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.