A Short Break and A Holy Well

I recently returned from a short break away with family, something I think the three of us needed after the months of lockdown. We decided to stay within the UK, not quite ready to tackle airports and planes and the rapidly changing quarantine laws, instead driving down south to the coast of Devon.

And it was utterly gorgeous. We stayed at Croyde Bay, a golden curve of beach held within a cradle of hills, where mists came and went and the sea shone silver, sunsets painting golden trails across the waves. Croyde is home to some of the best surfing in the UK, which suited my surfing hubby, and the gorgeous girl and I danced in the waves and explored the rockpools every day, letting cool water wash away the stresses of the past few months.

There were still reminders, of course. It was an unusual holiday in that we didn’t eat out anywhere, choosing to stay in our self-catering accommodation. Masks were worn wherever we went within the resort, and the indoor pool could only be booked for a limited number of people at one time. But it was just a short walk across golden dunes to a beach that remained mostly uncrowded, plenty of room on the sand and in the water for everyone to keep their distance, life feeling almost normal again. We also ventured along the coastal path, where long fingers of rock stretched into the sea, brambles and orchids and butterflies lining the way.

I do like to explore when I visit new places, and I’d done a little bit of research about the area before we arrived. The small viallge of Croyde sits on the bay, home to a few shops and restaurants, as well as some lovely homes. There is evidence that the settlement dates back to before the Saxon era, and there are a few standing stones in the area, as well as some erratics, boulders said to have been left by retreating glaciers after the end of the last Ice Age. The village is mentioned in the Domesday book as Crideholde, and the oldest building in the village is a chapel from the 12th century, which was a daughter-house to the nearby Benedictine Priory at what is now Barnstaple.

And the chapel is dedicated to none other than… St Helen. When I read that I knew I needed to go and find it. We wandered off down narrow lanes, clues to the landscape in house names all around us – Chapel House, Chapel Nook, Priory Stables. However, apparently the chapel is now ruined and on private land, so we had no luck in seeing it,though local lore has it hat many of the stones were used to build some of the nearby cottages.

And there is one small remnant of the chapel still open to the public. This is the ancient holy well of St Helen, located on the driveway of a house called Ladywell (appropriately).

While it is a holy well, I do wonder whether the tradition around it goes back to a time before Christianity – it is fed by a natural spring, one of several in the area, and there were clouties decorating the scrolled iron gate, which are often seen at Celtic holy places.

Christianity has a long history of appropriating holy places and symbols for their own, as I suppose it’s easier to convert people when things don’t seem too different to what they’re already doing. But that’s another blog post 😉 Whatever the situation, this lovely little well was a treat to see, a small hidden treasure and a reminder of the ancient roots of this green land.

Our last day dawned rainy and cold, and we bade farewell to the ocean, to the calling gulls and cradling hills. I can still feel the pull, though, of the cool waves, the tide’s pulse in my blood, the soft grit of sand beneath my feet. We were so fortunate to be able to get away, and to do so safely – I’m truly grateful. Now it’s back to routine, to writing and working and getting the gorgeous girl ready for school in a few weeks, in whatever form that might take.

I hope that, wherever you are, you’re all keeping safe and well xx


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A Family Adventure

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The clouds were gathering, rain threatening, but it was Bank Holiday Weekend so we were going on a family adventure, no matter what 🙂

After discussion and consultation of maps, Avebury was decided upon. It’s somewhere I’ve always been keen to visit and, as it was only an hour and a bit away, it was deemed appropriate for a day trip. And we enjoy exploring, we really do. My husband is still finding his way around the country, while I’m rediscovering places I remember from childhood. And the gorgeous child is always up for a day out, keen to see somewhere new.

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So rain jackets and umbrellas were packed, the car filled with petrol and we were off, fingers crossed that the M25 would be more forgiving today, painful memories of almost missed flights and bumper-to-bumper traffic making us wary. But all went well and an hour or so later we were approaching the massive henge, so large that a village has been built in what was once the centre.

And I lost all reception on my phone. Which was a bit odd.

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We parked, then made our way along the overhung-with-green pathway leading to the looming ridge surrounding the circle. There were a few other people out but not too many, as the rain had started to fall in earnest. We walked the short avenue leading into the first quadrant of the circle, marvelling at the huge stones and wondering how on earth they had been brought here and put into place. I reached out to touch one, laying my hand flat against the cold stone, rough under my palm.

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And I felt a buzzing, tingling sensation, like pins and needles. My daughter put her hand on the stone and she could feel it as well, though perhaps we were both just kidding ourselves. There was a humming in the air too, but only I could hear that – water on the ear, perhaps? I thought to myself how extraordinary a sight it must have been when all the stones were in place, like a dance across the green field bounded by chalk.

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We kept going along the curve of stones, noticing flowers left as offerings in the nooks and crannies, the rain still coming down. Crossing the road that cuts the circle in half one way, we found ourselves in the next quadrant. There were more stones here, a smaller circle within the large one, and steps leading to the top of the ridge. Making our way up to the top we started along the chalky path, marvelling at the depth of the ditch and the work it must have taken to dig.

Beneath the trees at the edge of the circle a group of women in bright clothing were gathered. Some were whooping, others dancing and hugging each other as a drum began to pound out a rhythm. There was a full moon last night, and I felt maybe that was what they were celebrating, though I couldn’t be sure. Then, as the ridge curved around we saw a small group of trees, so close together they seemed as one, the roots twisting and twining fantastically along the earth, while the branches were hung with ribbons and tokens.

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This seemed a magical place indeed, and the gorgeous child was disappointed she didn’t have a ribbon to leave there. But we decided a large chocolate button was a nice compromise and so one was left, I didn’t see where, and a wish was made.

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Down the ridge we went, to the second road cutting through the ancient henge, where we crossed into the third quadrant. This one was home to sheep and goats, some of them incontinent, it seemed, by the minefield of droppings we had to negotiate as we walked along the ridge. We made it fairly unscathed into the field where two large stones known as ‘The Cove’ stood close together, both of them over twice my height and massive. Another loomed behind the wall of a picturesque old barn enclosure, and I wondered what it would be like to live in the shadow of these stones.

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We crossed the road once more and entered the fourth and final quadrant, leading us to the old church and manor house. Once again the remaining stones were imposing, one pocked with small holes that looked like faces. We passed through into the old farm and manor grounds, spending time in the Barn and Museum where we learnt more about the history of this extraordinary place, and men such as the one nicknamed ‘The Stonekiller’ who sought to destroy the stones, knocking them down, breaking and burning them, before building them into the walls of the houses nearby.

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As we came out of the Barn, gorgeous child pointed up to the top of the church tower. ‘Look at all the birds,’ she said. I turned to see ravens perched on every corbel and point of the old tower, at least thirty of them. But as soon as I looked at them they took off, each and every one, a black squawking crowd passing overhead. Which was kind of odd, again.

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We came full circle past the Manor House and old Church, past cottages and brick homes, before taking the green path back to our car. The rain had stopped, the stones wet and gray against the vivid green grass. As we left the henge behind we saw a cricket game being played, a perfect summer village image.

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And for a moment, there might have been a hum in the air. Then it was gone.

Update: The lovely Sue Vincent, who is very familiar with Avebury, told me that the buzzing and humming are well documented phenomenon at the site. How cool that I got to experience it!