Summer Solstice, 21st June, 2014: Walking on Dartmoor.
This is the third day of a 4 day pilgrimage across Dartmoor, beginning at the church on the hill, St. Michael de Rupe at Brentor and finishing at the Church of the Holy Cross, Crediton, following the Mary/Michael Line.
It is also the Summer Solstice and promises to be another hot, dry day on Dartmoor. By the time we have finished tucking into Caroline’s delicious breakfast, the mist has dissipated from the tops of the distant moors. With sun cream liberally applied to exposed areas of skin and full of anticipation for the day ahead, we leave Moorgate Cottage behind us and walk up once more onto the open moorland heading towards a stone circle near Belstone called Nine Stones Cairn Circle. A couple of pilgrims stop for a quick dip in the stream at Gulliver Steps on the way where I am only prepared to bare my feet to dip into the cooling water. Nine Stones is a small and intimate circle where we place a couple of heart-shaped stones picked up along the way in celebration of this, the longest day, and re-arrange a bunch of wild flowers left by a previous visitor into a mandala shape around them.
I am reminded of the many Summer Solstices I have celebrated in the past at Boscawen-un Stone Circle in Cornwall.
As we head out on the other side of Belstone towards what will be our steepest climb of the pilgrimage, to Cosdon Hill (550 metres above sea level), I am wondering what I should do with the stone that is still in the bottom of my backpack. It was discovered lying on the river bed at the base of the waterfall at Lydford Gorge which we visited a couple of days ago. It bears the cross of St Piran on it, the Patron Saint of Cornwall and has been given to me presumably because of my Cornish connections. I know there has to be a place along the way where I must leave it, but at this point, I don’t know where that place is. Somehow, I know that when the time comes, it will become clear what I should do with it.
It is a long and hot trudge up to Cosdon, with the benefit of a cooling breeze the higher we climb. The 6 kilos of weight I am carrying on my back feels more like 12, and sun hats are dunked into Lady Brook on the way up to cool over-heated brows. The footpath is not always clear, either breaking up into animals tracks or we find ourselves making our way across rough, tussocky ground between squelchy boggy patches of springy heath and cotton grass.
This long climb is easily the most challenging part of the whole pilgrimage and just before we reach the summit, my mobile phone rings. I manage to dig it out from one of my zipped trouser pockets. It is Paul, the vet who is treating Sadie for a ‘spontaneous prolapsed disc’. He tells me her condition has deteriorated and there is nothing we can do now to reverse the situation. That the time has come for us to end her suffering. Barely able to splutter out the words, I make David promise to hold Sadie for both of us so that I can be with her too in her last moments. In that moment, I understand why I have been carrying the ‘Cornish’ stone.
On the descent from Cosdon on the other side of the hill, we stop to walk up an ancient stone row. With the Cornish stone now burning in my hand, I walk up the narrow alley between the stones, imagining Sadie by my side, running up the track for the last time. I see her elegant body gliding along in slowed, poetic motion, embodying all the runs she has ever done, in joyous harmony.
At the end of this stone row is a small cist or burial mound. Here I carefully place this stone which now represents my little Cornish whippet, tucking it into a cosy corner amongst the fallen boulders and vegetation that covers the mound.
I discovered later that this stone row is known as ‘the graveyard’. I know I will come back to this place one day. After that, the remainder of this joyous Solstice day is a bit vague, except I remember the large granite standing stones at Spinsters’ Rock (Burial Chamber). I remember them particularly because they were humming. A low-level hum in response to some toning we had done which I found strangely comforting, and something I have never heard before. It was hard to comprehend why I was the only one that seemed to hear them. Then the long road walk to Drewstaignton, and welcome rest.
Sadie’s body now lies buried in a shady corner of my paddock where she once frolicked with her pack. And I am reminded of the stained glass image of St Michael in the chapel on top of the hill at Brentor at the start of our pilgrimage. In one hand he holds up a sword-cross and in the other hand he carries a pair of scales. A reminder that life is a precarious balancing act. In St Michael’s case, a balancing act between the forces of good and evil: lightness and darkness. I do not think it is possible to have the one without the other.
Even so, perhaps I should have been more prepared for what was to come knowing that the best laid plans can go wrong. Before I had even begun this pilgrimage, I had missed my train connection and the bus I was travelling on to catch up with the rest of the party had broken down, its engine simply ‘cutting out’, as if to reinforce the notion that rare incidents do happen.
This pilgrimage for me has represented the fragility of life, the acceptance of unexpected things that happen that probably have some meaning for us if we care to examine them. The synchronicity of being in certain places at what felt like the right times, and how in a single day, it is possible to experience both the joy of nature at its zenith, and the sadness we feel at the premature passing of a precious life from this earthly world. Yet another poignant reminder that the cycle of life (and death) goes on regardless of our best laid plans. Rest in peace, my darling Sadie.