I failed abysmally at not finding anything, of course. It was only to be expected. And I hung my head in shame as I owned up for the aberration… but really, what else could I have done? I had several hours for the journey before I would be expected to arrive, plenty of time for a leisurely meander. Quite why I had taken the motorway under those circumstances I will never know. All I do know that as the internal debate was going on about which road I was going to take, I had followed the route towards the M1 and turned into its madness, shrugging. Okay, if that’s the way I was going, then that way I would go… there was always Chesterfield Cathedral… I might call in there…
For once, however, the motorway flowed smoothly for a long way, without too much traffic and I made good time. I had been driving a while before the road started to demand more concentration as the traffic became heavier. It ceased to be fun. It was at this point that a pigeon, wings outstretched, flew right at the car as if barring the way. I was approaching a junction, so I took the hint and got off the motorway, without a clue where I was.
I know my way round the country pretty well without a map, and seeing a sign for the A50 I headed off in the direction, knowing I could come at Derbyshire the back way. Yes, I would miss Chesterfield, but there were plenty of places where I could spend a little time on the way. Especially as the back way is the pretty way, the one that leads along winding roads, through lovely villages and the rolling green hills of the north.
But, hang on a minute… the sign said Breedon on the Hill… just a couple of miles away…Now that was a coincidence! I’ve been trying to get there for a while and we had thought about a visit for this weekend before changing our plans. Perhaps it had been subliminal… maybe I had noticed the junction number unconsciously? Or maybe it was just the pigeon… I was sticking with that version.
I crested a hill and saw the church perched on an inland cliff top… an incredible sight! Nowhere to park to snap a picture, of course, but I had a feeling there would be plenty of photographs having done a bit of research in the past… nor was I wrong.
The Church stands within the remains of an Iron Age hillfort and was founded around 676 AD as Holy Hill Monastery by Aethelred, third son of Penda, who had been the last pagan King of Mercia… and who features heavily in our newly completed book, Doomsday: The Ætheling Thing. Not bad for starters… Three early saints are said to have been buried there too, and I knew there were the box pew and the great 16th century tombs of the Shirley family with the alabaster skeleton, an unusual addition for the date indicating the common mortality of all the family members so richly dressed above.
More to the point, though, the present church, much altered, of course over the centuries, still holds an incredible number of early Saxon carvings… amongst the oldest that survive in England, as well as the Romanesque Norman stonework. So I knew what to expect… or I thought I did. The reality far surpassed anything I had imagined! The stained glass was unexpectedly beautiful. The light and the atmosphere striking. The carvings are crisp, intricate and everywhere… and well, they are just incredible. From the moustachioed saint to the hand raised in a Byzantine blessing by the Breedon angel… the place is fair seething with history. Nor is it a dead thing, a story 1300 years old and more; the hillfort is Iron Age, earlier finds Neolithic… and there is speculation this was a sacred place long before Christianity was born… No, the history continues. It is alive, vital, speaking to our minds today with the same images and symbols it has always done.
It felt strange standing alone in that ancient place, looking at carvings that would have been seen by the very people we have just finished writing about in Doomsday… not just ‘a’ people, but individuals who gazed upon these things over a thousand years ago. I know their names, their stories. Real people. Time falls away and the world stops for a moment… it is an odd feeling, as if you are seeing through their eyes. As I lit a candle for those I love, I kindled the flame in an act so old it too is timeless and I stayed in the stillness, wondering. It is said that we only have to go back a relatively few generations to find ourselves related to everyone on the planet… who knows how convoluted that relationship might be, but perhaps one of my ancestors gazed on these carvings when they were fresh and new? Or perhaps just our shared humanity is enough to explain that feeling of kinship with the eyes of the past.
As I left the church with still some seventy miles of country roads ahead, however, I was not thinking of the far distant past, but of that final email before I left… ‘find nothing’. I drafted a simple message in reply… ‘Ooops’…