In search of pseudo-sacred spaces

Yesterday was the feast day of St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment. Francis was famous for founding the Franciscan Friars with the simple rule “To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps”, and for writing The Canticle of the Sun, which praises God through all God’s creatures including Brother Sun, Sister Moon and Mother Earth.

So it’s appropriate that I spent the afternoon walking with Phil Mythogeography Smith in search of sacred and pseudo-sacred spaces.

We met at 2pm at St Loyes Chapel, preserved ruins within Heavitree Parish. I took the Quarry Lane route, scraping a tiny bit of Heavitree breccia from the old quarry face on my way down the hill. Just a small symbolic action, carrying one of the types of stone used to build the Chapel from source to structure, to acknowledge its materiality.

We had no particular route or destination in mind. It seemed good to head north, roughly along the course of the Northbrook, before crossing it onto Thornpark Rise. This is an area where the roads are named after trees. Not just thorns, but also mulberry and types of apple. We ate from the apple tree on common ground at the junction of Mulberry Close. Was it sampling from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or sharing the bounty of the tree of life? Later we scrumped more apples from a tree on Pinhoe Road.

OMAfter walking through a green pocket by the railway line, we came upon Bodley Close. Thomas Bodley, the rescuer of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, was a local lad. The Bodleian is a sacred space to many. But in this place, now, my attention was instead caught by a small cast iron inspection chamber cover in the pavement – OM, a Hindu affirmation of the self within and of ultimate reality. Prosaically and briefly, I recognised it is of course WO, Water Only, and then returned to my flights of fancy “Where Alph, the sacred river, ran. Through caverns measureless to man. Down to a sunless sea.”

We sought a cut through from the cul-de-sac back onto Vaughan Road, and tentatively emerged from a wicket gate. Looking back from the road, you would think it was a private access, perhaps deliberately. Under the railway line, and over Pinhoe Road, down the intriguingly-named but dead-end The Mede (where is The Persian?), we happened upon Summerway Park.

Another hitherto-unknown green pocket, and here was what we were seeking all unknowingly: an arc of standing stones set in a greensward. Set by the Council, but to what purpose? Usually such stones are to prevent access to travellers, whereas these bisected the Park. They were to us the pseudo remnant of a pseudo stone circle in the tradition of the Sighthill circle under threat in Glasgow. Did anyone pay attention to these stones, and how? Did they mark a boundary, or somewhere to rest and reflect, or a place in which to gaze into the heavens and ponder on cosmological events? What area did the rest of the circle cover?

[Addition in January 2018]

After the walk, I found the arc on Google Maps, and traced the ‘lost’ part of the circle through suburbia. An uncanny symmetry appeared, as though the housing development was influenced by some unseen force. In an early reflection on Facebook, Phil wrote “perhaps we could, covertly or with residents’ connivance, place some markers or pre-traces of the absent stones”.

He expanded on this idea later in his 2015 paper “Sites of Dereliction – Beginnings and allies of performance”:

Clare used Google Maps to plot the finished circle; implying stones eerily rising in back gardens, living rooms and pavements, so oddly transforming the meaning of the place that I wondered about the feasibility of making a project with the residents to install such ludicrous stones.

In my notebook I had written of the fake circle: ‘A very thin experience? Can this be utilised and developed? … using fakery knowingly as “another authenticity”? Creating actions, meditations, inner-actions for these spaces?’ Sharing with [St Loye’s Chapel] a lack of powerful affect and given the ambiguity of their materiality/fictionality (the ‘ruining’ of the fake circle being itself a fabrication), the absence of actual ruins generated a kind of shadow presence, an airy, tentacle-like reaching out to the surrounding streets. The tension between the absurdity of the circle’s fakeness (devoid of any apparent local context) and the solidity and yet incompleteness of its construction was potent and active.

Four years later, the stones are still visible in Google Streetview, but on the satellite image they seem to have been replaced by a very straight fence. All traces erased.

[End addition]

Summerway led into Eastern Fields, an urban green oasis under threat of ‘development’, past the Exeter Arena into Summer Lane, and on into Pinwood Lane. As suburbia gave way to heath, we took a quick look at my Quail Map of Exeter. We were about to cross a dashed blue line, an Ecclesiastical Parish Boundary. And so we happily turned to ‘beating the bounds’ between Whipton and Pinhoe Parishes on our way further north to seek the source of the Pin Brook in Fairy Dell.

Our newly-adopted quest tempted us into trespassing through gaps in the barbed wire, gingerly over electrified fences, and along animal paths, all the while the fairies of misdirection luring us into a false dell. Yet although we never reached our intended destination, we did find a place of peace and solitude, and beauty in the trickle of water and fallen leaves shadowed by gnarled trees. We had been talking about ‘thin space’ – places where the veil between earth and heaven is thin – and I sensed we had stumbled upon such a spot.

Time was moving on, so the direct route south back into town it was. At the bottom of Stoke Hill we diverted briefly into the Rosebarn Triangle, a hiding place marked by empty cans of cider. And then we discovered that we were again beating the bounds, this time of old parish boundaries no longer on the map. Set into the pedestrian refuge was a stone demarcating the line between Heavitree P and Sidwells P. I had returned to Heavitree.