What is it about ‘the stranger’ that’s exciting, challenging. I can feel that I both want and don’t want the stranger at the same time. The song seems to be about a kind of edgy desperation, a longing and a hopelessness. What happens if I take the longing but let it be hopeful, let it be challenging but good for me, not bad for me. Take the shadow and dance with it without wanting it to destroy me. It’s easy to romanticise rural life.
In Culmstock the village was beautiful. In the fields all around was evidence of the hay being harvested. Huge bales speckled the land on either side of the Culm. The archaeological evidence is that people have used this land to grow hay for thousands of years. I walked along the river with my sixteen year old daughter. We started at the ‘Culm valley Inn’, where I found a dragon sculpture in the pub garden! The pub is right next to the river and had a wonderful community feeling. The pub sign a reminder of the steam train (another dragon) that once ran through the village. We followed the foot path beside the river and over a bridge where we were delighted to discover – three little pigs! Immediately I thought of the story, but then how it needs rewriting. In all the stories the wolf is bad, ‘The Big Bad Wolf’. Yet in reality there are no accounts of wolves attacking humans unprovoked. We’ve demonised wolves because we don’t want to share food with them and now there are none left on our land. It occurred to me that the Stranger is a bit like the Wolf, the ‘other’ one, the one we just reject and make bad. And how we can rewrite the story.
Heading out of Culmstock, I wanted to go to Cold Harbour Mill at Uffculme. The sat nav wasn’t working, so we tried to follow an OS map, we turned left and left again and ended up driving down a lane that got narrower and narrower. I had a feeling we were being ‘Pixie led’ – an experience that I’ve often had on the Blackdown Hills! I said a little prayer to the pixies – those nearly forgotten ancestors of the land. I reassured them that I’m doing my best to bring nourishing stories to this landscape. And then I saw it. A big sign on my left, a farm building and the land dropping steeply behind. The sign said, ‘Sidwell’s farm’. Now to most people this wouldn’t mean much – or anything, just a name. But to me it was an ‘Allaylooya’ moment! I have a very long relationship with Sidwell. She is a saint, the patron saint of Exeter, but little known. I met her in my first week in Exeter, twenty years ago, when a small book containing her story literally fell off a shelf in Exeter library and hit me on the head! Her saint’s day is 1st/2nd August, the Celtic festival of Lammas, the first harvest. She is always depicted with a Sythe, according to Christian tradition, this was the implement of her death, before rebirth. Often she is shown holding sheaves of Corn. She is clearly pre-Christian, complete with a ‘Wicked Step Mother’, her’s is a story of Celtic fairytale. I link her with the Greek Corn Goddess, Demeter. But the Devon/Somerset Goddess is also clearly linked to Water. I feel thrilled to have found evidence of her presence in the Culm valley. To me, (trust me, I’m telling stories!) the pixies led me directly to this place – St Sidwell or Sativola (her Latin name) wanted me to know about her presence here. Yet, really, it’s obvious – with all that hay! And yes, we did get to Uffculme, just before Cold Harbour Mill closed but in time for a look around and a quick cup of tea. More stories tumbling fast and determined, as the river that runs alongside the mill.
Please do get in touch with me if you have anything to share that might feed the pot of stories. firstname.lastname@example.org