Ghost Roads

I love old roads that have fallen into disuse, or been relegated to the role of footpath.

There is one a few miles away on the edge of the next town. It used to be part of the road running from London to Hastings, but when the ‘A’ road that now serves that purpose was built, it not only rendered it redundant for the purposes of long distance travel, but the new cutting actually sliced through it, so it now ends at the top of a hill. From that point, there are only a couple of footpaths leading away in different directions.

Almost fifty years ago (really? Ye Gods!) I cycled along there on my way to the coast from the London suburb in which I lived as a teenager. Many of the roads I used that day are now very much wider, and all are much busier, save the one on the edge of that town. When I walk there from my house, it feels that for that part of the walk I am on a ghost road. I can still think myself onto my cycle, into that year, and the absence of traffic feels weird. If I think hard, I can almost feel spectral traffic going past. What adds to that effect, is that I often walk that way in the evening and the light – or lack of it – only encourages those feelings.

I think of it as a Ghost Road, but that definition really refers to a road that is haunted. Such a road is the B3212 that crosses Dartmoor, and on the stretch between Postbridge and Two Bridges it passes the cluster of buildings known as Powdermills. Powdermills is so-called because most of it was built for the manufacture of gunpowder. The buildings are spaced far apart in case of accidents (translation: the gunpowder blowing them to Kingdom Come), and for the same reason the roof of each building was of tarred paper. This allowed the blast of an accident to disperse upwards, hopefully giving the occupants of the building a slight chance of survival.

Anyway, there were many such accidents and many deaths. The B3212 is supposedly haunted at the bend nearest Powder Mills, just where it passes over the Cherry Brook, by a pair of hairy hands that try to wrench the steering wheel of unwary drivers that pass that way, causing them to crash. I admit to occasionally slowing down at that point and taking my hands off the wheel to see if anything happened.

It didn’t.

But I still like to think a Ghost Road is one that has fallen into partial or complete disuse. Perhaps old Roman roads that survive as footpaths are ghost roads; there are certainly stories around the country of spectral Roman legions marching along them at the dead of night.

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I think there is something magical about any road falling into disuse and gradually becoming overgrown. A road constructed for wheeled traffic used only by foot traffic. It has a special feel when you walk it, different to the feel of other footpaths.

A country lane at night can feel like a Ghost Road, especially in the light of a full moon.

Another type of Ghost Road is the ancient trackway. These paths criss-cross the British countryside and are often of great antiquity. Formed originally by the passage of feet, both human and animal, but used later by carts and other four-wheeled vehicles. These also seem to have that magical feel, although in this case I feel I’m sharing the passage with the ghosts of countless other travellers over thousands of years.

And in the midst of the lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic we seemed to acquire a few more of these Ghost Roads – an unexpected benefit of the pandemic, in my opinion. It seems a real shame they have become busy again.

Myth, Science and Religion

Religion begins as science, as an attempt to make sense of the world. The birth of religion marked the dawn of humans as rational, analytical beings. This was humans moving beyond the worries of simply surviving from day to day, and reaching that point in evolution where they looked with wonder upon the world around them and asked: How did this come into existence? What is it that controls the weather and other variables? By observing the natural world around them, the cycles of day and night, the seasons, the migrations of the animals, they would have concluded that these patterns suggested a grand design and order.

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An assumption would probably be made that all this was controlled by benevolent beings, but beings who might need propitiating occasionally to keep them sweet; the odd ritual here, perhaps a sacrifice of some sort there.

And if that was so, perhaps they could be propitiated in a somewhat greater way, to grant other boons?

It would not be long before someone claimed a channel to the gods to relay their desires and instructions, and so the priestly class would be born. Self-interest? Quite likely. After all, we see that in most religions today, so why not?

Religions then, over the years, spawned new religions, the spark being reinterpretation rather than inspiration.

We think we see echoes of old religions in myths. Myths are the fragments of history we know, combined with assumptions about how our ancestors acted and thought, frequently combined with scarce written evidence, which may or may not be biased or wholly inaccurate. When our written sources include stories of monsters and miracles, we should probably be advised to treat them cautiously.

Myth-makers frequently come with an agenda, although depending upon your point of view that is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are looking for a scientific analysis of the lives of our ancestors, it’s probably best to give myth a wide berth. Or at least to be very, very, careful what you take from it. But in a way, it does provide an alternative world view that many find preferable to both the stark realities of day to day life, as well as the cold dead hand of religion. After all, if you’re using your imagination, it’s easy to plan your myth-world much the way you’d like it.

And perhaps myth does offer us a way of getting inside the heads of those people, at least superficially.

One assumption we can make is that there would be similarities in the thought processes of those people, with the thought processes of us today. It is perfectly reasonable to assume they would react in similar ways to us, to pain and fear, to pleasure, warmth and cold. Our reaction to the unknown tends to be to populate it with characters or situations based on our experiences, and they probably did the same.

Stonehenge is aligned with the solar calendar. This we know. It’s science. And we know a considerable amount about the geography of the area around Stonehenge at the time it was built, through archaeology and science.

What we don’t know is how it was used. Just because it was aligned with the rising sun at summer solstice and the setting sun at winter solstice, does not mean we know what took place at those times. We assume our ancestors worshipped or venerated the sun there, especially at the time of the solstices, but we do not know that. Were there sacrifices? Did they hold special ceremonies connected with fertility or birth or death? Was it perhaps just like a club where they turned up now and again and got drunk and held orgies? It could be, since there is no hard evidence for anything.

Believers in ley lines also claim it is at the centre of an intricate system of lines connecting natural (‘holy’) locations with important (‘holy’) sites such as churches, wells and crossroads. Pseudoscience? Coincidence?

Our assumptions, though, lead us to think that because of the immense effort required to build the structure, it must have been an incredibly important site, and we are surely justified in concluding important ceremonies were enacted there.

Whatever they were.

All The Lost Words

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Last night I dreamed I sank into the depths of some great ocean.

I went down, right down to the bottom of the sea and

There I saw a wooden chest.

And then a mermaid appeared and smiled, and indicated

That I should open it.

 

But having done as she had asked,

I thought at first I had made a mistake,

For I beheld countless stars shining in the depths of the chest,

Which appeared to be as large and as wide as the sky.

And even as I thought this, those stars rose up and surrounded me

And then, dismayed, I saw them floating up until they reached

The surface of the sea,

Where they were taken by the tides and currents

And swept away to every corner of the Earth.

 

***

 

When I awoke, I felt sad for the loss of those stars.

But then I realised it had been a dream, and

I fell asleep again and dreamed I laboured down a mine.

And I was hot and weary and grimy as I crawled

Through low passages, searching for precious stones.

It was tiresome work but finally,

Rounding a corner, I saw a distant glow and

As I drew near, I saw a gem that shone amidst the darkness.

I found then I carried pick and hammer, and

Any number of chisels, so I set to work.

 

After much labour I held the gemstone in my palm and

The light from this treasure seemed to flow out from my hand,

And illuminate every corner of the mine.

This gladdened my heart, but one appeared who I had been dreading,

Although I had not known it until that very moment,

And they took the jewel from my hand and disappeared,

I knew not where.

 

***

 

And so again I awoke and then

I slept a third time – troubled sleep! – this time

I dreamed I walked on crowded streets

And watched the many who surrounded me

And listened to their talk.

These were the conversations carried on

By every man and woman who had ever lived,

Or ever would.

 

But after time their speech became confusing;

I could no longer distinguish any words, and then

The world fell silent, although they still spoke,

And still I watched and found that I could see their speech,

And all their conversations floated on the breeze

Before me,

For their speech was made of stars and gemstones,

Mingled now with flowers and with ash.

Mingled now with night soil and with butterflies.

 

And I was content with that, and now slept deeply.

 

Five o’clock

I’ve been away from the computer for most of the last week, but now I’m back with a slightly longer poem than I usually write.

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At five o’clock the fire is lit.

Around the table we all sit,

With buttered bread and eggs and ham,

With cups of tea and cake and jam.

The idle talk is of the day,

The work now done, the latest play,

And ‘Anything to watch tonight?’

Or in the warmth and soft lamplight,

Perhaps we’ll read and play a hand,

Of whist, or bridge, you understand.

And ‘Don’t forget, at half past nine,

The radio – it’s music time.’

Then bank the fire, put out the lights,

The household settles for the night.

 

The heat blasts out in every room,

And lights and games and TVs soon

Take over so completely that

It’s pointless even trying to chat.

The sounds of gunfire, screaming cars,

Exploding buildings, and on Mars

The aliens armed with laser beams,

Are killed on several different screens

In different rooms by different boys,

With highly deadly killing toys.

The evening mealtime’s such a treat,

With pizza, chocolate, crisps and sweets.

Although it seems they all are eating

Different things at different sittings.

 

‘A cup of cocoa? I don’t think

That that will do, an energy drink

Is what I need, the evening’s young,

And there’s still much that’s to be done.

And if I cannot concentrate,

Upon this game, it’ll be too late,

The zombies will have won and then

I’ll go back down to level ten.’

It’s one o’clock, they still can’t sleep.

There’s not much point in counting sheep,

‘cause they’re all battery-powered toys,

Just so much electronic noise

And moving parts all running round,

And round and round and round and round.

 

I’m standing now beneath night skies,

Pale silver light from fresh moonrise.

I’ve walked for almost half a day,

It takes that long to get away

now, searching for a quiet place

Where I can pause and have some space.

I’m thinking how it used to be,

At five o’clock, the time for tea.

It seems to me that what we’ve gained,

Is not worth any of the pain.

And even more what we have lost,

We should have saved at any cost.

But anyway, now it’s just me

I have my flask, I’ll pour my tea.

 

A Poem With A Very Long Title

This is another poem from my notes from some twenty five years ago.

Walking Out Into The Country At Nightfall In Winter Whilst Heavily Pissed Off With Life In General Probably Caused By Artist’s Block

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(Painting: Evening #1. Pastels on paper)

Grey clouds in salmon

– Reflected worlds!

Woodlands and valleys, rivers glow

Like magma.

My mood, dulled and burred,

Perceives…

Reluctantly. Stubbornly.

Between shakes of the head,

I see Turner setting up his easel

And painting frantically, dementedly…

Bleary eyed – look!

It has gone now!

Cold green and bluey pale,

Washes in and out

And blurs

Grey

Me

Sky.

A Poem – Moon

Moon

With the click of the door closing,

The laughter and the clink of glasses

Has faded,

Evaporated,

and left…

…nothing.

 

I face the shadowed lawn,

In tidal grey and scattered silver.

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Pulling my collar up, and,

Pushing my hands down,

Deep into my pockets,

I crunch down the driveway

As if crushing ice cubes beneath my feet,

Until I reach the street, long emptied and dark,

And now shuttered.

 

And stop.

 

Around me,

A sharp silence swirls

Like my misty breath;

A press of ghosts at an invisible bar.

 

Then looking up,

Through frosted glasses,

I see a perfect slice of lemon moon

In a cold, gin-clear sky.

And I laugh.

 

I will be away all next week, but I’ll reply to any comments before then and, of course, when I return.

Time, Gentlemen, Please!

When I go out, I will frequently leave my phone at home. If I have no particular reason to take it with me, such as for work or awaiting an urgent call, then it is a real pleasure to be able to leave it behind.

I feel a release, not being in constant contact with everyone. I also rely upon it for the time, not possessing a wristwatch, so again, without it, I am freed from this small tyranny. Interestingly, I often know the time if I am asked, as long as I reply spontaneously, without thinking, but then, if I give it more thought, the gift disappears. I wonder if this is an instinct that we have largely lost. If so, and I ponder this train of thought, how did older, ancient peoples view the time? Presumably not as ‘nine’ or ‘three o’clock’ – morning, noon and afternoon? A time of waxing and waning light? Those more sedentary no doubt were as much tied to the sundial as we are to the clock.

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At court, or in monasteries, or other relatively affluent places, they relied on candles, marked with hours, to tell the time, but the common people would have had no such thing. Here in England, the church might have possessed a clock that chimed the hour, so that those who lived near enough might have an idea of the time, but apparently these could be notoriously inaccurate, sometimes being wrong by perhaps several hours or more.

But this probably did not matter, for the rural worker would not need to know the time. The farm labourers would rise at dawn, eat something for breakfast, then make their way to the fields. Around noon they would eat lunch, and at dusk they would return home.

They had no need of timekeeping any more accurate than that.

Contrast that to today, when it almost seems necessary to justify every minute of the day. I think this is one of the attractions of taking a holiday; it seems such a treat to spend each day doing as much or as little as is desired, and not to have to justify it to anyone. And, by extension, perhaps it is vitally important that we take holidays now. Hundreds of years ago in those semi-mythical non time-dominated days, workers did not get holidays. They just had Sundays off. It is easy to suggest that we are softer now, but I think the fixation of time has contributed to lives vastly more dominated by stress, and overwork, and that holidays are essential for us all.

I know I damn well need one!