It has become something of a Boxing Day tradition to walk from Tegg’s Nose Country Park, through Macclesfield Forest, to visit St Stephen’s Church, also known as the Forest Chapel. Walking through the forest on the day after Christmas Day the traditions of centuries hang heavy in the air as the tamarisk mosses hang from the naked limbs of the trees.
In a quiet corner of the forest, close by the Iron Age earthworks of Toot Hill, crystal clear Peak District water emerges from a spring in the forest floor. Each year at this location someone dresses a small spruce tree with Christmas decorations. A notebook protected in a small plastic container nearby contains comments of passers by and there is a little tin for donations. To whom the donations might go we can only presume as this information is not provided by the mysterious decorator of the tree. I like to think this has some connection with St Stephen’s but the genius loci of the place has more of the votive pagan tradition about it than anything related to the Christian church. I make my offering and descend Charity Lane, leaving the shadows of the forest behind me.
The Forest Chapel stands in a isolated depression among the northern hills of Macclesfield Forest, a stone’s throw from the curiously named Bottom-of-the-Oven.
As the dates above the gabled entrance indicate the chapel was almost entirely re-built in 1834 following a fire, but stands on the site of a former chapel of ease constructed in 1673, the stone bearing this inscription having been preserved from the original building. In about 1720 Francis Gastrell, Bishop of Chester noted that the church had not been consecrated and so was dedicated in the name of the martyr Saint Stephen.
To step inside the Forest Chapel is to step backwards in time to the austere non-conformist existence of the families who eked out a harsh living from the bleak Pennine moorlands for some five hundred years since the Royal Forest of Macclesfield became common land in the 15th Century. The interior is unostentatious, the basic structure being a single rectangular room, the nave and chancel having no discernible division, covered by a simple oak-beamed vaulted ceiling. A simple stone altar set against the east wall is overlooked by a Victorian stained-glass window.
I sit for some time in the peaceful solitude of the chapel. Here too is erected a Christmas tree. In addition to the customary baubles and fairy lights the hand written prayers of visitors hang from the boughs of the tree. I pack away my flask of coffee in my rucksack and head out once again into the forest.
From Standing Stone car park I climb Buxtor’s Hill. A cold damp wind sweeps across Piggford Moor making the ascent of Shutlingsloe arduous. On the crest of the hill I tuck myself into the relative shelter of a fissure in the Chatsworth Gritstone and eat Stollen, thick with marzipan, which I wash down with coffee.
Shutlingsloe is an anchor in my landscape. The little whitewashed summit monument, once of importance to the Ordnance Survey in the measurement and mapping of this anomalistic archipelago of islands we call home, is without doubt the triangulation pillar upon which I have placed my hands more than any other. Here I place my hands once again, now to steady myself against the buffeting wind.
To find shelter I descend once again into the forest, pausing at Nessit Hill to admire the panorama over Trentabank and Ridgegate Reservoirs. By Bottoms Reservoir I pick up the Gritstone Trail and make the arduous ascent to the summit of Tegg’s Nose Quarry. An information board here informs me that the rocks of the quarry date from the Carboniferous geologic period and were laid down in a mighty river delta some three hundred and fifty million years ago. In comparison to this age the quarry men who split these rocks open a hundred years ago seem my contemporaries.
Thoughts and images inspired by the poem The Moon in Lleyn by R S Thomas. #adventbookclub
The last quarter of the moon
of Jesus gives way
to the dark; the serpent
digests the egg. Here
on my knees in this stone
church, that is full only
of the silent congregations
of shadows and the sea’s
sound, it is easy to believe
Yeats was right. Just as though
choirs had not sung, shells
have swallowed them; the tide laps
at the Bible; the bell fetches
no people to the brittle miracle
of the bread. The sand is waiting
for the running back of the grains
in the wall into its blond
glass. Religion is over, and
what will emerge from the body
of the new moon, no one
But a voice sounds
in my ear: Why so fast,
mortal? These very seas
are baptised. The parish
has a saint’s name time cannot
unfrock. In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits. You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth’s
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too,
has its phases.
This is one of my favourite poems by RST. It speaks to me deeply of my journey in faith, which has been circuitous, and the joy I have found in my solitary exploration of the enigmatic and beguiling country known as Wales.
On the surface, what faith I have in God is founded largely on necessity, rather than any abstract metaphysical concept. It is a belief that has grown and changed over time and is influenced by the traditional teachings of the Anglican Christian Church, some elements of Eastern philosophy and the principles of the Twelve Step Fellowship movement.
At the core of this belief is the need for a guiding, stabilising entity in my life that can be depended upon. It is sustained by an experiential positive feedback loop. The more I rely on this sustaining power the more manageable my life becomes. This need is for a power greater than myself, which I can contemplate in wonder, a power that can and does restore me to sanity.
Self examination of the necessity of faith leads me to an awareness that the foundation of that belief is the sure and certain knowledge of the fallibility of human beings. To put it simply, human beings are not dependable. Whether at a personal or national level, or taking humanity as a whole, they can and will let you down, either as a result of conscious wilfulness, ignorance, stupidity, the manifestation of some mental illness or any combination of these factors. As Eckhart Tolle wrote, “Humans are a dangerously insane and very sick species.”
Moreover, as a member of the human race I am more than capable of behaving in this manner. I too will let you down. Sometimes I feel the outlook is bleak. The ‘wise’ ape is doomed to an eternity of delusional craving and obsession. In this dark place it is easy to believe Yeats was right.
The Second Coming by W B Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
At such times I have to put myself in check. “Why so fast, /mortal? These very seas /are baptised.” And often, sitting quietly, alone, by the sea, I have found solace.
Some years ago I was attending a course at the Welsh language college at Nant Gwrytheyrn. Class having concluded for the day I took the opportunity to walk along Morfa Nefyn to Porthdinllaen. Resisting the temptations of cool ale at the Tŷ Coch Inn, I continued along the headland, beyond the Lifeboat Station and sat among the sun-bleached rocks soaking my feet in the crystal blue waters of the Celtic Sea.
My meditation of tranquility was disturbed by loud snorting from the pool before me. With a cloud of spray a young grey seal surfaced no more than twenty feet from where I sat. She fixed me with an inquisitive eye, drifting towards me on the gentle swell of the waves. I held my breath. For a moment all time stood still. Unanticipated, unsolicited, here was a wild creature of God, a fellow mortal. In that moment there was an awareness of each others presence, a shared repose amongst creation.
With a disinterested snort and a swish of her tail she turned about, her limbs working gracefully until she was clear of the little cove, then with a final cloud of spray she slipped beneath the waves.
“These very seas /are baptised” and blessed with gentle spirits. In comparison to such epiphanies the folly of humans becomes a mere inconvenience.
Thoughts and images inspired by the poem Pilgrimages by R S Thomas. #adventbookclub
There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned, munching the gravel
of its beaches.
The tides in Bardsey Sound/Swnt Enlli are notorious. Between Pen y Cil and the island of Bardsey, known as Ynys Enlli in Welsh, the seabed rises up. In places it breaches the water’s surface to form clusters of treacherous reefs, such as the black rocks of Carreg Ddu. During the tidal flood, water is forced through the sound, up and over the elevated seabed, so that the surface of the sea is higher to the east than to the west. In order to maintain equilibrium the water rushes through the sound, reaching speeds of up to eight knots and creating standing waves that can be several feet in height. Being caught up in this maelstrom in a small sixth century wooden boat would have been terrifying, no doubt. Thus Porth Neigwl became known in English as Hell’s Mouth.
As Vicar of St Hywyn’s Church, Aberdaron, this was a landscape, a seascape with which RST was very familiar, within which he saw the legacy of the twenty thousand saints who journeyed to Ynys Enlli and did not return. In the company of these saints RST undoubtedly saw himself as a twentieth century pilgrim making his journey across the post-Freudian seascape of the psyche, wherein he sought God. “Was the pilgrimage/ I made to come to my own/ self.” The narration of this journey in his poems defines RST as a twentieth century modernist, in the intertextual company of poets such as T S Eliot, W H Auden and Dylan Thomas.
Although the poems of RST can sometimes seem dark and impenetrable, there is often a subtle wit to his choice of language. As Carys Walsh points out in her book Frequencies of God, the phrase “munching the gravel/of its beaches” from Pilgrimages is likely a reference to the book of Lamentations.
He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust.
But RST is also, no doubt with a cheeky wink, making reference to the following passage from Under Milk Wood written by his long-dead contemporary Dylan Thomas.
never such seas as any that swamped the decks of his S.S.
Kidwelly bellying over the bedclothes and jellyfish-slippery
sucking him down salt deep into the Davy dark where the fish
come biting out and nibble him down to his wishbone, and
the long drowned nuzzle up to him.
We have already seen reference to the imagery of this passage in the poem This to do. Imagery and themes are cyclical in RST’s poetry, as no doubt he experienced them in his exploration of God. In the second stanza of Pilgrimages RST contemplates again the idea of the timeless moment.
There is no time on this island.
The swinging pendulum of the tide
has no clock; the events
This imagery once again calls to mind T S Eliot’s “history is a pattern of timeless moments.”
We know for sure that RST was familiar with Eliot’s works as he made reference to them in his personal letters.
RST lived in the company of all the saints, and the poets, and saw himself as a fellow pilgrim in the journey towards God. What I see in the cyclical imagery of his poems is a growing awareness that the origin of the pilgrim’s journey is God and the destination is God.
This phrase from Little Gidding is now quoted so often it has become a cliché, but for sake of completion, I quote it again.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Out of necessity life involves a physical journey. Undoubtedly, there are places we encounter along the way, suspended in place and time, such as Ynys Enlli, that are portals to an inner journey. But it is through this inner journey that we are ultimately reconciled to God.
Thoughts inspired by the poem The Moor by R S Thomas. #adventbookclub
It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God was there made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In the movement of the wind over grass.
There were no prayers said, But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
Over the past fifteen years I’ve spent a fair bit of time walking across moorland, sometimes with fellow walkers, more often than not on my own.
In contrast to the craggy, ice scarred mountains and cwmoedd that define the drama of Snowdonia, open moorland is the predominant landscape of the gritstone uplands of the Pennine hills. The spine of Old England, as they were once known. It is a landscape with which I have become reacquainted as a result of recent travel restrictions, and the increasing restrictions of my ageing body. It is a landscape scarred not by ice but by the slash and burn practices of humans in their quest for the mineral wealth of the earth and their blood lust for the tragic little bird known as the grouse. There are no trees here where the watershed divides the ancient counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire as bloodshed once did. Nothing higher than the hearts of the sheep, as Sylvia Plath noted, where the wind pours by like destiny.
There is something about open moorland that is conducive to communion with a consciousness that is both within and beyond ourselves. Perhaps it is the absence of form and colour. There are fewer distractions here for the conscious mind to latch onto. In bad weather, with visibility lost, wind and rain being the soul determinants of direction, the moor can take on the aspect of an isolation tank. Separating me from all the anchors I have attached to my fears.
This is the mind’s cession that RST speaks of. The ego letting go of it’s kingdom. It’s just me, simple and poor, and rude weather. Oh, how I yearn for that simplicity.
Thoughts inspired by the poem Suddenly by R S Thomas. #adventbookclub
It’s a bright Sunday morning in late November and I drive up to Alderley Edge for a walk in the woods. I arrive at the little car park near Findlow Farm to find it already full. There’s no point in driving up to The Wizard. It will only be the same. Sunshine always brings out the families with their SUV’s, matching Hunter wellies and cross-breed dogs.
I decide to make a try for the Bollin Valley, fully expecting things to be even busier there. And sure enough, as I come around the bend in front of St Bartholomew’s Church, I see vehicles queuing to access the car park. Nothing for it but to cut my losses and head for home.
And then I remember Quarry Bank Mill. The car park there has room for hundreds of cars. The mill will be closed, of course. Isn’t everything? But I can a slip past the turnstiles then head down to the old mill race and walk along the river back towards Wilmslow.
I’ve never seen so many people, but I’m not alarmed. I’m wearing a Buff, which I can discreetly pull up over my mouth and nose if they choose to come too close. And I have my new noise-cancelling headphones with me so I can block out the chatter. I’ve decided to go festive early. I’m listening to the Tori Amos Christmas album, Midwinter Graces.
This is okay, I think to myself. I’d rather be up in the Peak District somewhere but the lockdown restrictions do not permit travel outside our own area. I don’t mind. I can walk to the Carrs, grab a coffee, walk back. That will be at least ten thousand steps.
I find myself standing beneath a sycamore tree, beside the river, watching the people pass by, and a verse from the bible springs to mind. “The people who dwelt in darkness have seen a great light.” That’s appropriate, I think. We’re all in darkness at the moment, even though the sun is shining. And then the words just start to come. The families are walking their dogs, the children are playing by the river, the elderly couple are holding hands, and I’m typing furiously with one finger on my phone.
By the time I reach Worms Hill I have the bones of the poem. Tori is singing about Jeanette & Isabella. They are bringing their torches to the nativity. Suddenly, emotions surge from within. Tears are streaming down my face. Heat floods my body. I see not with my eyes but with the whole of my being. There is Joy, Joy, Joy!
When such moments have passed I look back and wonder whether the surge of overwhelming emotion was some manifestation of an undiagnosed mental illness. The ecstatic phase of bipolar disorder, perhaps. But really, who cares? It’s only illness if it’s problematic. I cherish these experiences. They are mine. They serve a purpose. A message is transmitted and received. I am forgiven. I am loved. I am redeemed. And no-one and nothing can take that away from me.
For some years now I have participated in an Advent Book Group located on social media. I have, in the past, found it helpful to reflect upon the meaning of the Christian season of Advent, as a way to reflect upon the year gone by and a time to review the path ones own life has taken. Advent is so often overshadowed by the commercial celebrations of Christmas, which now begin immediately following the American festival of Thanksgiving at the end of November. As far as the Church is concerned, officially, the season of Christmas does not begin until midnight on Christmas Eve, but as we all know, our culture’s aversion to delayed gratification means Christmas starts when multi-national corporations say it starts.
And so I see my participation in the little online book group as a form of rebellion against the leviathan of corporate capitalism. That said, I have just put up my Christmas tree on 1 December. Something which would have been unthinkable when I was a child.
This year the group is reading Frequencies of God by Carys Walsh, a collection of reflections on the work of the Welsh poet R S Thomas.
The poem for Week 1, Day 3 is In Church.
Often I try To analyse the quality Of its silence. Is this where God hides From my searching? I have stopped to listen, After the few people have gone, To the air recomposing itself For vigil. It has waited like this Since the the stones grouped themselves about it. These are the hard ribs Of a body that our prayers have failed To animate. Shadows advance From their corners to take possession Of places the light held For an hour. The bats resume Their business. The uneasiness of the pews Ceases. There is no other sound In the darkness but the sound of a man Breathing, testing his faith On emptiness, nailing his questions One by one to an untenanted cross.
Here we have some powerful imagery from R S Thomas. Imagery with which I am familiar. There have been many times I have sat, alone, in country churches as the darkness thickens around me.
It’s a bit of a Boxing Day tradition for me to walk from Tegg’s Nose, through Macclesfield Forest, up to St Stephen’s Church, also known as the Forest Chapel. By the time I have walked through the forest to the church it is often early afternoon, but at that time of year the darkness has already mustered on over the Pennine Hills to the west.
The following is from an article I wrote for the Great Outdoors magazine.
To the north I took refuge from the inclement weather inside one of the jewels of the western Peak District. As the dates above the gabled entrance indicate, the Forest Chapel, or Saint Stephen’s Church as it was consecrated, was almost entirely re-built in 1834 following a fire, but stands on the site of a former chapel of ease constructed in 1673, the stone bearing this inscription having been preserved from the original building. To step inside the Forest Chapel is to step backwards in time to the austere non-conformist existence of the generations who have eked out a harsh living from the bleak Pennine moorlands since the Royal Forest of Macclesfield became common land in the 15th Century.
I sat for some time as rainwater from the stone-clad roof collected in the lead guttering and splish-splashed onto the paving outside, until ultimately the light in the chapel brightened and brief shafts of sunlight, at acute angles from the south transept windows, blessed the silent nave, and the rain stopped, like the silence that follows the prayers of four hundred years.
A similar experience too place some years earlier in The Kirk of Saint Ternan, Arbuthnott, Laurencekirk. I had been walking in snow and ice the day before on the eastern edge of the Cairngorms; had fallen and twisted my knee quiet badly. Deciding to assign the next day to low-impact activities I paid a visit to the Lewis Grassic Gibbon Centre.
For those unfamiliar with LGG, he wrote Sunset Song, a novel set in the early twentieth century about the loss of tradition agricultural practice in rural Scotland. It is a short walk from the visitors centre to the kirkyard of St Ternan’s, where LGG is buried. At that latitude during the liminal week betwixt Christmas and New Year’s Eve the light begins to fade not long after lunch. Not a soul in sight I took refuge in the church and sat for sometime contemplating the wreckage of my life and the pain searing through my knee. Nailing my questions one by one to an untenanted cross.