Children in the UK change schools at eleven years old, moving from primary to secondary education. When it was my turn, way back when, I went to a school so new that its playing fields were still being laid, and below my classroom window a bulldozer uncovered a Celtic settlement site. All that term I watched archaeologists measure and dig and photograph and draw, and then the site was put to bed and turf laid on top. We pupils were allowed to play on it, but I never did, and I didn't want anyone else to, either. On another plane, in another time, it was someone's home, with animals and people and children just like me, and if I remained quiet, and breathed deeply, they would walk past me standing by their roundhouse, which appeared in ghostly sheen even on bright sunny days.
I never told anyone, as I knew they'd think me mad, but as I matured and my affinity grew with the wealth of history that is jammed into these small islands, I realised that I was not alone.
People from all over the world flock to the castles of Caernafon and Bamburgh, to the circles of Avebury and Stonehenge, and I don't begrudge those tourists the sense of awe that I experienced on that school playing field. But for me, and for a lot of others, it is the quiet places, the smaller places, which draw us and imbue a sense of wonder in our 21st century lives.
The North York Moors is one such area, the south-north course from Pickering to Egton Bridge one such route. 2,000 years ago the Romans built camps at Cawthorne and a stone road up across Wheeldale in an attempt to subdue the locals. But the route was old when they dug the foundations and laid their stones. It was marked by a spring that still wells up clear, drinkable water, and modern people leave offerings just as the Romans did, and the Celts before them.
North of the present village of Stape, where the tarmac road intersects the Roman route, an overgrown bridleway leads east into a mixed conifer plantation. A 100 yards in, behind a protective single rail fence, is Old Wives' Well. Its stone housing, now covered in moss and grasses, is believed to carry a Latinised corruption of the name of a Celtic water goddess. It would be desecration to pull back the moss and try to find it.
In front of the well housing, returned totally to nature, ran the Roman Road. Trees crowd in where no vegetation would have been allowed to grow in millennia past, and oddly it is an oasis of mixed deciduous woodland amid the coniferous forestry that surrounds it. There are offerings there, coins left in the moss, trinkets and ribbon tied to shrubs. And we, silent, single visitors, pay meditative homage to the verdant green, to the bubbling water, to the physical and emotional peace the place exudes, and we leave our strips of cloth to flutter in the breeze and our pieces of silver to tarnish in the moss, knowing that we've played our part in a rite old 2,000 years ago when the Romans slapped down a road, a road about the same width as the tarmac where we parked the car on the verge not a hundred yards away.
An insect might live a heartbeat in comparison to the length of our lives, our lives a blink in comparison to the lifespan of an oak or yew; Nature exudes a single breath in a duration we cannot calculate, nor even imagine.
In Torc of Moonlight Alice and Nick travel the North York Moors landscape, in reality and in history, in search of a hidden pool that still exhales a Celtic breath.
Thanks for having me, Lindsay.
Torc of Moonlight is available in paperback and e-book (e-Pub) formats