the dance…

It was a very strange feeling. I can’t explain it any other way except to say it felt almost as if I could have flown up that hill, the clear joy of being there thrumming through me. Even though I was already far ahead of the group, I had to temper my pace so as not to lose them entirely. It reminded me of another place that had affected me profoundly, somewhere I’d also had impressions of blue and cloth-of-gold – Carl Wark.

I waited at the top of the track for the rest of the group, all of us taken by the trees and air and landscape that undulated for miles around. Notches and earthworks were visible in the landscape around us and, in the distance, like an island rising from a green patchwork sea, was Glastonbury Tor.

…as she looked out to the distant Tor (distant, yet somehow close at the same time), it seemed as though there was a thread between it and where she stood, the low landscape between bursting with light and energy like fireworks, building to midsummer…

We stood for a little while, looking at the view and the impressive earthworks, listening to a short history of the place. It had been overthrown by Romans, who had stationed their legions there, but soon came back under local control. While this did happen occasionally, the scale and success of such an attack would, according to historians, have to have been led by a powerful local leader or king, adding fuel to the Arthurian legend. It was a fascinating site and I was still buzzing, whether from the energy of the place, the simple joy of being there with like-minded people, or a combination of the two, I wasn’t sure. We split up to explore the ramparts, with a plan to meet at the summit point. However, something had other plans for me…

…’Come up and over,’ they said, pulling her across the field. ‘Come dance with us!’ She hesitated, feeling a brief shadow, a time when this place had been rent with sorrow and violence. ‘Do not worry,’ they said. ‘It is but part of this place, and a small part at that. There is nothing but joy here now.’ And so she followed them up and over the green hill, butterflies dancing around her feet as she reached the summit. And there she could see the land stretching away, though this time rumpled and folded, rolling hills and deep valleys, a patchwork of summer green. She twirled, caught up in the joy of the place, of the dance….

I did twirl. Ah well. There was no one to see me except the cows, the undulating nature of the hilltop hiding the others from view. I carried on up and over, the landscape unfurling around me as I took a narrow path through the grass and wildflowers to the summit…

…’ Was King Arthur here, once?’ she asked. Laughter. ‘There have been many kings here’…

Hmmm. I rejoined the group at the very topmost point of the fort, where a stone pillar indicated the direction of so many sacred and important sites: Stonehenge, Glastonbury, Avebury, Maiden Castle… This was a very important landscape, connecting with other sites as far afield as Wales (the hillfort of Dinas Powys). If you are familiar with the concept of ley lines, energy lines within the landscape, it was interesting to note that Cadbury stands on the St Michael line, one of the most well-known. After a moment’s reflection, we made our way along the high earthworks towards the track. I could have stayed up there longer, (as I think could most of the group) but there were hotels to check into, plus a dinner reservation we needed to get to. However, we paused briefly, amused by a romantic message left below, and noted a strange phenomenon in one of the fields. There was no fence keeping those cattle in that line, and there was an earthwork visible on the hillside directly above them. Hmmm again. This was a very interesting place, and a suitably wonderful start to the weekend.

All too soon, it was time to leave, to head down the hollow path and back to the real world. Although, I think we would have been welcome to stay longer…

…’Where are you going?’ The stone hit the pathway with a sharp crack!, just missing her. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry!’ She stopped, turning to see where the stone had come from. The bramble-tangled banks rose high either side of her, seemingly deserted. Still, it felt as though someone was waiting for a response. ‘I’m sorry I have to leave. But I’ll be back. And I thank you for your welcome.’ It seemed there was a sigh, and acceptance of her apology, and she proceeded down the path once more, unimpeded…

I guess this means I’ll have to go back there again.


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Circles Beyond Time – Dawn

img_3662This is the continued account of my weekend away with The Silent Eye. Click here for parts one, two, three, four and five.

5:11am.

Ugh. I hadn’t slept well, and my alarm jolted me out of a dream. Yet, once I’d woken fully, I was excited. This morning we were heading up into the hills to chase the sunrise. I wouldn’t have missed it, no matter how tired I was. I showered and dressed quickly, managing to gulp a few mouthfuls of tea before heading down to the deserted hotel lobby. There was a small moment of panic when I thought I was locked in, but I emerged eventually onto the still-dark street, a pale glow of light in the sky heralding the coming dawn.

We were to meet the rest of the group in the Fox House car park – my companion and I were the first ones there, so I wandered off to take some photos of the view, trees silhouetted against the pastel-hued sky. The air was cool and still, and I was glad of my extra sweatshirt and wool hat against the pre-dawn chill.

img_3671Then we were off, taking the winding road higher and higher until we reached a small parking area. Leaving the cars we climbed higher still, up stone stairs to where an ancient hillfort crowned the peak, views in every direction. The stones were large, in some cases huge, carved and shaped and most definitely placed there. But by whom, exactly, is lost in time.

img_3674We gathered as a group to watch the sun make its appearance over the far ridge, golden light moving across the valley floor, pushing mist ahead of it. The group chose to greet the sun in their own way – I stood to one side, for some reason feeling the need to be alone.

…it seemed that her path lay through solitude. Companions there would be, but in the end, she had to choose her own way, be true to her own self. So she faced the dawn apart, but not alone, sending a greeting from a place deep within…

img_3684Once the sun was above the ridge we were free to explore, wandering along sandy pathways studded with tiny pieces of white crystal. I walked among the stones, listening to the morning sing and watching mist rise like dragon’s breath from distant Carl Wark, where the weekend’s journey had begun.

…as she walked the peak to the sunrise, all at once it was as though she stood on a pathway of stars, the heavens above reflected below, and she a dancing figure poised in between. The feel of something older, something beyond…

img_3699As the light grew brighter, I amused myself by taking shots of my shadow against the golden-lit rocks. We weren’t the only ones up there, a few photographers taking advantage of the clear morning and glorious views.

 

img_3681I took several photos of the small depressions carved into many of the rocks, their reflections like a path of stepping stones towards the sun. One particularly large rock formation had taken my attention and I turned to Sue.

img_3693‘Those stones…’ I began.

‘Oh yes,’ she said, smiling.

…a piled stone figure, lion messenger of the people who were once here. It reminded her of ancient doorways an ocean away, of stone figures left on mountainous shores, marks of the peoples who lived there. It was both welcome and warning, that here she stood on ancient land…

img_3694We continued to wander the hilltop a while longer, but it was getting cold and breakfast was beckoning. The decision was made to descend, arrangements made to meet up later for our final trip to the stone circle at Arbor Low. The golden sunrise promised a fine day ahead…

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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…

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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.’

Circles Beyond Time Weekend – Arrival

img_3567A little over two weeks ago I headed north for a three-day weekend with The Silent Eye, to be spent exploring Neolithic sites and ancient monuments in the Peak District. I travelled alone, meeting most of the group for the first time. And it was… intense. A heady mix of good company, wonderful scenery, and powerful landscapes. I had some interesting experiences – whether they can be ascribed to an over-active imagination, or something else, is unclear. It’s going to take me a few blog posts to write the story of the weekend, and I’ll try to explain things as best I can…

The adventure started early Friday with a train journey into London, then north to Manchester, where I would catch a regional train into the peak district. This was kind of a big deal for me – it had been a long while since I’d had any time away by myself. As I watched the landscape flash past, secure in my comfortable seat, I felt the demands of daily life lift. I was heading north, to stone circles and mystery, and I couldn’t wait.

A quick shot, taken from the train

The flint walls and fruit trees of the south were far behind me as I headed east from Manchester Piccadilly into the misty hills and green valleys of the Peak District. The views from the small two-carriage train were extraordinary, the landscape changing at every turn. Yet many of my fellow passengers sat with newspapers open or on phones, familiarity making them immune to the beauty around them. I couldn’t get enough, the rising slopes and small villages reminiscent of North Wales, my favourite place on earth.

img_3710Upon reaching my destination, the George Hotel in Hathersage, I was delighted to find out that, apart from being a charming and comfortable hotel, The George was also once a favourite haunt of Charlotte Bronte. She visited often while staying at the nearby Hathersage Vicarage, and the village of Hathersage appears in Jane Eyre, the name changed to Morton. The family who owned The George at the time were also called Eyre, and it’s said this is where the name came from. This seemed to bode well. While looking forward to exploring during the weekend, I also had brought a rough draft of a Gothic short story with me, hoping to complete it in time to submit to a competition that coming week. Surely staying in the same place that had once hosted a Bronte sister would be great for inspiration.

img_3539After checking in, I wandered down to the lobby. I had a couple of hours to spare, so, being starving, I ordered a late lunch. While waiting for my food I noticed a library set into an angle of the building and went to take a closer look. I love libraries and this one, although tiny, was perfectly formed. So I took a few photos, then sat down to enjoy my meal. Once finished, I headed back to my room, packed my backpack and donned hiking boots and a waterproof jacket. It was almost time. Two of the companions were coming to collect me – we were to meet the others at the Fox House, then head to Carl Wark, the first of several sites we were to explore that weekend.

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The companions arrived, prompt to the minute, and there were hugs all around before we got in the car and headed up into the hills. As the landscape fell away the views became more spectacular, and I couldn’t wait to explore, deeper and further into the green. Upon reaching the Fox House, a sprawling old pub built of local grey stone, I met the rest of the companions – once again there were hugs, and I immediately felt welcomed as part of the group. Sue was there, and it was lovely to see her again, but Stuart was missing – apparently under the weather. Or so it seemed…

To be continued.