By David Lewis:
In the shortest days I make a secular pilgrimage from the small town of Presteigne to Limebrook Priory, about eight kilometres away. My one long annual walk, my one communion with the natural world, is sacrosanct and taken alone. It is a pilgrimage of solitude.
On this cold grey afternoon Presteigne is deserted. The old town ends abruptly at the last wall of stone and lichen, and the river Lugg leads me into a wide valley of sheep fields, slashed with lines of hedge-snow. My mind slows to the touch of a thorn hedge and the crunch of my boots on wet gravel, and the silence folds itself around me.
Silence is walking’s greatest pleasure. I work in heated buildings and electric light, and I value a cold wind and the rain on my face. Solitude too is a rare gift, and I do not expect to meet other people on this journey. I am not a serious walker, often stopping to appreciate the moments of stillness: a pheasant in an empty field, a buzzard rising on a thermal, a shaft of sunlight through a cloud. It is quiet enough to hear the buzzard half a mile distant; already even the quiet shops of Presteigne seem a long way away.
After four miles, the valley narrows and deepens. This is the loneliest and darkest stretch of the journey. The river is sullen and powerful after recent snows, and walls of tall sombre pines darken the light with a slow sighing of branches. There is a legend that defeated soldiers escaping the medieval battle of Mortimer’s Cross passed wearily through this gorge. Was the mud as deep, the river as menacing? I break through ice into mud, stumble over the frozen ground in their footsteps. There are ravens overhead, breaking the silence with their wary croaks and the air with their ragged bullet bodies.
In the next wide sheep valley the grey light returns, but there is no sign of human life – no farm, no house, no road, no vehicles. The pale fields are bare, cut by the wind with the raw smells of winter fields - sheep manure, dry grass, mud – until the wind drops behind a shoulder of hill, and an old thorn hedge-line takes me to the Lime brook. Usually the nuns’ stream is light and playful, but today it is a powerful torrent surging to join the Lugg. An isolated farm road for ten minutes’ brisk mud-free walking, and the Priory appears around a corner. I have arrived. The pilgrimage is over.
Stone still stands on stone, walls still stand, but Limebrook Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII and has been a ruin since 1539. I arrive at 3pm, when the nuns would be preparing for the mid-afternoon service None, but grass has grown even over the ruins, and I struggle to imagine vegetable gardens, refectory, the nuns’ cells, the church itself. I do not stay long, but always leave something of my journey for the nuns’ memory; a makeshift staff, a pile of leaves held by peg or river stone, even just a thought. In the nuns’ steep, narrow valley daylight is lost early on winter afternoons, and I repack my rucksack and climb into the grey light above the Priory. The valley has already folded protectively around the old stones and the walls can barely be seen. With every year, Limebrook Priory belongs more and more to the natural world.
On this little-used road I nod to the only people I see all day. Hooded and muffled against the wind the hedge-layers are strangely medieval, with a hill’s arc of stem and trunk behind them that the nuns would recognise as a well-laid hedge. I have a long road still to walk, and half an hour after leaving Limebrook I start to lose the light. I imagine the rush lights and candles being lit in the Priory behind me in time and space, the preparations for the dusk service, Vespers. My dark road bends through woodland and fields until the lights of Presteigne appear through the trees and hedges. Wet and exhausted I stumble up the hill past the old houses, their warm rooms a long way from the mud and cold thorns of the dark path behind me. Yet my winter pilgrimage is a celebration of these contrasts. This floundering walk over saturated fields and narrow roads is a rare slowing of personal time, when the only sounds are the wind, the river, a distant bird. And for me the annual ritual of the journey, towards an appreciation of daylight around the winter solstice, is pilgrimage enough.
David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside. He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter