Friday, 3 April 2015

Duddo Stone Circle, Sea & Sunset

Glittering ground, covered with frost. Sunshine and clear blue sky. We drive to the 'secret destination' (which is there with every journey) but this time it really is a secret to JR as I've planned a surprise for him. We are nearly there, and I'm looking at the map, as we go down a narrow road. A tiny signpost says 'Tiptoe only'.


You're setting this up! roars he. He often imagines that there are portals into other worlds, half stage-set, half other realities always there, waiting for the keen eye or the half-dreaming eye, to reveal them. A fairy world clearly announces itself, with diminutive signs, and elaborate stage direction. But we don't follow the sign to Tiptoe, as where we want to go is in the other direction, and about 500 metres further on we stop at the entrance to a field. I don't let him read the sign which says it takes about half an hour to reach the stone circle for it might put him off. We set off through the fields and before we reach the end of the first one, the Duddo Stones   appear on the horizon, on the top of a gentle rise of ground.

Most of the stones are deeply lined, fissured, broader at the top, narrower where they sink into the ground. Like old teeth says JR, always quick with a poetic simile.


From the circle, the view is as if you're looking out from one of the Cathar castles, into the foothills of the Pyrenees. That other clear day, several years ago, when I was staying at M's house near Limoux, looking after her cat while she was away on holiday. Her neighbour took me for a drive to Quéribus, then to Peyrepertuse. At Quéribus he pointed out the village of Cucugnan, made famous by Le Curé de Cucugnan, a character from Alphonse Daudet's Lettres de mon Moulin. 

It was autumn, the trees flashed in the sunlight, golden tumbled bales of fiery cloth, on the hillsides. On the rocky slopes that formed caverns with the river Aude, and the road beside it, slipping and cascading over boulders, with grey rocks leaning over the road, in deep shadow. Out into the sunlight again, then climbing the long twisting road up to Quéribus. Looking down through the arrow-slits in the walls onto the flared skirt of plain below.

This English plain is much more gentle and gradual. The view east is just one field that slopes upwards to the trees at the top, but to north, west and south the view extends, mostly flat countryside, with gentle, undulating ground, the horizon to the west edged with the triple dark buttons of the Eildon Hills.



These short indented stones could be hands folded together in prayer, narrow wrists, laced fingers. On one, the indentation is curved as if formed by rivulets of water. Had they been covered by ice, by glaciers which formed runnels, when melted? JR sits down on a low stone and we gaze across the plain.


A man with two small dogs comes up the path, to the stones. I say hallo but he does not respond. After walking round the ring the man says, if you spread out a bit I could get you in all the photographs. Oh, I say, I'm sorry, do you want to take photographs? No, he says, not looking at us. We move out of the circle and the man proceeds to take photographs. I suppose we should have realised, but his rudeness was astonishing.

Two other groups of people, met on the path back, were cheerful and friendly. Back at the gate, I dig out the flask of coffee and the packet of crepes I'd brought. Pour out the coffee and we drink out of plastic cups. Another car pulls up. The driver gets out and walks through the stile. She is a young woman, dressed in bright pink and carries a hula hoop over her shoulder. She makes a bright blaze of colour against the mud brown field.

The earth feels squeezed, twisted, wrung out, then spread across the fields, drying in the sun. There is no wind, just this deep intake of the earth's breath, a long sigh of relaxation. The little road is bordered with trees planted at regular intervals. I imagine it in summer, in leaf, forming an avenue of celebration. The trees are slender, their bark is white but I don't know what kind of trees they are. At the end of the avenue, there's a handful of houses, a long barn, no sign of life.

On the way to the sea, we stopped off at St Anne's church in the village of Ancroft. The church was said to be 11th century but it had been rebuilt in the nineteenth. It had a squat Norman looking tower, with slits for arrows, a defensive looking church, looked as though it would brook no nonsense, no assaults, this church was no victim, no flunkey visionary, its faith was assertive, bold, possessive of its territory.

Later, I was very glad we had looked in, for its fierce energy must have accompanied me. Looking on the map, we headed for a small road that seemed to lead to the sea. This was after getting lost, trying to reach Lindisfarne. But if we hadn't got lost we would not have reached Ancroft and visited the church. To Cheswick we went, parked the car and headed along the narrow path through the dunes. I went ahead, the path went up and down, following the hillocks of sand, with the needle grasses leaning over the path, until I stood on top, looking down on the sea below. A cliff of sand at my feet. I ran down the cliff, ran to the sea, stood on a small rock, took a photograph and a big wave threw itself at me and soaked my jeans and boots. I shouted out loud but did not move, stood firm on the foaming rock and clicked the shutter.


I took a different route back up to the top of the cliff with its thick green and sandy coloured bristles of the dune reeds. Then, rummaging in my pockets, could not find the car keys. I could not really believe they were no longer there, but after having gone through all my pockets several times, had to believe the horrible truth. I'd somehow managed to lose the keys. I walked along the ridge, following my footsteps in the sand. Back and forth, several times. How could I find keys among these long grasses? it was like looking for the proverbial needle. It was bound to be here I had dropped them, in the unfindable undergrowth of tussocks of dry grass, some in thick clumps, some in sparse fronds, with clumps of sand round their roots, and all bent over as if newly swept aside by an oncoming wave of sand-dune. JR was up on an even higher ridge, between the sea cliff and the car park. I waved and shouted I've lost the keys! He started down the steep slope, laboriously edging his way between the tussocks, with his walking stick.

I looked beyond my feet to the slide of sand leading to the beach. And slithered down again, following my imprints in the sand, running to keep my balance, running until the sand became the level beach. Covering exactly the same ground, the same sand as I'd run down before, I knew this because of the clear footprints I had left. And half way to the sea, half way to the rock I'd stood on, there were the keys, lying in the sand.

I gave thanks to the sea, the sun, Saint Anne of the Ancroft Church, and Saint Cuthbert. (He must have been here I said to JR when we were in the stone circle, even though the path named after him, the path along which he is said to have walked many times, from Melrose to Lindisfarne and back, this path does not pass this way precisely, but it wasn't far away. Wouldn't he have thought this a bit pagan, says JR? Not at all say I airily, he talked to the sea eagles on Lindisfarne, he talked to the seals and all the birds, he was a very pagan enthusiast, loved solitude, sea, all of nature).


I scramble back up the sand cliff, onto the top, all grass covered, and over the next dune, and see JR appearing over a rise. I wave the keys and shout and he shouts back before disappearing into another dip. I think that JR is the best person to lose keys with because he would have laughed at it, while I wailed and bemoaned our fate, he would have teased and chortled, though also would have done something about it, he would have known what to do, while I, I would have wrung my hands, because already the sun was low in the sky and would soon set, and there would be no hope at all of finding the keys in the dark, not to mention the fact that the tide was coming in and would wash over the beach and even if they had been lying, unfound, on the sand, they would have been washed away probably, with the outgoing tide. And he is also the best person with whom to find keys, because he laughs even more, at the joy of it.

Walking back to the car, a group of men walk towards us. They are dressed all in black, with black hoods over their heads, covering most of their faces, and carrying things, hard to see what they are, long pointed things, wrapped. Who are these guys asks JR, most sinister looking, all dressed in black and I say not black and he insists they're wearing black and I am laughing, so happy, giving thanks still to sun and sky and the saints who have accompanied us and helped me, these salvation saints, every one of them, including saints Kosmas and Damianos, my friends with the turbans from Saint Pantelimonas Church in Cyprus, I am sure they are here too and as the men approach I decide the best way to find out what they are doing is to ask them so I do, and it turns out they are carrying cameras and tripods and they smile sweetly and with excitement and tell me that a black scoter, just one, has been sighted right here, on the coast at Cheswick, and they are hoping to see it. Common scoters, they can be seen here any time, but not black ones, they're from Canada and they think it may have got lost, lost its other black companions and has joined up with common scoters, feeling lonely, and adopting the common scoters as its group, recognizing a kinship with them. I wonder if it is like wild geese who sometimes fly down among domestic geese and stay with them for a while.

And so we drove back, heading west into a sky that turned pink, and then the colour spread out across the whole sky. I was driving towards this display of light and colour, like a stage set, backlit, with bars of cloud furred at the edges with a dusky purple, slightly ruffled as if someone had swept their hand slowly along the cloud's pelt, against the lie of the fur, so that little ruffle waves remained behind. Every so often one of us would exclaim in delight at this display of light, colour, cloud and sky. On and on went the small roads, then the wider road, and the sunset.

I wrote this in February, just after our trip to the Duddo stone circle, but didn't post it then because of various other things I was doing. I haven't changed what I wrote, though of course it all has a terrible poignancy now. We won't drive to the sea again, drive across Europe, fiddle with the gas canister and the coffee percolator with the glass top, and make coffee in the back of the van. Won't have to call the breakdown services when something goes wrong with the car (and how many times has this happened? More times than I can remember.) I wrote on this blog about driving down through England here. 
And through France here. 
And a couple of years ago we drove through Italy, taking the ferry to Greece, driving from Patras to Piraeus and another ferry to Crete, where we stayed at the entrancing and deserted bay of Triopetra. 
And then, long before I started this blog, I wrote about our many journeys through England, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, and across the USA. As other projects took over, they fell to the bottom of the pile. It might be time to dig them out again.

There's an excellent piece about John, written by Pete Paphides in the Guardian, here.   

I haven't posted much on the blog this year, as there's been several work projects needing immediate attention. Right now I feel, as often happens after something ends, there will be something new arising from this loss. But in the meantime, there are many practical things to do and I think I will take a break from blog writing for a while. Though possibly I will tweet from time to time @MorelleSullivan