Voyage to Iona



Iona towards Mull

The combination of Iona, writing and retreat with one of my favourite poets was enough to lure me there this year. It took two days and a variety of transport: car, plane, bus, train to Oban, ferry to Mull, a drive across the island and second short ferry to Iona.

Pilgrimage, they say, involves effort, determination and a heart-mind open to serendipity. In the creative process we need to empty, to find a beginner’s mind and allow unfocussed awareness to wash over everything, until something significant surfaces. It is much the same with pilgrimage. Everything and everyone you encounter takes on meaning. Going somewhere for the first time enhances that process.

Hanging around in Glasgow for an afternoon led me to deep chat with a young volunteer in a photographer’s gallery. We pondered the hardships of an artistic career. After five years of travelling and saving, he finally gained a place at Glasgow Art School. We swapped experiences across the generational divide, ‘Everyone’s just fighting over the scraps now’, he said. ‘Nobody seems to care anymore’, said I. At the station a woman also Iona bound, has gone each of the last twenty-six years, all the way from Maine. On the train, a couple off to a wedding on Mull, had their own minibar in a cool-bag and an Italian man in the seat behind was a dolce voce tenor, serenaded us and the dimming glory of the West Coast as we sped by.


Crossing the Isle of Mull

The morning ferry from Oban to Mull parted the sea through the sweetest folds of hills, gorse and rock; while a Harry Enfield version of Scots broadcast safety instructions. My friends Sig and Karin, who just happened to be also Iona bound, found me on the boat.

The alchemical crossing of saltwater to an island, allows things to fall away in the wake. Catching sight of new land brings the upsurge of promise. What will we find, what will we see?  We crossed the surprisingly large island from Craignure to Fionnphort. We drove forty miles through empty mountain-scape, glacial valleys and shaggy pelted moorland dotted with small lochs. Eating up everything with my eyes was part of the emptying and wonderful to share with close friends. On the wee jetty at Fionnphort we took pictures of each other against turquoise sea, pink granite rocks and a pile of lobster creels. Iona twinkled, only a matter of minutes away. It looked so small and simple across the bay.



As we approached Iona, a guillemot uttered eek, as it tucked its inky beak beneath the waves. My friends and I parted as we went to our separate retreats. Having found my nest at the famous Argyll hotel with its fresh fish, homegrown veg and eco-minded amenities, I wandered past the single strand of houses along the path towards the Columba’s Abbey. The way was filled with a chorus of birdsong; tsk tsk tsee and weird toothcomb rasps floating up from clumps of marsh and irises. Greylag geese chuckled as they grazed, starlings and crows whistled and honked. It was a positive overture. Later I learned about the shy corncrake with its raspy call and how once widespread throughout Britain, Iona is now its last bastion. Corncrake chorus filled the air day and night, desperate for a mate.

Many of the group are regulars and know each other, so it took time to find my place.IMG_1140 People come from as far away as France, Switzerland, as well as the far reaches of Britain. Ages ranged from thirties to an amazing eighty-five year old from Dartmoor. All joined by love of writing and the numinous. Each day began with an hour of silence, allowing it to write us. Sessions were led by Roselle Angwin, from Devon, whose love of nature and Zen are expressed with grace and wisdom.

The week unfolded as they do, shedding resistance, releasing of tensions and ailments into a pool of peace and stillness. Iona is simple, peaceful and gently casts you into her flow. The weather was kind, warm and sunny. The island fills and empties with the tide, visitors ebb and flow to this tiny three mile long strip of white sand and machair. Its spiritual reputation as the birthplace of British Christianity attracts thousands and its most ancient presence as one of the oldest pieces of land on Earth. Two thousand millions years is hard to compute.

Nesting puffin style

Nesting puffin style

A trip to Staffa offered the wonder of Fingal’s Cave with its chthonic boom and basalt organ pipes. It also provided puffins, like a merry band of hobbits, tugging dry grass at our feet, lining their burrows and kissing their mates with their impossibly gaudy beaks. Our presence guards them from gull attack, so a boatload of tourists is the cue for mass ascent to the clifftops in safety.


Sheena na Gig on the Convent wall

A morning in the convent ruins with its timeworn Sheena na Gig high on the wall proffered a feast of writing. A silent walk to St Oran’s Chapel one evening for a spontaneous offering of healing and singing, touched our hearts. And the walk across to St Columba’s Bay, sifting through pebbles in search of Iona’s greenstone was wondrous. There is a labyrinth there that some of us walked barefoot, leaving offerings at its centre.

A charismatic red-haired Italian woman, who makes necklaces of the stones, came to the hotel and I gave her one to mount for me. She also gave me a Bowen bodywork session, which did wonders for my arthritic knee, which had made walking difficult. I can’t take my fingers off the little greenstone I now wear around my neck. This was my healing.

IMG_1141Karin and I met once, as we happened to be walking in the same direction one afternoon. We spent a most companionable time in silence alone on a beach near the Bay at the back of the Ocean, watching oystercatchers glide past and sea lettuce undulating in sparkling water. As the week progressed my mind stilled and I was in Iona’s flow, my poems got simpler and more spacious.

My parting gift lay in Oban, as the ferry landed an old friend of the group, who lives there, came to greet us. I was dreading my night’s stay in a grim sounding B without B, but Margret generously invited me to stay. A delightful evening of good food and conversation with luxurious accommodation eased my re-entry from a week that renewed my wildheart. Next morning as we left for the station, a stag stood gazing at us from the driveway opposite, with a farewell twitch of his ears.

 Overture and Praise-singers

 I enter Iona with an, eek she’s here!
as a guillemottucks itsinky nib
beneath swirl of silver

 meander through overtures of sparrow cheeps
past clumps of marsh iris that emit
tsee tsee twisks andtoothcomb rasps

 a pair of reed buntings skitter by
him, in his black and white suit
her, in dowdy brown tweed.

 On this timeless lacuna
even crows whistle while they work
greylag geese chuckle as they graze.

 In the abbey cloister starlings chat, peck
squeeze into corbel crannies, while
a flock of sanctimonious white doves 

flap holy wings to the heavenly heights
of St Columba’s bell tower
slip through its pearly bars.

 On fine tooth comb – lowly corncrake
day and night their raspy chorus
threads wave and dark in neverending love song.

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It Takes Light to Cast a Shadow


behold the solstice wow!Since the beginning of this year I have had a sense of the world entering dark times and for many the winter was indeed both long and dark in different ways. Those first days of spring light and warmth held such release and in March we celebrated the time of equal day and night.

We tend to praise the light and shun the dark. There are those who glamorise and relish the dark as a sanctuary of rest, introspection, beauty and imagination. Others associate it with danger, evil, punishment and demons both inner and outer. The fact of ‘matter’ is that we cannot have light without dark, or dark without light. We all experience periods in dark places; when we are filled with sadness, pain, sickness loneliness or despair. There seems no way out and we feel powerless to change anything, or have any sense of control.

Sometimes our attitude becomes so negative that we even find it hard to let in the very things that lift our spirit. On the other hand life does send us tiny shining moments that remind us of a reality beyond the tunnel we find ourselves in. The sight of a small bird, a flower poking its head up, a song with just the right words, support from friends, or unexpected warmth of strangers. These moments can lift us just when we need it and help to sustain us that bit longer.

One of my inspirations is Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s poem ‘Invitation’ because she addresses these raw moments with such compassion and honesty: It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shrivelled and closed from fear of further pain.

I heard a woman relating the story of her first encounter with Wells Cathedral. She was one of several interviewed for a documentary about the cathedral and peoples’ relationship with it. She was going through very dark times in her own life and took a job as a cleaner there. She described it as seeing a beautiful garden filled with light but one she could only view from outside. However, she felt it gave her a sense of a possibility and hope that another reality existed. Years later, she became a deacon there and she expressed gratitude that her encounter had made her determined to resolve her problems and recognise her right to be in that ‘garden’.  Religion has unfortunately preached that suffering is a punishment, and sadly many still believe this. Even though we may not hold traditional beliefs, some of us cannot help but imagine that we are being punished by misfortune. We blame ourselves and feel ashamed, whether we have indeed committed trespass or not.

westhay lakeTruth is, it takes light to cast a shadow; yet shadow softens light. Light without shade can be harsh and unforgiving; dark without light is unsustainable. Our shadow follows us wherever we go. Peter Pan was lost without his and Wendy had to sew it back on for him. Our shadows are repositories of learning, they challenge us to grow and accept our humanity. Sometimes we find aspects of ourselves we deem ugly and unacceptable, only to discover that it is simply our rejection that has made them so. The real problem comes when we split shadow and light into either/or, rather than both/and.  Nobody relishes suffering but the expectation that life ‘should’ be light, or that darkness ‘should’ be banished; is unrealistic. Life carries us through cycles of all shades and colours.

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A Touch of the Wild is all it Takes

There are times when I need to get off the island as we say in Glastonbury, known also as the Isle of Avalon. Whilst I love itmerry green tree here, it is a small town and the land is flat and cultivated. At the end of winter, especially such a long, wet one as we’ve had here, I’m twitching to get out into wilder landscape and let the winds blow through my clogged brain and spirit. So I booked a couple of days on Dartmoor using which enables you to stay with people in their own homes. Synchronicity works and I found a cottage with a writer and her cat – just the ticket for me. Not only had she similar dietary habits, but we discovered we’d met a few years ago when she was walking around England in flop flops no less, gathering Transition stories from communities around the country.

I started my slow down by lunching in Ashburton, a lovely market town with antique and other small shops and good cafes. Then arrived in Rattery heading for the first footpath I could find. My first encounter with wild is often dogged with difficulties and frustrations so I ended up stumbling through excavated muddy farm tracks in soaking rain. The next day fortified by a massive dinner at the village pub circa 11th century,  porridge for breakfast and a good night’s rest, I set off for my walk on the Moors.

gorse on the waterBeyond South Brent lies Shipley Bridge where you can follow the River Avon up to the Avon Dam. It was just what I needed. Give me a tumble of granite, rushing foaming water, serpentine twist of branches cloaked in green and I’m happy. Despite the occasional hail-shower I was a happy bunny wandering up the moors, watching sheep and ponies on the skyline and a pair of hen harriers working the ridge. Scatters of gorse brightened the moments as did bursts of sunshine between showers. It was hard going up the final slope to the dam and pretty windy but I ate my sandwich on the shore gazing at the glow on the bleached moorland around, imagining myself high up in the Himalayas. I was alone in all that open space and at home in myself. As I left, other walkers appeared and we exchanged friendly words about this and that, and I walked back with fresher mind and heart.

Avon Dam

I returned via the village of Aish, over Lydia Bridge, an ancient stone bridge with a waterfall racing beneath; it is stunning. My hostess had told me she had only recently discovered this place. I took a short walk along the river bank with primroses and wild garlic coming into leaf. I even saw a dipper pausing midstream on a boulder. The path runs all the way back into South Brent.

My final day was spent mooching in Totnes at the regular Saturday flea market, the local shops and having my ritual lunch at the fabulous Willow Cafe. I first discovered it back in the late eighties and it’s still going strong. Then meandering on to Teignmouth where their first Poetry Festival was in full swing.

IMG_0857I went to hear Roselle Angwin who is a favourite poet and teacher of mine. Her poetry flows with exquisite ease in its connection with nature and presence in the moment. I rounded off by staying with a very old and dear friend Nelly who loves to play cards. So I paid for my keep with Canasta and returned home satisfied and nourished in every sense.


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