As the year turns, the earth calls me, summoning me towards the land. I feel a need to seek out ancient stones and imprints in the landscape. The ancestors cajole me. Outwards, to the wild places. To the land of bracken-choked moors and wind-scoured hills, to witness their leavings on the earth. Halloween is their day, when we remember our forebears and welcome them to our hearths. The pivot point, when the year shimmers between old and new.
We journey to Lady’s Well, a sacred spring hidden at the edge of a small Northumbrian village. From a distance, you see only a huddle of trees. But then, at the end of the rutted path, a small wooden gate marks the threshold to another world. A large, shallow stone basin, shaped like an arched window. Clear water in a dark pool glazed with russet leaves. It ripples from the spring that gushes at its end. In the centre is a stone cross, its base lichened with splodges of autumn.
The spring is watched over by a statue of St Paulinus, who was wrongly thought to have performed baptisms here and it is also associated with the 4th Century St Ninian. But it is likely that the well was originally a pagan, rural shrine and a Roman road was later built alongside it. Its visible guardians are the trees: huge beeches resplendent in their autumn colours and yews sprinkled with berries. Lady’s Well is silence, simplicity, seclusion. But it has a deep, fizzing energy that invites you to linger.
From Lady’s Well, we climb higher into the enchanted Simonside Hills, until the land opens out before us. We’ve come to Lordenshaws, a weather-beaten hill, layered with history. Here, you can see the hollows in the land of an Iron Age hill fort, Bronze Age burial cairns and the remains of a Romano-British settlement. But we have come to see something yet more mysterious: the designs carved into the rocks up to 5,000 years ago.
We climb paths rimmed with bronzed bracken and Calluna heather. To a large rock, etched with cups and spirals. It’s not clear who made these marks, or exactly when, or why. But the motifs of circular grooves and cup-like depressions, pecked and carved with stone tools, are similar across Europe. The urge to create is strong. Before written language, before recorded history, our ancestors were inspired to forge patterns in rock. Stone on stone. Marks that had meaning to them but are an enigma to us.
Lordenshaws is the sound of roaring wind and the chuckle of red grouse in the bracken. It is the thunder-like boom of artillery from the nearby Otterburn military training ranges. Where Lady’s Well is introspection, Lordenshaws is bold, barren and expansive. A lone black faced sheep has taken up residence at the peak of the fort, peering down at us over the brow of the hill. Its companions, ivory-coated sentinels, watch us as we draw near. Satisfied that we mean no harm, they leave us to wander the hollows of the fort and pay our respects at the burial cairns unaccompanied.
Our final rituals take place within sight of our own hearth. We burn the seeds we ‘planted’ in spring, to release the dreams of the old year. We light a candle on the altar of our ancestors and lay a place for them at the table. We choose Tarot cards to divine our possibilities for the year to come. Then the feast, assembled from the harvests of the season: stuffed pumpkin and pomegranate fool. And I end the year with good news, a message from Aesthetica magazine, to say that the story I entered in their competition will be published in the resulting anthology, with the overall winner to be announced in December.
Like any pilgrimage, this one had its challenges. Road closures, diversions, wrong turns and unmarked trails made us believe at times that we would never reach our destinations. But at last we met the ancestors in their spirit places. We witnessed the visions they manifested in the earth. At last, just for a while, they called us home.