Cratcliffe Tor is a rocky crag, prized these days by rock climbers, and a treacherous twin of Robin Hood’s Stride. It was once the site of an ancient settlement and vestiges of prehistoric earthen ramparts remain. Cross the Portway, and a gentle slope leads to an intriguing jumble of stones, bracken and trees. It takes some imagination to make any sense of the landscape here.
Our first point of interest was the hermit’s cave, nestled under a rocky overhang and guarded by two great yews, a tree held sacred in these isles from time immemorial. We do not know for how long this open shelter was used, or when it was first occupied. We do know that it is situated close to the ancient track called the Portway and that was in use from prehistoric times, through the Roman occupation and right through the Middle Ages.
A fourteenth century Rule of Hermits states, “Let it suffice thee to have on thine altar and image of the Saviour hanging upon the Cross, which represents to thee His Passion, which thou shalt imitate, inviting thee with outspread arms to himself.” The hermit’s shelter contains only a stone ledge upon which a man could sleep and a crucifix and candle niche carved into the wall. The carving, which may have graced the wall for seven hundred years, is a curious depiction of Christ of the Cross. The figure seems to have His arms raised in both triumph and welcome, rather than in agony and the Cross is portrayed as a living tree, not an instrument of execution. Does this Tree of Life carry the Christ to Heaven? Or do the arms invite heaven to Earth? The hermit who knelt before this image of eternity every day may have touched upon something his staid brethren in their cathedrals and abbeys may have missed.
We know nothing of the men who occupied this cave, except for an entry in the accounts of Haddon Hall for the 23rd December 1549, when a payment was made to ‘ye harmytt’ for supplying rabbits to the Hall and for guiding travellers thither.
The hermits were not simply reclusive men with a vision of solitude; a thirteenth century decree by Pope Innocent IV had bound the hermits, who had to be properly authorised by senior churchmen, to live by the Rule of St Augustine. It was their task to serve the road, giving aid to travellers, guiding them over difficult ground and offering all help needed. One of their tasks was to guide travellers to fords and river crossings, thus embodying the stories of the Good Samaritan and St Christopher.
St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, was particularly important to pilgrims and those medieval churches on pilgrim routes often had a large wall painting of the saint opposite their door, so that he would be the first thing a pilgrim saw upon arrival and would gain, thereby, a special blessing.
This particular area is so rich in stone circles and Neolithic monuments that it is easy to find possible leys and intriguing alignments in the landscape. When you walk such pathways, you cannot help but ask questions. Did the builders of these routes know something we have forgotten? Or were they simply practical routes for travellers and traders, with recognisable landmarks? But if so, why choose some of the most difficult and inhospitable terrain for such tracks to run, when there are sheltered valleys with food and sources of water so close to hand? Why struggle over hilltops when a river valley follows the same path far below?
Whatever modern beliefs and opinions about such things may be, that these alignments were significant to our ancestors seems indisputable. The leys, the ancient trackways and the pilgrim routes have much in common, running across the land and ‘joining the dots’ between sacred or significant sites, earth and stone, both natural and constructed, but always, it would appear, tended. First, by those who made them, and who raised great earthworks, stone circles and burial mounds and cairns beside them. Next, perhaps, by the boundary markers called ‘herms’, reminiscent of the Greek god Hermes, the patron of travellers and messenger of the gods who moved between the worlds… and whose name means a boundary cairn. Then by the holy men and hermits who served the road and also, oddly enough, by the Templars, formed to protect the pilgrim routes to the Holy Land during the Crusades. As we continued our journey, we were left with more questions than answers…