Facing Fear With The Silent Eye, Part 5 – Failure

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 five of my account, parts one, two, three and four can be found here…

We left Tideswell and headed into the hills. The sun was shining, the temperature warm enough for just a light jacket – not exactly the kind of weather one associates with fear. However, so far we had faced pestilence, death, and the idea of losing everyone you hold dear to be left alone in a changed world. Quite intense for the first afternoon! I started to get the inkling that this weekend would be about challenging myself internally, as well as externally…

Fear is something that is both universal, and specific to the individual. There are fears that hearken back to our ancestral roots – the fear of being vulnerable, cast out, or killed by some predator. Then there are fears that are more personal – some people suffer from claustrophobia, whereas others dislike large open spaces. Some people are scared of heights, others of spiders – it really depends on the individual. There are modern fears – nuclear war, gender-based violence, terrorism – and age-old ones such as poverty, bankruptcy, homelessness. Fear is unique to each individual, and yet is something we all share. Our next destination was a place where people were tested against an ancient fear, yet where the same tradition is still observed to this day.

We arrived at a very busy car park with people everywhere, a coach disgorging even more walkers near the entrance. While it was a pleasure to be out in the Peak district in such glorious weather, rather than in the rain I’d experienced last time I was there, it did mean it was a bit more crowded than usual. There also seemed to be some sort of event on, with officials seated a tables, people wearing numbers and carrying water bottles. Still, it was a wide and glorious space and there was plenty of room for everyone, plus it made for a more social walk, with lots of lovely dogs to be petted and conversations to be had. Nothing to be scared of here, unless you don’t like dogs or conversation.

After a short conversation our group split, with some of us taking the path running along the cliff edge, while others took the more gentle path among the heather and cairns. For this was a land of the dead – an ancestral burial ground, with scrying bowls carved into stones, small piles of rock dotting the landscape. It didn’t bother me, though – the dead are at peace in such places. So I took in the view, and we remarked how it felt as though the wind was scouring us clean, blowing away the last vestiges of the strangeness we’d experienced the day before.

As the path turned a large stone, standing alone among the cairns, became visible. This is the Eagle Stone, so named because, from one angle, it looks like an eagle at rest. Carved by the elements into fantastic shapes, it has been used since time immemorial as a testing ground for young men to show that they are ready to be wed. Before they were allowed to marry, the young man at first needed to climb the stone to the top, a test of manhood to prove their worth.

While it may seem a simple task, closer inspection revealed there is no easy way to the top. A couple of our group tried, but even to get a short way up was far more difficult than it looked. This would have been a test of both strength and ingenuity, an indication to the tribe that the young man in question was a suitable candidate to marry and pass on their skills to their children.

So the fear to be faced here is the fear of failure, both on a personal level, and of the tribe. If no young men were able to climb the rock, then the tribe was doomed to weaken and die out. And for the young men in question, they would lose both respect and the chance to marry the one they loved. Interestingly, the custom persists, as young men from the village below still climb the rock before they get married, often with the help of friends, and with a veil tied around their waists. As Sue put it so eloquently, ‘perhaps ‘manhood’ is not only defined by the ability to face fears and overcome hurdles, but by the ability to cooperate and help each other.’

As I stood in the shadow of the rock I considered how, perhaps, ancient traditions designed to propagate the strength and fertility of the tribes have become twisted over the centuries, so the idea of fighting for a woman’s favour, of not giving up until it’s bestowed, the idea that it is somehow owed in return for making an effort, has gained traction with some segments of society. And that there is a different kind of fear attached to such behaviour today.

But, as we laughed and joked and made friends with yet another lovely dog, I felt a world apart from such things. It had been a lovely peaceful morning, especially after the strange events of the previous afternoon, and it was nice to sit in the sunshine and enjoy the fresh air. However, I had no idea what the rest of the day had in store…


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Facing Fear With The Silent Eye, Part 3 – Sorrow

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 three of my account, parts one and two can be found here…

We travelled through Eyam, the road taking us higher and higher, the valley opening away to our right. And as we did so the air began to clear, the strange weight that had burdened me lifting. We continued along a narrow track edged with tangled brambles and tall nettle, a fairy-tale barrier between us and the view. Taking a fork in the road among tall trees, Sue pulled the car onto the narrow verge to park.

And all was still.

The day remained bright, the sky a curving dome of blue, the air fresh and clear. We stood on a curving path bounded by a moss-covered wall, a rolling green hillside to our left. And, upon the green, a small enclosure waited. It was what we had come to see. The Riley graves.

Once again, Sue has written an excellent detailed account of what happened on the ridge, but the short version is this: As plague raged through the village in the valley below, two families, living separately on the ridge, hoped, perhaps, that distance would keep them and their children safe. However, it was not to be, with first one family, then the other, succumbing. But the cruellest blow was to Elisabeth Hancock, who, between August 3rd and 10th, lost her six children and her husband to the terrible virus. Isolated as she was on the high ridge, the neighbouring family having already succumbed to plague, it was left to her to bury her babies and spouse, one by one, carrying their bodies across to the shallow graves she’d dug, wondering, perhaps, when the disease would take her as well. I cannot imagine her pain, and, after what I’d experienced in the village, it was with some trepidation that I initially approached the small group of graves.

Elisabeth chose her spot well, with beautiful views across the valley and opposing hillsides. It broke the heart to imagine her doing so, that those she loved most might rest in a place where the air was fresh, the land they loved holding them like a precious jewel in a perfect setting. And, surprisingly, there was no heaviness here, no miasma of sorrow to weigh me down, no troubling visions. Instead, the overwhelming sense at these poignant graves was one of love.

That said, I did not enter the enclosure, preferring instead to pay my respects outside the curving stone wall. I stood there for a little while, listening to the wind through the trees and grass, watching birds circle above, and tried to imagine how it must have been during those desperate days when Elisabeth lost everyone and everything she loved, including her home.

She must have been quite an extraordinary person for, when plague didn’t take her, rather than falling into darkness and despair, she instead went down to the village to help others who suffered. And when it was all done she was reunited with her remaining son, who was working in a nearby village and so had been separated from her for the duration of the quarantine. It was he who erected the memorial stones for his father and siblings, and perhaps, also, as tribute to his mother and all she had gone through those terrible nights alone.

The only sorrow I felt in this place was as we were leaving, when it hit me like a wave. We walked along the track, back to the cars, and it struck me how it must have been for her when she had to leave this place for the last time, leave the views and clear air and circling birds, the land she had worked and which now held the remains of all she held dear. For, while she was there, she was still with them.

A short drive later and we were at our second-last stop for the day: Mompesson’s well. This was one of several wells marking the boundary of the village, where food and money were left for and by the villagers during their quarantine. It was a gloomy place, despite the brightness of the day, and the heavy fencing around it didn’t do much to lift the atmosphere. I think we were all still somewhat weighed down by the events of the afternoon.

Luckily, our final stop was on the open moors, a patch of green grass the perfect spot to sit and go over the events of the day. I wandered off alone for a little while, opening my arms and heart to the sky and heather, letting the wind wash through me. It was the perfect antidote to a very strange afternoon and, by the time I got back to the hotel, I was feeling almost myself again. We were due to have dinner at a nearby pub, and I was looking forward to it. Tomorrow was going to be a very busy day, and I needed to recharge…


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Wednesday Wander – Statue of Liberty, USA

I recently returned from the most wonderful trip. I summed it up on Instagram as follows: seven cities + six hotels + five states + four flights + three suitcases + two countries = one amazing trip! But it was so much more than that. Our whirlwind two weeks travelling from New York to Toronto to Boston and beyond took in some amazing sights – some expected, others less so. As you can imagine, I have loads of Wednesday Wanders to write. However, I thought I’d start at the beginning…

We arrived in New York to a sunny sixteen-degree day, warm enough to make the interminable queuing at JFK Customs an even less pleasant experience, heat radiating through the long glass windows. It was a pleasure to finally reach our midtown hotel and kick off boots and jumpers, putting long coats aside as we went out for a walk, eyes wide despite the jetlag kicking in.

However, we woke to quite a different city. Overnight the temperature had plunged to minus two degrees, thick snow falling. But we weren’t going to let the weather stop us – we had somewhere we needed to be. I’d purposely booked a Statue of Liberty tour for our first morning, both to get us all out of bed and to make the most of the short time we had in New York. It was high on our list as somewhere we wanted to see, so we were all excited.

We wrapped up warm and, after getting directions from the hotel staff, headed for the subway. That in itself was kind of exciting – the New York subway system is famous, so it was kind of cool that we were riding it. (and yes, I can appreciate that, if you have to do it regularly, it’s not quite the same thrill). We emerged at Battery Park to a winter wonderland, snow still falling.

Battery Park, at the southernmost tip of Manhattan, is named for the artillery batteries that have lined the shore since the eighteenth century. Four of the five original battery buildings still remain, including one in the park itself, and we were to meet our guide there. She was a wonderfully warm Puerto Rican lady, who immediately made our small group feel at ease before herding us all onto the ferry which would take us out to the statue.

We were still starry-eyed about being in New York, and, despite the weather, stayed outside to watch one of the most famous skylines in the world as we pulled away from the dock. I can’t think of another city (Paris, maybe?) that has so permeated human consciousness, featuring in books and films and music, on television and across popular culture; there is something quite magical about being there and seeing it for yourself.

As we neared the Statue of Liberty, we crossed the state line from New York into New Jersey. The statue loomed closer, holding her torch high, her oxidised copper robes green against the pale sky. The statue is so familiar as a symbol of liberty and freedom, that once again it’s quite something to see it in person. Gifted to the US by the French as a monument to US independence, the statue was dedicated in 1886, after years of fundraising by both countries to bring her to what was then called Bedloe’s Island. Made of copper and supported by an iron frame, the statue was designed by French sculptor Frederic August Bartholdi, and constructed by Gustave Eiffel. The figure of Liberty represents Libertas, a Roman goddess, with a broken chain at her feet. She holds the torch above her head with her right hand, and in her left hand she holds a tabula ansata inscribed with Roman numerals, JULY IV MDCCLXXVI, the date of the US Declaration of Independence.

When the statue was first constructed she gleamed, her copper bright. However, it only took a few years for it to oxidise to the familiar green we know today. The cost to restore the copper finish would be astronomical and, due to the statue’s exposed position, would only last a few years, so it has been left as is. Over the years the elements have played havoc with the fabric of the statue and, in 1984, it was closed to visitors for major repair and restoration works, opening again in 1986. The original torch was also replaced, due to corrosion, and is now displayed inside the museum entrance, giving visitors an idea of the extraordinary scale of the statue. The new torch, rather than containing a light, has been gilded with 24 carat gold and is lit by floodlights at night.

The Statue of Liberty museum, housed beneath the statue pedestal, is interesting and well-presented. It houses exhibits including a lifesize replica of the statue’s face and foot, shaped metal pieces from the original Eiffel frame, and a plaque commemorating Emma Lazarus’s famous sonnet, The New Colossus, which contains the oft-quoted line ‘Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free .‘

The pedestal itself was closed to visitors after the September 11 attacks, and only re-opened in 2004. It was once possible to ascend to the crown but, since 2001, this access has also been limited or closed off, due to safety concerns. On the day we visited the pedestal had been closed early on, due to the weather, but it re-opened in time for us to go inside. There are a LOT of stairs and catching the single lift, as you can imagine, involves a bit of waiting. However, it’s worth it to take in the fantastic 360-degree views. You can also view the statue interior through the glass ceiling, which was fascinating and kind of terrifying. To be honest, even if it was still possible to go up in the crown, I don’t think I could have done it!

I realise I’ve only scratched the surface of the history of this fascinating place, rightly designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1984. However, this is a blog, not a novel, and so I’ll end this Wednesday Wander here. Next stop, Ellis Island…


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Wednesday Wander – Snowdon, Wales

The results of a public poll to decide the best view in Britain were recently announced, and the winner was the spectacular view you see below. This is the view from the top of Snowdon, the tallest mountain in Wales, and it’s where I’ve chosen to wander this week.

By Fallschirmjäger (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3

However, unlike previous weeks, this fabulous photograph is not mine (it’s via Wikimedia Commons). I have been to the top of Snowdon, via the Snowdon Mountain Railway, but my experience was, shall we say, a little different.

Let us travel back in time quite a few years, to a family holiday. The decision was taken to ride to the top of Snowdon, something we’d never done before despite regular visits to Wales. We (my parents, brother and I) boarded the train, sitting by the window, and set off into what soon became a world of grey.

The weather changed, as it often does in the mountains, and thick cloud descended, our journey taking place in a tunnel of pale grey mist. At one point I remember looking out of the window and seeing the mist clear slightly – to reveal a precipitous drop down a green slope and, below, small white dots of sheep grazing. In some ways, I was glad I couldn’t see more.

When we reached the top of the mountain the visitor centre was under construction, so many of the large plate glass windows had been replaced with plastic sheeting that flapped and rustled incessantly in the unseasonable weather. But it wouldn’t have mattered had the windows been there, for all we could see was a solid, uniform grey. It was bitterly cold so we didn’t end up staying too long, catching the train back down to the valley and to green summertime once more.

These two photos are mine, taken on another visit as we went through the Llanberis pass, heading for the coast. It was a glorious day, and there were plenty of hikers heading up the mountain – no doubt the train would have been full as well. However, we had somewhere to be and couldn’t stop, so I was only able to take photographs from below as we went past.

So, while I can say that I have been to the top of Snowdon, I can’t say I’ve seen any of the legendary views. And, don’t get me wrong, I’m not marking this as a negative experience. The mountains of North Wales are one of my favourite places on earth, and part of their magic is the mist wreathing their summits like dragon’s breath, a place where legends are made. I know I’ll take the railway again one day and hopefully, next time, I’ll be able to see the view.

Thanks for coming on another Wednesday Wander with me – see you next time!


If you enjoyed this post and want 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.

Wednesday Wander – Taronga Zoo, Sydney

taronga-2This week I’m wandering to a place on the edge of one of the world’s great natural harbours. It also happens to be not too far from where I used to work. This is Taronga Zoo, in Sydney, Australia. Officially opened in October 1916, the zoo is just over 100 years old, and ‘Taronga’ is an aboriginal word meaning ‘beautiful view’. Very appropriate, I think, considering the outlook.

taronga-1I’ve chosen to focus more on the fantastic views from the zoo, rather than the animals. Located in Mosman at the end of a promontory poking out into the harbour, the zoo looks out at the Harbour Bridge and Opera House to the right, across the city and out to the Heads on the left. It was a warm but hazy day when we visited – I’d just had a fairly major operation and my parents had come out to spend time with me. I remember it being one of the first days I felt up to walking around, so it was nice to be out.

taronga-3 One thing I experienced at the zoo was hand-feeding giraffes. You were given a bag of carrots and the giraffes would bend down, their long purple tongues wrapping around the carrots and pulling them out of your hand. It was quite something to see such beautiful animals up close, and I suppose that is part of the magic of zoos, and key to their enduring appeal.

While I’m not sure where I stand on the subject of animals in zoos, I do know that many zoos do a great deal in terms of animal conservation and protection, and that Taronga has spent a lot of time and money investing in vastly improved habitats over recent years. They’ve also run several successful breeding programs, so they must be doing something right.

Thanks for coming on another Wednesday Wander with me – see you next time!


If you enjoyed this post and want to read more, you can find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJ,  Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, A Thousand Rooms, is now available on Amazon.

Wednesday Wander – Aletsch Glacier, Switzerland

The glacier on top of the Jungfrau - the original Pass of Carahdras?

I saw in the news last week that a massive crack in the Larsen ice shelf has increased by six miles in the past few weeks, with the entire crack being over 100 miles long. When a crack in ice is measured in miles, the size of the ice shelf itself is almost too large to comprehend.

glacier-4We are used to the idea of ice at both our poles. Santa lives in the North, of course, surrounded by polar bears and narwhals and a floating sea of ice. And penguins inhabit the south, their tuxedoed forms clumsy on land and greased lightning in the frigid waters. Yet the ice is receding, and has been for much of the last century, the sea now too wide in places for polar bears to swim, vast icebergs breaking away in the South. Global warming, despite all the naysayers, is a reality, and the melting of the icecaps is just one part of a bigger picture that includes rising sea levels and extreme weather events.

glacier-3Glaciers, too, are receding. Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth showed some sobering before and after images of places where the ice once flowed. I’ve snowboarded across a glacier, at the top of Blackcomb Mountain in BC. Canada. I’ve also been inside one, in Switzerland. The Aletsch Glacier is the largest glacier in the Swiss Alps, running for about 23 km, and it’s here that I’m heading for this week’s Wednesday Wander

glacier-2The Jungfraujoch, at the top of the Jungfrau mountain in Switzerland, is a popular destination for visitors. There are several activities up there, as well as spectacular views of the glacier (via, as I remember it, a small metal balcony bolted to the side of the building – still haunts my nightmares). There is also the Eispalast, one of the highest altitude ice palaces in the world. Carved into the side of the glacier, it has a network of rooms filled with sculptures carved from ice. It’s bitterly cold inside, as you can imagine, the ice a luminous blue. Some of the sculptures have had colour added, while others are simply as they were carved.

glacier-1A funicular railway takes you to and from the top of the mountain, and on the way down we chose to alight before the bottom, walking the last section so as to take in the glorious views. I’ve written about this landscape before, as this is where Tolkien was wandering when he was inspired to write Lord of The Rings. Looking at the otherworldly beauty of the valley, I can see why.

The valley seen from the lower slopes of the Jungfrau

Our world is shaped from ice and fire, and I feel fortunate to have been close to both extremes, from volcanoes in Tenerife and Hawaii to glaciers in Canada and Switzerland. It is usually at the extreme of the scale that change first becomes apparent, so the warnings written in both fire and ice perhaps should be heeded. While we like to think we have some control over nature, in reality we are part of it and we ignore that at our peril.

Thanks for coming on another Wednesday Wander with me – see you next week!

Note: the views on climate change expressed here are my own. I realise there may be readers who see things differently – if so, let us agree to, respectfully, disagree. Thanks.


If you enjoyed this post and want to read more, you can find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJ,  Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, A Thousand Rooms, is now available on Amazon.