The Silent Eye weekends are not just about what is built into the schedule, they are also a chance to spend time with people we have come to know through the events and who have become friends. We are always glad when there is time to spare, as that allows us to take a more leisurely approach, whether that is a long talk over dinner or, if we are lucky, time to visit and share an extra site or two.
On Saturday afternoon, we found ourselves with a couple of hours to spare and a rather curious site not five minutes away from where we were. Rowtor Rocks is a favourite haunt, one we have visited many times, both on our own, with friends and as part of a previous workshop. It is a curious, natural landscape that has been altered by man, from the prehistoric rock carvings to its reshaping by a local clergyman.
Many of the rocks have faces, there are strange ‘blinds’ and false paths leading to sheer drops, caves and a staircase that seems to lead through a narrow cleft to rebirth. It could be a dangerous place for the unwary, with steep cliffs and misleading pathways, but with a little knowledge and care, it is a fascinating place to explore.
We have theories… a good many of them… but the most pertinent to the journey we had been taking that weekend was that, whether seen through the Christian symbolism of the Stations of the cross, or from a more esoteric perspective, the Rocks had been re-designed to provide a perfect initiatory landscape, where the need to face the deepest of human fears is part of the journey. We had looked into the history and possible functions of the site in some depth during our Riddles of the Night workshop and, although we would not have time to share it all with our companions, there would be time enough to give an overview. It was as I was pointing out a skull-like rock with a ‘font’ cut into its crown, that a vacant-eyes woman appeared and approached, wafting a stick ineffectually at the undergrowth. My impression was that she was wearing a floral tea dress, reminiscent of the forties, such as my grandmothers would have worn… and that whoever was supposed to be watching her needed to take far greater care with the steep drops from the rocks. She neither spoke nor acknowledged us, just wafted dolefully and retreated after a few moments.
On the next level up, a man with both the moustache and dress of Clark Gable in Mogambo was also watching us. He looked vaguely angry… and his expression never changed throughout the encounter. I did not hear him speak either and that was odd, as everyone else we passed exchanged smiles or greetings. There was just something odd about them… apart from their dress from half a century ago…
The two gave the impression of being together but did not communicate with each other, at least, not verbally. Taking one of the company into a cave, I missed most of what happened next and will have to leave it for one of the others to fill in the gaps. I came out of the cave in a hurry, having the distinct impression that our other companion was somehow under threat. It made no sense, but that was what I felt. There had been a brief encounter, but the situation had been diffused.
It is difficult to convey the sense of unease, as if something was ‘not quite right’ with the two oddly garbed figures. It was even odder when, after they had disappeared, we compared notes and found that while we could all describe the man, we all recalled the woman as being dressed differently, though the colours we remembered were the same. Even odder when we realised that they had left the area via the steps at the far end of the platform… steps I had warned our companions against climbing as they are slippery and broken… and lead to nowhere beyond what can be seen except a sheer and unclimbable drop…
For no reason we could put into words at that point, the whole encounter had been rather unnerving. Even so, we put it to one side as we showed our friends the series of caverns and played with the acoustics. One of the caves is incredibly dark. I had borrowed a torch to check the safety of the floor before inviting everyone in… it would not do to have broken glass underfoot in the pitch blackness. That too is unnerving…until you turn to look back at the light from whence you came and realise that it is not really dark at all. The shadows are all perception.
Above the caverns, we showed how easily a great boulder can be moved; so perfectly balanced is the rocking stone that it moves with the lightest touch. Further up, we looked at the isolated pillar that is impossible to reach… and the three ‘judgement seats’ carved into the stone, before looking down once more to a prehistoric symbol of light.
It was just a shame there was no more time. We saw only a part of what there is to see… but it was enough. Rowtor is a place of contrasts. Dark and light, man-made and natural, ancient and modern, Christian and pagan, winding paths and sheer drops. In many ways, it was the perfect precursor to what we had planned for the next day. But first, we had planned dinner in Castleton, and if we were lucky, there would be just enough light to show our companions the Shivering Mountain and a little of the spectacular limestone countryside…