From 9th to 12th September 2022 CtC storyteller Clare Viner embarked on a storytelling pilgrimage along the River Culm, this is her blog from along the way……
In 2023 we aim to publish a small digital collection of Clare’s Culm Stories, watch this space!
Part 1 – Asking for Help
It’s a year ago since the West Country River’s Trust asked me to create some stories about the River Culm. The stories have been told at several venues but I had a calling to tell the stories all along the length of the river. The river has a long history of weaving and I’m not a craftswoman of thread, of weft and weave. But I wanted to do my own kind of weaving – to weave the stories into the landscape and the people who live in and along the valley.
So in July it came to me clearly; that I needed to do a three day pilgrimage from the source of the Culm at The Holman Clavel pub (as with many rivers, there are several sources and this is one of them) to the place where the Culm merges with the Exe at Stoke Canon. The distance is 27 miles. I was confident I could comfortably walk 9miles a day. But the one thing I’m not good at is map reading! It’s a paradox as I love maps and work with them closely to create stories but translating the meaning of a paper map to the landscape, I find difficult. But I woke with the conviction, one July morning, that this was meant to happen and that I just had to ask and someone would help.
And they did! I put a rare post on Facebook and immediately Jane Embleton got in touch with me. I knew Jane’s name through networks of friends but had barely spoken to her before. When she contacted me, I remembered someone telling me that she had led a pilgrimage along the River Otter. We met three times before the 9th. I quickly realised that she was the perfect person for me to be working with.
The preparations for the pilgrimage were magical in themselves. Jane has a friend who lives just outside Culmstock and she kindly agreed for us to camp on her land. I was at a loss for where we’d stay on Sunday night in Cullompton. I spent several hours researching but couldn’t find any campsites or friends to help out within a mile of so of the town. Eventually someone suggested the Walronds. I was quite sure they’d say ‘no’ but I had run some events there, so I contacted them. To my amazement they immediately said, ‘yes’, we could camp in their gardens and have access to the loo and kitchen. I later found out that we were the first campers they have ever allowed. Jane said, ‘This is what happens when you pilgrimage, doors open”.
So it seemed we were all set. Jane and I would camp in a field next to the Holman Clavel on the Friday night and Saturday and Sunday camping was all arranged. Around ten people had expressed an interest in walking with us, others in joining us for stories on the Sunday night in Cullompton. Waterproof trousers, tent, backpack. Every thing was set.
And then the Queen died. The day before we were due to start. I’m not a royalist but the significance of this couldn’t be lost on me. The Queen Elizabeth II has been Sovereign to this land since well before I was born. The word Sovereign is such an interesting one, here is one interpretation, ‘defining authority within an individual consciousness, social construct or territory’. We walked in the days after her death and before her funeral. For many this was a kind of time out of time, what our ancestors might recognise as fairy time – a magical time, liminal and changing.
Friday morning, Jane phoned me to say that our original host for the Saturday night had had a bereavement, so we needed to find somewhere else to camp. Amazingly Jane was able to do this quickly and we arranged to stay at Spicerlands near Culmstock. Meanwhile I was juggling other pilgrims coming and going and approaching with travel issues. But by Friday evening Jane and I were sitting outside the Holman Clavel pub with Reg, Jane’s son, a friend and fellow pilgrim Chris and about six other locals, all enjoying a pint or two and preparing for our adventure.
On that first evening I practiced telling a story about the Holman Clavel – the Holy man of the Clavel or Hearth. When you are telling stories some tales just flow out easily and people love them. Others take years, even decades to emerge. This story is one of those. First given to me on a scrap of paper by an archaeologist in Taunton ten years ago. I didn’t really want to tell it but Jane encouraged me to speak it out. We discussed that it was important to start the pilgrimage with a strong energy. As I began to speak, a group of people nearby started talking loudly about ‘Chimberly Charlie’ the ghost of the pub. It seemed he was close by! When the story finished, I was left with the empty feeling that you get when you’ve told a story but it hasn’t come out quite right.
“It’s a hard story to tell” says Jane, kindly.
Reg and Chris have also been listening. They tell me that they didn’t get a sense of the Holy man.
“He seemed grey and lanky” Jane agreed.
Lying in my tent that night I could see it clearly; a story of this place but my story too. A story of a lost city. I could see the city: shining, iridescent , like the wings of a dragonfly, fluid and impossibly magical. A priestess, I could see the priestess: wild, emotional, strong. But the holy man, the central character was almost invisible to me. I saw the story like a doughnut with the jam in the centre missing. Time to put the jam back in.
I slept well in the field. It was the same field where I’d seen three horses, a year ago when I came up to find the source of the river for the first time. In the morning four more pilgrims arrived to double our numbers. The Holman Clavel was warm and inviting. We shared a wonderful breakfast and I explained my difficulty to the group.
“I can’t see him, the holy man of this place. He is surely a fire man, a firey man. Can anyone help me? What does he look like?”
“I think he’s a Fisherman” says Chris,
“He’s got dark curly hair” Louise adds
“ And ruddy cheeks” says Fleur.
We go outside into the garden and I tell the story again. The story moves through me in a completely different way. I can feel a resonance, a joy in me as I tell it. I describe the holy man. I embody him, I can feel his presence both in the story and in me. I softly beat my drum as the story ends. There’s a rich silence, so different from the night before. And the pilgrimage has begun.
Part 2 – The River of Peace
The first day of walking
The first day’s walking was the longest but after days of rain the sun shone. The walking was varied, along old tracks, up over the old airfield and RAF Culm with history of wartime and aircrafts. It wasn’t long after that that we caught our first glimpse of the river; a singing stream dancing by the side and under the road.
I felt a surge of excitement as we came to Rosemary Lane and the village hall for Clayhidon. This village is so rich with Culm stories. Standing outside the hall was a lady with her dog, a friend of Jane’s and we stopped to chat.
“Do you know why we have a street here called ‘Battle Street’ “ she asked.
And I told her what I’d read, in an out of print collection of stories from the 1920’s by FW Mathews. According to him, one of King Arthur’s knights, Geraint, was a tribal chieftain in Clayhidon at the time of the Saxon invasions. Geraint fought bravely alongside his men but nearly all of them died in the battle. The road was said to run red with the blood of the fallen warriors and has been known ever since as Battle Street.
It’s a grisly tale but also an exciting reference to one of King Arthur’s knights. In the Welsh Collection of stories, ‘The Mabinogion’ Geraint marries Enid, who has all the attributes of a fairy woman. Celtic scholar Caitlin Mathews, describes her as one of the nine ladies of the lake. Enid is associated in the stories with deer. Later that day I saw a deer gently grazing in a field and immediately thought of Enid and the fairy folk.
By the time we arrived in Culmstock we’d been walking for around six hours. We were shattered. The Culm valley Inn served us a feast of a supper. I thought I’d just collapse into my tent and sleep but as we walked across the field, a full moon hung heavy and golden in the clear starry sky. Chris had lit a fire and the moon was calling. I found enough energy to share a glass of wine, some songs and tell a tale of St Sidwell.
She’s an Exeter saint, so I’d been surprised and delighted to find a farm just outside Culmstock, St Sidwell farm. The archeologist Antony Firth told me that from aerial photographs, they could see that haymaking has been going on on these lands for thousands of years. Sidwell or Sidwella is a figure very clearly connected with hay and corn. Her saints day is 2nd August, harvest time and her beheading in a field of corn has pagan associations. Where her blood fell, a fresh water spring bubbled up. There have always been miracles connected with Sidwell wells and sites, which are all over the South West. I thought about miracles, as we sat together, five of us, in a moonlit field with the owls hooting. I like to think that the earth was listening with us, breathing softly and remembering all the haymakers who’ve worked and told stories here for thousands of years.
The second day of walking
It was a surprisingly cold night. I woke achey and tired. We packed up our camp and gathered at ‘The Strand’ in Culmstock for coffee. One of our pilgrims was struggling and getting upset, but there was a lot of generosity in the group. A soothing kindness that washed over and maybe dissolved some of the discomfort. We passed a shell around, something to hold as we spoke, we’d done this on the first day, when we’d set our intentions at the source of the river. This time each person had three minutes to share how they were feeling – a check in. I was thrilled to hear that several people had seen deer grazing near our tents in the misty first light. We all noted that Reg had needed to leave the pilgrimage but Lesley had arrived, very unexpectedly, in the pub the night before. We were still eight pilgrims.
Walking from Culmstock to Uffculme was like a balm, to sooth our ragged tired edges; there were soft curves in the river, mermaid green water weeds dancing, wagtails swooped and dived. The sun shone. We stopped at Hunkin Wood, where a stone archway has been erected near the river and a poem engraved onto a plaque. We each walked ceremonially under the archway and Sue-Claire and Mo read out the poem. Here are the final lines by Elizabeth Rapp:
‘Air is angel’s food, the breath of life unseen
It bears a heron’s croaking flight across the brindled sky,
Carries children’s laughter round a war torn world but later
The wingbeats of a thousand silver doves of peace pass overhead’
We were all touched by the poem.
For me the reference to doves sent a shiver running through me; when I’d researched the name of the river, I’d discovered that it’s likely to have come from a French word, Colombe, meaning dove. I also discovered not one but at least two saints with this name. The most well known St Colomb comes from first Ireland and then went to Scotland, where he established the first monastery on Iona. The second and less well known St Colomb comes from Cornwall, where she still has two churches. According to an ancient document, now in Cambridge library, this Colomb was one of nine sisters, who’s mother was Morganna Le Fey, half sister of King Arthur. Her story reads like a fairytale and has the stories of both St Sidwell and St Catherine woven in.
As we left Hunkin Wood several of us began singing and gathering pigeon feathers, which we offered back to the river. I was musing on the poem, the connection of doves to this river, ‘a thousand silver doves of peace pass overhead’. Then I made the link; the doves of peace, the people of peace. The people of peace is a folk name often used to describe the fairy people, which makes sense of the Arthurian links I’ve found along the river. These were our peaceful ancestors, who wove peace into this place. Dove River, the river of peace.
Just outside Uffculme we walked past a house with three incredible sculptures displayed in the window. One figure looked like St Sidwell with her Sythe, a sheaf of corn and surrounded by apples, a harvest lady. Another showed a woman with a flaming torch and breathing fire. This figure reminded several of us of a story I’d told outside Clayhidon. It’s a pixie tale from the village. In the story, the Queen of the Pixies speaks to the main character, a man called Abraham. Folklore from Devon and Cornwall calls the Queen of pixies, Joan the Wad. She is always depicted carrying a burning wad of hay or straw – this her lantern and she uses it to guide the lost home. The woman in the sculpture was like a show girl, in a frilly pink skirt, not how I imagine Joan the Wad – but there was no denying that she held a burning torch in her hand! The third figure was of a crow woman with a little girl. I immediately thought of Morganna Le Fey with her daughters. I have no idea if the artist was working with the same stories as me – but the links were very interesting.
We had a picnic lunch in the gardens near Cold Harbour Mill. As we began to walk again white egrets flew up into the trees and the river meandered gently around us. We’d prepared for a lot of road walking on this second day. But the roads were gentle, lined with mugwort, hawthorn, bright with hops and lush blackberries, which we paused to pick. We walked through an industrial estate as we approached Cullompton, walking in pairs and sharing personal stories. Walking over the motorway and into Cullompton I felt joyful. We were greeted by a community of ducks, lined up along the now restricted but still present river. We enjoyed ‘Duckingham Palace’ with it’s flag half mast. There was music playing from a pub and some pilgrims wanted to go and listen. I was eager to ‘check in’ to the Walronds centre, Louise, Sue-Claire and Lesley came with me.
That evening, after we’d set up camp in the beautiful gardens of the Walronds, a group of us gathered at the White Hart pub. I particularly wanted to meet here as the pub is rich with stories. I’d booked us a table but when we arrived it was very busy and noisy with a TV screen and music. I wanted to tell some stories and had expected the pub to be quiet. And then another pilgrims door opened. The manager at the White Hart offered us the upstairs room. It was comfortable, with sofas, comfy chairs, a long dining table and quiet. Staff couldn’t seem to do enough for us, we were brought a tray of cold water and glasses, candles in little holders, the lights dimmed, delicious food served. And after dinner I began to softly play my drum. I told three stories, including the tale of a Fisherman, found in a newspaper article from 1878 and his adventures along the Culm with the independent Miss Osborne (based on a true story). I loved the reference to the steam train that used to hiss and puff along the Culm valley, the the superior fishing that was to be found here and to the White Hart pub, where the fisherman used to stay with his friends. Tricia also told a ghost story from Cullompton. For me there was a landing in the White Hart (the name means white deer!). I felt held by the spirits of place, the stories flowed, just as the river had flowed by our side for the whole day.
Part Three – Watery Ways
The third day of walking
I’m lying in my tent. I know I’ve been dreaming but the dreams have all danced out of view. I remember that I’m in the garden of The Walronds Centre in Cullompton. I can hear voices talking, practical, making arrangements. As usual, I’ve slept longer than the other pilgrims. I wonder about other people in the past who’ve slept on this land, not in houses, but close to the earth. I remember that I’ve been told about the very many wells that once existed in Cullompton, in Willand, in Culmstock…Wells, lakes, pools, marshlands all along this river.
Fleur makes us a delicious cooked breakfast and we pack up camp. Before we leave we pass the shell around for a morning ‘check in’. Sue-Claire, Louise, Lesley and Mo have all left but Rachel joins us with her dog, the pilgrimage group has a new shape again.
Chris is map reading today, we go up a steep hill, finding a footpath away from the road. Then down a hill with overgrown nettles all along the path. I”m wearing sandals and Chris is in shorts, we both get badly stung. Walking across fields, we’re parallel with the motorway now, the river on the other side. The walk is enjoyable but the motorway audible for a lot of the time. As we approach the Killerton estate people have left apples outside their drives, we collect them and munch sweet fruit as we walk. At Ellerhayes we meet Sue and her dog, who joins us. Now we are eight (including the two dogs) again.
A picnic lunch by the river. Someone suggests I tell a story but somewhere in my body I feel uncomfortable, maybe I ate too much lunch. My legs are tingling from the nettle stings, Chris complains about his legs too. I think for a moment about Cullom, in the story her feathers grow back after she seems to have lost everything. Her skin tingles as feathers grow.
I don’t feel like telling. Someone suggests going up to the Iron Age Hill fort, the Clump, at Killerton. I can feel that I want to go to this place, this well trodden Dragon’s den, a longing to be close to the earth of the Dragon. But after a discussion it’s agreed that this will take longer. I let it go. I reason with myself that I love Columbjohn, the chapel that we are heading for instead.
What happened next is still unknown to me. We took the lower path to Columbjohn, it was closer to the river but we couldn’t see the river. I usually take the upper path, which I prefer, it’s close to the trees. When we arrived at the chapel by the river (which I’ve always loved) there were groups of people standing and talking. Finally we had the place to ourselves.
I told a story that I love, that I’ve told many times. It’s a story about Killerton Hill and Cadbury Hill and the Dragon who flies, or burrows between the two. It’s a story about dreaming and King Arthur and the Ladies of the Waters, a story of defiance and determination to save what is loved. But the story came out flat. Chris and Fleur both moved away from the group as soon as the story was told. Then Chris disappeared completely. I was rattled. Tired and rattled. The other women in the group were positive and supportive but I could feel that something was odd.
As we walked into Stoke Canon there was grumbling about where I’d chosen to finish the pilgrimage, on the bridge behind the St Mary Magdalen church. We passed the shell around, spoke our final words. Everyone was polite but I could feel something else hanging there. The shell was thrown into the river. This is the place where the river merges, flows and washes out into the River Exe, into the Exe Estuary and out to the sea.
Maybe it’s just endings, maybe I’m not good at them. It would have been good to let some tears flow here, just as Mary Magdalen cried on Christ’s feet at the end of his life. But for me no tears came, just an uneasy feeling in my stomach.
I don’t have a story for Stoke Canon, this village that has flooded so dramatically in the past. But maybe if I did it would be a tale of tears. I’ve always loved Mary Magdalen with her ointment jar, her jar of medicinal herbs and spices. She’s the healer, not so different from Morganna Le Fey, who guides King Arthur on his final journey to Avalon. Both women have had a bad press. Both are intriguing, thick with magic and tears and endings. What’s the medicine in this ending ? I remember Jane telling me that after a pilgrimage it can take a long time before you really know what what has been woven.
When I get home I am tired and confused. I remind myself of the sweetness higher up the river, of the White Hart and the deer and songs around the fire. I remind myself that an uneasy feeling is always a clue. I’m not much good at reading maps but I do know how to follow clues; little signs, subtle feelings, that if you pick up the thread they turn into stories.
I wonder if the river has another story that longs to be told. One that if you keep topping it up – will overflow, like a flood. Like the mysteries of water, I resign myself to not knowing. I’ll keep writing, keep feeling and catching my breath by the little streams of inspiration, keep hoping and trusting that the threads of story will weave some kind of meaning into the dark earth of the future.
Jane and I meet a few weeks after the pilgrimage, at the Stoke Cannon Arms. We talk over the pilgrimage and my writing about it. We get out the map again. Then we see that at Columnjohn the river divides. This strong river that has flowed in one channel all the way from the Holman Clavel near Taunton, here it divides. I have a strange feeling as I remember the group dividing up, my sense of loss, of being unsettled, of wanting to cry. This is the place of spilling! And there is a holy place to remember it in the landscape. I remember that Stoke Cannon used to be known as ‘The Island’ due to it’s regular flooding. The character of the river is to spill at this point, to divide, to move apart before the coming together, the big joining into the body of the Exe. Jane and I go for a walk along this final spilling part of the Culm. We stop and I tell a story about a willow tree. As I tell, two kingfishers fly repeatedly backwards and forwards. Two rivers coming together, two bodies full of rich stories merging into one. Maybe a few tears are inevitable.
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