Thursday, 25 August 2016

Pixie-led: Seeking the Pilgrim Spring

(Sugarloaf Hill, Folkestone)
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

(William Shakespeare, 'As You Like It')

The Land is hungry to tell us its stories, for us to take up the threads lost so long ago. If we can truly come into relationship with the earth by connecting with our feet and hearts, not just with our heads, then the Dreaming of the Land may open to us. Like any relationship, it can take time. It is not always easy falling in love and we can never consider ourselves truly in love until we see our beloved for all that they are, dark and light. So it is with the Land.

And so, over the last two days, I have walked on the hot-baked earth of the North Downs Way in search of what lies beneath the surface. I walked knowing that, here, are chalk hills, the remains of ancient shallow seas. Here is an ancient trackway used by our ancestors as they followed the migrations of reindeer and wild horses from mainland Europe long before we became an island. Here is a holy hill, a place of pilgrimage for thousands of years, and a holy well, a sacred spring close to which our Bronze Age ancestors chose to place their community of round houses almost four thousand years ago. Here is Holywell Coombe, a wooded valley of streams and ponds, Holywell Fen, land of bog and stream which has never been built on or farmed and where pollen deposits dating back to the last Ice Age have been found. Here, is hallowed ground, and here, the land has been brutalised. Here, if we have the courage and the heart, we are offered the opportunity to walk the warp and weft within a hair's breadth of the Wasteland. Sometimes, I return from walking the land shining and sometimes, just sometimes, I return dusty and broken-hearted. Both are a blessing.

Two days ago, I set off in search of Creteway Down, high on top of the hills overloking the sea and where 6,000 year old Mesolithic pottery has been found. I don't drive, have little sense of direction, am often nervous when out in the world, and so many of my journeys are unsure. Finding the signpost for the North Downs Way was a moment of feeling quietly proud of myself and my determination to connect with where I live.

I love all landscapes of chalk, having spent much time as a child in the South Downs where my grandparents lived, and so I had a sense of being somewhere familiar. And yet, all of this was new, fresh ground. It is an unforgiving landscape on a baking hot day. Before setting out across the Downs I had meandered onto a short section of the England Coast Path, which was awash with wild thyme and viper's bugloss, buzzing with bees, the sudden half-seen scurry of lizards, the screech-soar of gulls. The Downs were parched; a tract of short grazed grass, thistles, and ragwort with the occasional tenderness of small scabious, toadflax, knapweed, and agrimony, and very little shade. 

As I walked I thought of the ancestors making their long journeys and how it must have felt to travel so far, to carry your 'home' with you, to make and remake the trackways and dreamways of the earth, to walk the earth alive. I was relieved to reach a lane where the shelter of the hedgerow offered some ease from the heat of the day. I am sure that it is my own foolishness, and perhaps a whisper of arrogance, that made me walk in such an exposed place when the sun was so fierce in the sky. I am sure that the people who followed the reindeer tracks would not have made such ill-considered journeys, instead walking in the early morning and the cool of the evening and resting during the day. Today, I have learned and am writing and preserving rowan berries for winter in the cool of the house, rather than forcing myself out. I hope to become more deeply attuned to the wisdom of being with the land in this way. Truly she is a great teacher, even when we didn't know that we were looking for the lessons.

At the end of my long walk I began to catch sight of the curve of Sugarloaf Hill, one of five sister hills which enfold this little town by the sea and several of whom have burial mounds at their summits. They are a powerful presence, especially this hill which has been a site of religious significance for more than two thousand years. Even today, Christian crosses are put up on its summit every Easter, a sure sign of a much older pre-Christian tradition. I knew that in the small wooded valley at the base of Sugarloaf Hill there was a holy well and so, having run out of time to walk further, and knowing from past experience that it is best to introduce ourselves to the Land slowly, I decided to return the next day.

(Folkestone Holy Well, 1906)

All these elements, native to the downs, endow them together with their continuity of line, with the status of mountains. Their quality too, is the spiritual release the mountain gives. But they possess another virtue rarely granted to the mountain in physical fact. That is their serenity. Every detail of the unenclosed chalk landscape - the protuded spur, the fluted hollow, the giant but unstrained buttress, the flowing lateral ribbing, the sinuous curve, the blunted promontory, the unbroken passage of the ridge, the dipping and soaring of the range - bespeak a calm, a remoteness from the tumult of our mortal days as pregnant with power as are the winds that sheer their crests. It is this absence of harsh and abrupt conformation which gives to chalk downs the appearance of perpetual movement, so that nothing could be more appropriate than the phrase applied to them by geologists, a ‘frozen sea’” 

(H. J. Massingham - English Downland 1936)

Descending into the cool of Holywell Coombe was bliss indeed on yet another scorching day. Half way down I rested in yet another patch of the ubiquitous wild thyme that grows on the Downs and listened to the buzzing of bees, felt the breeze from a bumblebee's wings on my skin, gazed in quiet reverie at the round belly of Sugarloaf Hill almost close enough to touch, knew that I was blessed to live in this land and to have an opportunity to come to know it.

(Honeybees on wild thyme)

(My beloved honeysuckle walking staff)

As I had made the journey there I had reflected on what I know of the threads that weave their silver way through the land, singing love songs to mycelia and the deep roots of trees on their way. In the west, the North Downs Way connects with the Hog's Back in Guildford, belived by some to form a reclining goddess figure, and which I believe to be ancient site sacred to the goddess, Brigid and her serpent temples. It also entwines with the Old Way, which as the Pilgrim's Way stretches east to Canterbury and west to the Harrow Way and the prehistoric sites of Avebury and Stonehenge ~ these shining chalk spines of lowland England creating a great network of movement and communication across the landscape. Writer Tom Fort has suggested that the first 'Harrow Way' was an ancient reindeer track travelled by the herds from the frozen North of Europe and followed by our ancestors in their seasonal movement through the landscape. So many feet have walked this way. As Hilaire Belloc once wrote;

Of these primal things the least obvious but the most important is The Road… it is the humblest and the most subtle, but, as I have said, the greatest and the most original of the spells which we inherit from the earliest pioneers of our race. It was the most imperative and the first of our necessities. It is older than building and older than wells; before we were quite men we knew it, for the animals still have it to-day; they seek their food and their drinking-places, and, as I believe, their assemblies, by known tracks which they have made.“ 

(Hilaire Belloc - The Old Road 1911)

As I came into the bottom of the valley I entered the restorative cool of a small glade where the sunlight caught the progress of fluffy seedheads through the air and made them into faeries. It was beautiful and I was enchanted but, today, I was to be pixie-led, bewildered in a landscape that was asked for a deeper knowing before opening its mysteries to me. Sometimes the Land helps the veil fall from our eyes, letting us see what we are inviting in, before weaving us back into the spell of its poetry. I am a positive person, seeing 'small beauties' everywhere I go, no matter what the circumstances. Some have suggested that I can only do this because nothing bad has ever happened to me. That is far from the truth but seeing the beauty is my daily meditation and my practice, and it takes work. That does not mean that I don't see the coke cans amongst the wildflowers, the plastic bags hanging like tattered crows from the trees, that I don't reflect on the scarcity of butterflies even when admiring the beauty of a Chalkhill Blue. I choose to see the deeper beauty beneath that, call in what remains good as a radical act of belief. But sometimes I go to that place too fast, miss things. Today, I was to be shown what this land, and so many lands, have endured.

I walked around the base of Sugarloaf Hill, which despite the busy road closeby, is a place which feels both peaceful and sacred. I hoped to find the well, although there was nothing other than my own intuition to tell me which way to go. Eventually I came to Holywell Fen. In chalky areas marshland is often referred to as 'fen', becoming bog on more acid rich soils. I have always loved bogs and marshes, finding great beauty and richness in their, to some, bleak landscapes and I was excited to have found one so close to my home. I was possibly even more excited to find that Romney Marsh, to the east of here, is the foremost breeding site of wild medicinal leeches in Europe, and a stonghold of the Water Vole! Holywell Fen has been a wetland habitat for over 13,000 years and is rich in orchids and butterflies. On this day it was dry but I could see where pools had been and in those places there was a carpet of bright yellow fleabane, a sprinkling of gold dust in the sunlight. 

It was beautiful in the way that only a marsh can be and yet here began my initiation into the woundedness of this landscape because thundering overhead is the the A20 viaduct. The fen, so rich in nature and echoing with the footsteps of our ancestors, cut through by cold concrete. Even now writing this I have tears in my eyes. 

(The A20 viaduct cuts through Holywell Fen)

I noticed a white van parked there and felt afraid, the spell of the wild broken, becoming like a frightened hunted deer. Not wanting to retrace my footsteps, I went through the kissing gate into the woods on the side of Castle Hill, on top of which is 'Caesar's Camp', not a Roman site as its name suggests but the earthwork remains of a Norman castle built following their invasion in the 11th Century; always this land on the edge of the sea has been invaded in one way or another. I had no idea where I was going, knew that I had walked far from the well, and ended up at the junction of the M20 motorway. The heat was almost unbearable, the scar of the motorway even moreso. I felt broken and a little bit afraid.

Finding no other way to go, and feeling trapped, I doubled back, found the mud-churned tracks of offroad vehicles in the woods, felt in my heart and my bones how 'hemmed in' this hallowed ground on the edge of the sea has become. As I walked back to the fen I passed by a gap in the trees where I could see Round Hill and the Channel Tunnel entrance that has cut a gash through her centre. There are references to a priest blessing the tunnels once a year because 'dark forces' were disturbed during construction. 

(Channel Tunnel construction in Holywell Coombe, 1989, Adrian Nicholls)

Truly this land has been brutalised beyond endurance, and yet the sacred remains and it matters that we continue to look for it, call it back from the coke cans and the plastic bags, from the thundering of traffic, and the four by fours. Those things are real but, for me, they are not as real as the things that lie beneath them, the things that have always been there. In her important book, 'If Women Rose Rooted', Sharon Blackie tells the story of 'The Loss of the Voices of the Wells'..

In the old days the kingdom of Logres was rich and beautiful, and the land offered nourishment for all, for it was properly tended and cared for. It's a contract you see, people and land. You care for it, and it cares for you. The source of the kingdom's life, the life-giving blood which surged in its veins, was the sacred waters of the wells, which flowed out of the deep potent waters of the Otherworld. The wells were tended by maidens, and these maidens were the Voices of the Wells”

In the story, the king fails to respect the old ways or the contract with the land, the maidens of the wells are raped, just as the land is so often raped, and..

the maidens no longer came out of the wells, and withdrew from the land altogether. And so it was that the people of Logres lost of the Voices of the Wells..This is how the land was laid waste. The leaves on the trees shrivelled and died, plants withered, fields and meadows turned brown, and the earth lay barren and scorched.”

And so I was, quite gently compared to what some have seen, shown the sacred land laid waste. This land where once the ancestors walked following the tracks of reindeer and wild horses, where they formed communities of roundhouses around sacred springs, where, later, a small fishing village formed with a nearby religious community of women, the first in England, and pilgrims walked on their way to Canterbury, stopping to drink at the holy well and perhaps becoming entranced by the orchids and gold-dust fleabane of the fen. It would be easy to say that all that has gone and grieve for what is lost but my experience of grief is that it also brings courage; the courage to see through what is real to what is even more real beneath. As Sharon Blackie says, we must once more become the 'Voices of the Wells'. We must call back the wild from the Wasteland, speak to, and for, the sacred places of soil and soul. It matters and it is our work.

And so, what of the hidden well? I eventually found my way onto a modern housing estate, relieved in some ways to have escaped into normality. This estate is called 'Holywell Avenue', the road that I emerged onto, 'Pilgrim Spring'. 

The echoes of the well are still here, beneath the concrete and the plastic flowers, and it was here that I found a crabapple tree. She drew me, this small and shining tree, just as crabapples always draw me for the wilder way of being that they represent. I began my journey with the Wilding Tree close to home and now here was another apple tree soothing my heartsickness. I climbed the bank that she was growing on, leaned against her bark to remind myself of what truly matters, and found to my delight that tiny tinkling silver bells had been tied into her branches. Perhaps another traveller had come this way seeking the well and left this offering at the only Pilgrim Spring they could find? 

I had a homemade oatcake with me, which I had planned to leave at the well as an offering to the ancestors. I left it there for them in the branches of the crabapple tree by the gently swaying silver bells. I will be back and I will search again, perhaps not soon but when I have filled and healed myself with the familiar hedgerows and the sea closer to home. These things take time. It matters that what lies beneath is unearthed, what is lost and hidden is revealed. I think of the bees who travel their own pollen pathways, dreaming the land alive with every flight. I think of the reindeer and wild horses who brought the trackways to life with their hoofbeats, drumming the wild web of the land into being. And I pray that we be in co-creation with them.That we can witness the wounds of the Land, search out its stories, take up the threads of our ancestors, and heal the Wasteland, in the Land and inside ourselves. It matters to be hedgerow-tongued and to sing with the silver threads of mycelia. It matters to be a Voice of the Wells.

 (Folkestone Holy Well, 1909)

References ~

In print:

'If Women Rose Rooted', Sharon Blackie, September Publishing, 2016.


The Memory Band: Field Reports

Other Views of  Folkestone

'Rubbish Destroying Top Wildlife Site', Kent Online, 17th April 2008


  1. I've been meaning to comment on your last few posts, but I've had a difficult few weeks and just can't seem to concentrate on getting it done. But here goes … This is a beautiful post, and one I wholly agree with. Our relationship with the land needs to be recreated, reborn, from our feet in contact with the land's surface, and our hearts roaming widely and deeply, finding all the old stories, as well as the new ones. Like you, I don't drive, and I'm not always comfortable going to places I am not familiar with. But I know I need to put aside my fear and become a bit more adventurous, because the land needs it of me. And I need it too.

    I love that story of the Voices of the Wells in Sharon's book. It was one of the things that made me decide to start my own blog, and to speak out more.

    I wish you well on your slow falling in love with your new home. It looks stunningly beautiful, and full of deep, old stories and poetry that I am sure you will find and tell the world of. (And I will probably comment on your other posts at some stage too, when I get my head together again.)

    1. Thank you so much, Therese. I really appreciate you taking the time to comment, especially when you are having such a challenging time. I hope that life becomes simpler and more peaceful for you soon. I do understand how hard it can be. I am so enjoying connecting to the land here, although when we connect there are so many different emotions that move through us, just as they move through the landscape. I feel it a privilege to be even a tiny part of that dreaming.

      I love the story of the Voices of the Wells too. I have found the story a powerful one for a long time but somehow the title that she has given it, or unearthed, speaks to me deeply.

      Much love to you and the hope that the tides of life will soon move more gently for you xxx


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I genuinely do appreciate and value what people have to say.