The Pilgrimage

Have you ever wondered why Muslims seek out Mecca and make it their lifetime’s ambition to visit there at least once? Why do Buddhists seek the Bodh Gaya, whose famous fig tree sheltered Siddhartha Guatama as he meditated for seven days during his quest for enlightenment? Many undergo the massive 310-mile journey from Aspendos to Antioch following St. Paul’s journey to spread Christianity.

It was many years ago that I read Paulo Cuelho’s novel ‘Pilgrimage’ (which he wrote just before publishing his massive ‘Alchemist’ book.) In this pre-cursor, he wrote what at first appeared to be a fictional narrative about a man who embarks on a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago to find a sword that is the symbol of his acceptance into the ranks of and order called RAM. This was to gain insight into the simplicity of life. As you read on, you come to suspect that this story is at least partly biographical, albeit with some fantastical elements added to it. Nonetheless, this was a book that entranced me; it’s theme staying in my primal memory until the present day.

Now these examples all have religious undertones and overtones, but if like me your prime motivation is not aligned with god-induced influences, there is still (in my view) something about the notion of a significant journey that has value. So, I’d like to share with you a recent journey I made – it was only a day long, but I could think of no more apt title than ‘Pilgrimage’ to describe it.

Before I describe to you the actual journey and my meditations and discoveries, I’d like to make reference to a favourite lyricist of mine, Neil Peart. In case you don’t know, this guy is the drummer in the prog rock group, Rush and responsible for 99% of their lyrics. He divides opinion because some people think his poetry is a little trite or pretentious. But others, like me, find that he can encapsulate emotions and philosophies in a very humanistic and sensitive way. Anyway, preamble aside, his lyric on the song Prime Mover – from the album, ‘Hold your fire’ came to mind the morning I set off on my pilgrimage. Here it is:

From the point of ignition
To the final drive
The point of the journey
Is not to arrive
Anything can happen

‘The point of the journey is not to arrive.’ When I first heard this back in 1987 it stuck out, but not really in a good way. I thought ‘what nonsense—surely that’s the point of any journey. But then, back in 1987 I was in full career mode, just married, setting up our first home. Life was frenetic. Not so much now; in this day and age I’m learning to slow down – at least in terms of my mind space, and the idea that we should always be focusing on the destination seems increasingly unsustainable, because if that is the case, we’re missing out on a lot of what life has to offer. The journey itself is the goal, the terminus is simply the motivation to start it.

So – the goal. Well here it is (or was):

This is a view from the peak of a small hill just across from my house. The picture looks north towards Scotland and that little dimple on the horizon is a pile of massive boulders called Christianbury Crags. I once visited this place back in 1980 with my Dad, brother, his friend, and three elderly acquaintances who amazed me with their fitness and stamina. I remember not really understanding what this day’s walk was about, but just went along for the ride – so to speak (maybe that’s the best way to discover something.) After a hard slog in the morning I recall being blown away by the majesty of the stones that lay at the top – and the views.

Ever since I moved back up here to Middleland (some 15 years now) I’d yearned to scale these heights again to see if I could recapture that sense of awe and wonder. But I’d constantly put it off. You see, it’s a long way to get there. This point on the horizon stands there, almost like the Lonely Mountain from The Hobbit, beckoning. But you need to travel 15 miles by car, then it’s a 6 mile hike through almost primeval forest, bogs and heather until you reach the summit. Then 6 miles back down again – a whole day’s outing.

But 2 weeks ago, I finally mustered the courage. It wasn’t like I would get lost. At least half the walk is along forestry tracks and I’m reasonably good with map and compass. The weather was good, with the sun shining and the day was clear from other concerns. I had no excuse.

Using a walk mapped out by a local journalist, I found myself at the start of my journey at a car park. I only met one car coming the opposite way. One aspect I became aware of almost immediately was the solitude up in this debated land just south of the border.

The path I was embarking on crossed a stream and I was about to set off when I noticed a small dry stone structure next to the signpost. So I decided to investigate and found a dedication plaque to the man who had the monument built in his honour. The man was called Billy Fawkes – apparently an individual who dedicated his life to the natural life of these forests. I wondered what life he must have led, but had no hesitation in understanding why he would want e memorial placed at the foot of such a monumental climb.

It is notable that the signpost (pic above) is festooned with many species of lichen. The fact that the larger, more tree-like strains are present is indicative of very clean, unpolluted air. (This ancient symbiosis between fungi and algae is quite a significant plot point in my up and coming book, ‘Mycophoria’ by the way.)

So I set up in an upwards direction and soon found myself swallowed up in the woods. The coniferous trees of this area (Kershope Forest) give the appearance of being ancient but, in fact, have been the result of extensive planting for the logging and paper industry. Still, the solitude and nature of the terrain gave the distinct impression that you were far away from civilisation.

It wasn’t long ago that I watched ‘The Ritual’ based on Adam Nevill’s horror story and, looking into the dense woods in places had me wondering if that savage beast wasn’t lurking somewhere in their midst, watching me. Another eerie thing was the presence of mysterious wisps of mist in the gaps between the trees – evidence of forest ghosts passing?

This wasn’t to be the only unsettling experiences on this journey.

Once I had travelled a couple of miles, I lay eyes on my first view of Christianbury Crags. The walk guide told me of this before I crested the rise of a hill, and I was expecting to see the stones visible in the short to mid-distance. So when I saw this sight, I have to say my heart sank slightly:

They seemed so far away, and I had my first frisson of fear that I might have bitten off more than I could chew. What made matters worse was a wrong turn that cost me 20 minutes – would I have enough time to make the summit and return back to the car before nightfall?

I pressed on and soon found myself in a gulley containing an abandoned farmhouse. The map told me this was called Blacklyne house. Quite why it was abandoned wasn’t clear, but I was fascinated again by a sense of people having lived here, impressing their spirits on the walls, floor and roof. I later found out that you could stay in this house in ‘rough-camping mode’ as it was now owned by the Scouting Association. The roof was leak-proof but after looking inside I wasn’t sure I’d want to.

I stopped briefly by a cluster of pine trees, took some refreshment and listened to the sound of robins, tits and the occasional treecreeper in the boughs above. Ahead of me was a major slog, so I ‘girded my loins’ and willed myself up the next incline.

This was when I had my next eerie encounter. Just before I had to set off into rough terrain I stopped in wonder at a view I had only seen in my imagination before:

This was exactly the image I had in my mind during the opening scene of my short story, ‘North of Lonesome Creek.’ This is where John Absolom and his sidekick, Shanice are first shown an area of forest in Canada where the legendary Snallygaster was reputed to have visited. Now here’s the thing, this wasn’t déjà vu. I hadn’t ascended the crags by this particular route in 1980. I’d never set foot in this place before, and yet here was a perfect representation of the view I had in my mind’s eye when I wrote the story. Of course, the scientific part of my brain tells me that there must be thousands of similar landscapes to this the world over and I was simply imagining a commonly beheld scene. But, what with the isolation of this place and that sense of a spiritual journey hanging over me, it certainly brought me up short.

I was told by my guide that the going was going to get tough now – and they weren’t joking. The so-called path amounted to nothing more than a slight hairline across this forbidding moor:

An arrow leading to … apparently nowhere.

Before long I was thinking I had lost the route because the trees closed in and my feet were sinking into black, peaty mud. What’s more, I couldn’t see the crags at all. I was told they would eventually appear, but they seemed further away than ever. It was then that an encouraging sign appeared – a Psychopomp of sorts.

Ever since my father-in-law died we have often been confronted with the presence of a friendly robin. This had always been my wife’s emblem for her father as he always liked the birds and she liked to think when they appeared, they were a sign of him keeping a watchful eye over us. We have seen them from as far away as Scotland through to local walks and garden centres.

This isn’t a great shot as the little blighter kept flitting from post to post along the fence line. But he stuck around, just keeping a few yards ahead all the time. He seemed to be saying – you’re on the right path, just keep going.

So I did.

Again, many will say that such behaviour is common-place among robins and I wasn’t anything special. But this, together with my previous experiences was making me wonder. The imagination ruling more strongly over my rational, logical brain.

After what seemed like an interminable time, and a transit through the snow line, I broke through a thicket of trees and beheld the crags before me:

I still had a bit of walking to do, but the destination was in sight and my pace picked up somewhat.

It was about at this point that I realised I had seen not one scrap of litter throughout my journey up to this point. This served to increase my sense of removal from civilisation and the unsullied nature of the landscape. Even if you traverse my beloved Lake District, you will be hard pressed to avoid the occasional sweet wrapper of crumpled can on the heights of the fells.

It was also at about this point that another Rush song, reminiscent of a pilgrimage entered my mind. I say ‘song’ – it’s more like a suite of songs covering the whole side of their album ‘Caress of Steel’. The epic suite of songs is entitled ‘The fountain of Lamneth’ and is another echo back to my yesteryear when this little known and even disowned set of songs kept me spellbound as it told the tale of a wanderer seeking out a mythical destination.

At about 1:00 pm I had finally reached my destination and the sense of accomplishment was almost overwhelming. Not only had I gained the summit, but I was confident now that I could make it back to my car before nightfall without too much difficulty.

As I approached this majestic tumble of rocks and boulders I was again gripped with a sense of atmosphere and the very ground beneath my feet singing its ageless song. On reaching the first stone I looked up and felt its rough surface, allowing my fingertips to pass over the grains and lichens that covered it. I was very unselfconscious up here with no one to see me or to judge, and I began to appreciate the sentiments of a recently deceased artist and sculptor, Lorna Graves. I had attended a book launch by the author of her biography a few days prior to the walk, and was very much in touch with her attitude to life and the work of an artist in general; how she felt a keen sympathy with the land, nature and people of Cumbria. She would talk of visiting the stone circles of Cumbria and lying down on the ground whenever she could, as simply observing this austere and rugged landscape vertically was often quite limiting. I knew further sensory experiences awaited me and I wanted to touch more of these ancient monoliths, run my hands over their surfaces as well as look at them. I don’t think Lorna ever visited this place, but if she had, I’m sure she would have found it a profound experience.

I stopped short of lying face down on the boggy ground, but enjoyed a moment of serendipity when I scaled to the top of the boulders and found one with a perfectly shaped depression in which I could sit and eat my lunch.

As I chomped on my sandwiches I looked round repeatedly at the panoramic views.

To the north lay Scotland and the Cheviot hills. Visible in the foreground were further outcroppings of sandstone elbowing their way through the peat. With the skies so clear, the distance I could see to was far ranging.

To the south lay the Pennines and peaks such as Cold and Tindale Fell.

To the west beckoned the Lake district with Blencathra/Saddleback clearly visible on the horizon. As I watched, I observed a band of dark cloud emptying its contents in a streak of rainfall. I anticipated that this rain was heading towards me and would be overhead in the next forty five minutes. This gave me enough time to explore the rocks further.

 

I could have spent a whole day traversing these giants of sandstone as I discovered hidden crevices, weird depressions hollowed out by wind and rain.

 

At times, these depressions – found on both vertical and horizontal surfaces – gave the rocks the appearance of visages. Eyes of  ancient rock beasts gazed on silently adding to the eeriness of this place.

I circled round the base of the main rock outcropping and gained a totally new perspective of what I had seen from afar.

Here, the rocks seemed to be pointing to some impending doom that approached from the distance. Looking in the direction it seemed to indicate, I saw the cloud getting closer and knew I ought to be picking my way down from the heights.

I have to say, the downward journey was less arduous than the upward, taking half an hour less. I took more photos, in places noting that you could also gain much from observing the micro-world as well as the macro. At times I paused to notice fern-like lichens covering rocks in lush abandon, observed the shapes that small conifers made, or even noted the droppings of unidentifiable mammals laid out in isolated heaps. Foxes, deer or something more exotic – surely not a Snallygaster? No, I reminded myself – wrong continent!

After an hour I found the stream I’d encountered earlier in the day and took a further ten minutes to sit down and enjoy the sound of the water as it bubbled over the pebbly bed of the brook. I was reminded of Maurice Sendak’s cartoon of the boy sitting next to the stream, letting the day slip by while he pondered anything and everything.

When I finally trudged down the path leading to my car I drank in the fresh air one more time and gratefully sank myself onto the Peugeot’s tailgate to remove my boots.

I had completed my pilgrimage and, for once, the experience more than lived up to my expectations. If anything, I gained more than I had during that first ascent back in 1980. Very often, one visits childhood haunts and they have changed beyond recognition, or are much diminished in their impact and stature. But there’s something about Christianbury Crags that is ageless. I don’t know if I’ll ever make a return journey. There are so many other hidden sites in Middleland that beckon – but I haven’t ruled it out.

‘Winter Flowers’ by Clare Crossman can be purchased here

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