Sketches from DREAMING THE LAND: Eric’s story

IMGA0698DREAMING THE LAND
A Walk with Friends through Northumbria
29th June to 6th July 2013

I arrived late in the dark after a long drive in the Landover. Malcolm, Nigel and Chris welcomed me to the fire. Chris, big, warm-hearted Chris, helped me find a place for my tent and put it up. In the morning I found I was next to the kitchen tent so I overheard the early breakfast conversations…

Monday
We walked. To Wooler. Somehow because Malcolm had said ‘no stopping for cappuccinos’ we had to do it. We might never get such a café culture opportunity again. And we didn’t. A rare treat. Then we were heading up Yeavering Bell to meet Paul Frodsham, the archaeologist, for whom it is a sacred mountain.

I pant and I plod
over twists of wool, dried dung, gnarled gorse twigs
up the path to Yeavering Bell.
Sacred mountain, a multitude of roundhouses,
commanding the landscape from shore to shining shore.
A standing stone, an east-west henge,
a mead hall in the palace of Anglo-Saxon monks and kings.
Meanwhile, as the wind blows away the archaeologist’s words,
the skylark sings its brilliance.

Peter, Eka and I walked together and talked. About meditation, ever deeper. Peter has much experience of it, including teaching meditation to prisoners. About men and friendship. Eka was curious to know about the Gaffers, a long-standing men’s group Peter and I are in. About relationships, ever more personal. All rather wonderful, as if we’d known each other for years. Well yes, Peter is an old friend, Eka a new one. She sings. At the end of the walk she led us in the Bee Song in the upstairs room of a pub. We didn’t want to stop. She inspired us.

That evening Malcolm told a story imagining Yeavering Bell in its heyday. With his deep empathy and eloquence he took us into the heart of the place and into the time of the goatherd Yaros who, long ago, made the journey from outcast to protector to revered wise man. And all along James, with the minimum of rehearsal, played exquisite guitar and fiddle to accompany the tale. Again, all rather wonderful.

Tuesday
And the next day we walked again.

Those horses,
I can’t get them out of my mind.
They put up with us passing by
then returned, I expect, to their simple being together.
She, white, dappled, lounging on the grass, her boudoir,
almost inviting me to lie with her I imagine.
And he, standing guard, so handsome, a rich chestnut colour,
three black fetlocks, one white, a cropped mane and wavy tail,
strong, noble, timeless,
the steed chosen by a Celtic warrior chief.

We came to a stone circle. Not many stones left now. David – once an archaeologist always an archaeologist – spoke about it with authority, warmth and insight, openly listening to all views, bringing pleasure and passion to a flat, overcast, grassy field.

Later, silent walking over the pass…

SILENT WALKING
Shhh, hush, don’t talk,
Silent walk, silence walking.
But through my mind, words are walking… like
Grass and bracken, grass and bracken,
Heath bedstraw, tormentil,
Pignut, buttercup, walking words.
Egg and bacon flower, orchid! Orchid!

Swing hip, knee, ankle; spring heel, ball, toe,
Swing hip, knee, ankle; spring heel, ball, toe…

Grass and bracken, grass and bracken,
Great-aunt Annie used heath bedstraw
To make a well-loved fine skin salve.
Tormentil, four gold hearts together,
Torment ill?
Words are walking, walking words.
Heather flowering purple, now?
All around the blooming – will ye go lassie go.
Grass and bracken, grass and bracken.

Swing hip, knee, ankle; spring heel, ball, toe…

Sheltering Scots pine all in a line,
Needles soften the grassy path.
Wind sings high in the swaying tops.
A coil of rusty wire lies low.
Grass and bracken, grass and bracken.
In the Sitka spruce wood nothing grows
No grass, even the trees seem dead.
Look up, trip, fall down, whoops,
Shhh, hush, silence walking…
Grass and bracken, grass and bracken.
A rosy flush on the cheek of the hill
Lichen looking like an orchid flower,
Ling heather, not yet in bloom,
A burnt patch, a challenging trudge,
This, now, the blasted heath,
Once three witches chanted here…
Black peat walking, windy words.

Swing hip, knee, ankle; spring heel, ball, toe…

Over the top, a path through the heather,
The cotton bud fairies wave and dance
Cold rain spattering, dampening, soaking
A distant glimpse of our valley camp.
Grass and bracken, grass and bracken.
Shhh, hush, silence is walking,
Coming to an end now, silence walked.

A wet evening was immensely cheered by Nigel and his camp crew welcoming us with smiles and fine fare… After dinner we all huddled around a stove in one tent. Blessings on the rain. We had such a wonderful time squeezed up together, singing, chatting, sharing our camaraderie. Wouldn’t have been the same outside.

Wednesday
And in the morning…

Walter, the old shepherd
with tufts of whiskers high on his cheeks,
shows us his sticks.
His long lost father’s hazel staff (not crook)
found and brought back by … Bo Peep?
And one, even older, shorter, cut from blackthorn
and shaped by his grandfather
when he was only eleven years old in 1880 something…
‘This is the one I use’ he said.

And onwards, up Hedgehope (pronounced ‘Hedge-Up’), the second highest of the Cheviot Hills.

Thank god for rock.
A rocky outcrop in this landscape of great-bellied hills,
jutting up, pointing to the sky, the gods.
We are edging up Hedgehope,
the second highest of the Cheviot Hills.
But here, on this cropping up rock
with the heath bedstraw,
we pause and, through the eyes of Osprey,
the gods look down.

We were told we’d be crossing a bog. And our task on top of the hill was to listen.

This is the bog.
Today it squelcheth not.
Instead it rings with the joy of the skylark.
Cotton grass princesses invite us to dance.
Ahead the hill
sits in its rounded perfection
and waits for us
to come and listen.

Somehow Hedgehope Hill called forth a limerick!

If the stress of your soul you’d alleviate,
With your friends take a stroll in the Cheviots,
You’ll huff and you’ll puff
Down the smooth, up the rough
But be sure from your path that you deviate.

Emma, despite finding the hill hard to climb, plodded doggedly on and never complained or asked for help. Her feelings, perhaps ours too, were aptly summed up by Steve who said: ‘You can’t stay angry with a mountain for long!’ On the summit Tom delighted us with an unexpected medley of tunes on the tin whistle. Now that was really something to listen to. Walking down the hill through the waving cotton grass we talked about his United Nations work and came up with the idea of naming (and shaming?) the one hundred richest people in the world in a rap/storytelling piece…

Later many of us had a quick dip in a pool. As I walked away from the beautiful (but also midge-full) spot I turned back and saw Geoff. Well, in the distance I couldn’t see his face but I knew it was him by the relaxed grace of his movement. I thought perhaps he did tai chi but later he said tai-kwon-do. No wonder he makes such elegant furniture. It is an expression of his essence.

That evening, as we were preparing for another storytelling session, I was pleased to discover that dear Pascale had brought a copy of ‘The Tempest’ for me. I wanted to start learning the Prospero part for a production I’ll be in in October. Imagine our surprise when, next lunchtime, Andrew saw my copy and said that he too had a copy with him for was going to be playing Gonzalo in ‘The Tempest’ this summer.

That night it was Pat’s turn to regale us with a tale, inspired by Paul Frodsham, the archaeologist, who told us of how the bones of a young girl were found in a stone cist nearby. Pat’s story movingly brought the girl to life again and explained how she came to be buried with several precious objects. Paul also told us about the cup and ring marks, engraved into many rocks in the area. Indeed one was at the entrance to the hall next to where we stayed. Reflecting on its meaning I came up with this.

RIPPLE IN A POOL

Ah
This one
Harder, pointed.
Fits in the hand.
Hit this other one.
This … stone.
Tsch, tsch, tsch…
Keep going.
Ah-ha!
Look, now, a hole.
Ha. That’s me. Here. This place.
Where now?
Around.
Tsch, tsch, tsch.
Keep going. All around.
Ah-ha!
Look now, a ring.
My family. Us. Together.
Oh. Mmmm. A breast. Maybe.
My mother. A goddess. Ahhh.
Tsch, tsch, tsch.
Around again. Bigger this time.
Long time tsch-ing… chipping…
All of us. The people. Our tribe.
This good this.
Tsch… tsch..?
Chisel … chipping … our life.
Ah, it’s a ripple in a pool
I’ve made…

Thursday
The following morning we climbed a hillfort from which we could see the Hill of Mab, queen of the fairies. Georgiana asked us to step into the life of its time, to re-imagine it as our storytellers had done. These are my scribbled imaginings.

WHEN I LIVED IN THE HILLFORT

Yes
it was a little warmer in our time.
More forest, the wind a little less chill.
But the hill was just as high,
the walk just as long.
Our feet were tough like leather.
Often we ran up.
There was always work to be done.
Gathering firewood, carrying water,
fixing the palisade, tanning hides,
tending crops… oh so much.
It would take me from now
until dusk to tell it all.
But sometimes when the sun shone
and the breeze was light
I would stop, lie on my back
and listen to the lark of the sky.
I never fully understood the language
of its swift chirruping and chatter
but it always seemed to be saying
‘look, listen, the world is a beautiful place,
keep the faith, all will be well.’
Then I’d look over to the Hill of Mab,
our goddess of the Earth,
and she would say: ‘remember me
and you will be free.’
There’s so much more
but that’s some of how it was
in my time.

Later we came to a church. The ‘all will be well’ theme persisted.

Since Saxon times –
more than a thousand years then –
people have worshipped here …
beneath these rough hewn beams,
these stone arches,
sitting on these hard, upright pews.
They’ve sung, they’ve prayed,
they’ve listened to the word of God.
But what really happens here?
On a good day, stillness, peace…
letting go, acceptance, faith,
the belief that all will be well.

That night we stayed at a fabulous spot, grassy parkland, a few great trees, the camp perfectly set up by our three gallant crew. After our meal we gathered around the campfire for songs and stories. The absolute hit was Georgiana telling a story in Norwegian. I admit I resisted the idea at first. But she won me over completely. Not only was it surprisingly possible to understand much of what she said, she also transformed into a wonderful, strange, funny, mischievous, witchy woman. I thought how the people of Norway must so love her coming to visit when she is doing her long walks up and down the land.

Friday
In the morning there was a delay setting out so a few of us sat down to make whistles from some elder wood Pat had spotted the day before and I’d cut with my Swiss Army knife. Despite me being the one with the supposed experience, the whistle I made didn’t work. There was no time to fine tune before we had to go. The only one with the persistence and determination to finish a working whistle was Ali. He stuck with it long after everyone else had given up, and later, as he was running up and down the line of walkers (as he often did, making the rest of us feel old), we would hear him coming by the blast on his whistle!

Our first stop that day was a chapel, once the place of worship for those living in the nearby mansion. Whereas the day before my response to the church had been mellow, this time I was shocked.

A beautiful stained glass window
yet at the centre of it all
hangs a dead man on a cross,
nails through his hands and feet.
I don’t get it.
Ok, he sacrificed his life so we all may live,
but as an icon, an aspirational image,
it just doesn’t do it for me.
It reminds me of man’s inhumanity to man
rather of what we may be.

My mood lifted a little when Tom’s tin whistle rang out, bringing a soothing beauty to the scene. But my response to that stained glass window stayed with me, and later Tom and I had a long talk about it. He suggested I read ‘Seven Storey Mountain’, Thomas Merton’s account of how his spiritual journey led him to a profoundly positive understanding of the crucifixion. Kindly he sent it to me.

Later that day we had to cross a river. This was real socks and shoes off, wading through the deep-water adventure. Except that there were some precarious stepping-stones and a few of us thought we could make it across without getting our feet wet. But we were all left behind by Ruth who was easily the first one to reach the other side, nimbly skipping across the stones with the aid of her walking poles. She’s clearly an experienced walker then!

Soon after we came to ‘the meadow’. This was where Neil, our walk leader and erstwhile National Trust guide and employee, came into his own. We were astonished by the rich diversity of wildflowers in this field. Neil explained how it had been preserved as a wildflower meadow by a careful regime of limited seasonal grazing followed by long periods of being left to flower. This has gone on for decades if not centuries. If only it was practised everywhere how different our countryside would be.

We were on our final afternoon now. We walked up a splendid rocky crag over-looking a lake for our lunch, then headed off to Our Lady’s Well at Holystone where we were to have our final ritual. Down the road Gail and I fell into step together and had a lovely, easy, friendly chat – just as they all were on this walk. Further on Andrew, Ali and I, who were keeping up the rear, passed the school where Andrew had built a wall with some children. It was a little over-grown but clearly still being used by the kids. Ali and I were pleased to admire Andrew’s work and sense the pride he felt in the job.

From there we were on a run to get to the well in time. Wilf and I, who had been talking about him coming to the Gaffers, joked about not wanting to be the last ones in and put on a bit of a spurt. The pool was beautiful but, because a minibus would be waiting for us, our final ritual was brief. After three deep breaths to ‘inhale’ the walk we went round the circle, each person saying one resonant line to express something significant they’d experienced on the walk. On Wilf’s suggestion as we spoke we put our right hand into the circle and grasped the thumb of the person on our right. By the end we’d made a strong ring of linked hands symbolising our connections. Finally we lowered the ring to the ground then raised and released it to the sky with an exultant shout.

Then we trotted off to meet the minibus. As we arrived Marge met friends at the door of a charming cottage. She was clearly a real local. Then we were off to our spectacular accommodation at Cragside House. But soon Marge realised she lost her walking poles. She was very concerned, as she’d borrowed them from friends. Eventually they were tracked down to the minibus and the next day, as I was leaving Rothbury, I saw her dancing along the road, with her husband and Ali, poles in hand!

On that last morning I sat in the sun by the lake at Cragside and chatted with Rachel, enjoying the sense of fulfilment that came from completing the walk with such a remarkable group of people and appreciating all the work she had done behind the scenes to make the whole thing happen.

But maybe the concluding vignette should come from the final evening we spent together in the pub. After a scrumptious meal (lots of us chose fish and chips!) there was a call for a speech and Tom urged Andrew to stand up. Clearly an old pro he made a wonderful impromptu speech in which he described the walk as ‘the best experience of his life’. That’s saying something for a man who has lived life to the full. Then we headed upstairs for our final celebration. There were many songs but the one that made a lasting impression was Eka’s bee song. In three parts we evoked the sound of the hive. Once we got going we just didn’t want to stop. We were humming. For a week we’d been gathering honey in our hearts. We were filled with the sweetness of our days together walking across the land, absorbing stories and fine food. We were buzzing then and I suspect many of us are buzzing still!

Final words

THIS GEM OF A WALK
Just as a gem has many facets,
so too this walk.

The Northumbrian landscape…
the bold hills and rocky outcrops of the Cheviots,
the rivers and streams, forests and valleys,
the wildflower meadows and skylark song.

The layers and layers of human habitation –
from the lichen encrusted concentric circles
engraved on rocks in lithic times…
through the rampart ringed hill tops
thrown up in the sharpening times of bronze and iron
to the medieval churches,
holy places for more than a thousand years.

The camping places
the smiling faces of camp Chris,
musical James and miraculous Nigel.
Food in delicious abundance.

The stories, beautifully crafted, touchingly told,
bringing the ancient past into the present…
making the long dead live again.

All glittering facets of this gem of a walk.

But above all, the people.
The people shine – such beauty,
passion, wisdom and joy.
I feel held in their hearts
and hold them in mine.
A diamond time,
soon to be a diamond memory.

Eric Maddern
8 August 2013

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.