Holystone Well, Northumbria National Park
by Michael Maxwell Steer
What is beyond us? What is it that we reach out to? What is it that sometimes rewards us with a blast of oxygen in a smog-filled world? Bigger than all these questions: why has consciousness evolved in humans to be so blind, destructive and disconnected from its own natural environment?
At times like the present, when naked bigotry has been elevated to a political principle, only reconnecting to the ancient wisdom of the earth can restore faith in a future. It has seen it all before. Sadly, many times over. And Holystone Well is a perfect place to reconnect Self to Otherness - using whatever language you prefer. I first saw it on the delightful BBC4 series Pagans & Pilgrims, and was immediately drawn. Recently I was filming in the north and made sure I scheduled time for a visit.
It’s a misleading title, since in its present incarnation, Holystone is a pool not a well. But the spring feeding it provides enough flow to supply water for the neighbouring hamlet, so in that sense it can be called a well. And doesn't that make you think about the word's original meaning? "All shall be well, and all manner of thing ...” For our ancestors clean water would have been a prerequisite of being well.
I came here seeking to be well - whole in mind and purpose - and wellthy, having the energy to serve causes that create common-wealth. And I came away with a renewed connexion to the silent sanity which still underpins the collective madness of humanity. I drew deep reassurance from the fact that the invisible flow of Holystone's well-ness, a springing gift from the the planet itself, is beautifuly maintained today by the National Trust as a sacred space, set aside for reflexion.
Someone from Austin Texas was here in 2014 and left a medallion. Visitors have contributed a little spiral of coins, a rosary and a crucifix - witnesses to the many dimensions of time and existence. Nominally the pool is dedicated to St Ninian, who is represented in a medieval statue - but as a psychic reality the figure is the genius loci, the spirit of the place. The being or thought-form who has grown alongside and because of the spring, the trees, the nourished earth and the humans who became part of the nurturing cycle.
And so in this unbroken chain of pilgrimage came my wife and I and dog to this magical space, and like the great precession we were rewarded with a re-vision of possibilities. The reflexion I took away was that while we humans have made a mess and a mockery of our only habitat we alone are the solution. Yet we few cannot work as effectively alone as we can together, and to articulate a vision that unites people we need leadership. And uh-oh …
This too will pass.
The re-creation offered by Holystone is beautifully evoked in this poem The Divine Bird by the 15thC mystic, Kabir (around the time St Ninian’s statue was carved), which I versified from Tagore’s translation a couple of years ago..
In this tree a single bird
with dancing song almost unheard
swoops & thrills its deepest leaves
with the enchanting tune she weaves.
Who knows its purpose? For at night
she comes, and leaves by first light.
For whom she sings, if not for me,
who knows? It may be nobody.
Suddenly present, as if from nowhere,
she may as quickly disappear.
I was not told about this tree,
far less the bird – nor have I seen
either its colour or its form,
nor e’en what dance it may perform;
yet its etheric call I hear –
its ballet, tho unseen, is clear.
Beside an abandoned path, this place
is missed by those who’re ruled by haste.
Few there are who know the way,
and fewer still who choose to stay.
Brother sadhu, Kabir says,
don’t invite the race of fools,
who’ll drown the songs and cut the branches:
rather, merely leave them clues.
One or two within your days
may note your path and share your gaze –
them you’ll know without a word:
for in their silence sings that bird.