How long does it take for a small, fast car to drive, say, twenty miles on a clear road in good weather? Not long, as a rule. I love this particular stretch of road and though I drive it at a sensible speed to take in the glorious landscape it is always over too fast. But this time, I had time to spare. And a camera. There are plenty of places to park and delight in the high moorlands of the Pennines yet, in all the years I have driven across this pass, it is the first time I have been there with a few hours at my disposal to explore.
It is one of those roads where the heart just aches to stop and get out, to breathe in the fragrance and cleanness, to drink in the beauty.
The road is a short stretch of the A57 linking west with east. It undulates over the moors between Lancashire and Yorkshire, passing through the Peaks in Derbyshire and it is beautiful. Deep gorges hold tiny, iron rich streams, small waterfalls line the road, wildflowers nestle between the bright green of the bilberries and the unfurling fronds of bracken, punctuating the brown mass of last year’s heather that is still considering whether or not it is summer.
In spite of the sunshine, summer has not yet reached the flowers of the north. Great swathes of bluebells, long since finished in the south, line the banks… a blue haze beneath the bright green of oak and beech with birds darting like impossible jewels from branch to branch and the buzzing of bees is louder here than the distant traffic noise.
Yet it is not in the verdant beauty of the woods that my heart lies, but in the bleak hilltops and chattering streams that sparkle over the stones of home and memory. It is in the rocky outcrops, the tumbled stones and traces of an ancient life in the landscape.
For me there is healing in these wild places, on many levels. The past few weeks have been hard ones and my heart needed to breathe in the beauty I find in the north. It is an intimate glory, a communion with something deep that feeds the very root of my being and holds me in its cradling arms until I find myself once more Home. It is here that the surge of joy washes away the clinging shadows and blows away the foggy cobwebs that accumulate all too easily sometimes.
It was to visit one such place with a friend that I was there. But we were not meeting till mid-afternoon and I was very early. There is a road, often closed, that runs north from Snake Pass beside the reservoirs of the Derwent Valley, where villages were drowned to meet the need for clean water. I turned into this road for the first time, not knowing what I would find there.
The hills opposite are crowned with jagged outcrops like giant’s teeth. The Hurkling Stone stands dark against the sky, inviting a longer walk on another day. The waters beneath mirror the hills, hiding secrets in their depths.
I had, to my shame, no idea what I would find as I made my way along the banks, seeing only the beauty. The spark of recognition at the sight of the towers remained incomplete until I saw the memorial. The thought of bombs and war is never a pretty one and seems incongruous in the midst of such a landscape, yet here the stone itself holds memories of the valiant young men who flew the Lancasters and the innovative genius of Barnes Wallis and his bouncing bomb.
It was here the young men of 617 Squadron practised the specialised precision they needed on a night 70 years ago that cost almost half of them their lives. Much has been written about that operation. Yet, no matter how we judge a raid, a battle or a war, the acts of individual courage and gallantry remain. To stand here on such a perfect day in the deep, narrow valley, recalling the inexplicable tears that always rise at the sound of a Merlin engine, seeing with the eyes of imagination those fragile planes carrying even more fragile lives and weapons of terrible destruction cannot help but move the heart. They were, for the most part, younger than my own sons, with an average age of 22, the youngest just 18. They were little more than children.
The pub was a welcome interlude when I met my friend. The skies darkened suddenly as they are wont to do it the hills and the rain came sheeting in the wind as we set off for the Seven Stones of Hordron.
This is a very special place to my friend and it meant a good deal that he shared it with me. There are things there that deserve a book all of their own and perhaps, one day, it will be written. For now, though, I shall simply say that it is beautiful and mysterious in the misty air, high on its plateau. It is not the circle itself which is impressive, but the setting, the landscape in which it has held its place for thousands of years. It is the stones that surround it. The multitude of birds.. the curlew and the heron, the kites overhead, the grouse and the skylarks. It is the human hands that, thousands of years ago in our history, raised this temple to their gods and aligned it with the stars, leaving traces written on the land to tell us who they were.
They were not so very different from we. The emotions are the same, The human spirit has always dreamed and soared on imagination’s wings, seeking meaning in both earth and the heavens, reaching for an understanding of the greater forces at work in our worldscape. Technologies advance, intellect reaches wider shores, understanding deepens over millennia, yet were we able to bridge the centuries as we now span the world and meet our ancestors as we now meet people from across the globe, what would we find? If we could simply meet eye to eye and heart to heart, dispensing with the veneer of culture and time, I am willing to bet we would simply find ourselves.