Borderlands - wide open space and shifting time
The Black Hill is a 2,000ft ridge, at its highest point, heading north and northwest along the Herefordshire - Powys border, towards Hay Bluff. On the neighbouring ridge, across the narrow valley to the west, is the line of Offa's Dyke. The dyke was built as a raised bank to divide England from Wales, from southern sea to northern sea, for some 150 miles. It is named for the ruler of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia who, back in the 780s, ordered the stone and earth barrier to be constructed to contain the Welsh borderers from raiding, rustling and other kinds of impromptu mayhem. Today the green and grassy rolling landscape to the east is rich with fruit farms and pasture. To the west are the high moors and red sandstone crags of the Black Mountains, carved out by the glaciers of the last ice age.
I am drawn to this borderland for its impressive views and the rugged drama of wild winds and screeching raptors, but also because time seems to slip and overlap in ways that give me the mesmerising sense of parallel continuities. The piled-high stone cairns you come across, on the highest points around here, have been placed as way markers for as long as we can imagine. And for four thousands years they have
been used as burial sites and memorials for the select few. Yet these humps of rough stone continue to be shaped and reshaped by modern passers by - people connecting themselves to a ritual relationship with ancient ancestors in these long-lived-in places.
Scattered around this borderland there are also dolmens, the even older burial sites of the Neolithic period. When these temples and tombs were first raised, as long as five thousand years ago, they were covered in compacted earth, penetrated by tunnels. Today only stone sub-structures remain, with some of the single slabs as heavy as twenty-five tons. Now fully exposed to the elements, they have inevitably become visually enriched by lichens and mosses, growth forms that date back hundreds of millions of years which tell their own modest story of continuity and resilience.
Even without the tunnels to crawl into, on a cold and darkening afternoon, or an early summer dawn, it seems easy to hear the chanting and drumming of our predecessors, folded into the wind that
races through the stones.
Michaelchurch - in memoriam
Just below the Black Hill, on the Herefordshire flank of the ridge, is the village of Michaelchurch Esclay. Small, remote, with little to say for itself, it was established as part of a much larger feudal holding, back in Norman times. Its most celebrated asset today is the Bridge Inn - the perfect countryside pub, alongside a shallow, rushing river. A less renowned yet more distinguished building is the pretty, simply constructed place of worship that gives the village its name. Its oldest parts date back to the 14th century. Fortunately, the Victorian restorations prove to be less heavy-handed than usual. They have not destroyed the ancient church's four-square and charming demeanour. Its modest beauty suggests to me a virtuous George Elliot character, someone I imagine in a grey silk dress, taking on the rigours of life with a unshowy forebearance.
Inside the building are the fragments of a three-times lifesize mural of a suffering Christ. Unsurprisingly this has almost completely faded since it was painted some six centuries ago. It looks like the clumsy work of an untutored local, but is nevertheless a fascinating remnant of the visual communication of a distant era. With the saws and rasps and other rustic tools that surround him, Christ appears to tell us that if we labour on the day of rest we shall cause him further suffering. Better the pub, perhaps. But outside is what moves me most, the all-enclosing graveyard, filled with headstones of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century elegance. The stones create a library of quite wonderful carving -not at all untutored - with flowing abstract lines, now crumbling and fading beneath a carapace of lichen and loss. For me, the graves are a moving testament to lives long forgotten. They are being transformed before us, by natural processes, into an extended poem, in which artifice, air, water and time are creating together a contemplative statement about unyielding change, that will itself eventually disappear.