Today I walked at Silchester, my very favourite place to walk! I should explain to those who don’t live in Berkshire that, as well as being a small village, Silchester is also a large, circular area held in by ruined Roman walls (much like Hadrian’s wall) where, once, there was a thriving Roman town – Calleva Atrebatum – which was far more strategic, bustling and sophisticated, in its day, than nearby Reading. For the most part, this circle now consists of farmers’ fields, often with cows grazing. There is a smallish area that is in the process of being excavated, each summer, by archaeologists from the University of Reading. Running alongside the walls is a footpath and information posts maintained by English Heritage. On the East side is St Mary’s, a gorgeous little Anglo Saxon church with its characteristic tower and a small churchyard nestled into the Roman walls.
The area where once was Calleva is round and largely flat within the raised circle of walls and, typically, clouds gather like armadas in dramatic hues, casting large contrasting patches of shadow and iridescent light across the parching grass with grazing herds beneath. Outside its walls, on a clear day, you can see for miles, especially to the south across what would have been the route to Roman Winchester. Within this small circle of fields – and this is the jaw-dropper – were once rows of houses, bustling streets, market places, huge public buildings, filth and sewage and all the usual trappings of communal living.
For the best part of a decade, this has evolved as a place that is profoundly important to me and in a very deep-seated way. At Silchester, I have faced up to and dealt with some of the more momentous transitions, difficulties and heartaches of recent years; not by mentally wrestling with them as I’ve walked there but by simply coming away with new-found clarity derived from no thought at all, just being there and experiencing time on those walls.
There have been intensely happy times too; picnics and family dog walks, laughter and the making of memories. I have walked there at both extremes of the day, in all seasons and most weather conditions; I never leave it for long, often miss it, crave it from afar and always know in my very core when it is a “Silchester day”. At the end of my life, I would gladly be buried there or, more likely, thrown to the four winds across its fields. If I had just one afternoon left, I would probably choose to walk at there.
Why does the place hold me in such sway? Of course, the history of the place is engaging and there is, for me, a tangible sense there of what came to pass before the land was returned to fields. Knowing that there was once a heaving metropolis of human existence in this place that has now returned to nature gives the place a soulfulness that I’ve yet to find matched elsewhere.
Although there is a church “on site”, this isn’t a soulfulness in a conventional-religious sense that I’m describing, as you might expect when you visit a place of historic religious significance; hardly surprising since, for the larger part of its existence, Calleva would have been thoroughly pagan, the church being a much later addition on the site of a late-Roman Christian site. No, the feeling that I get (and it is “spiritual”) goes beyond organised religion and plugs into the far bigger picture of human experience. You can somehow sense all those human existences that have been part of this landscape and with all the immediacy of relatively-recent history, in chronological terms, since you know from just looking at these fields that almost no human intervention has occurred here other than farming since the very last communities dwindled away at the end of the Roman era; a complete rarity among Roman-settled areas, most of which have continued to evolve into modern towns for the past millennium and a half.
The fact that Silchester is all but returned to nature is a solemn reminder that this is ultimately the fate of all humankind and both pulls me up short and leaves me in wondrous awe, a potent combination although I have no problem whatsoever facing up to the realisation that I am made up of universal building blocks that will be recycled again and again between now and the end of time. That realisation fills me with more wonderment than any promise of a heavenly afterlife ever could (perhaps, for me, this is the same thing). There is constant regeneration, all things will pass, nature will triumph… It fills my contentment cup to the brim to be reminded that, whatever human chaos may reign, we are all destined to revert to something not dissimilar to this big circular field with its crumbling walls, its blowsy hedgerows filled with long grasses, poppies and cornflowers, its gentle symphony of wind through trees, sheep baa-ing, woodpigeons cooing and – always at this time of the year – the perpetual song of the skylark.
Even St Mary’s church makes me feel that, were I ever to attend Sunday services, I would want to do so here. I
entered the description “holistic” under the religion heading on the recent census as that most aptly describes where I am with religion, believing as I do that the divine – call it God if you must – is within us all, an eternal spark that is our basic element, the best part of us and one which will continue on, in some other format, long after we have been broken back down into the atoms from which we were made. I still find,
therefore, that centuries of us all looking with all our might for this eternal spark wheresoever we felt it to be, usually heavenward and particularly within the walls of these buildings we call churches, has concentrated this strength of feeling within the walls of such places to such an extent that I can feel a real sense of the divine inside a church, generated by the shared human longing – and so concerted human effort made – to find such a thing. For that reason, I still love to spend quiet time in a church.
And for me it really has to be, by preference, either a cathedral (a grand gesture of man’s achievement, striving upwards by actually looking inwards – which was much nearer the mark in my opinion – to draw upon the deepest wells of human craftmanship and creative ability) or the very smallest nugget of a church, a connection with the divine on the most intimate level. St Mary’s is one such as this – tiny, intimate and perfect. I crave my time spent there, sat on my particular pew where the clouds sail pass a very particular window, an action guaranteed to soothe me into a moment of pure, unthinking awareness of “the moment” and which invariably helps to reconnect me with the deepest part of myself, reminding me that I already hold all the resources that I could ever possibly need to deal with all life throws at me and so equipping me to step back into the hub of daily living. And all of that soul-food, achievable on one walk, in one location – as long as the walk is at Silchester. Is it any wonder I keep returning there, time and again?
Historians talk about Calleva as a figment of the past, a town lost beneath mounds of earth. The question is, was Silchester (Calleva) really lost after it was abandoned back to nature or was it actually found; is its current state not even more valid than its status as a bustling and important town which, had it not been abandoned, would have evolved into yet another heaving twenty-first century metropolis, barely distinguishable from any other town with its Victoriana and concrete shoulder-to-shoulder and its familiar array of chain stores. I would say that Silchester with its field of cows, and its potent reminders of what time can do to reverse all things back to nature, has uniquely preserved a far more potent tribute to humanity and what it is all about than any such concrete sprawl ever could.