Of Letters And Words

I have a collection of letters in a drawer. Letters written to me by my husband in the early days of our romance, when he was travelling overseas and I was in Canada, before we decided to combine our lives. Others are small notes from my daughter, cards and scraps of paper, where she’s written lists of things she loves, or little messages to me. And, wonderfully, there is a letter from my grandmother, received many years after she died, when my uncle found it among her things and sent it to me.

All of them filled with stories. Stories of love and caring and growth and loss. Written in ink on paper in strong hands, curling hands, hesitant hands still learning their letters. Each one unutterably precious to me, releasing memories each time I read them.

One of my favourite books, A Venetian Affair, is a true story built from letters found in the attic of a crumbling palazzo, sent by the owner’s ancestor centuries before to the woman he loved but was unable to marry. History is built on accounts of events from those who were there, but also on the smaller stories found in letters and diaries, details of everyday life that give us a more complete picture of how our forebears lived. Consider how many civilisations are lost to us, simply because their words are lost. The Great Library of Alexandria was partially burned by Julius Caesar, then lost to decline and the rise of Christianity. Spanish missionaries burned priceless Mayan texts, considering them to be un-Christian. The oral traditions of the bards of this island were almost lost, until someone wrote them down. Even so, what remains is only a partial picture of what was. Words are important.

But now we live in a digital age. We have mostly lost the joy of receiving a note from afar, of coloured stamps and spice-scented notepaper, of bright ink on a pale translucent page. Letters have become emails, notes and invitations text messages. Experiences, memories and emotions all swirl through a digital forest of words, deleted, edited, lost forever. Will our descendants be able to comb through these words to find out who we are? Or will we just be known as the Plastic Age, our lives pieced together from packaging slogans and shopping bags from landfill? We are better than that, surely.

Of course, people do still write letters and send cards and keep diaries. But so much of what we write is online these days, including this blog. And we cannot keep chopping down forests to use as shopping lists or toilet tissue or yesterday’s news. But we can choose recycled paper and vintage note sets, or recycle old Christmas and birthday cards into notepads so they can be born again. So make your mark on the page, share your words, write a note to someone you love, or hate. Splash ink and pencil shavings and sealing wax, tie it with a ribbon, stick on a stamp.

But don’t let our words be lost.

Facing Fear With The Silent Eye, Part 8 – Weird

I recently attended a workshop with The Silent Eye about Facing Our Fears, an extraordinary weekend spent among the hills and grey stone villages of the Peak District. It’s taken me a little while, as it usually does, to process everything that happened. Once again there was history and mystery, good company and tasty food, old friends greeted and new friends made. And, as always, revelations.This is part eight of my account, parts one, two, three, four, five, six and seven can be found here… After the intense afternoon we’d just had, it seemed like a nice idea to do a bit of sightseeing, and Sue and Stu had just the place. Rowtor Rocks, at Birchover, is a natural stone outcropping that, three centuries ago, was carved and shaped by local parson Thomas Eyre (relative of the family whose name inspired Charlotte Bronte) into a network of caves, stairways, pillars and chairs. There are older markings there too – cup and ring marks, and a very rare quartered-sun carving, indicate that this was a place of significance since Neolithic times.

We arrived and parked, the sun still shining above, and started up the twisting path leading up to the rocks. There were people coming and going, families and couples and people with dogs, all of whom stopped to smile or exchange a greeting as we made way for each other on the narrow path. And at the top, the rocks waited. They were curious indeed.

Thomas Eyre, when carving the stones, was apparently creating the twelve stations of the Cross. However, there were no obviously Christian symbols or imagery to be found – instead, chiselled caves and carved faces. I remarked as much to our companions, that I couldn’t see much that was Christian about it. Perhaps that’s where the problems began…

Sue, who had visited the rocks many times, began to point out things of interest, including a perfectly poised massive boulder that could, if pressure was applied, be rocked. However, as she was pointing out a skull-faced boulder, we noticed a woman standing nearby. Dressed in jeans and a flowery top, she was close enough that she seemed to be listening to what Sue was saying. However, by the frown on her face, she didn’t seem impressed. She was also holding quite a hefty stick, which she was waving around in an odd manner, swiping at branches. I can’t explain it any other way than it was the sort of thing you’d do if you wanted to appear not to be listening, yet you were.

However, it didn’t bother us unduly – if she wanted to listen, that was fine. We went past her, avoiding the stick, and stepped through a sort of entry gate carved into the stones. Sue pointed out a small cave and, at that moment, I looked up to see a man striding along the rocks above. He was dressed oddly compared to the other walkers we’d seen, in high-waisted pleated trousers and a fitted collared shirt, both in khaki shades, as well as a slouch hat. With his mustache and muscular build, he put me in mind of the Great White Hunter trope, a figure from the past.

We continued along the path a little way, Sue pointing out a narrow staircase carved in between two of the rocks. I supposed that was how the man got up there. She also told us to watch our step, as there was a sheer drop to the other side of us, with views to the valley below. The odd woman, in the meantime, had moved past us and was at the other end of pathway, still waving her stick around and frowning. Sue and one of the companions decided to go into the small cave and look around, while Stu moved ahead. I took a couple of photos, then turned around to see the man in khakis almost on top of me, his broad shirt-front filling my vision. I stepped back and to the side, smiling, as you do in such situations, but he kept coming at me. There was no smile on his face, none of the shall-we-dance thing you do in such situations and, as I stepped back again, I was conscious of the sheer drop behind me. The situation felt very strange and uncomfortable, so I put both my hands up and said ‘I’m moving to the side,’ stepping deliberately out of his path. He made a ‘Hmph’ noise and kept going, joining up with the stick-waving woman. The whole interaction only took a couple of seconds, but left me feeling a bit stunned. Sue, in the meantime, had had emerged from the cave, telling me later that she had felt me being threatened. The whole thing was so strange that I said ‘What’s with those two?’ and, as a group, we watched them for a few moments. They seemed to be together, but they weren’t talking to each other, both frowning, the woman still waving her stick. Then they moved away, out of view… except there was no other way down from where they were and, when we followed their path a few moments later, they were gone.

So who were they? A couple of eccentric locals who didn’t like visitors to ‘their’ rocks? Perhaps they’d been offended by my ‘not much Christian here’ comment? I don’t know. But the really odd thing was that, when we discussed it afterwards, while we could all agree on what the man was wearing, both Sue and Stu saw the woman wearing a 1940’s style tea-dress, while our other companion and I saw her in jeans and a flowered top…

An unexpected mystery, and a really weird end to an already intense day. But then, that’s what sometimes happens on weekends like this 🙂

We continued our way around the rocks, exploring caves where darkness became light, depending on how you looked at it, contemplating the three ‘judgement’ seats, admiring the rare Neolithic sun carving, and just enjoying the late-afternoon sunshine. The sense of oddness dissipated after the strange couple left, and it was a pleasure to wander around and just look at things, rather than ponder their greater mysteries.

Afterwards, we drove though sunset hills towards Castleton, where a special dinner was booked. After the day we’d had, the golden light felt like a reward, and the perfect way to head into what was going to be a challenging Sunday. But that’s a story for my next post…

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Maiden Mother Crone, Part 5 – The Maiden

Stone and rain. Rain and stone. It seemed to be a theme of the weekend. No matter the weather, when we reached any stone of significance the rain would fall. From soft misty drizzle to gale force rain storms, we experienced just about all the types of rain Scotland seemed to offer, often in the space of just a couple of hours.

And so it was at our next two sites, both of which featured carved Pictish stones. I’d never seen such stones in real life before, so it was a thrill to see the first one, even though it had been reconstructed and sat in the middle of a modern housing estate. There had been a circle there, once, still marked with a ring in the grass, but it had been pulled down long ago, in days when such monuments were no longer revered, their carefully chosen stones broken for use in stone fences and buildings. Some still remained on site, said to come from the original circle, and, despite the cracks crossing the face of the carved stone, the images were still clear, a serpent and spear, thought perhaps to represent the nearby river, and a semi-circle and broken spear, the shape of which came to have more significance for me, later in the day. The rain was still falling as we got into the cars, a soft cool drizzle, dampening the stones but not our spirits, as we headed out into the landscape once more.

A short while later we pulled up alongside the road and saw the towering Maiden Stone. Sue has covered the legend of the Maiden Stone in her excellent post, but the short version is this: the stone is said once have been a young woman who, when tricked by the devil, ran from him. He caught her by the shoulder, creating the distinctive notch shape, and she was turned to stone forevermore.

I saw no woman in the stone, only the enigmatic carvings left on one side by the mysterious Picts, centaur and dolphin creatures, spear and shield, comb and mirror. One of the companions shared an experience he’d had at Easter Aquhorthies, which shed some light on the significance of the comb and mirror. It involved the moon and the role of priestess, a theme we encountered again and again over the weekend. It is not my story to share, but all of us felt it to be valid. In fact, that was one of the lovely things about the group, and something I’d also encountered on my last weekend away with them – that such experiences, thoughts and ideas could be shared freely and taken seriously, with no fear. I can appreciate that, to some, the things I ‘see’ when I’m on these weekends (and at other times too), can seem a bit out there, a bit like the imaginings of an overwrought author. And there are times when I think that as well. So, when you can share these ideas with others and have them corroborated, there is a validation there, a growth in trusting yourself and your intuition, that is a real joy.

Christian imagery had been carved on the other side of the stone, though the carvings were far more weathered than the earlier Pictish work. An intricate cross and wheel, as well as a figure supposed to be Jesus holding two ‘sea-monsters’. Carving continued along the edges of the stone, criss-cross diamond shapes it was said could represent energy patterns, and more intricate knotwork.

The setting itself was beautiful – next to a curving road, the land rising to one side of the stone, a tall row of pines the other side. I imagine when it was new the stone would have stood out in the landscape, its size and the bright colours that once decorated it making it visible for miles around. The symbols themselves are a mystery – the Picts left no explanation as to why they carved the images they did, but they appear over and over again. Theories range from clan markings to maps to storytelling, but it is all conjecture.

We stood around the stone, each of us taking photographs, sharing our thoughts about what we could see and feel. There was a wonderful sense of age to the site, of something that had been standing since long before we were born, and would continue to do so for centuries to come. But we couldn’t stay for too much longer – it was heading into the afternoon and we still had another site to visit, a site that had tested us the last time we were there. What would it hold for us this time?

This is my account of my recent weekend away with The Silent Eye in Scotland. Click to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more, you can find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, A Thousand Rooms, is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.