from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Monday, 23 February 2015

going back forwards

The leaflet inside this little mediaeval church says: 'In the Assize Rolls of 1280 it is recorded that Thomas, the chaplain of Cattenor (Culbone), was indicted "for that he had struck Albert of Esshe (Ash) on the head with a hatchet, and so killed him." This kind of incident does not now take place in our tiny parish.'

The church is mentioned in the Domesday Book, and is supposedly the smallest chapel in England. It's dedicated to Welsh Saint Beuno, from whom comes its name ('cul' is Brythonic Celtic for 'Church', related to 'kil' in Goidelic Celtic). Culbone was the church used for the TV version of Blackmore's romance 'Lorna Doone', set nearby in the parish of Oare in the C17th.

It's also a bloody long walk for the parishioners – one of those Southwest Coastpath 'one and a half miles' that feels a lot more like 3, all uphill (yep that incline behind and to the right of the church) on a cool February day. And it's a wonderful walk through woodland, from Porlock Weir, below, and with thrushsong and the sound of the sea to accompany us all the way. As we descend at dusk, the lights of Wales are just making themselves visible across the sea.

This part of the world was well known to the Romantic poets, who thought nothing of trekking very long distances to see each other and for inspiration. (Somewhere between Porlock and Culbone on the inland route, laid up at a farm and almost certainly Under the Influence, Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan.) 

Exmoor National Park has details on its website of 'The Coleridge Way' – my sister wrote up the 51-mile walk from Coleridge Cottage at Nether Stowey to the Valley of the Rocks near Lynton, and has also produced an accompanying book, A Romantic Landscape – the poems of the Coleridge Way. On the Monday evening, TM and I sat in 'Southey's Corner' in the Ship Inn in Porlock, where the poet Robert Southey, thwarted by weather when walking to Lynmouth, composed his 'Ode to Porlock', which is calligraphed and framed in 'his' corner.

We're here for a number of reasons. One is simply that it's the day after Valentine's, and I was working plus we had family visiting that evening. It's also our 7th anniversary – bit of a record for me, restless as I have been in my past (what my mum kindly called 'a free spirit', not liking being tied down or feeling my wings to be clipped).

Another reason is that I want to show TM the Exmoor coast of my childhood – this combination of dramatic coastline, wild moor as hinterland, and pretty little wooded villages right on the shore's edge being as close to paradise as I might wish. Each of the Westcountry's three moors has its own distinct character. Bodmin is dark and brooding, not terribly welcoming to the casual visitor, but fringed with beautiful little oases of ancient villages. Dartmoor has a grandeur about it, a quality of masculinity and distance, the sort of elegance that a red deer stag possesses. Exmoor is beech-fringed, both soft and dramatic, and feminine in its quality, to me. 

And I want to revisit Culbone for the first time in two or three decades. Or more.

And yet another reason is that I'm hoping to lead some workshops up here, beginning in the summer. It's interesting that the place I'd come to visit, which sounded so perfect in so many ways, is unlikely now to be where I lead the courses. Instead, something that was only a distant possibility has unfolded itself, and will give me the opportunity I wanted to offer work with horses and with place – place in this case being an iron age fort with spectacular views. In addition, my long-time collaborator Michael Fairfax and I may be offering a Bossington Day like our Branscombe Day, with poetry and land art. So this is all very exciting; and for those of you who are further north, at least this little corner of West Somerset is more accessible than some of my venues.

And a secret reason, secret even from myself until I was up there, is that going back to Exmoor is a way of honouring my father, who had as his 'HQ' a wooden cabin up in the clouds at the highest inhabited point on Exmoor. The HQ was private. We went only strictly on invitation, and that was rare.

The psyche throws up what we need to do, and I knew for certain that Exmoor was where we needed to come on our first free weekend (well, Sunday and Monday) together. What I hadn't anticipated was a road closure on the way that meant we had no choice but to drive past my father's old place. It felt much too soon after his death to drive up there, much-loved as he was by me, and much-loved as the place was by him, and shocking, though inevitable, to see that the cabin had been demolished and a newbuild had arisen from the peaty soil. So the journey began, really, in the spirit of pilgrimage, even though that was not the conscious intention (though pilgrimage was part of the intention for the course that is now not going to happen). Sometimes the journey chooses you.

And so we had two days' of walking in swiftly-shifting weather. One of them was a long trek uphill – I thought the Culbone hill was bad enough! – from sea-level to Selworthy Beacon with its outstanding if stormy views:

and then back past Bury Castle, another iron age fort, through wonderful woodland with its miles of walls, some mediaeval, some being restored:

to Selworthy Green, a little late-mediaeval hamlet so picturesque as to be almost too pretty:

and back to the shore. 

And that just scraped the surface of the walking to be had here in these wild hills.


  1. Oh lovely, Roselle. The way you describe the three moors is almost exactly how I see them. My first visit to Selworthy and the climb to the Beacon was in my pre-teen years one summer, staying with my family in the village. I've even stayed at the Ship Inn, Porlock (8 months pregnant). And congratulations on your 7th.
    We plan to visit Somerset – late spring/early summer, having enjoyed staying in Somerton when we came to East Coker – remember? There's much to do and loads of walks, and as you say, easier for us up north to reach.
    Thanks for sharing the place of your childhood, poignant memories and your pilgrimage. I can't wait to see the sea again, 'the lonely sea and the sky'! (Sorry about that, it just popped out.)

    (Hope my latest email and attachment has arrived.)
    Miriam x

  2. Ah, I remember tiny Culbone church from my South West Way trek — such a delightful setting. In fact the Somerset section was one of my favourite parts of the walk.

  3. Robert, I expected you'd remember it. Oh and btw - have exhausted my store of Really Good Books on people's experience of the Camino. Any recommendations?

  4. Oh, do recommend if you yourself know any really good personal accounts of the Camino! I much admit, after being unimpressed by Shirley MacLaine and Paulo Coelho, and bored by many other poorly written/over excitable/ spiritually woolly books, I've left the subject well alone, preferring my own thoughts and memories. Indeed, I've considered writing a book myself, but I do wish I'd taken a lot more notes while on the trail. I can, however, recommend Robert Mullen's 'Call of the Camino' (Findhorn Press) which I read quite recently — it really is quite good, and intersperses his own experience/encounters (he concentrates on the pilgrims not the landscape) with mullings on all aspects of myth.

  5. Robert, I felt the same about Paulo C and Shirley M's accounts. It would have been good had you written one, yes!

    Thanks for the Robert Mullen recommendation. I haven't read it. I have finally finished Nicholas Luard's 'Field of the Star', which irritated me enormously when I first bought it years ago. However, this time, although I think he's a self-aggrandising name-dropper, I also really enjoyed it, finally, for his observant eye, his asides, and his lyricism.

    I'd love to find another that also unrolls the landscape from a personal perspective.

    On pilgrimage in general, you probably know Phil Cousineau's fine 'The Art of Pilgrimage'? - Lovely book.

  6. Thanks for this, Roselle — I've noted down both titles, neither of which I knew.

    Another book on pilgrimage I really enjoyed is 'On Pilgrimage' by Jennifer Lash. It's beautifully written.

  7. Oh great, Robert - thanks. Another to look for!


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