A Wilderness is Heaven: A Week on Exmoor
26 June – 2 July 2009
‘…where peace smiles, a wilderness is heaven’ John Clare, ‘Peace’
After finally finishing my mountain of marking I was ready for a break – or a breakdown – after a very difficult few weeks. And so it was with great relief I packed my iron horse and hit the road. To paraphrase Trevelyan, ‘I have the two best doctors – my front wheel and my back wheel.’
The plan was to head down to the Exmoor Pagan Camp for the weekend and use that as a base-camp for a day out on Lundy Island Saturday, (the ferry, MS Oldenburg left from Bideford, 40 miles away, boarding 8.15am) then head to Culbone on Sunday evening for three or four days’ retreat. This would provide a mixture of landscapes and a healthy balance between community and solitude. My goals for the trip were ‘peace, relaxation, nature, walks, writing, inspiration.’
As I set off, my bike loaded up, it was chucking it down – so, wombled-up in my waterproofs I headed off Friday midday, hoping to have a ‘fine time on the A39’. I headed over the Mendips on my favourite run for Glastonbury – I had intended to stop off the Tor to eat my packed lunch – but realising the festival was on I gave the town a wide berth and stopped off at Hart’s Leap Point just above Wookey Hole instead, a suitable threshold for the beginning of my adventure. I sat in the gentle rain and gazed out over the Somerset Levels. You can normally see the Tor and Steep Holm and Flat Holm from the picnic site, but not today – the Levels were veiled in a rainy haze. I tried to get a brew going but my Gaz stove decided to give up the ghost at that point, in spectacular fashion! Onwards, I ventured, taking it easy in the rain, passing the dismal delights of Street and Bridgwater. Amazingly, when I hit Exmoor the skies cleared and the sun came out! I made it up the infamous Porlock Hill (1 in 4) – a test of skill and my steed’s mettle. Up on the moor and the weather and views were glorious. I had no problem finding the campsite, deep down in Doone Valley, where Blackmoore’s 1869 classic, Lorna Doone, is set.
The camp was small and friendly. I immediately got help with a bit of plywood for my stand – and a welcoming cuppa (and all the cake you could eat). The atmospheric was relaxed and good-humoured. My kind neighbours, Bruce and his partner, shared some of their curry. I bought a flagon of Otter from the local shop to share – and the party started around the campfire. I was tired and didn’t make a late night of it, knowing I had to be up very early the next day for my jaunt to the island…The pleasant camaraderie of the campfire serenaded my to sleep.
From my journal on the road…
27 June, Bideford Quay, 8.30am
Woke up at the crack of dawn, lying in my tent, listening to the electrophonic chatter of the dawn chorus. I felt wide awake – full of anticipation of finally visiting Lundy, after wanting to go there for several years (I had booked a week there in Sept ’07, but a week before I was due to go on there was a stomach bug out-break and everyone was evacuated, my trip was cancelled and refunded) a lost island found! I got dressed quickly and had a simple breakfast, felt an almost illicit thrill at leaving at first light. There’s something exhilarating about flitting off while the rest of the camp sleeps off their hangovers. I rode through the ford and struck out along the backroads. The ride through the hidden vales of Exmoor at first light was beautiful and exhilarating. One of the best! It felt a joy to be alive. I made Bideford in good time – the roads were clear. If only riding could be like this all of the time. Arriving early, I went for a coffee. Now I wait to board the MS Oldenburg, sitting on the quayside in the sunshine with the other daytrippers and residentials. There’s a thrill at waiting to cross to such a place. The mild tang of adventure is in the air. It promises to be a beautiful day!
During the sunny, smooth crossing, the 261 passengers were treated to a visit from a whole pod of dolphins, who swam alongside the boat, leaping from the water, the embodiment of joy. It was impossible to have a heavy heart on such day. It felt good to be alive!
A poem written shortly after arrival:
Blue, blue world of Lundy
glittering constellation of sea,
like a super-computer working on
the meaning behind all things.
sigh of waves, rumble of boat,
skylark and seagull.
hidden rocks, submerged forest of kelp.
Peace among the waves.
Height of the year,
a sanctuary from the world’s insanity.
Lundy Island, Devil’s Lime-kiln, 27 June ‘09
I sit amongst the goats on the cliff’s edge, the whiff of Pan in the air. Nearby, a dead seagull splayed like a seraphim. I look across to a rock formation resembling a mermaid, perhaps Elen herself (the island’s only church is dedicated to St Helena. The island is exactly equidistant between Stonehenge and the Preselli Mountains, where the bluestones came from, at precisely ninety degrees, forming an ‘L’, and of course, it’s called Lundy, ‘puffin island’, but also the ‘angled place’). Everywhere I look, I seem to behold sexual rock shapes! Monumental stone phalluses, deep vulvas – the land splits open or stands erect. Lundy is the clitoris in the delta of the Severn. The goddess welcomes waves of sailors into her arms. Her siren song causes shipwrecks. Sabrina has a welcome for them all. I look across at the Devil’s Slide, plunging towards the rocks – it is flanked by rocks named after the four apostles, eg St Paul’s Rock, etc. What were they afraid of? This place, with its wandering goats and Freudian rock formations feels about as pagan as it gets. Yet they have to give it Christian labels. Ultimately, of course, it is itself – whatever we perceive it to be.
And now I sit by Virgin’s Spring, at the northwest tip of the island – was the goddess once worshipped here? Elen herself? A small island like this feels ‘virginal’, inviolate in its completeness, its topographical hymen intact. And yet it is ‘desecrated’ by swathes of tourists throughout the summer. Two men passing said: ‘Oh, look – a fresh water pool.’ The other responded, ‘it’s a bit muddy’. The mystery is passed by or despoiled by litter, by exposure. Close by, on the rocks a couple of hundred feet below, I can hear the eerie singing of the seals – lonely, mournful. The song of the siren. The females are mellifluous, high-pitched, plaintive; the male – a guttural snort, a lager lout’s belch! I daydream about tales of selkies…
28 June, Lorna Doone Farm
Just been on a walk up Doone Valley with a small group from the camp led by an ex-Signalman, Richard. We had a pack of lively dogs with us and it reminded me of the opening scenes of After London by Richard Jeffries, with its feral packs of animals roaming over wild England. We passed Cloud Farm, where Blackmore located Lorna Doone. Opposite, a stone raised in the year of my birth, 1969, marked the centenary of the book, which celebrates the beauty of Exmoor – and perhaps enhanced visitors perceptions of the landscape, as Hardy’s books do with ‘Wessex’.
We made our way up Badgworthy Water – an agreeable company of ‘Canterburyans’ chattering away – at a footbridge most decided to turn back but thre of us carried on to the site of a medieval village cradled in the folds of the moors, at a ‘crossroads’ of valleys. Here we pondered on the community that must have existed for generations – with all its characters, professions, feuds and friendships, tragedies and joys – only markings hidden amongst the ferns and grasses remain. No sign even (the dogs seemed intent on running off with a broken one to Brendon Common). It was a ghost village – a weird parallel to our own, where the Silent Ones still gather on moonlit nights. I imagined a ‘doppleganger’ community to each in this world, living in reflection, mirroring the dramas of life, albeit through a glass darkly.
29 June, Culbone
i am a little church (far from the frantic
world with its rapture and anguish) at peace with nature…
Arrived at Culbone – raw and ragged after a precipitous descent down the track – a test of nerve! – but more from the life which has worn me out. I am in sore need of this retreat, away from the madding crowd. At last! Three days at the Exmoor Camp and three days here by myself – a good balance. The inner and outer spiral.
Culbone is the smallest complete Parish church in Britain. It is famously inaccessible (the coastal path is your best bet), nestled four hundred feet up in a wooded coombe above the wild north coast of Exmoor. Hidden in the deep folds of a plunging valley, it feels removed from the world – yet it has been, at times, a leper colony, an open prison, a religious community, and now a popular place for passing ramblers. There is evidence of human activity over six thousand years: its ancient name was Kitnor (from Anglo-Saxon for cave ‘cyta’ and ‘ore’, sea shore, suggesting what might have been the nodal point that originally drew people here – the summer rising sun floods into the vale, as if for it alone). The church is a mixture of styles from different centuries and cultures – Saxon being the earliest. Its name derives from a Welsh saint, St Beuno, (pronounced ‘Bayno’), born in the late 6th Century, died 642: Kil Beun, the chapel of Beuno, became eventually Culbone. Beuno, said to be the most important Welsh saint after St David, follows in a long line of Celtic saints who graced the West of England, leaving their names as relics. The church is still used, with fortnightly services, and an atmosphere of deep peace pervades the place.
Drinking my first cuppa, I read some of The Book of Peace, and instantly related to the poem’ To Mr Izaak Walton’:
Solitude, the Soul’s best friend…
How calm and quiet a delight
it is alone
to read, meditate and write,
By none offended, nor offending none.
To walk, ride, sit or sleep at one’s own ease,
And pleasing a man’s self, none other to displease.
Arrival at Culbone
A bottomless well
of deep, deep peace.
This is reality,
this is the truth behind the world.
Everything else is white noise and nonsense,
the froth of the mainstream –
enamoured by its own bubbles,
a toddler wanting attention.
This is the source,
a purer course.
Cataract of murmuring peace,
soothing the pilgrim heart.
A wanderer overcome
asleep on a bench in a churchyard,
a figure in stone
carved on a tomb,
frozen in the repose of death,
the doomed Gaul caught in his final tragic scene.
Finally I am here,
my road of thirty nine years
has led me to this place.
To sit in this steep wooded vale,
a chalice of sunlight,
sipping a little from its communion wine
of solar solace.
Finding a blessed release
in its stubborn obscurity,
a hidden portal,
a ferny cleft,
a soul fontanelle.
29 June, Culbone
A 3 hour jaunt to get food – on the hottest day of the year – nothing here you can take for granted: gas lights, a compost loo, a narrow bed and a simple stove. The basics. All you need really. I guest staying here for long would become grim – handbaths and handwashing. After a while one would murder for a hot bath and a washing machine, the odd movie, a cold beer. Yet for now…I have all I need and I am content. Complete unto myself. Not quite Thoreau, but I’ll do.
Porlock always waits – the world always waits. I think about the man from Porlock, who so inconveniently interrupted ST Coleridge while he was working on Kubla Khan (at Ash Farm, close by) – he is a symbol for the world itself, the jealous world of man and matter, always wanting its pound of flesh, banging on your door, never leaving you alone, always clawing for more, clambering for attention, creating patterns of interference to stop the flow, the signal from the Otherworld. The way out. To a transcendent reality far richer, far real, than this one.
Here’s the poem I wrote about the infamous visitor. As I put pen to paper, Barrie and a neighbour had to brush right by humble yard, where I sat in the sun, to gain access to the little foot-bridge by my cabin, making measurements, talking – this was the only time over the three days I had ‘visitors’. Back and forth they went, threatening to break my reverie, but I couldn’t help but smile: men from Porlock!
The Man from Porlock
He was always writing something in that bloody book –
What kind of work is that for a man?
Sitting all there by himself,
looking out of his window at Ash Farm,
for hours on end, hours,
wandering the hillside like some mooncalf,
talking to himself, repeating phrases,
exclaiming, cursing, laughing.
He should be locked up in a loony bin.
Not so long ago he would’ve been burnt
for witchery. These days, with the Terror,
for espionage – writing poetry,
sounds a bit French to me.
Not the kind of activity for an English
gentleman. Takes opium you say?
Thought he looked the drug addict type –
all flashing eyes and floating hair.
Tooth-ache, sure. And I’m the tooth-fairy.
Have a mind to go up there,
knock on his door – remind him
there’s a world out here, the real world.
We all can’t sit in our ivory towers –
some of us have to make a living, you know.
Earn our bread by the sweat of our brow –
plough, sow, reap. Gather in the harvest –
the fields of wheat don’t turn themselves into flour.
The mill of toil. Raking muck. Honest graft.
Where’s me boots? Interrupting him?
He can’t be doing anything important.
Kevan Manwaring, Culbone, 1st July 2009
In the churchyard there’s a seat in the top corner dedicated to the Earl of Lovelace. It is known as the Lovelace Seat and has been noted for its powerful energy and inspiring properties. The inscription runs thus:
Let all who rest here give glory to Go and have in remembrance one who loved this place – Ralph, 11th Earl of Lovelace and XIIIth Lord Wentworth, Born July 2nd 1839 , died August 1906.
The ribbons of sound of the stream, the gentle cooing of a wood pigeon. No other noise. Secluded silence. Not a soul in sight. Here at St Beuno’s Cell an underground river from Wales feeds the spring (the only water source) confirming Coleridge’s vision: ‘…where Alph, the sacred river ran through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea.’ Pure clear source – Celtic undercurrents, bubbling up in unlikely places, secret outposts of awen.
On the Lovelace Seat: The infinitesimal interlacements of love – I think of my friends, close friends, dear friends and how they enrich me. How I feel connected to them here – Jay, Anthony, Mary. Humans are so delicate, so complex, so astounding – each one is a small miracle and should be honoured as such, yet we seldom do ourselves credit. We seldom live up to the grace given us.
As I sat in the Lovelace Seat felt elevated – not just from the marvellous prospect over Culbone and its small churchyard, but within. My soul seemed to rise up like the yew tree I face – crown level – from deep roots, roots it is said grow through the mouths of the dead, and I imagine I shall speak the ancestors if I stay here long enough…
Washing out my clothes in the stream (flowing with water from a Welsh source) I have never been happier. I had a blissfully peaceful night, writing and reading Joan Cooper’s wise words, my Book of Peace, Jeffries. Daisy, Barrie’s black-and-white tabby came a-visiting late last night. About 11pm, deep in my solitude, I saw something pushing against my door – I called out. No reply. So I opened it and there she was! She sidled in and had a sniff around then came and sat on my lap, fussed about a lot then finally settled down – falling asleep between my legs. It was pleasant having such an agreeable easy-to-please companion. Cats of knack of picking up energies, of finding comfort zones, of bringing healing. It was a shame I had to chuck her out when I went to bed, but couldn’t have her waking me up in the middle of the night wanting to go out.
This morning I awoke to the sound of birdsong and the stream after a profound night’s sleep. Very peaceful. Made myself some breakfast, listening to some classical music on my little radio. Serenity.
I feel I would be happy living somewhere like here – at least for the summer months. Its nearly perfect – all that’s missing is a place for a real fire and a place to watch the sunset (although I discovered one up the hill later). Other luxuries would be electricity for a laptop, a broadband connection – although it’s nice to be off the grid – and a hot shower. The latter could be rigged up easily enough – solar-powered, fed by the stream. A nearer shop for provisions would be handy … but it’s the isolation which makes this place so special.
Being here, in this pared down place, made me consider the essentials of my life:
- Creativity – to write, perform, publish.
- Nature – woods, water, sun, stars. The elements. Landscape and wildlife.
- Freedom – ride-outs, camping, visiting new places, diverse experiences.
- Friends – kindred spirits, a cultural scene, gatherings, community.
- Spirit – sacred places/sacred time, connection with the awen, festivals.
Asleep in the churchyard on the Lovelace Seat, until disturbed by a trio of lady walkers, congratulating each other on reaching the church. ‘Well done! Well done!’ I read some of The Messages of Sacred Places then realised I hadn’t brought my glasses or any water along (feeling rather spaced out after my siesta). I get up to leave. Passing the two sitting on the stone cross I bid them a good afternoon. Another seems to be trying to cut off my escape route. ‘Are you local?’ she calls after me. ‘Well,’ I hesitantly reply, ‘for a while.’
Hildegard of Bingen coined a term: viriditas, greening power, which seems to sum up the ‘Culbone Effect’. She embodies its voice:
I am that supreme and fiery force that sends forth all sparks of life.
This viriditas seems akin to Dylan Thomas’ green fuse:
the force that through the green fuse drives the flower
One can feel this power, this viriditas, so lucidly here. It is incredibly comforting – it is like being in the arms of a parent. I feel so languid, overcome with weariness, on the verge of tears or exhortations of joy. A raw place, a vulnerable place – or rather a place to be vulnerable in. It provides the shell so we can come out of ours. DH Lawrence wrote in an essay on the spirit of place: ‘[E]very great locality has its own pure daimon, and is conveyed at last into perfected life.’ Here the genius loci feels hidden, feminine – rivulets of water, deep valleys dripping with lush foliage, silent, soothing, safe. A green womb. The embrace of the goddess. Mother Culbone.
1 July (continued)
Walked up to the top of the track – to check I could make it out! The way down was most precipitous and the uncertainty of whether my bike, laden with me and my kit, could get back up the hill has been hanging over me a little since I’ve been here. This is one of those places that – once you’re in, you’re in! It’s an escape from the world – returning takes concerted effort, a conscious act of will. It’s easy to stay, comforted, cocooned. Why would one want to return to the madness? Yet one must – until it is time to retreat for good. But I must take my ‘vision’ back to the tribe, my renewed enthusiasm and clarity. My rekindled strength and sense of purpose. Though, looking over the ageless landscape, the mighty coast of Exmoor, all else seems vain ambition. Efforts to achieve recognition, critical acclaim, success – so many dandelions scattered on the breeze… Yet I believe in my stories, my ideas, my awen and want to share it, share the beauty. This dramatic Exmoor coast, plummeting in deep green folds down to the sea, dotted with content sheep, so Arcadian – one can see how it inspired Coleridge with lofty, noble thoughts, visions of grandeur, immortal words. It’s the stuff of a Caspar David Friedrich painting. Cue Romantic pose!
I nearly went into Lynmouth, but glad I didn’t –it would have broken the spell. Walking up onto the hill did the trick. It’s good to get a perspective. To see a horizon. I’d been in the valley for three days and was starting to develop early symptoms of cabin fever. I hate feeling trapped, cooped up. On the way back I noticed a lamb caught on the wrong side of the fence – I opened up the five bar gate and let it through. It was reunited with its mother, and I felt a shepherd-like satisfaction!
Sitting on the Lovelace Seat,
on a summer’s evening –
the last rays of sun gilded the coombe
with honey. The dusk chorus sings
the Last Post of the day. A wood pigeons
coos its melancholy Morse code
across the shadowed grove.
A river of sky above,
clouds mottled, distant, slowly
drifting. The stream’s constant sigh.
Not a soul in sight, except I
and yet not alone, in this solitude’s bliss.
Numberless ghosts crowd
the humble parcel of land,
angels of place dancing
in the palm of Culbone’s hand.
The smallest church, a grey fist –
open it up to find the people. Thirty, a modest flock.
Each feature, a century.
A steeple like an inverted ice-cream cone.
Its thin iron cross, God’s punctuation.
Gravestones, wafers of lichened rock.
Geological records of lives –
generations of Reds: Ambrose, Ethel – were they ready?
A Welsh Guardsman taken too soon.
Joan Cooper, visionary guardian,
stone tongue speaking:
‘Let not your heart be troubled’.
The slow silent explosion of a yew tree
limbs amputated by a tree surgeon,
And peace comes in thick waves,
undisturbed by the ramblers,
preying mantis poled,
who clatter through the gate, stay for a snap,
a plastic cup of tea from a flask,
talk as if to drown out the sacred silence
they have come to seek – afraid
what it might say to them. Perhaps.
Yet they are gone in an automated flash,
the moment digitised,
leaving the vale inviolated, eternal,
Mantled in the jealous wings of its mystery.
Kevan Manwaring Culbone, 1st July 09
Time to leave…
‘And yet his very silence proved
How much he valued what he loved.
There peered from his hazed, hazel eyes
A self in solitude made wise;
As if within the heart may be
All the soul needs for company:
And, having that in safety there,
finds its reflection everywhere.’
A Recluse, Walter de la Mare
May I be a ‘self in solitude made wise’ and may I carry this peace with me – take it back into the world, and not lose my centre. May I always carry myself with grace and act with wisdom – look with the heart, not with the head. Respond with love, not ego. May Culbone’s blessing stay with me.
3 July Leaving Culbone – Bath – Stroud
Woke up at dawn to see the sunrise – watched its virgin light flood the vale. Realised its benediction may have been the original prompt for early man to linger here, to consider it a sacred place. Standing there, a man in a forest, beholding the new sun, felt primal. I felt connected to its earliest inhabitants, and probably looked not dissimilar in my shaggy state, all stubble and grubby clothes!
Locked the cabin and loaded up the bike. Paid a final visit to the church and sat one last time in the Lovelace Seat – paying my respects to the man on his birthday. Wrote my impressions in the church visitor’s book and left. Negotiated the steep hill out of the woods, taking it real slow on the gravel and ruts. Startled a deer, who bolted across the track in front of me, startling me. For a brief moment, still half asleep, I thought it was some kind of dryad, one of Jeffries’ ‘fern maidens’. I kept going, revved it up the really steep bit and … was clear. Relief! I stopped to close the gate and enjoyed the view at dawn, before hitting the road.
Paused on Exmoor heights to fix my speedometer (a cable had been pulled out by my tankbag), then it was running the gauntlet of Porlock Hill and along the winding A39 back home. Roads clear at first (I left at 6am) until I hit the rush hour around Bridgwater – but got home in good time. Lots to sort out, but first … a bath! Found a tick still attached, managed to extricate it, but got paranoid about Lyme’s Disease. Caught up with my post, phone messages and flurry of emails. Some OU moderation to do, then it was all sent off (78 scripts) and I was free! Feeling a huge sense of relief, I headed up to Stroud for Jay’s hometown launch of Places of Truth (which features poems about Culbone among other sacred sites – reading these in situ really brought it alive. I gave a copy to Barrie and ‘all pilgrims of Culbone’). Joining him, was Rick Vick – who read from his new collection, ‘A Coat of No Particular Colour’ – Josie Felce on harp, and another lady of fiddle. It was held in the courtyard of the Star Anise Café, around the trickling water feature. I introduced the evening, reading out my ‘Man from Porlock’ poem, and then manned the Awen stall, enjoying the poetry and music. This event brought me back into the world – it provided a clear end-point to my holiday – and it was a pleasant reintroduction. Stayed at Jay’s and we had a good chat. Jay’s wise presence helped my ‘reintegration’, along with his lovely house, and overall, the gentle evening prevented me getting ‘reality bends’.