JAMES CANTON is Director of Wild Writing at the University of Essex. He is the author of The Oak Papers, Ancient Wonderings: Journeys into Prehistoric Britain and Out of Essex: Re-Imagining a Literary Landscape. In his latest book Grounded he takes us on a journey through England to help us understand the people who came before us.
ABOUT THE BOOK
For thousands of years, our ancestors held a close connection with the landscapes they lived in. They imbued it with meaning: stone monuments, sacred groves, places of pilgrimage. In our modern world we have to a large extent lost that enchantment and intimate knowledge of place.
James Canton takes us on a journey through England seeking to see through more ancient eyes, to understand what landscape meant to those that came before us. We visit stone circles, the West Kennet long barrow, a Crusader round church and sites of religious visions. We meet the Dagenham Idol and the intricately carved Lion Man figure. We find artefacts buried in farmers’ fields. There is history and meaning encoded into the lands and places we live in, if only we take the time to look.
Our natural world has never been under more threat. If we relocate our sense of wonder, veneration and awe in the landscapes we live in, we might just be better at saving it.
St James’s Chapel
The morning is cold and crisp after days of rain. The earth is a land learning to breathe again. It is not far from here, I know. A moment more along this empty road and there is a sign.
A few steps further – a gate opens to a hedge-walled passageway that leads to the stone wall of the chapel. A heavy wooden door opens reluctantly to the push of my hand.
Inside the chapel, a dim light reveals a bare, stone-walled space – an earthen floor. It is so cold. I peer about me – at the bare walls, at the wooden table at one end, at the fractured light in the window. There is a stillness here which is so tangible. It is not of this world. I close my eyes and simply stand there alone in the silence. I breathe in the still, cold air through my nose and feel the passage of the breath as it travels deep within me. There is a peace in this place that is profoundly appealing. I crouch down. I can smell dirt and damp lime plaster.
Tucked down in this most elemental place, enclosed in the darkness, the notion strikes me that I am actually in some ancient cave under a stone roof and with that thought comes a sense of security and solidity that seems to fill my body. I open my eyes. There is the same square space: just flint and brick and mortar and air. But within me there is calm of a sort that I have not known for months and that seems to have come merely by being here, by spending a few moments away from the mundane world beyond these aged walls, by simply stepping into this sacred place.
I feel earthed.
I am grounded.
For a moment more, I stand immersed in that square of stone and silence. There is nothing but this bare, frozen place and my presence here on this small patch of ground. In that stark simplicity, all fears fade.
Yet I know I cannot remain here long. I am so glad to have felt this moment of stillness but this stark place of earth and stone and air is too cold to bear. The iciness seeps inside me and I shiver. I have to leave. The wooden door creaks. Outside, the winter sunlight is weak. I step tentatively back along the passageway and emerge into the world again.
Those first steps to the chapel at Lindsey were the start of a journey, a personal pilgrimage. I can see that now.
I was driven by a keen curiosity to seek out those places where there was a sense of calm that seemed to seep from the earth, or from the buildings that had been built upon that ground.
It was a time of reflection in my life. I lived in an old farm labourer’s cottage in the English countryside, rather isolated and especially so in the depths of winter. Maybe it was some more basic existential calling – a reaching out into the darkness. Perhaps I was still trying to make sense of my father’s death over 20 years before.
Everyone has times in their life when they wish to peer more deeply into the profound reality of what we are as living individual beings, what life is all about. It seemed to me that the easiest route was to look to those who had gone before, to see how others in times past had made sense of the world, how they had seen the lands around them. Across human time, certain places upon the earth have been seen as especially significant. I would seek those sites in the landscape which held most meaning.
Even though some may now be long abandoned, there were places where there still lingered ‘time-thin truths’. The phrase was one I discovered along the way, one that rang so clearly.
At first I turned to the most obvious places, the monuments on the landscape most overt, most visible as sacred sites – chapels and churches with heavy doors and dark, stuffy insides. Yet there was a tension – an obvious tension – I am not a Christian, though I could appreciate the atmosphere within these religious buildings. Only after visiting St James’s Chapel did I remember Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Church Going’ where he expresses so well that experience of stepping into a church as an unbeliever and knowing ‘a tense, musty, unignorable silence’. Towards the end of the poem, in a beautifully simple sentence, he voices that same sense I felt in the frozen space of the chapel at Lindsey:
‘It pleases me to stand in silence here.’
In that stillness, there is a welcome peace, a sense of
Larkin spoke of the church as ‘a serious house on
I understood that sentiment and soon realised the need to realign my sense of what was sacred in the landscape around me. I learnt how the spiritual essence of a place came not only from the religious buildings constructed upon the land but from the landscape itself – that ‘serious earth’. Most churches were built on lands already hallowed. To those who cared to look carefully, the remnants of those earlier sites could still be seen and felt, where far more ancient feet stood on the same ground and knew that space to be sacred.
As this project evolved and developed, I dug deeper, ventured ever further back in time until I could see more clearly the nature of the sacred places on the landscapes – even those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors from over 10,000 years ago. They too had their hallowed sites on the land, where they could know something of the numinous, could stand on ‘serious earth’, could feel at peace with the world. It is the same for all humans. We all need to feel grounded.
An edited extract from Grounded: A Journey Through Landscapes, Sanctuaries and Sacred Places by James Canton is published by Black Inc.