I walked toward the sturdy gray granite church of Saint Uny, high on a sandy ridge backed by the turquoise and teal waters of Carbis Bay on Cornwall's northern Atlantic shore. I entered the churchyard through a thick cast iron gate and stepped in. Ancient knobby-trunked oaks flanked me on both sides, all bowing their tall branches into a natural canopy, their arch mirroring that of the 12th-century church's Gothic windows at the far end of the dirt path. Beyond church and trees a wild churchyard tumbled down slope, defined by tall uncut grasses, tombstones at all angles overtaken by lichen, and bright patches of pink, yellow, and white wildflowers poking their heads above the fray.
About to begin a walking pilgrimage with four friends, I wanted to request the blessings of this holy place for the journey ahead. I took one step toward the church but an eruption in the air and branches overhead halted me; the sudden flitting flashes of acrobatic blue, yellow and white titmice tumbled above from branch to branch. One momentarily hung upside-down long enough to grab an unsuspecting insect and then twirled like a dervish and disappeared. No sooner done, a red-breasted European robin swooshed down and landed on a low branch near my right shoulder. She eyed me with large brown eyes on either side of her needle-nosed beak, puffing out her small round rust and tawny body on its spindly legs. She then belted out several melodious notes before flying lower, to a tombstone near my thigh. Look, pay attention, she seemed to say. One word remained visible on the stone under her, the rest overtaken by unwieldy vines. Sacred.
Saint Uny, named for a 6th century Irish saint who came to Cornwall, was our starting point for a day-long pilgrimage on Saint Michael's Way, a 13-mile (20-kilometer) north-south trek across the narrowest part of the Cornish peninsula. We would first snake west along the coast to Saint Ives, and then turn south to walk to the southern shore toward Penzance and Marzion. Our goal was the holy site of Saint Michael's Mount, dedicated to the archangel of high places and protector of Cornish fisherman since AD 495.
Called Forth Sen Myghal in Celtic Cornish, Saint Michael's Way is a pilgrimage on its own, but in centuries past, many pilgrims would keep on going from the Mount, via boat, to its brother mount in France, Mont-Saint-Michel. They would then resume walking all the way to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Both mounts, Cornish and French, are accessible on foot only at low tide. We hoped to arrive at that dramatic moment.
Locals told me that long before these places were named for saints and angels, they and the path and many other places in between were already deemed holy by prior peoples as far back as 10,000 years ago. I began to see this trail as a journey between two parenthesis of north and south that linked many places, times, and realities, each a destination in its own right. This old landscape was also dense with accounts of bucca (similar to English pucks, household spirits), piskies, fairies, and giants. I looked at the robin and knew she knew all this, that the land we walked held more than saints and angels. I'd received my blessing, and it came with guidance. Look, pay attention.
I waded back through the cemetery and joined the other four women, my merry band of pilgrims—one a native of Cornwall, and the rest of us from far-flung North American places—who sat on the slope of the cheerful wild graveyard that looked out over the bay, their heads and shoulders peeking above the grasses.
"We're setting our intentions for this walk," one said as I approached. I sat with them, witnessed, and waited my turn: To feel the sacredness of the land, to sing to the stones, to open one's heart, to cast off unnecessary baggage. "To look, pay attention, see beauty, and enjoy the unexpected," I said when the circle turned to me. I wanted a pause from my modern mind's habit of flitting like titmice to past or future, all too often missing the actual present, the one real thing at any given time.
We set off. Saint Uny's gray granite walls and arches disappeared as we climbed down toward Carbis Bay's crescent-shaped and latté-colored sandy beach. A lone surfer sat in the lineup in cobalt waters waiting for a clean set of waves, his body and board rising and falling in seductive cadence. We found our first trail marker, a black ink scallop shell symbol that signaled the trail's connection to all the scallop shell marked trails heading all the way to Santiago de Compostela. We veered left onto silky sand and along the beach until it ended at gray-brown cliffs. We climbed.
Midway up, we found an Iron Age wishing well. The British Pilgrimage Trust requested that anyone making an offering here to fulfill their wish, as it had been done over two thousand years ago, do so with items that would not pollute. High quality silver, very Celtic, was one option, but so was the shamanic practice of tying an organic, natural fiber and natural dye cloth to a nearby branch. I watched as the friend among us who wanted to sing to the stones stepped forward and offered a third option, a song. She sang softly to whatever melody the place inspired in her and, in response, and our surprise, the stones and water sang back, vibrating an otherworldly harmony as if sung by a chorus of fairies.
At the top, the trail led us along a ridge to Saint Ives, which we could see on the horizon fanning out on its tiny jut of land surrounded on all sides by an azure ocean. After a refreshing Cornish cider on the edges of Ives, we turned south to the interior. A landscape of rolling green hills dotted with granite outcroppings opened before us, its dales and valleys filled by dense wild oak forests thick with ferns, summer flowers, and tangled vines. The rocky and green landscape was fabled to be the handywork of giants, three in particular in this district: Trecobben, Cormoran, and Cormoran's wife, Cormelian.
Long ago, Cormoran and Cormelian built their home on St. Michael's Mount, carrying granite from the interior and piling it in Mount Bay. Trecobben lived on the other highest hill on this path, Trencrom Hill, from where he could see both north and south, including Saint Uny and Saint Michael. All of them hauled and threw stones the way children might snowballs, with ease and naughty glee, shaping the knolls, gulfs, and hilltops around us.
In the rises and falls on the trail toward Trencrom, a lone sentinel guided us, the towering, over ten-foot high, standing stone of Beersheba. Standing in a field like a watchtower, someone set it there some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. Its purpose was lost to time but it still felt like a powerful wayfinder and guardian on an ancient path. It stood at a place with unhindered views of the north. But upon passing at its feet, the trail quickly plunged into a dense oak forest whose branches interlinked so tightly overhead that their canopy shut out all but the narrowest slivers of light.
There had been a slight breeze all day but here the air stood still. An eerie quiet surrounded us. It was less frightening than alarming as my ears took over for my eyes to discern where we were going. They told me that still nothing stirred, that the only sound came from our footfall. Midway we passed a grove where a sudden beam of light broke in and all my senses exploded. My eyes filled with a stand of luminously bright pink foxgloves wrapped in emerald green. My ears were flooded with the tunnel amplified hum of honeybees investigating every blossom. My nose pricked with the intense perfume of lichen, moss, and fertile, wet earth. I then felt a soft caress slide along the skin of my forearm. I shivered.
Local lore identified this place as one still inhabited by nature spirits.
There was a sudden waft of honeysuckle as the oak leaves to my left fluttered despite the fact that there still was no wind, no movement of air.
"Did you feel that?" I asked the friend following just behind me.
"Yes," she whispered back. "It seemed to defy natural laws."
Leaving the fairy forest, sunshine greeted us briefly as the path ambled along and down again into a more open tree cover, ferns carpeting the undergrowth. We saw a massive, nearly perfectly round, granite rock jutting out from the forest's edge. Twice a person's height, a National Trust plaque mounted near the rock identified it as Bowl Rock, which according to legend had been a ball in the hands of game playing giants, Trecobben and his buddy Cormoran. These two especially loved bowling and this ball was likely left here after they rolled their last set and wandered off to find dinner.
I was immediately drawn to the rock. Growing up, I went bowling often with my father. All his adult life he has been an expert bowler, until recently in his nineties, when he gave up rolling heavy balls. But all those prior decades, he bowled every week and almost as frequently, rolled 300s the way the rest of us blink. As much as I loved going bowling with him, I never acquired his knack for the game, but I love it just the same for the happy memories with my dad. I also still had that visceral feel for the game that now kicked in as I stood before this massive stone. I could feel huge hands grabbing it up on Trencrom Hill, placing beefy fingers around it, taking giant steps, arm swinging back then forward and releasing the ball at just the right moment, landing a strike where I now stood.
I stepped closer to the rock, its bowl shape towering over me, and pressed my hand on the grey mineral surface, finding it smooth and covered with life—tree sap, meadow dew, and light green lichen. I leaned closer and pressed my nose to it as pine scent, then leather, then pepper, then lemon, and then leather again pressed back. By the time I stepped back onto the trail, I knew the perfume of a giant's palm.
From Bowl Rock we climbed through a forest glen, then hills carpeted in pink heather and green fern to arrive at Trecobben's fabled residence on Trencrom Hill. A high but flat hilltop that could contain three or four tennis courts, we found smooth gray boulders stacked in various formations, a place occupied many millennia ago in the Neolithic and then again during the Iron Age. The stones were heavily weathered, some with dips and crevasses that looked as if they had been shaped and stacked by human—or giant—hands. One large stone facing the sky had three large bowls carved into the surface, the right size for a giant's serving of soup and big enough for a person to lay in as if a sarcophagus. Another outcropping looked like a stack of pancakes, a giant-sized snack ready to eat when Trecobben returned from bowling. I scurried past.
When I finally stood on the hill's summit, I saw why this place had drawn humans for so long: No matter what direction I looked, I could see forever. To the south, I saw the dark and light green patchwork of fields tumbling to the bright blue sea that surrounded the jutting form of Saint Michael's Mount. I could even make out the castle and church on the Mount's summit, their windows reflecting the sun's golden light.
When I turned to the north, I saw with the same clarity Beersheba standing as sentinel and the forest and rolling lands leading all the way to the turquoise blue sea and Saint Uny. Sometimes all you need to walk is thirteen miles to experience eternity.
We continued down the long slope to the sea and arrived at Saint Michael's Mount as the tide was receding, a perfect finish and a natural high that had been building all day from a long walk in nature—beauty, presence, and intentions fulfilled. We celebrated, me tucking into just-caught salty-sweet Cornish Newlyn crabs and more crisp dry golden cider. My sense of taste exploded around these, it too refreshed from the day and now getting its chance to join in. It was remarkable to me how a long walk, even just for one day, could make everything feel more alive. Indeed, sacred.
Award winning travel writer and anthropologist Beebe Bahrami writes most on trekking, sacred travel, outdoor adventures, food and wine, and archaeology. The author of several travel books, including the trekker's comprehensive guidebook, Moon Camino de Santiago. To view more of her essays, articles, and books, visit her website and her author's page on Amazon.
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