An ancient guide

ancient pilgrim stone at stream ford

Images arise of our way through this lost wood: grainy scenes of leaf and thorn, rock and shadows dappled with mid-day sunlight, the colours everywhere we look overly-rich and lush, the earth moist in our nostrils, the movements of my fellow pilgrims as we descend through the understory of the wood truncated and choppy, like characters in one of those films already ancient by the time it was shown us in high school. The six of us step carefully under a few large oaks casting their great shadows, after which are clearings floored by dead leaves under ash and alder, some of the saplings garlanded with bushes of holly of an impossibly deep green, leaves sharp, glinting like glossy plastic. Where there is shade, there are deep ferns. Most reach our waists although some reach up into blossoms at nearly head-height. At the bottom of the valley the ferns clear and the stream, having changed direction long before we did, meets us once more, this time running south through the ferns and high grasses. We do not know where we should be going, but there is a wooden step-bridge here also, and this time, something else. “Look, look!” shouts Sara, leaning in and pointing in excitement at something half-hidden in the grass on the far side of the planking. It is a boulder, placed on its end so that comes up to her waist, moss-covered, and with paint-like blotches of thick white here and there across its face. The moss covers but doesn’t quite conceal cut marks. “A cross!” Sara traces the ancient lines so we can see, “it’s a pilgrim marker. We must be on the right path.”

There in the upper left quadrant of the standing stone is the cross, cut clear and deep. It’s a sign from others, medieval pilgrims perhaps, or travelers across the moors from centuries past. There’s nothing like a sign to bring speed to our step. The others have already started up the slope. I hesitate. The stone looks old, and there are other cuts there, less distinct. On the top of the boulder cup-marks, and to the right of the cross another line, and then another below it, like a peaked hat or a bird in flight. Britain is full of carved stones, and a medieval pilgrim cross, old as it is, would be a relative newcomer to the long history of rock art. Cup markings and rings can date from the Neolithic or the Bronze Ages.

The others have moved quickly through the deep ferns. This time there is no hesitation. We may not know where the trail is, but we do know the top of the hill. I’m trailing the group, who shout down their encouragement to move on. The moors await us.

 

5 thoughts on “An ancient guide

  1. I love your way of describing the pilgrim/walking experience, Matthew…makes me feel I too am walking in that very spot with you and the group. I am refueled!

    • Thanks Wanda! Part of my reason for writing them is to relive some of that precious experience of walking and adventuring along the pilgrim paths…. I hope perhaps we’ll see you in VA this fall?

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