By Mike Bell
Even before we moved to Orkney, I think we both realised that there were things to be missed on leaving Suffolk. For me, one of these is the ‘little’ countryside of woods and fields. The landscape of my childhood was that of hawthorn hedges and old man’s beard and autumn skeins of scarlet bryony berries, and all the elements are there in East Anglia. It’s not something I want to go back to, but it’s deeply rooted in my unconscious, ready to well up in dreams and meditations.
Something we love about Orkney is the sense of ‘connection’ to be found in the land: connection with Life in its biggest sense; earth with sky; body with spirit; a place in the universe. A book on megalithic monuments of Europe says of the ‘Neolithic heart of Orkney’ that it is hard to resist the feeling of being in a blessed place. I agree with this, yet recognise that this connection is to be found anywhere. It dwells within us; is just as much to be found in that grimy urban and industrial triangle seen from the motorway as you pass Birmingham from the south. It’s just that it’s more clearly accessible on Orkney, perhaps closer to the surface.
Around Lowestoft, we very much found it in the woods and fields close by our house. I loved getting to know our local patch – its paths and plants and seasons. And, in particular, we found it at a ruined 14th Century church called St Andrew’s. There is much that could be written about St Andrew’s, but there’s not the space, and much of it is not my story to tell. Situated on a slight mound within an earthen henge – not officially recognised as such, but there to be seen by those with eyes to see – it is part of a much older landscape. The fabric of the church contains Roman tiles from an earlier building nearby, but the site bears a closer relation with the Bronze Age barrows a few fields away; long since ploughed out, but visible in aerial photographs and to dowsing rods and other senses. Bernie loves St Andrew’s, and counts the spirits of the place among her friends. She was regularly called there at significant times, not always knowing the significance until experiencing it directly. Once, I saw reflected in her eyes the echo of an earlier landscape, a closely branched grove of trees that once stood on the mound.
I have described St Andrew’s and its context at some length because it was the setting for an Encounter. One winter afternoon, I was walking the fields with Ben, our Jack Russell terrier. We had been playing with sticks in a shallow pool near Old Hall Farm. Walking towards the farm, we saw, perched on a fence post, the barn owl that regularly patrols the fields in the late afternoon. I want to write the words ‘silent ghost’, aware that it is a cliché – I suppose phrases become hackneyed for a reason. The owl observed us intently as we approached, before lifting off to settle a little further off on the ridge of an old barn. Again, we approached closely before once more it took flight, disappearing in the direction of St Andrew’s.
On we walked. We were about to turn away, to take a different path, when I felt a tug – not physical, just a nudge in my mind saying, ‘No, visit the old church’. We entered the henge, moving clockwise round the mound, when we encountered… the barn owl, perching on one wall of the ruin, not five yards away. I regarded the owl. The owl regarded me, its heart-shaped face turned towards me. There’s a world of meaning exchanged in meeting the eyes of an owl, and I’m still working out what that meaning is for me. All I know us that I felt invited. I was a part of the place; there was no division in spirit.
Unhurried, the owl turned from me, lifted its wings and vanished. I was left standing in the pale winter light: at peace.
Image courtesy of Anna McEwan