The sound of my companion’s unholy glee drew a smouldering glance as I lay supine in the mud on the sodden bank. Liquefied earth had now joined the water in my boots… and under my painted fingernails, in my hair, and had seeped (as I was acutely and uncomfortably aware) right through the layers of clothing to the scraps of lace that serve as undergarments. Had the soggy boot been on the other foot, so to speak, I would have taken a picture, but the camera too was lens deep in the gloop, so I can be thankful for small mercies. Dignity was at least photographically preserved… but it was the only shred of it I had left as I lay there laughing in the mud as we descended from the hillside.
So much for a leisurely wander on the way across England… we were going to have to dive back to Sheffield for me to shower, change and buy emergency replacement footwear. Did I care? Not a bit. What we had been gifted was worth it.
I had been up at half past one on Friday morning ready for the drive north… the nice thing, of course, is that by setting off so early, you get the dawn. The downside, if such it can be counted with so many beautiful places to explore, is that most folk don’t want their guests on the doorstep at silly hours of the morning and you have to find something else to do until respectable o’clock. Not so with my fellow night-owl Stuart… he’d been up and writing since the wee small hours too and there was coffee.
We had planned to meet at an equally silly time halfway across the country in Chester where we have some research to do for our books. It had seemed an excellent idea as we would have to be in Stockport that evening anyway for a Silent Eye meeting. Given the fact that it is January and the Chester visit was also going to have to involve some very cold water and hills to climb… hills that would, no doubt, be merely liquid mud after the recent deluge… we decided to postpone and, for once, be sensible. So I and a brace of almond croissants arrived early in Yorkshire instead.
As usual, we sat and talked for several hours, discussing everything under the sun and a few things beyond it, he perched in his accustomed position with the chair on two legs… me in my habitual and liminal place on the step, a flame haired guardian imp of the threshold. We were finalising Stuart’s new book, Crucible of the Sun, which will be out in a few days… we are hoping to get the book finalised today for his birthday.
Eventually we walked up the hill to a local church to look at the stained glass and for me to make the acquaintance of a beautiful old yew tree. We spent some time with the trees, feeling their age and beauty… which may have had a bearing on what was to come, though I didn’t consider that until this morning, looking through the photographs of the day.
Some time later it was mooted that we could drop into Chatsworth for an hour or two on the way to Stockport… after calling at a pub in Baslow for a snack. The School meetings don’t allow time for eating until late in the evening when we share a buffet meal. Sounded good to me.
I have never been to Chatsworth properly. Once I almost managed it, but the place was simply heaving with cars and people… and that is not how I wish to visit anywhere. The car had been turned around and pointed firmly towards a quieter, more intimate day. Not, you will understand, that we were planning on visiting what is possibly the most beautiful stately home in England on Friday. No. There was something of far more interest to us… a standing stone, hidden somewhere in the grounds.
Squelch, schloop, schlock…. Our boots were mud to the ankles within seconds, sinking and sticking in the sodden ground, releasing on each step with a reluctant pop. Not, I hasten to add, walking boots… of course not. His polished leather, mine soft black suede…. We were dressed for the meeting after all. Had we not sensibly abandoned Chester because of liquid mud on the hills? Yet, here we were traipsing across saturated earth in search of a single elusive stone… and all we could do was laugh. Higher ground would, perhaps, be drier, we thought as we climbed. It certainly couldn’t be any worse…
It was perhaps a decade since Stuart had seen the standing stone, and he had come upon it as he descended from the moor… we were climbing the other way with only the vaguest idea of where we were going. We headed across the mire towards a huge boulder visible in the distance, paddling through the impromptu stream that was the hillside. By this time my boots had small puddles in them and water was swishing about between my toes… Not that I cared, not really… being on the greenest earth, climbing towards the top of the hill on what had suddenly become a glorious afternoon. A little mud was a small price to pay.
The huge, crouching form of the boulder was the first pause. We have found that from one markstone you can usually sight the next and we spent a moment following the lines across the landscape to the features we could see. We continued the climb and met a beautiful tree, gnarled and curving into the wind. From here we noticed some unusual ground and a small wood… it was a natural progression to head on over and investigate. Fangorn! We both thought it… anyone who has ever read Tolkien would have done so… or perhaps a Narnian glade.
The place was alive with dancing trees… the graceful female forms of dryads, hoary, bearded faces… roots that swallowed rocks… Every tree was vital, sculpted into fantastic shapes. I thought of a passage from Prince Caspian where Lucy tries to wake the trees… here it seemed that they were awake… already aware and sharing our sense of wonder in this moment where the veils of reality seemed to have parted and worlds met. Vivid emerald moss clothe lichen encrusted boulders, copper leaves and bracken blanket the earth as sunlight streams through rain blackened branches… flocks of birds and families of squirrels…utterly magical! It was a gift.
In moments like this the inner life of the world rises to greet you. The sacredness of the earth, its life and laughter take you by the hand and lead you into strange and numinous places where nature dances with you, and your soul sings with sheer joy.
We found one standing stone, throne-like and gazing out across the valley, but not the one we were looking for. It really didn’t matter. We could have been disappointed… we hadn’t found what we had come for. We are used to that, however, on our adventures. We have long since learned that sometimes the goal you think you are seeking is only the carrot that gets you moving… the true object of the quest remains hidden until it is given, an unexpected gift of the moment. On Friday we were given the gift of dancing trees.