We are just back from a long weekend away to a place not visited for quite a few years; 21st December 2012 was the last time we stayed there…”that date” so many of us hovered over, poised in high expectation or cynicism (its all the same). No wonder I recall the date and that it felt like some sort of impromptu review to go back there; to ask, where have we got to since then and where are we going? Whether or not we believe in the Mayan calendar, in the birth of a new era or even that 21/12/12 was the key date (though the fact it became such a focal point at the time “gave” it an energy of shifting sands), there’s no denying we have been in unchartered territories since. My trip seemed to want to say something on this topic; to spur me into making a review. So how did it do that; what did it have to say?
Just five minutes back at home and it’s almost as though I have never been away, every time. Yet, as I do the self-assessment that takes place as the more familiar sounds of everyday life permeate my head on waking “the morning after” (mostly, traffic…) there’s one resounding feature, one corner, of the place that stays with me still; resilient and strong.
Its a feeling (paradoxically) captured by part of a church opened up wide to the sky; beautiful ruins that were opposite our windows for the last four days…once again, just as they were last time (to a point, only last time they were just out of view behind trees, tucked behind the intact part of the church). In fact, I had laughed out loud when I first realised that the Airbnb that drew my eyes so compellingly in this small village location, causing me to drop, like a hot stone, the alternate booking I had been poised to confirm (in a completely different town!), turned out to be right next door to the cottage where we stayed at the end of 2012….which is what first claimed my attention. In fact, it turned out to be, literally, the house next door (I didn’t find that bit out until we got there as there are four similar cottages in a row). Clearly “it was meant to be” since this was all quite unplanned.
This time, we couldn’t have been more close to those ruins if we’d tried, so they were there when I went to sleep (I could feel them…as though they hosted my dreams) and the first thing I saw as I opened the curtains, beyond the porch of the far-more intact St Bartholomews, which had been the attention of a long-running Victorian refurbishment project…but not these ramshackle relics. No, these beauties, at a glance in half-light, could have been a sprinkling of Rome, an Acropean fragment transported to English climes, their thick pillars marked with the hints of spiralling patterns, their rounded arches like bridges held up to the sky.
Yet, for all they were so patently there, I didn’t visit them until we were about to leave; didn’t even want to, somehow, and the one time we tried in the dark, our footing was too unsure on a rickety path to risk a tumble in that place where night sky is actually allowed to be, so we vowed to go back in the morning, before driving home. Somehow, I hadn’t needed to be so close to them until that moment of saying “thank you for being there” to them, so obvious was their presence, holdings space for something too often missing from the modern landscape. Yes, a little pointlessness, a touch of lost direction; almost a hint of the same maverick non-conformity “outside” the walls of tidy convention that is my way and my happy place…
In fact, this whole place was a marker for more than one theme of that ilk, being a place that is, in more ways than one, going nowhere. At night time, just before bed, we would get the urge to walk along its dark streets, eyes drawn to the cosy amber light pooled around windows and doorways, down to the quay where the moon reflected on the water and just stand there, breathing it all in. The availability of “land” was withdrawn so abruptly, without fanfare, that it seemed quite commonplace just to stand on the edge of a minuscule wall and sense (not even quite see…) water’s fluid motion “down there”; more animated with gentle rhythms one night and as still as a mill pond the other. Above and so (clearly) below, the first-quarter moon restated this plain truism that, in life’s busy-ness, we forget; then, a whole complexity of stars that light pollution turns, more often than not, into the simple cartoon we make do with back home…a child’s bedroom ceiling to this grown-up reminder that we are are but a dot in a sky of many.
This uneventful removal of “the point” of walking somewhere, there being nowhere to go, served as deep therapy as we dressed up warm like excited children, leaving comfortable places “just” to be somewhere that had no other reason except that we wanted to experience it before bed and while we can, having nothing like this back home.
This place, with no point, drew no traffic after dark so we were free to amble down the middle of the road, the only other trespasser a cat and, somewhere around us, a pair of owls in some sort of animated dialogue or territory war, yet even that sounded benign. This lack of compunction, of timetable or point was so refreshing to the soul, I could have bottled it…would have, if I could only find a container big enough. Instead, I sucked it into me as though with a broad drinking straw, promising….faithfully…to return sooner next time.
And yet the place itself, revealed in daylight hours, had lost some of its point since last time. The tea shop we fondly remembered, from times visited with the kids when they were kid-like and our previous dog, was no longer there; turned into more rentals, it looked like. In fact, most of the place had the air of somewhere turned into a series of “holiday lets” (stickers in windows) for outside visitors who don’t even try with each other, knowing they are “just passing” (how odd to be almost shoulder to shoulder with someone, unloading your car, and him blanking you so studiously, as though you’re not even there…the woman with the toddler fractionally more receptive to a nod and a smile). These places, with their passers-through, quickly lose their heart and soul; though, along the road to the quay, we looked in at one family…on two nights…where a white haired couple chatted earnestly with a young man, about my daughter’s age, and it was a pleasant illusion that this, at least for a night or two, was the norm…without a flickering TV screen on, dominating the room. Perhaps I was kidding myself; perhaps I just wanted to.
The village had also lost its famous “smokehouse” where, once on a long-ago visit (in pre-vegan days) we went to collect great slabs of smoked stilton to gorge over as we played family games around a kitchen table (which was my daughter’s thing back then; she organised long-running events around a theme and we were held captive to her imaginations for hour after hour….oh happy times). Now, a blackened-out building stood where those propped-up signs and the unmistakable smell once invited crowds in to gather armfuls of smoked fish, meat and cheese, cured to traditional methods…now all-but lost. Its owner had, apparently died quite unexpectedly, an untenable inheritance tax bill ruining the three-generation family business, then the building burned down. A sign of the times…
Without those two landmarks, which I had imagined in my head the whole time I had been planning this trip, I felt vaguely disoriented, like this place was a pretender to the title of the place in which we had once made such happy memories. But then I knew I was there once we walked the headland, in those unmistakably chill winds from the North Sea. The last time I walked that headland was on 20th December, 2012….one day before we left; the end of an era (in more ways than one) as I had had front-centre in my mind all that day. The rain had been so relentless and horizontal that I would lose my dog in seconds unless he was on a short leash (and the rest of the family tucked away around the cosy fireside because it hadn’t seemed fair that they all get soaked to the skin). Yet it had been a catharsis of sorts to rain-pelt away all the crud of a broken paradigm I was just so willing to let go of in one almighty, almost biblical, moment of release. I was calling to change, hollering it with all my might (had turned abruptly vegetarian just one week before; which felt like the thin edge of the wedge, a show of willingness to break with hard-fast tradition, even where it meant inconvenience). Those gusty edges and the inability to see clearly where firm ground was, where water of uncertain depth lay below, had felt so apt to me that day for we, none of us, knew where we were headed.
This time, the most striking thing I witnessed was a pair of yin-and-yang swans in most elegant flight together, round and around, clearly enjoying themselves, for all the wind was so keen against my neck and head, while their dark-feathered youngster slurped noisily and unattended in the reeds closeby. My birds of this era; birds of remembrance that we come from the stars, that oddity can be beautiful and “normal”, that we are more than one species in one oddly-proportioned form, that we are magnificent whether grounded or airborn, can be abundantly responsible yet still do things for the pure rapture of being alive…both graceful and formidible all at the same time. Yes, these birds in evenly matched flight were my welcome clue as to what we can still aspire to be.
Most of all, this time, it was the oh-so peaceful yet oddly void nighttime walks that left most impression; the pitch dark and sense of going nowhere reflecting something of where I am now, long settled into the new era and yet (still) quite clueless as to where we are all heading. They reminded me how I needed to be contented with that, to make it alright to just put one foot in front of the other, enjoying the odd pool of light…
The nights were so dark and syrupy, quiet to a fault, that we would lose ourselves in the softness and tranquility of them, the absolute silence and surrender of nothingness, until the next pool of amber light spotlit some sort of jewel of domestic life through a window (though mostly unpeopled scenes of furniture and lights) as we walked the deserted lanes. From our own window, there was no other house to be seen; only the churchyard and this was the same view, pretty much, that we had had the other year. It even struck me as a metaphor for how I hadn’t got so very far in all these years…and yet, though seemingly “much the same”, just being those few feet to one side of where we stayed before had altered the whole perspective of my view of everything (yes, that is what the last few years feel like…everything, sort of, the same and yet indescribably different). Because, last time, the church and its restored tower stood full thrust, squared in our view, and now these ruins were more assertive; so much so that they held my gaze, even my energy’s attention, as I slept. In every respect, this house seemed to suit our preferences “more” than the one we had stayed in before, for all they were ostensibly the same; its aesthetic, proportions, all the little details more closely matched to the way we like things…just as my life now, more nearly, matches “me” much more closely than it did a few year ago; in ways subtle yet just so important since they alter everything.
When we finally got to those ruins, the morning we were about to leave, there it was again; the feeling of a spirit that knows not its full potential now released to play with the container, a bird opened out to the sky from the cramped cage where it had spent all its life yet not fleeing but staying to perch, singing, on the roof. The only paradigm that is known…challenged, in ways that can seem momentarily destructive, disorienting, almost sacreligious; implied wrong doing. Yet oh so beautiful when you see beyond the erosion of “fixed” human intentions towards the merger with something else long-lost and abused that has grown to love its limitations in some wierd and wonderful way.
I have always had “a thing” about churches “released” back to nature and the sky; broken cathedrals, ruined abbeys, chapels with windows blasted through or with clear panes replacing all the fussiness, that overwhelming human desire to “tell stories” in coloured cartoons made of glass. We had had our fair share of stories that weekend too….of course we had…travelling with a teenage daughter and visiting elderly in-laws whose views are poles apart from ours; and yet we had quite deliberately steered away from those trigger topics (the B word, for instance…), keeping to the softer paths, adhering to no particular signposts except for the simple desire to spend quality time together. Keeping away from the oft-travelled highways, focused on common ground in between, did us all some good.
Akin to many of the places I’m attracted to, this place had clearly seen grander and more political times, when church and power made their homes here. Royalty had left its mark (the remnants of a castle) and dark intrigue had more recently followed (a boat takes you to a “ness” where cold war experimentation took place; as ever, I had no desire to go there). Now, it has lost those trappings and is all the better for the relinquishment, yet softer somehow for having been around the wheel of fate and fortune, still bearing some of the scars. It knows better now and is the master of such fickleness; more than willing to crumble into a collection of quaint trophies as a quiet backwater. The best it has; the feeling of being allowed to let go of what everyone else is so strung up about. I found myself quite jealous of the air of detachment that permeated the village as vegetables and knitting craft got sold like it was “just any other day”, every day.
Here in the churchyard, those once stridently assertive, grandiosely thick pillars of human intention now reached “only” for the sky (not some lofty point of ambition at the top)…and there was simply no stopping them. Where arches remained, they simply leapt from one post to the next like the strides of a giant cloud-hopping across the green…and the place was so very green, like a merry dance between bricks and foliage. Moments of embellishment still asserted themselves from a bygone era, if disjointedly so, leaving them pure somehow, like pleasant words disengaged from tediously rambling sentences. The whole scene was over-watched by two holly trees stood guardian to the ruins. Even these were almost completely without point, their leaves mostly smooth (an epigenetic trait in response to a lack of environmental pressures, I read; nobody…no grazing animals…had apparently bothered these trees for some time). Rather, they seemed content to play hide-and seek with each other in this Eden made of crumbled-down stone, one male and one female, returned to some sort of balance we could all use the reminder of.
Just imagine how our own epigenetic traits could respond to a lack of needing so many sharp points in defence of ourselves, if we only gave them the chance to know such an environment…how we could all become more rounded, less guarded, in less than a generation.
The whole place was so easy in its harmony and simplicity; and (now I’m home) reminds me of that part of me that I can go to quite regardless of what the outside world would have me drawn into; all those spaghetti junctions and sharp-edged “steel and glass buildings” of intent we make of our world. It is where I tune into, where I can divert my footfall towards, when opinions would have me join sides, when signs try to insist I must walk in a particular direction, towards some outcome or other (and never for just the view). When it all gets too much then here, in this small crumbling corner of this apparently purposeless place, was a reminder of something else I have access to, inside of me. A reminder that, far from having no measurable credentials, it has the most resounding of all since it liberates me to the big big skies beyond such cares.
We bypassed the actual church on this visit; well, we were out of time and, besides, it would have detracted from the pure magic I had now installed in my heart as the take-away of this whole trip. I read that it has exceptional acoustics, so much so that composer Benjamin Britten and other musicians have long sought it out for that very reason and yet what are acoustics if not the desire to hear one’s own voice amplified back to oneself, louder and more resilient than ever? What if the alternate longing is to surrender that self-righteous voice…just for a time…and open-up to something else; to let wind and rain and other parts of Nature’s timpani make their so-called random cacophony, or to hear nothing at all and be refreshed by that beautiful silence? How about listening for once instead of always having to know best? What if it is in the spaces of silence, in the questions not answered and the not knowing where we are headed that we find ourselves again? I felt I knew myself somewhat better for my few days, for all I had written not a word…as though my words, like conversation on a headland, had simply got carried away on the wind.
As I settle back into the relentless noise of where I live, on a road where everyone is always going somewhere, which is an energy my body registers long before I wake and long after I fall into exhausted sleep each night, I hold onto that feeling as the treasure of all treasures. The nearest I can get to describing it is a sense of having remembered the value of “going nowhere”, of reaching beyond “the point”…or at least, any place or point that we yet know of. Because, when we enter into a new paradigm, all our measures and markers shift so dramatically that we cannot be held in by them anymore; we simply have to look beyond them…
The place we have just been, though it has “lost” a few things in recent years, is doing quite well at holding onto something even more precious than old-paradigm stuff and, perhaps, more necessary for us all to hold onto in the coming era, when momentum and making ourselves heard above others is deemed to be “everything” and we are all recruited for the fast-track ride to “somewhere” even before we are born. No, we are only fully buckled into that seat on the crazy ride if we agree to it; can all, if we want to, find other places and spaces where we abstain and retrain ourselves to the resonance of a contrary void of potential, with other things to say about liberty and balance, about unknown places and unlimited spaces. I am now a little more freshly reacquainted with mine.