stepping stones of truth

A journey along the path of life - the stones can be rough, smooth or even wobbly!

Friday, March 31, 2006

My journey to work

It was my luck this week to have to go to North Dorset one day, to train some librarians about Enquire (the international 24/7 live chat enquiry service). I had to set off early as it was an hour’s drive – instead of my usual ten minutes. But what a enjoyable hour. (none of the photos are mine this time, I didn’t have the camera and didn’t stop to get the phone out either!)

As I started off, in gentle morning sunshine at 7.30am, I was very grateful for living in such a lovely part of the world. I drove out of the village and up onto one the main ridgeway roads of Dorset, that travels along the tops of the hills. There are also main roads that follow the valleys, often you have a choice – the roads are so old that one is probably from Anglo Saxon times or prehistory, and the straight high version is Roman. After a few miles I turned off to cut across a few valleys. The road was narrower and I saw few cars.The slanting golden light showed up the ancient medieval field system on the hillside.

I descended into the Sydling valley and had to drive through a ford. The water level in the stream is still low and the water clear. Up and up the hill towards Cerne Abbas and a view of the Giant, the famous chalk figure carved in the hill above the village. It has magical powers of fertility. Believe me, I know these things!

Then down into the pretty village of Cerne itself and up again past the Giant. The hedges are still brown and leafless, but the banks beneath them have primroses, and at one point I saw a rabbit scampering unhurriedly up through them, out of the way of my car.ow cloud! I had to put the lights on while up here, and everything has a soft feel to it, edges blurred and the world is reduced to shades of grey.

Then finally down, and a view north into a different world across the broad Blackmoor Vale– sunlit with blue skies.

Up onto another “top road” and further north. By now I am up far enough to be in l

skies! Which is how it went, right up until I got to my destination. Dorset is a bit tamer here, more domestic with thatched farmhouses, and hedges criss-crossing fertile green fields.

Through a village called Kings Stag, which isn’t far from an ancient deer park which belongs to Stock Gaylard House. I this drove bit slowly, trying to look for fallow deer – and saw some not far from the flimsy fence of iron railings, very pale and almost white.

I crossed the River Stour at Sturminster Newton. The bridge is so old and narrow that it has pedestrian passing places built in. But there its only just wide enough for one vehicle, so a system of traffic lights is in place.

The further you get into North Dorset, the muddier the roads get. It’s a farming area, sure, but it only needs a light shower and the muddy surface splashes all over your nice clean car. In each village and hamlet, I passed knots of schoolchildren by the side of the road, waiting for the school bus to pick them up.

By now the sun was well up into the sky, and I was nearly at journeys end – Shaftesbury. It’s a small town, miles from any other town, and consequently has an interesting high street full of small shops, and hardly any of the usual chain stores. Greengrocers, drapers, bakers – all the old fashioned shops you thought were gone. But its on top of a hill, and you only need a touch of frost or snow and the place is cut off from civilization. You cant get out or in on the couple of roads.

I was lucky, but the place was like something out of a scary movie. It was totally hidden by low cloud, and felt dank and dark under its shroud. It should havebeen just waking up, with shopkeepers opening the shutters, and people bustling about, but it was strangely quiet. No good going to the lookout gardens and admiring the view. No good going to the top of picturesque Gold Hill, and standing by the sculpture of a large loaf of bread. Now why is that there?

Those in England may remember a famous TV advert in the eighties (much lampooned) in which a young baker’s boy from the Thirties, wearing short trousers, a Fair Isle jumper and a flat cap, rides his bicycle down an incredibly steep cobbled hill while an equally flat Northern voice drones on in narration and a brass band plays. The advert was for Hovis bread, and was filmed here. Fame! People used to come from far and wide to see it. The best view is from the tea shop at the top!

So journey’s end – and the good news is….later I had to drive back to the office, and the sun had broken through and ended Shaftesbury’s islolation.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Where other feet have trod

So I set off in pursuit of the “other cathedral”. I ignored signs to the local hospital and kept the huge square tower in sight. It was only a mile across the river valley, (and after a pleasant pub lunch) that I could look back across the valley to where I had been at the labyrinth, on top of the hill, to the left of the woods.

It WAS a hospital - the Hospital of St Cross - and it was the one the signs had pointed to, but not the sort I had imagined - but as in Knights Hospitallers, hospitality, that sort of thing – not the beds and operations type. I would call it an almshouse if it was in a village, but it was huge. AND it was open to the public, AND had a gift shop that served delicious hot chocolate (they have proper teas in the summer). Usefully, the pub had a very good leaflet about the place, so I was able to read up about it before I arrived. You can read the leaflet too, though sadly not enjoy the homemade tomato and herb soup with crusty baguette! I could also see it from the window of the pub, to keep an eye on it in case it moved on. Well, it was a bit magical and I had been watching Howl’s Moving Castle.

I won’t go on about the history, but it was founded in 1136…..1136 and its still going! And the church that I thought was the cathedral – bits of it date from 1155! I walked around the building marveling at the age of it all. I loved the Norman windows in the church; the mellow red brick contrasting with the old stone; the tranquil garden with the view back to St Catherine's hill; the cloisters, ahh the cloisters (I have a special fondness for cloisters); the light falling across ancient steps; but above all the continuity of it and the antiquity.

Ancient steps in The Brethren's Hall

Cloisters linking the church and the Master's lodging

I talked to the (female) porter who still gives out the wayfarer’s Dole (ale and a bit of bread) and looks after the Brothers. Some things here do change, as she is the first ever woman to hold the post. But I was still pondering about this place, doing the same thing, looking after people, in the same buildings for all these centuries…..

My father loved Tradition (capital T). I wonder if it’s inherited? He was a town councilor and relished the robes and the ceremonies, and at an early age took me along to the Trooping of the Colour and stuff like that.These tiles were made in 1390! "Have mynde"

Maybe that’s what I appreciate about labyrinths, and bellringing too. That sense of following in the footsteps (literally!) and being connected to so many generations before me.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

These feet were made for walking

This week they took me to the top of hill outside Winchester.......

Chapels or churches dedicated to St Catherine are usually on top of hills. But as far as I can tell no-one has satisfactorily explained why. I really didn’t go all the way to Sinai recently just to go to St Catherine’s monastery, but I have got a sneaking interest in such things. We do have a fine example or two in Dorset, especially the church above Abbotsbury. Of course, among other interesting facts about her is that she is the patron saint of spinsters, and the local rhyme goes

A husband, St Catherine
A handsome one, St Catherine

A rich one, St Catherine
A nice one, St Catherine
And soon, St Catherine

But it was to another St Catherine’s hill, outside of Winchester, that I went one day last week. The attraction was that it also has a turf labyrinth on it, and I also have a sneaking interest in those too! They were a part of old England, and in Shakespeare’s time nearly every village green had one. I suspect they were a legacy from our pagan past, but the church got hold of the idea, and in medieval times they began to appear in churches as a sort of poor man’s pilgrimage. The most spectacular example is in the floor of Chartres cathedral, if you happen to be passing by!

Now lets get it clear – a labyrinth and a maze are not the same. A maze has many paths and is puzzle, a labyrinth has just one path to the centre. Any more historical details, or any conclusions as to whether or not they have mystical significance will have to be up to you. I've walked a few and Ive never had a "Damascus" experience - apart from a "wow" once as I stepped out of one on Iona.

Ive done a bit of research here and there, and I enjoy searching them out, which was why I drove to Winchester and parked up near the river. My feet were going to walk a labyrinth. I sent a text to a friend as I looked at this view (clickie to biggie it as they say) It said “I have a lovely view of the cathedral. Up the hill I go.." The climb was worth it. Only the young and fit truants and dog walkers make it easily though. I turned round and looked at the cathedral, only it wasn’t. It wasnt Winchester cathedral at all. The cathedral was in the other direction! But whatever it was, it was huge and it was indisputably Norman.

I was very glad I was dressed for the weather – there was a high wind chill factor unless you were in the lee of the lovely beech wood crowning the top. The labyrinth was an interesting design. I am used to walking ones with an evenly spaced path in fairly parallel circuits. But this one, having an almost square outline, had changes of widths between the path and interesting bumps and loops. It was also very big. It took me twenty minutes to walk in, and another twenty to walk out – and I wasn’t creeping along, just a moderate, mindful pacing. It was in very good nick, considering that it dates from the 17th century and would very quickly grow over and get lost. The path is quite narrow, and you have to place one foot carefully in front of the other. You have to pay attention to your feet. It was so big that it was difficult to photograph. This is a better impression of it. Thanks for the link, Sig.

A few dog walkers passed by, giving cheery nods if I looked up; and a trio of local “yoof” passed the time of day - “nice up ere innit?” and looked a bit triumphant at getting up the hill. I suppose it was the most exercise they had had in years. It was quiet enough for me to do a bit of t’ai chi in the centre, and take the ubiquitous photo of my feet which graces the top of the post.

It was very tranquil reflecting on my inbound labyrinth experience, but it was turning a bit chilly and I had twenty minutes outward bound walking ahead of me. I was intrigued to discover about the “other cathedral" which I could see, and for that I would need to go down the hill back to the car, civilisation and the modern world.

To be continued.........

Monday, March 20, 2006


Spring is here! I am bound to regret that bold statement, but it's definite. This weekend the sky was a clear blue, the sun was warm - warm enough for me to feel comfortable without the usual layer upon layer. And there I was, wandering about the garden in a happy daze, wondering how small birds could make so much noise. Their songs filled the air. Yes, spring was definitely here.

The spirea had buds of a colour difficult to describe - orangy pink is just too prosaic, and light seemed to come from within them; the lenten lilies were more prolific than ever; green shoots of all sorts were showing themselves; even the stinging nettles were plying their trade. I had a happy time with the secateurs, snipping and pruning and rediscovering plants that recently looked a soggy brown mess.

And in a sheltered corner, by a warm south facing wall - daffodils! What a cheering sight. Even though the wind may chill us to the bone and the nights will be freezing; even though there may be snow ahead....I have seen it and I have felt it. I have faith. Somewhere hidden, spring is waiting in the wings for its cue. Perhaps "Spring Equinox" are the magic words......

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Old School

Its late afternoon, the sun is low in the sky, the temperature is near freezing and the wind is biting. I’ve just been for a walk in the snowdrop wood by the river to see if any daffodils are showing themselves. Sensibly they are biding their time.

I walked up our drive, and halfway up took a photo with my phone of the new double glazed, wooden windows. You can just see one of the old style, multi paned windows on the ground floor, in the shadow beyond the edge of the fence. The drive was originally just a narrow pathway from the road.

When the building was a school (up until 1972) the pupils would walk up the path, and enter through the gothic pointed doorway (which is now a window). In the porch wall, over the door, carved in the square of stone, is the family crest of the Sheridan family, who built the village school in 1863. The motto reads (although in Latin) “the stag, when pressed, becomes a lion” Hmmm, I wonder if I should adopt it. (for more details see Comments!)

Richard Brinsley Sheridan II was the grandson of the famous Irish playwright. He and his wife, Maria Marcia were popular in the village. She was the daughter of a famous General at Waterloo, but incurred his wrath when she and Richard eloped and got married at Gretna Green!

It would have been nice to have a bell in the little tower, but its long gone – probably unsafe to have one. The chimney used to lead to an old Tortoise stove, one of two that warmed the lofty building, though now its used by a wood burning stove. The central heating is oil fired but its nice to have a real fire sometimes. The building was tall enough for us to have a second floor installed, and the bedrooms have the original interestingly curved beams incorporated into the walls.

The school is built of local flints, which have been cut or knapped into square shapes and placed in rows, and the roof is green Welsh slate. Very sturdy. However, the Victorians were a bit “just for show” and the other side of the school (not seen as it faces away from the road) doesn’t have knapped flint and the slate is of ordinary quality. The original windows were set about shoulder high, so that the pupils wouldn’t have been tempted to spend their time gazing out of the windows!

Some of the older inhabitants of the village remember coming to school here, and our next door neighbour (who has since died at a ripe old age) was a dinner lady and told us a few tales about who was mischevious and who was wellbehaved! Most people say it was a happy school, and I felt quite sorry that my girls couldn’t go to school in the village, but had to get the school bus every morning and not just stroll down the road like the kids did in days gone by.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Garden tagged, again

I’ve been tagged by the other Val. It’s a pleasure, as it’s the sort of thing that I wouldn’t normally think about. But fun to contemplate the answers.

If I was only allowed to keep one plant in my garden which would it be?
An acer (Japanese maple) - perhaps my senkaki or maybe my shindeshijo. They are beautiful in
all seasons – small star shaped leaves that turn a wonderful flaming colour in autumn, and the senkaki has amazing red bark that shines all winter.

If there was only one thing invented in the past 100 years that I was permitted to keep, what would it be? Definitely the computer. I can communicate, converse, investigate, play games, mess about with images, build libraries in cyberspace, study, and make new friends!

Name 3 animals you saw yesterday (excluding cats and dogs).
Well the only two animals I could only name with certainty are my sheep – named Timothy and Two! (Two is called that because he had 2 painted on him, he was the second of triplets!) This is a picture of Timothy. They are Suffolk cross Clun. Being slightly more sensible :- 1. sheep 2. horse 3. cow

Which season do you like the most? I think I enjoy summer the best. I like spring because it means that summer is on the way. But early summer, when the weather is pleasantly warm, the leaves are fresh (not the tired faded greens of late summer) and the meadows and lanes are full of flowers.

Name the person who inputed the most wisdom into your life? My Buddhist teacher of some thirty years ago, Kapilavaddho Bhikkhu ( who became Richard Randall when he went back into lay life). I first heard about him in my local paper in London, which proclaimed " Barman becomes Buddhist monk". Not totally true, but it caught my attention and I found him on the other side of London. What a man! Such integrity, guts, wisdom and gentleness. He made the driest of Pali texts spring to life and showed their relevance still for people today. A bow of thanks.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Mindful breathing

Those of you with good memories will remember a similar view of my feet in another month and another sea.

Due to an unforseen change in circumstances, I was left with a free weekend - and I mean truly free: no washing, no wallpaper stripping, no shopping. I had done all that so as to make myself free for the weekend. When I was working unsociable hours in the public side of the library, I would get a day off in the week. I used to jaunt out into the countryside, wherever the whim took me, and discover all sorts of places and enjoy a day for me. I don't seem to do that now I have weekends off like normal folk. But here was a gift day!

I headed straight for the sea, only twenty minutes drive away. It was still below freezing, and a brisk wind took my breath away. But down out of the wind it felt warmer. The sea was flat calm and blue, but - and I have never felt this before - it seemed to be breathing. There was a stillness, then a sort of sucking in and back, followed by an expectant pause when the stillness was radiant, and then a magnificent exhaling, followed by a foamy settling down. And the cycle started again.

I was transfixed. It really felt like a meditation, only watching the ocean's breath rather than my own. But it wasn't comfortably regular. There would long periods of shallow breaths/waves. Then, from out of nowhere, a series of satisfyingly huge ones, that made a deep reverberating boom as the weight of water crashed down. Occasionally the foam aftercrashings made thousands of little peaks that caught the sunlight and sparkled, before subsiding.

It was very like a meditation in that it was difficult not to await the arrival of the peak experiences and delight. But having seen through that little snare, it was so easy to be content and peaceful.

Eventually my gaze wandered along the length of the pebble ridge and I discovered I had company in the form of a large black bird, who seemed to be enjoying the sunshine too. And then I noticed a heat haze, like a mirage, rising off the beach. Nah, not in sub zero temperatures, surely? I stood up to see whether the distant kite flyers had lit a fire, but I couldnt see one. Weird.

Inevitably I got interested in the pebbles, and remembered the lovely St Columba's beach on Iona. These were much smaller, tiny, a centimetre or two across. I brushed away the dry top layer to find a glistening array of miniature marvels. Of course I couldn't resist taking a few with me! Just a translucent white one, oh and a pinky granite looking one, oh and one with the greeny tints reminiscent of serpentine.....

As I went back to the car with bulging pockets (camera, phone, car keys and just a few tiny pebbles!) I was looking forward to a nice cup of tea by a log fire. But apart from that, I was totally happy.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Feathered friends

Spring is on its way. It’s March. Birds are flying around with beaks full of twigs for nest making; crocuses are flowering; a few brave daffodils are braving the wind; – and it’s snowing!

Nothing is ever cut and dried with the English weather. Much like life – you think you’ve got it cracked, but up comes another little “challenge” on cue to test you. I am talking management-speak here, where problems are known as “challenges” Hrumph.

But the birds don’t seem to care, they come flocking around the peanut feeder I hang from the rowan tree. Twenty six years that rowan tree has been there. I know, I planted it as a protest, when I was strongly discouraged from calling the youngest daughter Rowan. Well, I didn’t know that a comedian and an Archbishop of Canterbury would make it a well known male name, so perhaps it was as well.

Oh yes, the birds :- greenfinches, blue tits, long tailed tits, great tits, chaffinches, but the clever robin (who can’t cling on like the others and hangs around underneath for the bits that fall to the floor). Underneath grow snowdrops, cyclamen and a hellebore, very springlike when the snow has melted in the sun! I grew up in London where the only birds in the back garden were sparrows or pigeons, so I love all the colours and the variety. And all to be seen from the comfort of leaning against a radiator, just as well when the forecast is more days of bitterly cold winds and snow showers.

I am not a birdwatcher, but I do enjoy feathery encounters. When we were on holiday in Sinai back in January, the gardens of the hotel provided a literal oasis for the local birds. I had to buy a book from Amazon when I got back to try to recognize them (which is going off the Nile with some friends in a couple of days).

There were yellow vented bulbuls, white wagtails, a Palestinian sunbird (what a jewel of irridescent blues and greens) and in the desert we found white crowned wheatears the friend who is off to the Nile says it’s a corruption of white arse, which indeed they had! And while having a stroll by the sea while watching the sun rise, I saw a little sand plover.

I didn’t spot a spoonbill there. However, when I got back to work there were photos of one – taken just down the road at the local bird reserve!