One of our reasons for visiting Cratcliffe Crags was to find a cave. On our visit in October, the bracken was still high… far taller than me, which may not be saying a great deal, but also taller than my companion. Knowing that there are treacherous cliffs and fissures in the limestone, with so much greenery hiding the trails pushed through the tall stems, we were reluctant to stray too far from the visible pathways and failed to find the cave.
On our second visit, on a grey January day that was threatening rain, we approached from another direction, hoping to come at the base of the cliffs. The muddy winter paths made going difficult but a robin and a wren accompanied us, so we were feeling fairly confident as we slid through the trees.
All we knew was that the cave was somewhere on the western side of the rocks near the base of the cliffs. After trying several rock shelters nestling in the walls, we finally caught a glimpse of a stone wall and tried to scramble down to it. Properly shod in something other than wellies and dressed in something more forgiving than winter coats, we might have managed it, but as it was, we risked breaking something critical…like a leg or even a camera… so we gave up and retraced our steps.
It was an object lesson in patience, perseverance and how not to go charging in like the proverbial bull in a china shop. We were, after all, approaching a sacred place and there is a right way to do so that applies equally to the frame of mind and heart as it does to the movement of the body. We have found this to be true so often…approach the wrong way and you are unprepared and can simply miss too much. So back we went to the start of the path and followed a more sedate route to a cave hallowed by the prayers and presence of a hermit.
It isn’t much of a cave; it is more a rock shelter…an open overhang beneath the cliffs, guarded by two ancient yew trees. A stone wall curves around it, there are grooves in the stone and a channel for run-off water that suggest that the hermit extended his home beyond the narrow and meagre shelter of the cave. There is a rock shelf for sleeping and a niche in the wall for a light. There is also a carved crucifix which may date back as far as the thirteenth century.
No-one knows when the first hermit took up residence in the cavern in the crags. The old Portway runs close by and has been a major route since at least Roman times. Roman coins and pottery have been found around the crags as well as evidence of earlier times. The first documented reference is in the records of Haddon Hall, of the disbursement of payment on 23rd December 1549 to ‘Ye harmytt’ for the supply of ten rabbits to the Hall and for guiding people to Haddon.
In the thirteenth century, Pope Innocent IV had issued a decree that hermits should abide by a version of the Rule of St Augustine. The hermits needed to be properly appointed by the local bishops and were expected to provide succour and service to those on the road., often guiding travellers to fords and river crossings, echoing the acts of both St Christopher and the Samaritan.
They were also required to have a crucifix, provided for or by the hermit. A later document of the fourteenth century Rule of Hermits states, “Let it suffice thee to have on thine altar and image of the Saviour hanging upon the Cross, which represents to thee His Passion, which thou shalt imitate, inviting thee with outspread arms to himself.” The cross in the hermits cave is a strange relic to find out in the open countryside.
It seems at first glance a crude affair. But look again and it takes on a new depth…quite literally. Around four feet in height, the cross is hewn in relief from the cave wall itself, and must have been quite an undertaking for its maker. Not content with a simple cross, the stone-carver added details that seem to be the leaves of living wood, bringing the symbol to life and emphasising for the hermit the eternal nature of the Son of Man. The hermit would have slept facing the Cross… it would have been the last sight to touch his eyes at night and the first thing he saw in the morning, beginning and ending his days with devotion. For me, following no religion but respecting all faith, there is a beauty in that.
In the middle of nowhere, we had found a place of ancient sanctity. Yet the place had been sacred for thousands of years before the hermit, or even his Christ, was born, as we had seen at the end of our first visit…