Devon's Spiritual Places, second extract

By Contributed in Local People

Writer Nick Pannell has just published Devon’s Spiritual Places. The book explains his search for God in an ancient landscape, and took six years to research and write. The result describes his emotive journey through the wild and beautiful places in our county. The Mid-Devon Advertiser has been lucky to obtain seven signed copies of Nick’s book, and readers can enter a competition in this week’s paper.

Below is the second extract from his book. A third chapter will be available tomorrow.

CATHEDRAL IN GRANITE

I am sitting on Dartmoor’s Great Mis Tor, tucked amongst granite pillars to escape a brisk March wind. Below is a valley of old fields and walls long abandoned by medieval farmers.

The moor has stolen back the land on which they broke their backs, and heather and gorse run riot.

But not everywhere. Amidst the browns and greys of late winter, sheep are grazing on a patch of bright grass elevated above the rough ground. Here, uniform against the chaos, is a stone circle.

Dartmoor walkers will be familiar with Bronze Age settlements. Hillsides are dotted with the remains of the round houses in which our ancestors settled 4,000 years ago as they gathered together in Britain’s first stable communities. As I gaze over the valley, my eye discerns other patterns and I realise that this first hut circle is one of many. Around them, an enclosure like a protective parent, draws them together.

I set off down the hillside, the sprung turf boosting every stride. The enclosure wall is easy to climb since the hands of many winters have torn it apart. It now lies in a trailing heap, but I feel safer within. There is reassurance in its embrace.

I wander among circles within circles, find an entrance, then cross an ancient threshold into a hollow that somebody once called home. A course of granite stones still offers protection from the elements, and I unpack and settle in behind them, briefly reclaiming the long-abandoned shelter.

The wind hisses through the grass, switching this way and that like a wild horse. But winter’s grip is loosening and the air is full of skylarks and meadow pippets competing for territories with wheatears newly arrived from African shores. How acutely our ancestors must have felt the pulse of the seasons. On days like this they stepped out and breathed the hope of spring.

In my mind’s eye I follow one of these first farmers, as he looks out across the valley and sees his fields and livestock and worries whether wolves have come in the night. Neolithic man did not walk in the footsteps of others or retrace familiar grooves. He was the first to stand amongst the chaos of famine, flood and drought and try to make sense of it. There was one certainty: at the end of the day the sun would set along the western horizon stretched between the rugged peaks of Cox, Stapleton and Roos tors. Along its notches and pinnacles our farmer could trace the passage of the year, a firm fix in a world in flux.

The day draws on and I leave the old village, crossing once more the enclosure wall to the open moorland beyond. Tinners have cut deep into the valley side, and to avoid the gorge I drop down to the stream as the shadows lengthen.

My mind is full of patterns. Strewn granite conjures new circles. Is this a carved stone placed precisely or a random rock? I try to decode the boulder field in the same way a weary traveller gazes upon the landscape of his life, trying to make sense of its peaks and valleys. Is there a path to follow, a way-marked route through the tangled lanes?

I’m by the stream now, following its crazy course through the flood-tossed boulders where waterfalls decant into dark green pools and reeds and mosses crowd in.

Then it veers away from the path I want to follow and I head up the hillside again following an ancient instinct for the higher ground.

Then I find them. The hill flattens to a wide plain, and dominating the landscape are two stone rows running for hundreds of yards towards the west. Long winters have battered this sacred avenue – some of the stones now barely break the turf – but the expression survives. Burial cairns nearby suggest it was a special place to be interred, while to the south a solitary standing stone, over three metres tall, holds vigil. Here man was inspired to build and shape, finding time beyond the drudgery of his daily life to express in simple granite forms sublime and lofty thoughts. It was worth doing because there was something to say. It was worth saying because others needed to know.

To know what? I follow the avenue in silence. The wind has dropped as the sun has lost its strength, and birds are mute. Only ravens speak on a distant tor.

Even now, 4,000 years on, there is comfort in the order and geometry of the stones on a moorland where there is little of either. As I walk the plain I find others – menhirs, cists and cairns laid out before the setting sun in a sacred landscape charged with meaning. How successive generations must have come, as I have come and been inspired. Here was Devon’s first cathedral, inarticulate stone raised up to frame and prompt a conversation with a power beyond.

My day ends in the centre of a stone circle watching the sun set behind the jagged ridge of Cox’s Tor and for a moment we are united, me and the Neolithic farmer. My thoughts race in the footprints of his reaching out to our Creator.

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