Sometimes we have to travel far before we discover the treasure on our doorstep, before we appreciate the riches beneath our feet. Many of us over the festive period have been travelling home these last few days to spend time with family, and open presents by that symbolic axis mundi – the Christmas tree, marking the centre of our world, for a while. In the week leading up to Christmas I journeyed back to my birth-town, Northampton, to perform in the Bardic Banquet on Wednesday (a merry knees-up organised by my old friends Justin and Jimtom on 18 Dec at the Labour Club). I performed stories from my new collection, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, which I had researched over the last two summers – travelling the county on my Triumph Legend motorbike, folk tale goggles firmly in place (Google Glass eat your heart out – I have the best apps possible: imagination and curiosity). While in town I popped into WH Smiths and Waterstones, to sign copies of my book – signatures have never been more satisfying (on Tuesday, under the whole of the moon, I went to see my long-time faves The Waterboys in Bristol, at the Colston Hall, and got Mike Scott to sign his autobiography, Adventures of a Waterboy – now I was signing my own books)!
Later in the week, back in Stroud, I hosted the Story Supper on Solstice Eve (20 Dec) at Black Book Cafe; and then a Winter Solstice Soiree at mine (21 Dec), where my friends gathered to light a wheel of light, making wishes and offering prayers to our loved ones and a better world; before sharing stories, songs and poems around the hearth over a mead-horn (Wassail!). Truly, the real magic of Christmas is found in such heart-warming hearth-gatherings.
Here are a couple of stories from my recent collection which relates how someone discovered the treasure on his doorstep…One is printed below, the other can be viewed via the Youtube link…
The Angel and the Cross
Do you know where the centre of England is? This has been a matter of debate and dispute for centuries, but the matter was finally settled by divine intervention.
It began far from England, in the heat and dust of the Holy Land.
The weary pilgrim placed down his staff and sat down by the side of the rubble-strewn road and rubbed his sore feet. His shoes, made by his own fair hands – like father, like son, he had carried on his family’s trade – had served him well, carrying him across Europe and into the Middle East, along long perilous trails – braving wildwood, bandit, war, tricksters and peddlers of false grails.
Taking off his hat, sporting the scallop-shell of the pilgrim, he fanned himself with it – it was so hot here, so bright. Coming from a softer, damper land, he had still not got used to it. Squinting, he looked up at the city before him – the various temples and spires competing for dominance. Bells rang out over the hustle and bustle of thousands of people coming and going through its gates. It was the 8th Century of Our Lord, and he had made it to Jerusalem. His soul was surely saved by this pious act. And he needed salvation. His soul was in a poorer condition than his poor old feet.
He acted the penniless and penitent pilgrim here, but back home he was a man of power, of influence. He had been cruel, yes, and vain. He had acquired wealth for himself in countless dubious ways. His coffers were full but his heart was empty. All of those glittering coins and trinkets had left him unfulfilled.
There had to be something more.
And that is when, one day, walking amid the noisome stalls of Sheep Street, he had an idea. He would go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to purge himself of his sins.
The pilgrim lined up and entered through one of the gates, under the stern eyes of the guards. And then he was in! Jerusalem, in all its glory, opened up before him. He stopped and stared, only to be elbowed out of the way, making him step in the gutter. Yet, he was so euphoric from the ardours of his journey, he didn’t care. He had made it. He looked around, grinning like a moon-touched loon. The narrow streets were full of noise and colour – the cries of trinket sellers, icon hawkers, fortune tellers, farmers with their produce arrayed before them – such exotic wares the likes of which he had never seen before. With the last of his coins, he purchased a large, succulent looking fruit and held it to his nose, savouring its smell. It was enough to make him salivate. The pilgrim imagined its cool juice, running down his throat, assuaging his burning thirst.
But, just before he sank his teeth into it, a passerby bumped into him, making him drop it. The pilgrim cursed under his breath, casting the stranger an evil stare – but it was too late, the perpetrator was lost in the crowd, and his fruit was rolling away from him.
Quickly, he pursued it as it rolled down the alleyways, away from the main crowds. Soon he was lost in a maze of passageways – perfect for thieves – but he could only think about his fruit.
He would not let it go!
He had come so far, endured such adversity – he would not let such a simple thing thwart him.
The fruit occasionally caught the odd dusty beam of light which penetrated the maze.
Nearly … within … reach.
The pilgrim lunged, just as the fruit rolled down a gap between two tumble-down buildings.
Cursing he knelt down and peered in. Luck! The object of his desire had got stuck against something blocking the narrow gap. The place smelt foetid, but he had to get that fruit. Gingerly, he stuck in his arm and, straining, reached for it. Something scuttled over his naked arm. A large black rat darted out of the gap and along the edge of the buildings! He quickly pulled out his arm, rubbed it vigorously. Then, composing himself, he tried again. Nearly … nearly … there! He had his hand around it – and triumphantly pulled it out. He rubbed it free of filfth and sank his teeth into it with a satisfied sigh. For a while he was lost in the pleasure of the taste – sharp but refreshing. Then, wiping his mouth, he peered into the gap out of curiosity. What was it that had blocked it?
There, he could see it now. An old stone cross – wedged inbetween the buildings. How odd. Perhaps it might be worth something.
Maybe his fortune had changed.
Laughing, he reached in and strained and strained until his fingernails scraped the stone. Slowly, painfully, he worked it towards his grasp – there, he had it! Making sure no one was around, he carefully pulled it out and, dusting it free of cobwebs, he inspected it.
It felt old, very old. Solid and heavy.
As he ran his fingers over it, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He felt he was being watched.
A strange light filled the darkened alleyway, and a benign warmth.
The pilgrim slowly turned and beheld before him a dazzling figure, glowing in rainbow colours – overlapping planes of light like a stained glass window in a cathedral.
The being spoke to him – directly, into his heart – in a voice warm and enfolding.
‘Who are you…?’
‘Take this cross and bury it – in the very heart of your homeland.’
‘The precise centre… Do so, and all will be well.’
The vision faded, and the pilgrim was left shaking. What had he seen? Perhaps there had been something wrong with that fruit. Afeared, he threw the pulpy core away. The stone cross was solid enough in his hand. That felt real.
Heart pounding, he got up.
Wrapping it in a rag, he placed the stone cross in his satchel and made his way quickly along the alleyway – walking with increasing purpose.
The pilgrim beheld his old home town with a sigh of relief. The journey back had been hard. Many a time he had come close to losing his sacred relic, but he had held onto it for dear life – amid the stormy crossings and dark nights. And now he was finally and he wept at the sight of Hamtun. Humble as it was, it was his home … and he was overcome with emotion at seeing it again. There was times when it looked as though he never would. But something had driven him. The words of an angel – yes, that is what it was. He knew that now. He had not told a soul – he did not want to risk the magic leaking away in the cold light of day. This had happened to him for a reason. It was his sacred duty.
He went to St Peters to pray in gratitude for his safe return. As he knelt there, the Holy Spirit descended and told him precisely where he must bury the cross.
A man on fire, he set about his task with a fervour.
In the middle of the night, when not a soul was in sight, he took his spade and dug. The spirit guided him – here, here was the very centre of England.
Who would have thought it? The bottom of Gold Street, at the crossroads with Horsemarket Street. This was the heart of the land. Every day, countless folk cross it unknowing that they tread on sacred soil. The cross was buried deep, the hole filled in, the soil patted down, so that not a mark, not a trace would reveal its whereabouts.
Yet he knew.
The hidden cross in the soil … marking the very centre of England by divine revelation!
Notes: with thanks to my fellow Northamptonian, the now London-based actor Robert Goodman – who first told me about this over a cup of tea in London.