Seeking the road much travelled

Just around the corner from where I used to live in Littleover,  Derby, the road turns sharply, sloping steeply into a brief, tree-canopied cutting called ‘The Hollow’. Half way down is a thatched cottage that was featured in a painting on our wall, the work of a previous vicar of my wife’s church, painted in 1886. Two children are playing in the lane, blithely unaware of being watched from another age.  For  five years I walked the dog down The Hollow almost daily. And as the road turns and dips I always feel as if I have stepped from the familiar into a different world – a place of long lived memory, of some wildness, of secrets. 

But I knew no more.

Then some months ago I discovered Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places*. It is a fascinating and beautifully written personal journey, seeking out the last wild places in the British Isles – ‘an alternative map to set alongside the road atlas’. He goes to woods, islands, moors, tors, estuaries, mountains and, there is it, ‘Hollows’.  Quite unexpectedly I am reading about this strangely atmospheric lane in the midst of suburban Derby. ‘Hollows’ or ‘Holloways’ apparently come from the Saxon hola weg meaning ‘harrowed path’ or ‘sunken road’. Most started out as drove roads or paths to market. Some were pilgrim paths. They are found throughout Britain, sometimes under different names. None are younger than 300 years old. Centuries of cartwheels, hooves, feet, water and ice have worn the surface steadily down to bedrock.

In Littleover there is still memory of cows driven twice a day through The Hollow for milking at the farm house on the corner of Church Street. It may well been a harrowed path too. Beyond The Hollow the road becomes Blagreaves Lane. One possible meaning of the name is  ‘black graves’.  Here, safely beyond the village, the plague victims of 1665 are thought to be buried. 

‘These Holloways are humbling,’ says MacFarlane, ‘for they are landmarks that speak of habit rather than suddenness. Trodden by innumerable feet, cut by innumerable wheels, they are records of a journey to market, to worship, to sea.  Like creases in the hand, or the wear of a stone sill or door step, they are the consequence of tradition, of repeated action. Their age chastens without crushing.’ And so, all but buried in the daily and the familiar, I find myself connecting with the same insights that so moved me Jackie when walking the ancient pilgrim trail of the Cuthbert Way – Melrose to Lindisfarne. ‘Pilgrimage, ‘she reflects, ‘forms connections with the past. As we walk, we tread paths where many before us have trodden, or fought or danced – and treading down the path we leave the trail for those who will come after us’.  

We are a culture driven by suddenness. By compulsive innovation that is destructive of any of the rhythms, patterns and repeated actions life needs to make it secure, nurturing and sustainable. In such a world The Hollow speaks to me. It speaks also to a church urgently seeking newness and renewal. It tells us there is something we need just as urgently – a consecration of the ‘ordinary’ that we will experience, in God’s good grace,  as ‘a chastening without crushing’. We must make the pilgrimage within the routine and the local that will bring us to our bedrock.  For there is no newness that is cut off from history and it is hazardous to believe otherwise. Re-newal, the bible teaches, is always first of all an act of remembrance. 

So we must seek patterns of life, prayer and spirit for the task of the steady wearing of life down to bedrock, to our true selves, scoring our souls, establishing the good way – to market , to pilgrimage and the dance beyond. 

We need to learn again how to leave the marks of habit and routine upon our world. 

The prophet Jeremiah’s advice to his own chaotic and turbulent times was to – ‘go and stand at the crossroads, and look around. Ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies – and walk in it, and find rest for your souls’. (Jer 6.16)    

I write this as we stand where the ancient journeys of this season intersect, here on the threshold of a New Year – with the angels, the Holy Family, the wise seekers, the shepherds – and with God himself, found revealed and scored deeply, eternally, into the utter bedrock of our lost humanity.