Wings of love

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The red kites are teasing me again, circling low over the garden… until I grab the camera, disappearing in their typical fashion as soon as the lens is pointed skywards. They were at it all morning, yet all I managed was a blurry pic and a handful of distant dots in the sky as usual.

I love those birds and cherish an ambition to get a really good photograph of the great birds in flight, one of these days. I can get a clear picture when they have landed, but in flight it always seems that I click the shutter when they are head down, or in odd positions where it is difficult to see their majesty, or a blurred one eye to eye. The birds seem to smile at my naivety.

It reminds me of the incident with the feathers. When we first began following the kites all over Buckinghamshire, it seemed that everywhere we went there were feathers of every conceivable colour. I kept picking them up. Stuart shook his head every time I took anything out of my bag, as clouds of the things fell out, the interior of the car began to look as if someone had been pillow fighting and I had feathers of every variety… except kite.

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Then, on one exceptionally hot day, we climbed our first real hill and walked miles in the heat. It was right at the beginning of the adventures that led to the writing of The Initiate and we barely knew what we were getting into at that point. It was, looking back, the first real physical effort we had put into our quest too. We walked up through ancient earthworks, seeking the path with dowsing rods and really getting a feel for the landscape. I remember Stuart talking about the sacrifice of energy required to climb the hills as part of the ‘contract’ with the heart of the land…. and then a red kite flew out of the sun.

We walked on, awed, in the searing heat… waterless as usual… climbing ever higher and following the ancient path of the Ridgeway, until I caught sight of something. I bent to pick it up… a whole bunch of kite feathers, plucked, it seemed, from the breast and shimmering with unexpected iridescence. We felt then that we had been accepted for the quest. If that sounds odd, it must be remembered that we had learned to trust and follow the birds, heeding the lessons in their flight, so it felt ‘right’ in ways I probably can’t explain. That afternoon unfolded with magic as we began to understand where and how we were being led.

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I came home that night and proudly displayed the feathers on the table. And because I left them there, the dog ate them. So, I was gifted a lesson in non-attachment too… and a reminder that a gift once given must be cherished and cared for; take it for granted and all you have is a memory.

So, although I still try for that perfect picture, it still eludes me and it feels as if the denizens of the sky are laughing gently. The elusiveness of the kites holds another lesson too, for some things are simply too big to fit inside a camera or to frame within the terms of the physical world. They are gifts of the moment to be treasured. Sure, I might get a good picture… but the great birds are more than just beauty and aerial grace; to watch them fly is to watch the spirit of the air and the feeling that brings is one of awe; something I don’t think any photograph could capture. They evoke a feeling I can only call love and it seems I can watch to my heart’s content, accepting the gift and grace of their presence, as long as I do not attempt to pin down their grace and essence… which is exactly how love should be.

Yet there is an acknowledgement, a reciprocal amusement, it seems, where I still try and they indulgently tease; a daily reminder that both spirit and love exist in freedom and their gift is there to be known, accepted in all simplicity, for as soon as you try to hold them, they lose something and are changed. You can only accept the gift and the grace when it is given… and cherish it.

If I get that ‘perfect’ photo one day, it will not be when I try to take it, but when it is given. All I can do is be open to the gifts of the day…

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Quest for a Quest: The Initiate’s Story

Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

17-19 April 2020

A Living Lore Workshop.

Contact us at Rivingtide@gmail.com for more details. Click below to
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Rites of Passage: War and peace

We had left two of our companions to return to the hotel, as one of them, gallantly sharing the weekend in spite of upcoming surgery, had turned her ankle and needed to rest. We were, therefore, a reduced company who crossed the road to make our way across the field to another of those natural, wind-worn sentinel pillars. The Andle Stone does not just look back, though, towards Stanton Moor…it guards the passage to a secluded site we would shortly be visiting.

At first glance, it seems just a huge boulder, over sixteen feet high and surrounded by a small, green copse. Nineteenth-century climbers had once again carved hand and foot holds into the face of the rock…a bit of history I would rather not see. But there are older carvings too, as the stone reportedly has cup marks carved into its upper face, far older than the names of intrepid graffiti artists from the past two hundred years.

There is also another legend carved on the stone, and it is one that is easily missed. As our theme for the weekend was fear and how we can not only choose to face it but turn what is usually seen as a negative emotion to the service of a greater cause, it seemed uncannily appropriate.

Carved on the back of the boulder and almost hidden from sight is an inscription, commemorating Lieutenant Colonel William Thornhill of the 7th Hussars, a veteran of Waterloo, and Arthur Wellesley, better known as the Duke of Wellington, who commanded the decisive battle against Napoleon. We had not realised, when we planned the weekend, that Wellington had died a hundred and sixty-seven years ago on the same date that we would be visiting the Andle Stone, a date which is also, coincidentally, my birthday.

Thornhill’s regiment, the 7th Hussars, had seen some of the worst of a battle that left the army in tatters. Of the three hundred and eighty men who took up their position near Hougoumont, less than a third would end the day alive and without serious injury.

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We paused to consider for a moment, what they might have felt as they waited for the battle to begin…and when it had begun. How can we imagine the filth, noise, stench and horror of such a battlefield, where men were hacking each other to pieces with sabres, shelling each other with cannon and musket, and fearing the erratic flight of the new rockets designed to rip the squares to shreds?

It must be remembered, that, in spite of guns and cannon, much of the fighting was hand to hand.  You saw the eyes of the men you killed or maimed… or those who would do the same to you. The acrid odour of gunpowder, burnt flesh and spilled blood… the all-pervasive mud made slick with blood… the screams of horses and the whimpering of the dying… There was no pressing of buttons, no ‘surgical strike’…  battle was personal and there was nowhere to hide from horror.

It was the bloodiest of campaigns, with almost a quarter of the French and Allied armies being killed or wounded. Wellington, a hard leader, known to have called his ‘infamous army’ the ‘scum of the earth’, wrote of the battle, “ My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”

Regardless of our personal stance on the evils, rightness or necessity of war, we can empathise with the men who stood and waited for what might come. However brave their faces, whether they waited with forced laughter, thought longingly of home, loved ones or safety, or whether they held back tears, wondering why the hell they had ever taken the King’s shilling, none of them can have been unafraid. And yet, they stood.

Many tales of heroism reach us from humankind’s battlefields, tales of self-sacrifice that surpass the call of duty or personal fear, of small kindnesses and of the breaking of barriers. It is often only when we are in the grip of fear, carried along by events over which we can have no control, that we learn what we are capable of, both as individuals and as a species.

Even the smallest light shines bright against the darkness. There are so many stories of bravery, selflessness and humanity to emerge from these bloody chapters of human history. We tend to think of those who shine in such circumstances as fearless, yet, there can be no courage where there is no fear… the hero is the one who refuses to be ruled by fear and chooses, instead, to act.

“All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I call ‘guessing what was at the other side of the hill’.” Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.

We sat with the stone for a while, listening to a reading and watching as a fearless young father scaled the rock in seconds, standing proudly upon his perch and surveying the land. As we stood to leave, heading towards our final official site of the day, we heard his voice on the wind, unconsciously illustrating the heart of Wellington’s words…

“Er… how do I get down?”

Rites of Passage: Familiarity…

It isn’t always what you know that counts… it matters more what you understand well enough to bring it into consciousness. Some of us were to get a graphic example of that as we took a break for lunch in the Derbyshire town of Bakewell.

It is a lovely town, in spite of the inevitable hordes of visitors that flock there ever summer, with one of the best churches, replete with stories, history and mysteries. From the Saxon crosses and Masonic gravestone in the churchyard, to the dragons and the white stag in the stained glass, it has something to discover on every new visit.

We have run a workshop based in Bakewell, explored pretty much every nook and cranny, as well as having spent many a lunch-break on the banks of the river Wye, watching the huge brown trout and the innumerable birds enjoying the swift, shallow waters.

Although we would not have time for a proper visit on this trip, it was the perfect place, midway between sites, for an extended lunch-break that would allow our companions to explore. Arranging to meet at the river, we went our separate ways.

We returned early to the meeting place and, finding all the benches full, Stuart took up a perch on a tree as we waited. As we did so, a tiny old lady, as fragile as a whisper, whipped into a newly vacated spot with surprising alacrity. She must have been in her nineties… frail and almost transparent, yet in spite of the  trolley upon which she leaned, her movements were bird-quick.

And the birds were quick to notice her as she reached into her trolley to take out their lunch. It was obviously a ritual of long standing, as dozens of birds recognised her movements and arrived at her feet, showing no fear at all of either their benefactor or those, like us, who were seated close by.

Wild birds are supposed to be wary of humans, but that fear is a learned behaviour. Birds were around, in one form or another, for millions of years before humans came along and decided that their meat, bones  and their feathers were a useful addition to their hunted supplies. Birds learned to fear us and that fear has been passed down through the generations.

I thought of the Dodo, living safely on its island throughout its evolution. With no predator to teach it to know fear, it was only curious when Man arrived and that was its undoing. In just decades, the Dodo was extinct. Not only does the Dodo provide a graphic illustration of how fear, in its rightful place, can be of service,  it also shows something we all know, but seldom think about… fear has to be learned.

It may be learned through personal experience, or through the cumulative experience of our ancestors, but whether it is a finger burned in a forbidden flame or the genetic memories that preserve us, fear is an acquired and instinctive reaction. Yet these particular birds, used to the constant stream of munching tourists  as a food source, as well as their regular suppliers, like the little old lady, had  learned something other than fear…they have learned to trust.

It cannot have come easily to begin with. You can even spot the newcomers who find safety in the crowd but who are still wary when separated from the flock.  But, with personal experience… getting to know the environment, its gifts and its people, the inborn and instinctive distrust built up over the course of millions of years has been set aside in favour of a newly-learned trust. And, if the birds can do it, so can we.

Our own behaviours and reactions are learned, whether from early experience, those who raised us, or from the generations of ancestors who went before. But the world is a rapidly changing place.

Countries we could only dream of seeing, even a generation ago, are now easily accessible as holiday destinations, places to work or are instantly accessible via the internet. Behaviours that served to keep  our distant ancestors safe may no longer serve us, only keep is separate and fearful, creating division and prejudice. Perhaps we too can learn to see beyond fear to trust… and find that, in doing so, we are richer for the change of heart.

It had taken so little to bring this point home. Our little old lady had been there only a few moments, yet she had the joy of feeding the birds and seeing them flock to greet her…and they, through their trust, had been nourished. Their interaction, fleeting though it was, had been beautiful to watch.

As our companions gathered once more by the bridge, I reflected on how simply Nature can teach us…and how easily we can miss her lessons, forgetting, in the hustle and bustle of urban life, that we too are her creatures and part of the vast and intricate dance of life on this planet we call home.

Birds eye view

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There must have been thirty starlings, mainly youngsters, in the garden at my son’s home today. The great tits and blue tits are very tame and happy to peck away at the feeding stations even when you are very close. Robins, thrushes and blackbirds are regular visitors, along with the many sparrows, the inevitable pigeons, magpies and doves and the clever jackdaws that fly in. I often see the wrens, I think I spotted a dunnock, and there are buzzards, red kites and the local heron flying over daily.

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The heron can see the pond, but it was constructed to make it almost impossible for it to land, which is just as well given the monsters that lurk in its depths. My son keeps some rather large sturgeon as well a plethora of other fish. The other birds bathe in the corner of the stream overhung with plants and the kites sail over, watching.

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There have been a lot of birds over the past couple of weeks. Not ‘just’ birds… they are always there… but ones you seldom see, or that were very tame… or just a sheer delight. There were cuckoos, woodpeckers and a tree mouse in the woods, plus this little guy, caught on zoom. I’ve seen peacocks and swallows, ibises, robins, grouse and an owl. And birds have a habit of making me think.

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I suppose because they are wild, free creatures, that when they come so close within our lives, or seem to allow us into their world for a moment, we are touching nature in a way our towns and cities seldom let us do. They wake us from our complacency with their presence and song and remind us of the changing seasons of the year. In general their lives are much shorter than ours and they use them busily, especially this time of year when the young need to be fed and educated.

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It has been lovely watching the young family of starlings with their parents, from the first, curious visits to the bird table, where, still yellow around the beak, the babies sat open mouthed and waited for their parents to feed them, to their growing confidence as adolescents, still in the family group, still under the watchful eye of parents who encourage them now to fend for themselves. They were clumsy when they first came, flying awkwardly and frequently falling off their perches. Now they are confident, though they still stick together and several families seem to be merging into a larger flock.

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Watching the young birds find their feet… and their wings… has been a joy this spring. They were made to fly… streamlined, graceful and swift in flight. Yet leaving the egg, instinct or not, is something they have to do under their own steam, breaking out of the shell when the moment is right, into a world unknown. Ii it a scary place for them or an adventure? Is it fear or curiosity that they feel?

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I think it was C.S Lewis who wrote that it has to be hard for a bird to leave the egg, but it would be an awful lot harder learn to fly if it stayed in there. He went on to compare human beings to eggs… saying that we cannot remain eggs forever, even perfectly good ones; we either change, or go bad. And to be honest, there can be few things worse than what is locked inside a decomposing egg.

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Once our shell is cracked, though, there can be no going back… we must break out, and breathe the air… and the egg is empty of anything that will nourish us. The only way forward means a dramatic change in everything we have known so far. There will be predators, there will be the risk of the unknown to face with ecxcitement or fear. Yet it is our nature too to fly. We are children of the sun and our soul has wings; and while we may be awkward and clumsy as we grow, the heavens are waiting for us to spread our wings and fly.

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Going west – wild things

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As we walked towards Carn Llidi, we were surprised to see a little herd of Welsh ponies grazing on the hillside. These hardy and resilient ponies still live a semi-feral life here. They are beautiful creatures and very much a part of the land and its history, having ploughed its fields, carried its warriors and worked in its mines for centuries. It is known that there have been ponies here for well over three and a half thousand years…and who knows how much longer before that. At some point in their long history they were bred with Arabian horses and that bloodline too runs in their veins. I knew of the wild ponies of Snowdonia, a genetically unique group that was decimated in recent years by severe winter weather that wiped out almost half the population, but had not expected to see them at St David’s Head.

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I remember seeing the news story when the last pit ponies were brought up from the mines. Smaller breeds, like Shetlands and the Welsh ponies were preferred as they could go where even mechanisation could not, each hauling 30 tons of coal a day in eight-hour shifts. Ponies were used in the mines from 1750, and the last pit pony was retired only in 1999. I remember too my great-uncle’s stories of them and how they worked underground for years, though some were brought up for a short holiday annually when the mines closed. When they came out into the sunlight, they could not see… after so long in the dark it took them some time to adjust to the daylight. The ponies would be taken underground at four years old and could work, if they survived, until their twenties. In deep shaft mines, they were stabled in the mine itself and cared for by the miners as well as their owners. The management were looking after an asset… the miners for a fellow worker who shared both their labour and the danger. Even in modern times, coal mining was deadly work and there were many stories of how the ponies’ sense of danger helped save their human partners.

My great-uncle took me to meet some of the ponies one day during their annual break. He taught me, a small girl then, how to hold out the apples and the mints that they loved without risking my fingers. To see them grazing, wild in the heather, is a very different thing from seeing their coal-stained coats that no amount of grooming could clean… just like my uncle’s hands. Those, I remember well, large, shapely hands, calloused and strong, yet always tinged with black. The coal dust killed him in the end… a lifetime of breathing it unprotected, just as it must have affected so many of the ponies. It was an unnatural life, away from the fresh air and sunlight, away from the green… and a joy to see them free on the hillside as we climbed.

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The ponies were not the only wild beauties there. The exuberance of summer wildflowers alone was quite something to see. Many of them grow low to the ground in response to the coastal wind and weather… you do not see them from afar, but honeysuckle and wild rose ramble through the gorse and bracken. Tall spires of foxglove stand proud above the greenery and with every step new flowers turned multicoloured  faces to the sun.

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The sun was really beating down and we were all glad when the path reached its crest and began to descend ahead of us. We were hot and  tired…we had all driven a long way that day… and, not realising how hot it would get or the scope of the landscape, few of us had brought water. At a fork in the path, we should have ascended further, climbing Carn Llidi to the WWII gun emplacements and the twin chambered tombs on the slopes of the hill before climbing to the top. With some regret we went down instead… all but one of us, who climbed the hill alone. Much as I would have liked to see the tombs, my feet…clad, for once, in sensible walking shoes… were painfully protesting the heat and the abuse of the previous weeks. The shoes had to go…but first, we had to get down.

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The stone walls between which we walked were covered in flowers, bees and butterflies. Birds sang everywhere, but none as loudly as a tiny virtuoso perched on a thorn bush. I didn’t recognise him.. though I thought he was a warbler of some sort. I wondered if he might be one of the few remaining marsh warblers, famed for their song… he certainly deserved to be, both in volume and virtuosity. You would not believe that such a tiny thing could sing so loudly.

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It was both wonderful and shocking to realise this might have been a marsh warbler*. I am no expert on birds… but he looked rather like one when I tried to identify him later. If he was, then to see and hear him was even more of a privilege as there are thought to be only six or eight breeding pairs left in the UK and the little birds are on the red list for conservation.

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There were other birds too though…many of them just youngsters, newly fledged and wearing their juvenile colours. Like the young robin that frequents my garden, you cannot tell what they are at first glance… their feathers do not yet identify them and you have to see how they walk and how they hold themselves to know what they are.

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We expect a robin to have a red breast and a blackbird to be black. When they are not, we puzzle for a while to know what it is that we see. Expectations and appearances can blind us to reality, so we have to reach beyond them before we can see and know what is real.

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We finally made it down after a superb afternoon in the loveliest of places. Soon we would all gather for dinner in St David’s itself, but for the moment, there was a cool breeze and the shimmer of sunlight on the sea. The shoes and socks were off… the trousers rolled…and we let the clear waters wash away the heat from aching feet, leaving behind only the balm and memory of beauty.

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  • If anyone can give a positive ID on our little song-master, I would be very grateful!