Backstone Beck

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As the sun continued to rise at our backs, the light dancing and changing with every passing minute, the three of us, Steve, Stuart and myself, headed over… and up… towards Backstone Beck. The water tumbles down the moor, over boulders of millstone grit, sparkling clean, yet coloured with the amber of peat and iron. Nothing tastes quite like it, no other drink, for me, assuages the thirst of body and soul like a clear draught taken from these moorland streams, with naught but hands for a cup. Ilkley was famed for its healing springs long ago, and the gentry came from far and wide to bathe and drink the waters described as  “mellifluent, diaphanous, limpid, luminous transparent, pellucid” and “its purity and softness , which makes if more efficacious, by passing sooner and to the utmost and finest limits of the circulation than any water known.” I, however, am reminded of my younger son, a child still, and halfway up Ben Nevis; quenching his thirst at a mountain stream and saying in wonder that he was drinking the clouds. Here, perhaps, it is the earth we drink.

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I know this stream well. I played here as a child, so did my sons, damming the waters… a futile game, of course, as the water always finds a way through the pebbles. But that was never the point… it is the relationship between the child and the land, the movement and the stone, the flowing together of child, rock and water. It is play. It is a place of memory. Odd to think that of the thousands of rocks and pebbles that line the stream, some I have held in my hands, decades ago, and yet they now lie, unrecognised, in the water.

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We crossed the stream, stopping to drink, and followed the path that runs beside it as the moor climbs to the next level. Many visitors look up from the Cow and Calf at the edge of the moor with its steep cliffs and think that is the highest point. Those casual visitors who climb to the ridge seldom leave the path that runs along it… there is, after all, little reason to do so. They might, if they did, find the poet’s rest where we waited a while, watching the sun. The view is spectacular, the heather, when it is in flower, is a sea of purple and there are rocky outcrops, huge stones and cascading streams enough for any walk. For now the fresh green of young bracken cloaks the hills. Yet venture ‘further up and further in’ and the atmosphere changes. Traffic noise… almost non-existent at this time of morning anyway… simply falls into silence. You are alone with the breeze and the bracken, the stones and the sheep, the sky and the songbirds in a place that seems untouched by man, save only for his tracks through the heather.

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Yet look closer and you can see where the old ones walked. There are hut circles, ancient settlements, strange carvings on the boulders; stone circles and cairns dot the moors and if you are lucky, and very observant, you may find the knapped flint tools… arrowheads, blades and scrapers… with which they carved out their lives. Memories in stone that go back nine thousand years. There are older lives in the rock too…of creatures and plants that lived in the sea that covered these high moors four hundred million years ago. In the vast sea of uncurling bracken and nascent heather, that knowledge alone strips you of many masks, leaving you feeling simply a human… being.

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The birds led us onward; tiny meadow pipits, skylarks with their characteristic flight, grouse noisily protesting our intrusion…The small birds hopped and flew, a few paces, a few curling fronds at a time, looking back and waiting, for all the world as it they wanted us to follow them… which, of course, we did, following their lead to find the ‘lost’ Backstone Circle. And all the time the glorious sunrise unfolded behind us.

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Solstice dawn

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We rose as the moon still sailed the heavens and left our hotel just before four on Saturday morning, greeted by our ibis who seemed intent on managing the whole dawn chorus single handed. Now, there may be a case for suggesting our ibis is actually a curlew. Odd as it may seem, given our fascination with birds, we do not care. For us, on such a magical morning, this particular bird was unquestionably an ibis… the bird of the Egyptian Thoth, a symbolic completion of the triad of the hawk of Horus and Isis’ kite.

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Three were meeting in the car park below the Cow and Calf to watch the dawn. We were not alone, of course; it was the solstice sunrise and this stretch of moorland is so rich in history, carved with ancient symbols and graced by circles of stone, it has long been a place which draws those who seek the touch of the numinous in the land.

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The grass was misted with dew in the pale light, drenching our shoes as we climbed together to the top of the rocks and waited for the sun to crest the eastern hills. Colours were muted, details lost in the last shreds of night, there was a softness, a gentleness to the morning. The sky was already that palest of blues, the sun had risen beyond the Pennines but had yet to climb above them and our ascent mirrored that of the dawn. Above the eastern horizon a dark line of clouds veiled the golden glow that suffused the sky; to the west great banks of cloud came down to play in the valley, touched with the reflected pink of morning.

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From our vantage point the hotel was very close; a few cars were parked by the little café that would not open until breakfast, many hours from now, and in the valley lights twinkled as the world began to wake. It is a familiar landscape, one we recognise in time and place as our world. But turn to the moors and time falls away into the breathless wonder of a life older, deeper and slower than the little life of man. We think we are the crown of creation? Merely jewels, perhaps, embellishments that sparkle briefly as light touches the heart; as transient as dew, but just as beautiful too… maybe all the more so for our very impermanence.

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We watched the light grow until the pre-dawn chill forced movement, then turned to climb a little higher as we waited for the disc to clear the enshrouding clouds. We walked to the quarry where Steve had three stones to return to the land before heading for Backstone Beck, a clear stream that tumbles down from its source on the summit of the moor near the Thimble Stones.

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A line of molten gold outlined the clouds before the sun opened its Eye on the land, lighting the misty morning from within, painting the mists in the pastel blush of a goddess and setting a fire in the heart of the dew that glistened with the light of a thousand rainbows.

It was a beautiful dawn.

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Pasta and petroglyphs

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“Ow, ooh, ouch… ow..”

“What’s up?” he asked, locking the door of the flat as I descended the steep stairs. I grinned through the pain… he’d know soon enough… the calf muscles had taken a hit from three days climbing hills. Which is why, we had decided, Sunday would be leisurely.

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The pub was shut; we had gone in search of a late breakfast and wifi and, finding neither, headed off to the park instead, where toasted teacakes and coffee would keep us going for a while. The housekeeping arrangements on these weekend visits are beautifully simple. Neither of us tend to eat huge amounts and are quite happy to go with the flow.

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We hadn’t planned on being out all that long, but by the time we had investigated the rest of the pubs in the area and found some wonderful pasta for a late lunch, my eyes were smarting and starting to swell. They do it at the most inconvenient moments, and for no reason I can put my finger on. Some kind of allergy I suppose, but I could happily live without looking as if I’d gone several rounds in a boxing ring. Between us we were not in the best of visible states; having caught the sun the day before one of us was rather pink and glowing, the other needing dark glasses.

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We decided to pay a visit to the wood-stone. On the Friday we had sought out some of the petro-glyphs on Ilkley Moor and it felt right to wander back and look at the stone. You could see the similarities in the ancient carved stones, although the relief on the wood stone is far deeper than the petro-glyphs on the moor. Was that erosion from the exposed site or had they been made that way? The latter, probably. Having seen them so close together in time, our theories seemed to be stronger than ever.

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The bluebells were out in the woods and the air full of their perfume. I love this time of year! Just a few weeks since our last visit and the wood has burst into life. Beech leaves throw a delicate canopy of golden green against the sky, distance melts away with the blue mist of flowers and even time seems to take a holiday. There is a peace in the little glade through the portal of trees that brings the perfect end to a sleepy afternoon.

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Leisurely, though, seems to be a variable thing. We worked our socks off in the evening. As the experiences of the weekend shaped themselves, the cover for Doomsday was designed and agreed and rituals built for next year’s Silent Eye workshop. Not a bad evening’s work all told. Monday, my last day, we had plans… a further visit to a stone circle. There were ideas to put to the test…

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Bah’t ‘at

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Well, two of us were up there on Ilkley Moor bah’t ‘at… the third stubbornly clung to the trademark headgear that makes him look like something feral. To be fair, it was a little chilly up there.

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We had arrived early and, after fortifying ourselves with a toasted teacake and a coffee apiece, headed off to the parish church to look at the ancient Saxon crosses and Roman altars, now safely ensconced in the base of the bell tower to protect them from the depredations of the elements. We had an hour before Steve was due to arrive, and that was enough to see what we needed to see and wander out into the morning sunshine. It was going to be a long day.

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We… the inner team of the Silent Eye… were meeting to tramp the moors in search of a landscape for use in a private School event. From the Cow and Calf to the Swastika Stone, by way of White Wells, Heber’s Ghyll and the ancient petroglyphs I took them to the places of my childhood, places where I have dreamed, wept, laughed and played.

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It was a beautiful day. Regardless of the fact I will be returning there soon, there were the inevitable tears on leaving. I cannot help it, the place has a home in my heart deeper than any other or perhaps it is that my heart has its home there. As we turned the car off the moorside road a red kite flew over… I have not seen them there before… the sight of that distinctive silhouette in the air, wings outstretched, felt like a blessing. A perfect way to end the day.

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Tall the cliffs of stone
That mark the entry to my heart’s domain,
Wild and empty in its vastness
The solitude of living earth.
The wind lifts the heart
And bears it through the storm
To where the lichen crusted rocks
Cling to the clouds.
Part of my heart remains there
Scattered with the ashes of a lost love
Mingled with the joy and pain of memory,
Of childhood wonder and a lover’s kiss.
Deep the roots which bind me to that land,
Like the weathered pines that cling for life
To the purple hillside…
Genuflecting, but standing, still,
Naked in the mist.
Or the great stones,
Ice carved in aeons past
Into a landscape of dreams,
Marked by ancient hands
With figures of Light,
That I may stand beside them,
Millennia apart,
And recognise my kin.

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Town and country

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Well, I’m typing away here with that old saying running through my mind… all dolled up and nowhere to go. I was supposed to get into town today, and thought I’d better make an effort to look respectable, rather than the current rather eccentric look… which I believe is referred to as ‘dragged through a hedge backwards’. There have been other things on my mind than wasting time looking presentable. The dog simply doesn’t care and neither do I.

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Now, town, as you may have gathered, is far from my favourite place. I will avoid it at all costs except when strictly necessary. However, sometimes that is the case and needs must. It is odd really, as I enjoy big cities and small country towns. The vibe in a city is lively and sparkles, the little country places are invariably quaint with lovely old architecture to soften the inevitable madness. On the other hand, there are the dormitory towns that were once beautiful but grew too fast in the boom days, demolishing history to make way for commerce and chain stores. These are really not my cup of tea.

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Grudgingly I headed towards mayhem, but some kind of hold up a mile from my destination saw traffic at a standstill. After nearly half an hour of moving mere yards, I gave up and came home instead. Town can wait till tomorrow… there was too much to do here to waste time sitting in a traffic jam. Of course, to escape the busy streets I was obliged to come home a different way, a longer way, and that took me beyond the town in minutes.

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Around me fields full of rapeseed blaze in the sunlight, and fields of young crops are the most vivid of greens. We have hedgerows in this area, hedgerows I will curse later in the year as I cannot see the horizon beyond them and find them claustrophobic after the dry stone walls of the north. But even I cannot complain when banks of wild violets nestle beneath the heavy hawthorn blossom and foam of cow parsley.

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A foggy, unpromising morning had given way to sunshine and the landscape responded, dressing itself in the colours of spring. Although the sky is still a little overcast and the sunlight thin, it seems to take little provocation for the countryside to bloom. It irks me to be stuck indoors at this time of year… but needs must. There is a lot to be done and the word responsibility keeps reining in my desire to go out and play and today has been one of those days when the backlog of work has simply had to be addressed.

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I know that much of the month of May is already spoken for, and I will, it appears, get more than my fair share of playing out, as friends from the States will be here, and the road will take me around the country and even, briefly, as far north as another friend… and I can’t wait. Not that I am complaining, mind you. Even the drive to my son’s home every day is glorious… five miles through lovely countryside… and the lane at the end of my little street leads straight out into fields, woods and the manor grounds. It is not as if I am starved of beauty within walking distance… and that is one area where responsibility meets desire as the small dog and I walk there.

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It isn’t always the case, though, is it? And it is a big word, that, bigger than the sum of its letters. We have responsibilities, accept them, shoulder them, take them… and sometimes shirk, avoid and evade them. We cannot, however, escape them. Once they are there, once we have the vaguest understanding of the concept we can, at worst, only ignore them and even that is a choice for which we must accept … responsibility. No matter how much we try, there is always at the very least our responsibility for, and to, ourselves… for our choices and actions, for who we choose to be and the face we choose to show the world. Perhaps that is the most important responsibility of all, because from there the rest flow.

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The Paradox of Cromarty

(Above: the short crossing to Nig, in Ross, links the two halves of this split Scottish county of Ross and Cromarty… and there’s an oil rig in the way…)

We’re in the town of Cromarty, in the north-east Highlands of Scotland. We’re on the old quayside, looking across the Cromarty Firth at the land known as Ross – as in the county name ‘Ross and Cromarty’.

The quayside is the oldest section of the town, and represents well the evolution of this lovely community. Cromarty is one of the gems of this peninsula; known as ‘The Black Isle’. Named because of the difficultly of reaching it across the turbulent waters of the Moray Firth.

(Above: The Black Isle lies immediately to the north-east of Inverness. Map adapted from Google Maps. Ignore the circle, which I was unable to move to the right)

But the town of Cromarty, whilst appearing quite idyllic and prosperous, offers a strange contrast of landscapes…

(Above: Cromarty Firth is the nominated ‘parking-place’ for oil platforms that are ‘resting’: being kept in readiness for an upwards shift in wholesale oil prices)

The thriving metropolis of Inverness, gateway to this part of the Scottish Highlands, lies only thirty minutes south of Cromarty. It’s all very different from the days when the ‘Kings Ferry’ connected travellers by ferry across this waterway to continue their northwards journey on the ‘Kings Road’ to the farthest reaches of north-east Scotland, and possibly beyond, to Orkney.

Today there are vast, and award-winning bridges, but back then it was a long detour around the head of Loch Ness, or more likely, a boat ride from Inverness.

The view in front of us is divided; the huge oil platform ahead is ‘resting’. It’s been retired from active service in the North Sea, pending a rise in the wholesale price of oil. At a certain price point, it becomes viable to operate it again, and giant tugs will pull it out into active use in the seas off North-East Scotland.

(Above: I jumped out of the car to take this fast-vanishing shot of a local ‘paddle-boarder’ crossing the line of one of the largest platforms. Cromarty is a place of intense contrasts)

We counted ten such platforms, all ‘resting’ or being maintained. It requires a skeleton crew onboard at all times, so it’s also expensive to park them in this way.

(Above: beyond the rigs lies a crescent of beautiful mountains)

Beyond the array of the oil platforms lies a ring of beautiful mountains, many of them still snow-capped in this extraordinarily cold spring, where there is still frost in May.

(Above: Cromarty – beautiful and full of history)

We’re having a week’s break on the Black Isle, one of our favourite resting spots. It was originally booked a year ago, but due to Covid, we were offered a choice of refund or a year’s postponement. We choose the latter. It’s lovely to be back in this gentle part of the Scottish Highlands.

The other reason for being back in Cromarty is to scout out a possible location for one of our Silent Eye landscape weekends, which we hope to resume, soon. This part of Scotland was host to our ‘Pictish Trail’ workshop, last September and before the recent lockdowns.

Stuart and I will take turns to host the new series of ‘Landscape Workshop’, and other close friends of the School have offered to guest-host others in their areas, such as the sacred wells of the Malvern hills.

(Above: the central streets of Cromarty are compact and orderly.)

This time, I’m looking for something different, something that contrasts the ancient landscape with the harsh results of modern living and its associated technologies. It’s a topical consideration, and Cromarty is a fitting location…

(Above and symbolically: human nature, unchecked by strong values, drifts downwards towards chaos, drowning the vital and corrective energy of individuality)

The clash of unchecked technology and sustainable living is a central consideration, given the global warming background to all our lives.

There are few landscapes that bring nature together with the harsh sides of mankind’s struggle for survival and prosperity. Cromarty has both, and I want my mind (and emotions) to work on the potential this location offers.

(Above: the beautiful shore path offers a choice of walks along the loch, the longest being 2.5 miles)

There’s a conscience here in Cromarty. There’s also a rich seam of intelligence and consciousness. The locals work together to support each other with projects, craft workshops, theatre and books. You can feel that it’s not only peaceful but involved. It’s the kind of mindfulness that is productive and harmonious.

(Above: beside the loch, an engraved tall stone commemorates all those who, through poverty, were forced to leave these beautiful shores. Ironically, the oil boom may have enabled some to return. The final words speak of a reunion of the heart, regardless of place)

I asked the lady owner of the local bookshop about the contradiction of the presence of the giant rigs, just offshore, She smiled and said, “You just don’t see them after a while. They’re a part of the landscape.”

I think here’s a lesson there, positive and negative.

That sentiment of the ‘changed normal’ was what first made me think of Cromarty as a basis for a weekend, perhaps one that would contrast human ego and human soul; held, necessarily, in balance between the perceived ‘higher and lower’, where the stage for the drama is human nature.

With Sue’s sad death, Stuart and I are examining how we take the Silent Eye forwards, particularly in terms of workshops. The teaching system is well-established and we plan to extend this with online events. Covid under Covid has taught us much, and the powers of ‘Zoom’ to reach across the world and host a virtual discussion, or even short workshop, have been established.

(Above: the old lighthouse – now a research centre for Aberdeen University)

We also feel it’s time to be open to new ideas for the workshops.

The Cromarty weekend would have a residential base in the local B&Bs, but the workshop would be held as a series of walks and talks in the landscape, never far from the contrasts of beautiful loch, mountain and the ever-present giant rigs of Cromarty Firth.

The more I think about it, the more I like it…

(Opening soon: the Silent Eye’s post-Covid workshops for 2021/22. Image courtesy of the Royal Hotel, Cromarty, whose floral door this is)

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.