Our Guest Blogger today is Alma Alexander, author of the upcoming 2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens. Alma talks about the Veil Between Worlds in her blog. Reprinted with permission.
I’ve been in love with the place, with its pageantry and its history and its myth, since a very young age, and if you’re already half tipped in that direction it’s fatally easy to slide into it completely, watch it close over your head, and find yourself wandering through a countryside that never was but should have been and which will live on in your dreams for as long as you have breath to dream with.
That this isn’t a new thing is witnessed by a travelogue I wrote way way wayyyyy back in the late 1980’s. I think, when I went travelling the highways and byways of England with a then-beau whom (in the travelogue) I have named Henry. Here, below, a sample – which will also give you an inkling about what I mean about that thin, thin, thin veil between the worlds which covers England like a bridal veil does a shy bride:
The weather was kind to us, and a low golden sunshine wrapped us in its warm cocoon. We only had a very hazy idea of what to look for in Glastonbury; we somehow managed to miss the approach road to Glastonbury Tor, whose famous, strange, brooding shape we immediately recognosed as we drew nearer, and found ourselves in the central district of the town. A little bit at a loss, we drove on until we could find a reasonable place to turn when I suddenly pointed at a signpost.
“Glastonbury Abbey!” I crowed in delight. “Let’s find it!”
Henry obligingly turned right, in accordance with the signpost. As it happed, the Abbey ruins would have been very hard to miss, and we did not. The old Abbey, in many instances, was nothing more than hills and hummocks and ancient precincts outlined in broken white lines by stones embedded in the lush turf. But the Lady Chapel stood, open to the forces of nature and the inquisitive eye of man. The small field grasses, a cross between proper grass and lichen, grew on top of the ruined walls, giving them an unreal tasselled silhouette against the sky. The ruins of another place of worship reared in a graceful, symmetrical sweep a little further on, resembling a misplaced pair of some heavenly gates. Here, small chapels, now sometimes consisting of a single half-ruinous wall, clustered around the skirts of the vanished edifice. One of them, evoocatively, purported to be dedicated to Thomas a Beckett. Between these two ruined sets of hallowed walls was a small, paved rectangle that looked not only insignificant, when compared to its surroundings, but also intrusively modern and woefully out of place. But a plaque nearby proclaimed this piece of ground to be the treasure of the Abbey, and the contain something far older than the venerable old walls themselves – this was where a body had been discovered, long long ago, of a tall man at whose feet were the bones of a small, slight female. A cross found on the top of the grave asserted in the inscription it bore that this was the tomb of King Arthur and of his wife, Queen Guenevere. The small, paved rectangle seemed to be an incongruous place for a legend to be buried; but, granted, the majestic old ruins did form some sort of a suitable monument. So, rest in peace, old warrior, and you too, fair Queen, for in truth I do not believe that your bones do indeed lie here. But let the Abbey keep your memory.
Also inextricably twined in the Arthurian story is the mysterious Joseph of Arimathea, who may or may not have visited England in the dawn of history and brought the Holy Grail thither from the Holy Land. His memory is also enshrined in the Abbey, for here grows a small thorn tree which bears a peremptory sign orderning that it not be touched. Perhaps some believe that the touch brings some kind of Divine healing, for this thorn tree is said to have sprung from one of the thorns which was sanctified by Christ’s blood in the Crown of Thorns, and which that same Joseph of Arimathea brought to England when he came bringing the Grail. This, I know, is how religions are born – except that the one which gave birth to this small legend first flew two thousand years ago.
We had a small lunch and went out to explore the town of Glastonbury. As ill luck would have it, we had chanced here on a Bank Holiday. All was closed and shuttered – except this one incredible shop which sold arcana of every description. Books there were about everything from Stone Age religious cults to witchcraft to Arthuriana (obviously!) to shelves and shelves of science fiction and fantasy to Irish folk tales. They had tapes of esoteric music, and sticks of incense, and Roger Dean-type posters, and… Entranced, we went in and were swallowed whole. I bought about five books, which were to be sent home after me to save my luggage allowance, and a small pewter unicorn rearing delicately over a tiny crystal ball – an eminently suitable object to acquire in Glastonbury which, whether of the still golden day which pervaded it or because of the emptiness of its streets because of the Bank Holiday, was beginning to assume a distinctly unreal air, as though it would fold up into itself and disappear once we had left it and all the roads leading into it collide in a puzzled crossroads in the middle of where theis strange settlement used to be.
In the shop we also asked about how to get to the Tor, which dominated the place although it could not be physically observed from within Glastonbury. Armed with directions from this source, which seemed just as likely to lead us to some faery hill where the Sidhe dwelled as to the Tor, we repossessed the car and drove back the way we had come.
The road we were supposed to take proved to be one of those English one-way lanes where, if two cars ever meet, both vehicles can be said to be in deep trouble. Here the situation was aggravated by the cars parked in every conceivable space by the side of the road from the very entrance to it. Somehow we managed to crawl up the steep, narrow goat’s-track lane without major mishaps, and even to find an adequate parking place. Then it was on foot, over a stile, and into a field where a few groups were pickinicking in the mellow sunlight and one crowd of semi-drunken yobboes chased one of their number around and around with the obvious intention of removing his jeans to reveal presumably very interesting underwear – the victim, although himself a little in his cups, was sober enough to think ill of this idea and was trying valiantly to avoid his fate. We skirted this rowdy bunch in as wide an arc as possible but not before they lobbed a few remarks in our direction which made me blush violently and attack the next stile and the uphill path into which it gave with considerably more vigour than it merited and than I was capable of. We lost the yobs, but both Henry and I stopped beyond the first tree and panted for five minutes before we could breathe well enough to climb on.
The path leading up to the top was a switchback, twisting back and forth on itself like a demented snake or a particularly meandering stretch of the Amazon. The slopes of the hill, furthermore, were of the order of about 50 degrees to the horizontal, and I watched with increasing puzzlement the flocks of sheep which grazed there, and whose presence was all too evident on the path that we were treading – short of being a woolly variant of the Mountain Haggis, I could not see how the animals could keep their balance on the Tor. The angle at which they were standing made my middle ear ache. But it was much too far south for Haggises (if that’s the correct plural), and anyway it wasn’t too long before I needed all my concentration just to keep my lungs at their job and my heart from finding an exit either through my throat or through some as yet unexplored crevice in my ribcage. Glastonbury Tor is not for the unfit.
We made it, at length, to the top, and sat down on the crown of the hill, trying to avoid the places where the sheep had left calling cards. We watched the rolling vistas of Somerset fields while trying to forget that we still had to climb back down off this monster. After a while my heart calmed down and allowed my brain to return to other thoughts, and I wondered idly whether the tiled rectangle at Glastonbury Abbey was more symbolic than originally thought. In another legend of Arthur’s passing – and there are legion – the Tor plays an important part.
The story has it that soemwhere in the unidentified middle ages or so a shepherd on the Tor, minding his doubtless even then athletic sheep, one day came upon an opening in the hillside which he did not remember having been there before. Curious, he entered, and found himself in a cave which had all kinds of riches piled along its walls. On the walls themselves hung sumptuously decorated coats of mail and other knightly paraphernalia – swords, spurs, and such. In the middle of the cave was a large table and around it, their heads sunk on their arms on top of the table itself, sat or half-lay a company of goodly cavaliers dressed in silks and furs. Among them, in a high throne-like chair at the head of the table, slept or lay dead their chief, his head circled with a crown of gold.
Crossing himself superstitiously, the shepherd began backing out of the cave, but in his hurry he jostled a hanging suit of armour and the sword hanging by it gave a clear, bell-like sound as it hit the metal of the armour. The shepherd stood frozen in fear as, at this sound, the king in the throne slowly opened his eyes.
“Is it time?” the crowned apparition asked in a deep and gruff yet kindly voice.
“No!” called the shepherd, his voice suddenly possessed by something other than himself. “Therefore sleep ye on, until ye are awoken by the need of England!”
“It is well for thee,” said the King, “that thou knowest those words, for else my companions were sure to rise and slay thee. But thou hast spoken well, and we will slumber on till we are needed. Take thou a few of the gold pieces in this cavern for thy good offices, and bear thou witness to thy folk that King Arthur will lead his companions forth when summoned by the troubles of his people.”
With this the King composed himself to sleep again and the shepherd, grabbing a handful of gold as he was bidden, fled the presence of the royal legend. He told his tale, and many a traveller sought for the cavern with its sleeping knights and its riches – but never was it found again, and there were those who would have accused the shepherd of lying had it not been for the ancient gold which he had brought out.
And so, the legend has it, King Arthur never died at all and could therefore not have been buried, at Glastonbury Abbey or anywhere else. Presumably he recovered from his “grievous wounds” in Avalon, and was then set here inside the Tor to guard England’s future while dreaming away the centuries.
Speaking of dreaming, Henry and I still had to find a place to sleep that night, and it was now getting on for six o’clock. I raised this point, and we began, accordingly, to descend the Tor’s steep slopes.
Our policy, inasmuch as we had one, was to drive and/or sightsee until an hour reasonably approaching supper at which point we would begin looking around for a Bed and Breakfast place. It was still early enough in the season to get away with this approach, it being the last week of May; but our situation was complicated by the fact that we required two SINGLE, or at least separate, rooms. By virtue of this we preferred outlying buildings, farms and suchlike, since they obviously had more chance of having extra rooms than a city semi-detached – and there was also the fact that, in settlements, a stranger had no means of knowing which were the more unsavoury areas while farms were by and large more wholesome. But we hadn’t seen any such farmhouses on the approach to Glastonbury. We had a small brochure, picked up at that fabulous Glastonbury bookshop, with names and phone numbers of B&B places surrounding the town so we decided to try these first. We drove back into town to find a phone booth; having found one, the only way to get to it was to park so as to cause an obstruction, and therefore I had to stay with the vehicle in case anyone complained while Henry did the phoning – although I would probably have been of dubious use in any emergency requiring the removal of the car.
In any event, it didn’t take long. Barely minutes later the lanky frame of my travelling companion folded itself into the car beside me.
“The first two I called didn’t have room,” he explained, “the second one just having let her last room. But I booked us space on a farm.”
”Where is this farm?”
“Well, we have to go back past the Tor road and then turn right. Then we take the next road right, the second after that to the left, go past a pub called the ‘Rose and Trellis’, go past a hospital, and the place is immediately off to the right of that.”
“I don’t like it,” I muttered, “it sounds like a lot of half-baked directions to me.”
“She’ll hold the rooms for us,” said Henry, implying that she would do so even if we arrived at midnight. The thought did little to cheer me up.
We missed even that first turnoff, and had to go inside a nearby cluster of farm buildings to ask all over again. Things did not look promising.
They got worse. The directions Henry so blithely accepted did not mention that we would suddenly find ourselves in a gloomy, claustrophobic close of narrow lanes flanked by large dark-leaved trees whose trunks were concealed from us by walls that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the old city ruins of Zimbabwe. Just as I was ready to begin praying for deliverance to whichever pagan Gods inhabited this place the Zimbabwe replica vanished and we found ourselves at a T junction which nobody had mentioned at all.
“Go left,” I said hopefully.
“Why left?” asked Henry, tapping the steering wheel nervously.
Henry rolled his eyes eloquently to Heaven and turned left.
We were soon into a reasonably buiilt-up area, with low bungalows festooned with blooming lilac flanking us on either side. One or two of these had B&B signs out, so we were heartened that there was possible shelter around even if we were lost. But it soon transpired that we were not as lost as we thought we were, for out of the pleasant suburbia rose an equally pleasant-looking pub sporting a full-blown rose on a kind of criss-cross pattern as its emblem. The ‘Rose and Trellis’, obviously. At least we were on the right track. Shortly after the pub we passed, off to our left, a deserted-looking building which looked like at least one of its wings had been an architectural afterthought and which purported to be the abovementioned hospital. But here the road branched, and we stopped, again perplexed. There was a house off to our right, but there was no B&B sign on anywhere and our would be hostess had said that the place was clearly marked. We decided, after a short consultation, to go down the left-hand fork. We soon saw that we were going deeper and deeper into farmland. We passed a memorial to something or other in the form of a cross hewn of some dark stone, which NOBODY had mentioned at all, and then a large industrial-looking set of buildings that made Henry stop and look at them sceptically.
“She would have mentioned those if they had been anywhere near, they’re too good a landmark to pass up. We must be on the wrong road.”
So we turned around and went back. We went up the other road when we got to the hospital fork, but short of that solitary, unmarked house we saw nothing that resembled the description that we had been given.
“Let’s go back and ask at the pub,” I said.
Back we went again, past the hospital. The pub looked singularly closed when we reached it, but there was a woman walking her dog by the side of the road, and, in desperation, we flagged her down. When informed of our search, she indicated that the house we had been bypassing had been our objective all along. “But,” she added, “if you don’t find it or you don’t have your place, I run a B&B just down the road there…”
“We’ll remember that,” said Henry. “Thanks.”
We turned in a precariously narrow driveway and headed upstream again. This time we turned into the hitherto scorned lane leading up to the house on the right and were there greeted by three large yellow dogs, crosses between a Golden Retriever and… something else… and the welcome sight of our landlady opening the front door. That is, the dogs all swarmed around me, and the landlady addressed Henry.
“We got a bit lost,” said Henry apologetically in response to her greeting. “We missed the road.”
“Twice,” I added, from where I crouched in a tangle of yellow dog.
“You said it was clearly marked and we didn’t see a sign.”
“It must have gotten overgrown again,” said the landlady laconically. “Mind your head when you come in, it’s a fourteenth-century house, the doors are a mite low.”
We followed her in silence, awed by the fact that we were to sleep in a house of such antiquity. Our hostess led us to a landing on the upper floor. The doors to the left and the right off this landing gave into the two rooms we were to occupy. The middle door led to an interesting-looking study which, when Henry and I looked inside after our hostess had left, appeared to point to our host being a lay preacher or something like that because of the large quantity and variety of religious books and tracts that littered every available surface. Both the rooms were equipped with duvets at this time and I even had a double bed to loll around in.
We were informed that breakfast would be served at nien tomorrow morning, where the bathrooms were to be found, and that the hostess didn’t serve supper but that one could be had at the ‘Rose and Trellis’ which was within walking distance. This was all delivered as she stood at the top of the stairs, while Henry and I stood in the doorways of our respective rooms and listened politely.
“And one more thing,” she said, turning to leave. “Mind your head on that low beam on the landing.”
Her warning coincided with Henry’s collision with that self-same beam as he attempted to follow the landlady on his way to the bathroom, thus rendering the warning redundant. He gave both the beam and our erstwhile Cassandra a black look and went on his way, his head tucked between his shoulders in the manner of an irate tortoise.. By the time he had returned, however, his habitual humour had restored itself, and we decided to try for that supper at the pub and perhaps a glass of beer. Pausing only to retrieve our jerseys, for it was getting chilly again, we duly strolled off. We passed a field where about six black and white cows watched us walk by wih large, liquid eyes, mouths moving mechanically as they chewed the cud. By the so-called main road, which we had gone up and down so many times, hedges lush with May marched on either side, and we now discovered that it was this militant greenery that had been a partial cause to our confusion as it grew in a green stranglehold over a sign indicating that the house we had so oft bypassed to indeed be a Bed and Breakfast establishment. However, it was doubtful that the sign would have been of that much use even had we seen it – it was so weathered and worn as to be almost unintelligible.
A little before the fork in the road where we had gone astray, I suddenly stopped and, touching Henry’s arm for silence, pointed to where one of those small English hedge rabbits sat on its haunches, ears moving like antennae, regarding us gravely. Then all of a sudden it made a small sharp motion with one of its front paws as if it wanted to wave at us, and then promptly vanished into the hedge grasses. When I looked up at Henry I saw that he wore a silly grin on his face that was probably a mate to the one on mine.
“I have to be careful driving here tomorrow,” he said at length. “Come on, I’m hungry.”
We had a supper of sandwiches and beer, both of which left us feeling pleasantly sated and dreamy, and then decided to stretch our legs a little further along the road. Somewhere amongst the bungalows I espied a rampant lilac bush, its flowers like heavy violet grapes against its green leaves. Sneaking up like a thief in the night, I looked up and down the deserted road twice before I reached out for one of the blooms. It finally broke off with a soft but sharp crack and I scuttled off, flower in hand, much like that rabbit had done earlier. I approached Henry wearing a face of bliss, nose buried in a scent I hadn’t been near in years and which I adored, but the suppressed mirth in his expression made me look around in apprehension.
“What’s the matter?”
“The chap whose bush you broke that off, he was standing right behind the bush when attacked it. His face….!”
“Did he see me?”
“I don’t think so,” said Henry, finally laughing out loud. “He was somewhat thwarted by the size of his own lilac bush…”
Laughing, stolen lilac in hand, we made our way back to our lodgings. We did not see the rabbit again.
I woke the next morning and peered through the curtains into a scene of magic. My window gave onto a patch of forest and an open field adjoining the back garden of the house we were in. The woods were ablaze with bluebells, but this morning the mists were low and ragged, allowing barest glimpses of blue, like a fine lady on the run trying to cover her expensive gown by drawing on a beggar’s cloak full of holes. The mist hung from the branches in damp veils and swathed the field in grey blankets which, insubstantial as they were, looked like they had the feel and texture of lambswool. And in an enclosure dividing garden from field, two real lambs poked about on stiff unsteady legs. Their occasional plaintive bleats reached me as if from another world through my closed window.
You’ll have to forgive me the writing of this – remember, it was two decades ago, and while I was already an inverterate scribbler (this account comes to 176 typewritten pages, in the folder that I have, and it’s INCOMPLETE…) and from the excerpt I picked you can already see several things.
One was that there was a magic to everything here, and that magical things were only a reach and a touch away. That legend of Arthur sleeping inside the Tor – that just slipped in there, almost seamlessly, a bridge from here to the Middle Ages and from there all the way back into the Age of Myth and then back again into the present day. And the way it appears in this travelogue was almost exactly the way I thought about it back then on top of the Tor looking out over contemporary Somerset, the forsoothly language and all. It might have been history and legend but it was close enough – there, then – to push aside all the contemporannea around me and look at directly, with my own soul, with my own inner vision. The Veil Between the Worlds, pushed aside with an ease that was almost scary, and there’s me standing with one foot on both sides of the divide and, you know, in England it is easy.
The other is the more bucolic pastoral side of things. The way you can stay in a fourteenth-century farmhouse. The fairy woods at the back of the garden. The rabbits in the hedges. The lambs in the fold. The mist on the bluebells. It felt as though I might have looked on all these things, listened to all these sounds, smelled all these smells, if I had been in the fourteenth-century farmhouse just as easily as I had done from my twentieth-century window. The divide between the different eras was THAT thin, that fragile. For a moment, I fully breathed the air of an era when Plantagenet kings might have ridden the roads of England… and I could not have told you the difference between Then and Now.
There are places where this is just part of the way that things are. England, my England of ancient kings and hedge-row rabbits, is one of the places where I breathe the air of dream, and peer with less difficulty than almost anywhere else behind that Veil… and smile at what I see there.