On Thursday evening there was music… beautiful music that makes the heart sing. On Friday there was fog, traffic and meetings; working on the next Glastonbury talk and sharing the evening with Companions of the School. On Saturday, however, we went out to play.
Well, it was research really. Honestly. It just so happens that we needed to research a really beautiful part of Derbyshire. We stopped on the way to take pictures of a roundabout. Nothing special these days, just the usual traffic signs, but once upon a time it had been a crossroads and had, it is thought, been the site of an ancient, Mercian High Cross and these Saxon crosses, with their enigmatic carvings, play their part in elucidating the history of the area. ‘Elucidate’… I like that word; ‘to shed light’ and that, through both the School and the books, is what we work towards.
The light on Saturday, however, fell softly, hazily, on the landscape as we arrived at Monsal Head. The valley stretches for miles, deeply cut through the hills and far below. A walking trail follows the line of the old railway and a viaduct provides a fabulous vantage point where you are poised halfway between the hilltops and the river. It was late morning as we drove to the bottom of the valley and began the long walk back towards our proposed destination, getting the feel of the place as we passed between the rocks and trees. We wanted to shed some light for ourselves on the legends and archaeology of the vale; there are sites here we have been trying to visit for some time and so far we have been thwarted at every turn.
Paths that are not marked on maps, places to which there are no markers, access which seems denied to ancient sites… it has been a frustrating quest so far. We were determined to get some kind of sense of place, even if we couldn’t reach the exact areas we want to visit. It is as if we are being introduced gently to the emotional turmoil the particular history of these sites might raise. We know their story, have touched the echoes of grief that linger in the ether and felt their ripples in the waves of time. Stories, so old they leave only traces in myth, were once the lives of the people of the high places.
We followed the path that leads down to the river and traced its course; We sought a way to climb to one of our goals without success and had, instead, to settle for the banks of the Wye as it meanders through the valley, changing with every turn. We watched a dipper that seemed to invite us to cross once more by the scattered stones, hopping from place to place as if leading us across the turbulent shallows. Finally we sat on the banks, watching the hypnotic flow of the stream and in my peripheral vision I saw a young woman washing clothes in the river.
The simple homespun garment, long honey-brown hair, sun bleached at the tips and the bared arms were as clear as the wildflowers to my sight, yet of course, she was not there. Not any more. Perhaps she had never been there and my imagination was simply working overtime, perhaps she was a shadow cast from a present long past or a fragment of racial memory seeping through the cracks of consciousness. It doesn’t matter. Some things do not require our understanding, only our acceptance of their presence.
As long as my eyes accepted the gift without looking at her directly, without seeking to grasp what was offered and pin it like a captured butterfly to the collectors board of logic and reason, I could watch her work and listen to the gentle humming of her song.
We had sought and failed to find what we were looking for. There is always a tomorrow, or a one day and if not, why then spoil the moment with vain regret? We had seen much beauty and touched the spirit of a place older than the oldest story. Both a day and a lifetime can hold many gifts that are as ephemeral as they are beautiful. They need not be caught in the web of our desires or the net of acquisitive hands, clutching at the straws of experience. We can simply allow them to unfold as they will and who knows where they might lead? We headed back towards the car, thwarted, perhaps, but not dissatisfied. Even so, we would return.