Wednesday, 15 April 2009

On Blackden



There are places that touch the soul so deeply it hurts. It’s like standing at the front of a ferry breathing into the wind, loving the exhilaration yet gasping for breath, being filled so totally it is unendurable. It is too dense, too intense so you turn away to breathe more thinly, more easily – just enough to fill your lungs before turning back.
I have a list of these soul places clear in my head but I never share them openly. I keep them tucked away, like secret love letters, jealous of others sharing their nectar. Not just jealous, but scared – because these liminal places (and they are all liminal – thresholds to other worlds) are so fragile that the wrong approach, the simplest profanity (however unintentional) could rip the veil and leave the place just that – a place.

So I am breaking my bond by talking about Blackden - a place that is breathtaking in every sense. Yet its guardians know the power of place far better than I and, as they have given their blessing, I figure some powerful magic holds the tenemos. It will be a case of those who are meant to go will go and learn and love. Those who are not will simply not read these words or read and misunderstand or just shake their heads and mutter, ‘wish she’d get back to the funny stuff’. So it’s probably safe.

It started a couple of years ago. A discussion online about our favourite books as children and my answer was unequivocal. Alan Garner. Books whose veins throbbed with ancient magic, with the knowledge of the earth, where the veils were thin between worlds, where there were folds in time, where past, present and future were never quite linear. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor, The Owl Service, Red Shift etc (if you haven’t read them, you must – they are not really ‘children’s books’ so don’t be put off if that’s not normally your bag). I am not a star-struck person and there have been few famous people I have ever wanted to meet (in fact, I would usually want to run in the opposite direction) but Alan Garner was the exception. It transpired that a fellow blogger, Elizabeth, knew the Garners well. She told me about Alan and his wife Griselda and enthused about their home, Toad Hall, and their vision for the Blackden Trust, set up to guard this place and explore its history. A few days ago she took me to meet the Garners and to be initiated into the ‘door from the past to the future’ that is Blackden.

You shudder down a long track that bends and sways, as if to confuse tricksy spirits and then the most incongruous sight comes into view. The vast white cup of the Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank, staring out into the universe and behind it, separated only by a field and a railway line, the low slung lines of the ancient timber-framed Toad Hall and Medicine House. I couldn’t escape the idea that the two were in cahoots somehow – that one day the telescope would summon something from afar and the ancient site would channel and transmute it somehow. I was as nervous and excited as a child on her first day at school but the Garners were the spirit and soul of hospitality and so started the most extraordinary day.

‘We hope to use the rich history of this site, that stretches back 10,000 years to open things up, to change the way people think of things,’ said Griselda, as we sat drinking coffee. The Trust runs a variety of courses and workshops for all ages. Griselda has a lifetime’s experience in teaching, so lucky primary school children have the unique chance to become hands-on with archaeology and living history. ‘Give them metal detectors and the little buggers will always find something,’ said Alan with a wry smile. ‘One little runt of a child came up and said, ‘what’s this?’ – he’d found an early Mesolithic scraper made of quartz eye.’
The next stage offers A level students the rare opportunity to be taught and inspired by university professors, pre-eminent in their fields, who all donate their time for free. Then, finally, there are the open workshops and events that give adults a chance to play catch-up, to expand their minds in ten directions at once.

Alan showed us around, an erudite guide who juggled millennia with panache yet managed to ground ten thousand years of history by exposing the human face of artefacts. The site is extraordinary – a promontory of sand and gravel created at the end of the last Ice Age as the slurry washed out from the glaciers. Originally surrounded on three sides by water it was good land, perfect for a winter camp and the flint artefacts found are all about making, mending and repairing – classic winter pastimes. The burial mounds are Bronze Age (but also used by Saxons). There are signs of Iron Age defence and fragments of Roman artefacts, although it seems unlikely to have been a settlement. Then, in medieval times, came Toad Hall (possibly originally t’old hall).
Alan came across it one day by chance when he was looking for a house. He found a cardboard notice in a hedge, ‘17th century cottage for sale’ and, as he walked through a gap in the hedge, a roofline emerged slowly.
‘I said, “Oh my God,”. I knew it wasn’t 17th century but a medieval timber-framed house. I went home in a stupor. At that time I knew my father would be about to go out. He’d go at 8pm, first to The Drum, then the Royal Oak, then the Trafford Arms and finally to the Working Men’s Union Club. The Garners were of a monosyllabic culture, virtually Pinteresque and the conversation went like this.
‘What’s up with you?’
‘I’ve seen the only place I can ever live.’
‘Where’s that?’
‘Blackden.’
‘That’s a way.’ (it was six miles from the family home). And his father walked out. When he returned from the pub he simply said. ‘You’ve got it.’ The house cost £510 freehold. ‘I had five shillings and threepence….and no prospects,’ said Alan with a wry smile.

The place lives and breathes history and the Garners knew years ago that they did not want to keep its treasures to themselves. They also realised that, if the house went on the open market, the only people who would be able to afford it would be the very people who would destroy it. ‘Footballers’ wives,’ said Griselda, rolling her eyes.
‘They’d dig up the burial mound for a swimming pool,’ added Alan. So they set up the Blackden Trust, quietly, organically, offering young people and adults the chance to share the magic, to get hands-on with history.
It’s run on a shoestring and needs all the help it can get if it’s going to survive and thrive. So, I beg you – please support this incredible place and these amazing wonderful people. There are conducted tours that run from April to October but really you should, if you possibly can, go on one of the workshops. On 23rd May there is a workshop on Tudor Herbs and Spices and on 4th July a course on Pilgrimage and Protection. From 21st July – 27th August you can take part in an excavation of a lost barn.
Or just listen to medieval music, played on intruments of the period in its original environment – a lunchtime recital on Sunday 21st June. Follow the links, follow your heart….become part of the magic… (or, on the other hand, simply turn away and wait for the next funny blog).

30 comments:

Calico Kate said...

So wish I was nearer so that I could go and see. I read Elizabeths blog the other day and checked yours, sure that you would write about it too and now you have. It sounds amazing, and I am going to go and check out the books you mention. Mum's working in the library on Friday I'll send her in with a list!
This was a lovely blog thank you for sharing it.
CKx

Celtic Heart said...

Such a magical place. You and Elizabeth are two lucky people to have visited. Colour me green. I can only dream and live through your words, for which I thank you both! CH xx

Fire Byrd said...

OOOOhhhh, I don't live that far from Jodrell bank so that must mean also this magical sounding place. Like the idea of the Pilgrimage workshop.
I had goose bumps reading this post.
I know what you mean about magical places, I have several that I go to when I can't sleep to soothe my mind.
xx

word ver: ancessic ,quite apt i think!

Phidelm said...

Yes, there ARE magical places - and you've conjured up the sense of magic evoked by this one most beautifully. More power to the Garners, who are among those rare people who recognise the importance of such matters, are prepared to share them and help educate the young about them. And, yes, isn't AG a wondrous writer? Fab piece, Jane: from the heart - one of your very best (which, obviously, is high praise). Thank you.

Ladybird World Mother said...

Wow. That sounds so utterly wonderful. Will have to get myself there one day...
What a superb thing the Garners have done... protecting such a place from the wrong people, and to encourage all the right people there... love it. Fab post. Thank you!

Milla said...

I'm far too trivial and always talking through magical places so won't corrupt it by going. But am so delighted beyond words (plunged momentarily into Garner / Pinteresque silence) that you got to meet your man. And that it didn't disappoint. If anyone can rustle up an intro for me with David Mitchell I think I'll die happy. Have exchanged a short paragraph of inanities with him and it was just, well, I'll have to think of the adjective. My mother has told me to go easy on adjectives so I won't bugger up your pensive blog with the wrong one.

elizabethm said...

Oh Jane, what a marvellous blog. I know the place so well yet you made it new for me reading this. Thank you for coming and for writing this.

TIGGYWINKLE said...

What a beautifully written blog, Jane. I would enjoy visiting there so much. I can imagine the excitement when Blackden was bought by his lovely Dad.

Faith said...

I would love to visit one day, thanks for a lovely blog Jane.

martine frampton said...

Thanks for this, so interesting. I love the Weirdstone book, one of those that really stays with you, I read it to my children a few years ago.
best wishes
Martine

mountainear said...

The 'genius loci' of Blackden is almost tangible in your blog - makes me itch to be there too.

Such a precious place needs to be nurtured and the Garners seem such sensitive guardians. How fortunate the two have found each other.

Lane said...

If I was nearer, I'd be there like a shot. It looks like a wonderful place - and extremely well cared for.

Helen Suzanne said...

I think this is the best post I've read for a couple of years. Thank you. (Those books were my life blood)

Frances said...

Hello Jane, and thank you for this post. We know your range, and do not ask for absolute amusing all the time.

Reading about your visit with EM to Blackden has made me so glad to have had the opportunity to read of your visit, and yet, so dissatisfied that I could not be there, and am very unlikely to ever have that opportunity. The web is marvelous, and yet continues to hold out treasures ... just out of reach.

I am going to go to my wonderful library and see if there are Alan Garner books in the stacks. I rather think that I will find them, read them, and then ... will be back to you.

Gosh, another paragraph from me. Living in the giant metropolis, that offers to much to so many, I always know that there is so much that is far, far away. Thank you for reminding me. xo

Jude said...

Thank you so much that was both riveting and wonderous. Adjectives, eh? I'm full of them..........
I shall write it down and maybe...in Sept!

Barbee' said...

This is a delicious post! It almost made goose pimples.

KittyB said...

Fabulous blog there, a reet proper article.
Sounds like you had a perfect day.

Mud in the City said...

Magical. Soothes the soul. Must make a visit very soon.

Fennie said...

Thanks for this. I'd heard of Blackden, though never been there. You don't mention the Neolithic peoples, say around 6,000 years ago. I'd be surprised if they were not involved. They laid out so many sites. I tell people (I can prove it if necessary or at least offer strong probability) that the great Heath Hospital in Cardiff is a Neolithic site. It's been a hospital for 6,000 years and yet few know its history further than 50. When a new tenant took over the fields surrounding the Tinkiswood Burial Cairn near here the farmer tok his JCB and dug out a whole trailer full of semi-submerged stones that made mowing the field difficult. These were in fact the remains of an avenue defining the south-easterly approach to the cairn. But you would never have known unless you had studied the site as a whole. the stones were just inconvenient rocks. Other smaller sites are moved bodily - people do not realise that it is not the stone or the cairn or the burial mound that is important. Those are artefacts: it is the position, the location, sited with such accuracy and measurement in relation to other sites, that those who built these structures must have (or so I maintain) had the ability to write and mathematise, long before the Mesopotamians who we hold in such awe. You are so right, Jane, so much we see and don't notice.

ChrisH said...

Lucky you, Jane. What a wonderful experience - thanks for sharing it.

Maddie Grigg said...

I have never heard of this place. It sounds magical, inspirational and the Garners were made for it. What a lovely symbiotic relationship.

Worrieddaughter said...

Wow, what a beautiful read. I am so pleased to have found your blog.

claire p said...

It sounds amazing. I will be checking out the links in a mo. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Pipany said...

heard a wonderful radio 4 programme quite a while ago about A G and his books in context of the settings. just wonderful and a wonderful piece you have here Jane x

LittleBrownDog said...

Wow, Jane - I've got to go there. I loved Alan Garner as a child (used to read his fairytales and book of goblins over and over) - he just somehow captures that magic otherworldliness that so few writers can ever attain. Thank you so much for sharing this place - it sounds absolutely wonderful.

xx

Tessa said...

Your breath-taking and most beautifully told account of your visit to Blackden and your longed-for meeting with Alan Garner made me tingly with the wonder of it all. Thank you, Jane, for taking us with you and introducing us to this magical, luminious place.

I'd not encountered Alan Garner's books as a child, but will read one of those you mentioned before visiting this extraordinary place. I would have loved to attend the workshop on Tudor Herbs and Spices, but we'll be away then so I think we'll probably go to the lunchtime recital in June. Oh, how wonderful.

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Ma.Ste. said...

Every place is the same. It's called 'Mind'.

Kellie Kamryn said...

Sounds wonderful!

Lorraine said...

You always manage to get to such wonderful places. I wish I was able to also. Thanks for telling us about it Jane - maybe a place I should look up and go to. xx