I admit I rather like taking nature walks where everyone we meet is social distancing… with a polite smile, other walkers withdraw into the shrubbery or the bracken and we pass each other by at a safe distance, or with jokes about whether we are on the right route and whether we’re going round in circles and have seen each other before.
So it was in Thickthorn Wood, Kenilworth. Only the sound of cars rushing past on the A46 between Warwick and Coventry in a newly-loosened lockdown slightly detracted from the exquisite melody of the birdsong.
Glorious rhododendrums and bluebells gave this woodland the feeling of an enchanted forest. I could almost imagine Merlin and Arthur making their way along the track on white horses, searching for Nimue to try and persuade her to cancel one of her magical conspiracies against the inhabitants of Camelot….
We set off from Paihia early in the morning and drove south through a landscape of velvety green hills uninterrupted by hedges or fences, dotted with a wide variety of trees, and occasionally by pretty white bargeboard houses in gardens. It felt as if we were surrounded by JRR Tolkien‘s hobbit country all the time: The Shire, that pastoral idyll which the hobbits called home. No wonder the makers of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films settled upon this landscape as the ideal location for Hobbiton.
Further along in our journey we entered a region of verdant forest packed with trees so diverse and so attractively interspersed with giant tree ferns that they seemed planted by design.
When we arrived in Matamata we immediately saw the welcoming sign and those of us who have loved the world of Middle Earth for so long at once felt a sense of high excitement.
And yet, as we were to discover again and again throughout our stay in Matamata and our visit to Hobbiton, you don’t even need to have read the books or have seen the films to be thrilled by what has been done here to recreate this romantic vision of pre-industrial rural England.
This of course was what inspired JRR Tolkien. The irony is that he was influenced by the countryside between Birmingham and Warwick, in the UK, and by Sarehole Mill – and his vision of Mordor came from the industrial wastes he found. So Tolkien’s inspiration is very close to where I live. But I went halfway across the world to find it recreated here in New Zealand!
Upon entering the visitor information centre we found a sculpture of Tolkien’s most insightful creation: the tragic and chilling figure of Gollum, who had, long before, been known as Smeagol, one of the river folk, until he came into possession of the One Ring, and had been enslaved and possessed by his lust for ‘the Precious’. The One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
I can imagine Matamata itself was an unassuming little ‘one-horse settlement’ before Peter Jackson found his ideal location for the Hobbiton film set nearby. It is astonishing to reflect upon the power of an iconic fantasy epic to catch the imagination of millions and transform the fortunes of one small town.
We had a delightful meal in The Redoubt and it built up our excitement at the prospect of visiting Hobbiton the next day. It was also an opportunity to sample a range of New Zealand red wines!
Early the next morning we arrived at The Shires Rest, a short distance outside Matamata, to join our tour of Hobbiton, led by a young man called James, who was, appropriately enough, English.
The tour bus took us through the rolling hills of the Alexander Farm, a vision of the undulating landscape of young children’s picture books, a perfect setting for the small, round, cheerful hobbits.
On the way James showed video clips of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films, and also gave us plenty of fascinating facts about the making of the films, how this area came to be chosen as the site for the Hobbiton film-set, and why indeed there now exists here a perfect, robust and well-built rendition of hobbit country, for the delight of many thousands of visitors each year.
AS for Hobbiton itself, we all found it beyond our expectations, so perfectly realised, with exquisite attention to every detail: Bilbo’s sign on the gate announcing ‘No admittance except on party business’; the oak tree above Bag End, the line of washing, the wheelbarrows full of freshly harvested vegetables, the mill and bridge, the party field, Bilbo’s eleventy first birthday cake, the Green Dragon Inn and the tankards of beer.
Throughout Hobbiton we found exquisite English flower varieties, all in top condition. In fact, being here was indeed like being transported into JRR Tolkien’s original vision. It has been said that he wouldn’t have liked the idea of his books being turned into films, as he believed that the power of the imagination must determine how people see the world he created. Nevertheless I feel that he would have been awed by what has been achieved here. Hobbiton lacked only one thing: real life hobbits!
SC Skillman, psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction. My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire, will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020 and is available to pre-order now either online, or from the publisher’s website, or from your local bookshop.
The period of British history which we call the Dark Ages was not dark at all – according to the author of this book, Martin Wall.
But we do know the period this term covers, between about 500 and 1000 BC, was marked by frequent warfare. Many of us choose to imagine it best probably through the medium of fantasy, in books, films and TV drama, such as The Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones.
The darkness only refers to our lack of knowledge of the period. And this author was inspired by the discovery of the Staffordshire Horde, to pour what must have been exhaustive research into the writing of this book.
Reading ‘The Magical History of Britain‘ is a rewarding experience, if you would love to fill in the details of a profoundly obscure period of Britain’s history including the so-called Dark Ages, and the recurrent struggles over many generations between Christians and Pagans. The author states that he was inspired to write this book by the discovery of the Staffordshire Horde. And although I was enthralled, I did from time to time find myself wishing the author had resisted the urge to pack so much information in, often giving a blow-by-blow account of events in long, weighty paragraphs, and filling in the entire life history of every character he featured.
Nevertheless it was still a fascinating book and of one thing we can be sure – through all the centuries on this Island, the Celts, the Romans, the Britons, the Danes, the Pagans, the Christians, the Anglo Saxons and the Normans have all been every bit as bad as each other, when it comes to wholesale slaughter and sadistic punishments.
The author draws through his narrative a thread of myth and magic, and his treatment of the Arthurian mythology is particularly interesting – a mythology that I believe puts down very deep roots in our national psyche. Somehow we can all relate to that longing for the once and future king. I know I have long loved the stories of Arthur and Guinevere, and the knights of the round table, along with the enchantress Nimue and the wizard Merlin.
Towards the end of this challenging read, including a detailed account of the life and work of Aleister Crowley, it was a positive relief to come through to the conclusion of Martin Walls’s narrative and to read his account of the Inklings meeting in Oxford – bringing us back to two of my most beloved authors, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, along with a fellow-member of the Inklings and a great friend of theirs, Owen Barfield.
The book concludes with some astute and discerning remarks about the present state of Britain in regard to its history, its national psyche and its spiritual and magical mythologies.
I’ve written before about sacred spaces. In that article, I looked at some renowned locations in England where people have felt they’re in touch with something bigger than themselves – a sense of the numinous.
All of these places work symbolically or metaphorically to express a place where we may be or a situation we may encounter in this life, that we recognise from our own experience.
And one such renowned location is Stonehenge – which I visited a few days ago with family members.
To walk slowly and attentively around Stonehenge, using the audio guide provided by English Heritage, is to experience something numinous, much bigger than ourselves.
The stones arrived here some time just before 2500 BC, to begin transforming the previously existing simple enclosure to something much different. And as we considered the huge effort that our ancestors put into moving the stones 19 miles from the Marlborough Downs in north Wiltshire, and 150 miles from the Preseli Hills in Wales, to this location, in order to construct this massive circle, we were drawn in to the wonder and the mystery.
Those who accept the theory of ley lines know that Stonehenge stands on the Old Sarum Ley which is aligned with Salisbury Cathedral, among other sacred places.
As the English Heritage guidebook points out, Stonehenge can perhaps be seen as the prehistoric equivalent of a great cathedral like that at nearby Salisbury, built for worship and as a place where believers could come to find healing and hope and where important people can be buried.
Salisbury Cathedral, described as Britain’s finest 13th Century Cathedral, is another inspirational place.
From its glorious chancel roof
The chancel roof of Salisbury Cathedral (photo credit Jamie Robinson)
to the stunningly beautiful lapis lazuli of the Prisoners of Conscience windows,
this is a place to move and uplift and fill you with awe.
Here, the hearts and minds of all those who enter, for worship or just to visit, may be lifted up to a bigger and clearer understanding of God.
Or, perhaps, they may receive fresh glimpses of eternity, in much the same way, perhaps, as the hearts and minds of those who built and used Stonehenge over the course of 1,400 years.
So says the heartwarming 1997 Christmas video “Annabelle’s Wish” (which I watched again with my 2 teenagers yesterday).
But the Christmas programming this year on BBC and ITV seemed to be all about dashing dreams.
King Arthur died; Maria was unmasked; the creator of The Snowman was revealed to be an old curmudgeon; and tragedy hit Downton Abbey again.
First of all, we learned that the real Maria Von Trapp seems to have carried off one of the most successful pieces of spin of the twentieth century.
The lovely Maria who danced and sang in the mountains, and transformed the lives of the Von Trapp children, turns out to be based upon a real Maria who was, it seems, a rather nasty piece of work – according to the investigation by Sue Perkins of the real story behind The Sound of Music. The testimony of Maria’s daughter Rosemarie was quite chilling. In fact the truth appears to be exactly the opposite to its portrayal in the Rodgers & Hammerstein film.
Then there was the end to the much-loved Merlin series.
We had tears on Christmas Day when we caught up with “Merlin” and watched the heartrending scene at the death of Arthur – and then saw a contemporary Emrys making his lonely way along the road, a wandering traveller many centuries later.
But, of course, as regards Arthur’s destiny, we know from Tennyson’s “Morte d’Arthur”, it had to be.
Excalibur had to be returned to the lake so that there might arise a hand, clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, to receive the wonderful sword.
And then of there was a scene of cruel irony at the end of Downton Abbey – an irony perhaps many of us can relate to.
And finally, we were reminded that the creator of the gentle, poignant and enchanting film The Snowman, Raymond Briggs, was more like Fungus the Bogeyman.
There seemed an unusually high dose of sadness and grief and irony on TV this Christmas.
So where is the positive, hopeful light in this? For that, let us return to Charles Dickens.
His Christmas Carol encompasses all the sadness, cruelty and injustice of life, together with the mistakes we make, and an uplifting message of transformation at the end.
Ultimately, Scrooge “did all that he promised and much more.”
Thank God for that, and for the hope we can draw from the choice one man made after being visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve.
In recent weeks many of us have been shocked by the case of Jimmy Savile and the BBC, and wondered how someone who did so much good in the world could turn out to have such a dark side.
The case of Jimmy Savile should make us all look with new eyes at the cult of celebrity, at the nature of good and evil, and at the capacity of human beings to appear as Angels of Light and yet to have dark hearts beneath.
Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness explores this, as does Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
This is what celebrity is all about: people who seem to be, who look and sound and do good. And we so much want to believe in them.
So many people were hypnotized for so long by the power of Savile’s Celebrity Personna, and his Good Works.
Today I learned on the Radio 4 Today Programme that Philip Pullman is re-telling 50 Grimms Fairy Stories. Neil Gaiman was also in the studio to discuss the archetypal appeal of fairy stories. Why do fairy stories work? Neil Gaiman gave this as his number one reason:
Fairy stories warn us “There are monsters out there. Beware of strangers – beware the wolves in the wood.”
Running through archetypal story structure, we find wolves in sheep’s clothing, fair maidens who turn out to be evil sorceresses, beautiful queens who are power-hungry murderers.
These characters form part of the “giant glorious background clutter we carry with us into adulthood”, says Neil Gaiman.
In the case of Jimmy Savile, and in other notorious cases in recent years, we have seen cunning people playing with and subverting the English tendency to say something and mean exactly its opposite, conveying this purely through subtle changes in tone of voice.
I’ll never forget somebody I met years ago (working at the BBC) saying in my presence, “I am a black hole in the spiritual firmament.” We were all sitting in a recording studio, making a programme for religious schools radio about the Iona Community. This colleague was a great character, probably one of my favourite people in the office: funny, colourful, down-to-earth, with a subversive sense of humour. “If holy people see me coming in on the radar,” he went on, “they’ll say: ‘Watch out, there’s something alien coming in here’.”
We all laughed, and later I wrote it in my journal, I was so amused and intrigued by his words.
Of course he was probably joking.
But so did many many people persuade themselves Savile was joking. So did Fred West convince neighbours and acquaintances he was joking. So did Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, convince work colleagues he was joking.
Convincing yourself people are joking is an excellent way to avoid responsibility to follow the promptings of your first instinct.
Of course these are exceptional cases, and there is a very high probability that when my amusing work colleague spoke those words, it could simply have been a theatrical way of saying, “I’m not religious”. Or it could have indicated bad feelings about himself arising from negative messages received in childhood; or it could have meant that he knew he had done – and perhaps continued to do – bad things that we didn’t know about.
Should not reasonable people be able to see “something alien” coming in on their radar?
Many people were blind to that “something alien” in Jimmy Savile. Human beings have a vast capacity to deceive.
What is your take on this? Please share your thoughts on the case of Jimmy Savile, or any reflections arising from it.
How do you think of Ayers Rock (aboriginal name Uluru)? Do you think of it as that rock in the middle of Australia, which presents a climbing challenge to all tourists? Or do you think of it as a place sacred to the aborigines, a jewel at the heart of this great continent?
Two and a half years ago, I visited Uluru for the second time. As we stepped out onto the tarmac at Ayers Rock Airport at midday local time, the first thing that struck me was intense colour and light. Glowing ochre earth, blue sky, pearl white ghost gums – and Uluru itself in the distance, dusky pink.
Uluru, an iron-rich sandstone monolith arising from the heart of Australia, is sacred to the indigenous traditional owners, the Anangu. It tells their stories, it shows the actions of the Spirit Ancestors in their violent conflicts during the Dreamtime, displaying evidence of their falls, their spear-thrusts, their lost shields. Uluru itself has a strong, brooding presence, which you begin to feel as soon as you see it, and which grows as you approach and gaze.
It speaks with its changing colours, amber, fiery red, deep brown, depending how the light falls upon it at different times of day, and its knife-edge shadows and fissures, flaking surfaces, indentations, pockmarks, wave-like effects, and most outstanding of all, the skull formation.
On another level, it almost seems like a giant plasticine model which a giant has pressed his fingers into or dragged a comb down, or stippled and stabbed with a palette knife.
For many visitors, this central icon of Australia is inextricably linked with the idea of climbing to the top. “Go to Australia: climb Ayers Rock”. But, warn the signs at the Aboriginal Cultural Centre, “The Anangu ask that you respect our traditions and customs, and choose not to climb it.”
We caught the shuttle from the Yulara resort, planning to do the base walk. On the 9.2 kilometre trail around the Rock, it was evident that the number of fenced-off sacred areas had been increased since my last visit, pushing the path further out. And yet despite this, a walk around Uluru is full of marvels. The trees and shrubs are all much greener than you might imagine – the wattles, the fig trees, the desert bottlebrush. The aboriginal cave-paintings fill you with wonder, every experience defeats your expectations – none more so than the Mutitjulu Waterhole. We came upon it unexpectedly, tranquil and mysterious, the Rock’s multi-dimensional character reflected in its quiet waters.
The feeling I brought away with me after walking round the Rock was almost that of walking round a great and beautiful cathedral, imprinted with the devotion of many centuries. I can well understand how the Anangu revere the Rock, which has taken on an awesome spiritual power from the thousands of years of sacred ceremonies and teaching and story-telling centred upon it.
For me it is another of my places of inspiration: a vist here allowed me a deeper insight into the meaning of the aboriginal culture, enriching my own understanding. Have you ever visited Uluru? How did you find the experience? And if it has only ever been a picture in a brochure, or a news report, what has been your impression of the famous “Ayers Rock”?