I was due to meet Hamish Miller the month in which he died. It was 2010, and I was preparing to leave to walk across Europe when I discovered a book of his, The Dance of the Dragon, dowsing a 2,500 mile current of energy through many religious sites on a path from Ireland to Israel. My own journey was going to cross this line several times, and I was curious about this concept that I found both poetically compelling and rationally awkward. I have been intrigued ever since, and hearing recently that a new footpath was being developed to follow lines he had dowsed across the south of England, written about in The Sun and the Serpent (coauthored with Paul Broadhurst), I was interested to walk it.
I set out in April, when the only waymarked section was the 140 miles between Brentor in Devon and Glastonbury. Brentor is one of England's smallest, most isolated churches, set by itself on a craggy tor 1100 feet above sea level. I arrived after dark and slept outside before rain drove me indoors. I woke to a bright spring morning and a large stained glass of St Michael shining down on me. Outside, to the north east, the summit of Widgery Cross and the way I would be heading.
Back in the 1960s, writer John Michel began to draw peoples' attention to a curious alignment of sacred sites that stretched across southern Britain, an alignment on a bearing of the shadows thrown by the May Day sunrise. In the 1980s Miller and Broadhurst walked this line, dowsing what they believed to be two intertwining, terrestrial energies which snaked about this central thread. They named them the St Michael and the Mary.
Eventually the new footpath will run 500 miles from Carn Lês Boel near Land's End to Hopton on the east coast of Norfolk, following the lines through such well known sites as St Michael's Mount and Avebury and those less familiar like Menacuddle Well and Royston Cave. The authors see a path that has been important since antiquity, the sites on it reappropriated and rededicated many times through a succession of invasions and religions. Whether the lighting of fire beacons as a Celtic May Day rite or a pilgrimage to St Michael's Mount for medieval Christian penitents, they believe these lines have always drawn people and that the ancient paths that follow it, the Ridgeway and the Icknield, attest to this.
Whether or not one finds the reality of the lines persuasive, there is certainly something appealing about walking a way that many others have walked before. My path traced the tumbling waters of Lydford Gorge before heading up onto the moor. Richard Long, the artist and walker, once said that “a walk is just one more layer, a mark, laid upon the thousands of other layers of human and geographic history on the surface of the land”. Following the route past a succession of crosses and stone circles, walking the low sloping curves and sandy grasses of one of the England's largest wild spaces along paths trodden deep into the moor by countless feet, it was hard not to feel that I was following something. Whether that was underground serpentine energies or simply tradition did not seem so important.
Dartmoor is one of the few places in England where wild camping is permitted, and I slept that night at Cullever steps. It rained all night, and I woke to half-hearted sunshine. The moor was empty but for the occasional group of Duke of Edinburgh kids stomping through the wet and the high staccato bursts of skylarks. I followed beautiful wooded valleys and green lanes, small churches and stone rows. By the time I reached Throwleigh the rain was persistent and I spent the night in a friend's house there. The next morning I left in sunshine for Chagford to meet Richard Dealler, the man responsible for setting up the walk. We ate lunch together, and he served me with water from a nearby holy well that is on the Mary line.
Leading walks with MIND and the Gatekeeper Trust, and having walked the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Richard has seen for himself the changes that walking can bring about in people. This new path is in its infancy (the second section, from Land's End to Brentor, opened in June) but word is slowly spreading. Recently he has begun to lead walks, with a van to carry the bags each day and to act as a mobile kitchen. He hopes eventually to have a system in place whereby those living along the path could offer hospitality – the use of a room or tent - to those walking, eliminating the prohibitive costs of staying in a B&B each night. “I like the idea of something that is inclusive,” he says, “available for whoever wants to take the plunge.”
Pilgrimages like that to Santiago are increasingly popular (180,000 walked it in 2011) and maybe there is a place for a path closer to home that traces our own spiritual heritage. “You don't have to go so far” Richard says. “Even if the walk causes people to think about that small pilgrimage from where they live to a local church or a local holy well.” It has certainly done that for me. At the end of The Sun and the Serpent Miller writes “following the energy of the St Michael current had in some way caused deep shifts in our understanding and the way we looked at the Earth.” I cannot quite claim that, but in the few days I have been walking I have come to appreciate a little more the rich network of sacred sites that exist across southern England, and to remember once again the importance of occasionally taking time to see our country at a walking pace. I look forward to the path being completed; I will certainly be back.
A shorter version of this article was originally published in Resurgence
Lippard, L.R. (1983). Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory. The New Press, New York.
Miller, H. & Broadhurst, P. (1989) The Sun and the Serpent. Pendragon Press, Cornwall.
Miller, H. & Broadhurst, P. (2007) The Dance of the Dragon. Mythos Press, Launceston.