Restless. I suppose we are all inclined to self-criticism; I should have done this or seen that, should have saved more money, should have spoken to that person but in the end I guess that we do what we do.
The spring came through the winter and we were stir crazy. So we went south. Traversing the ‘Forgotten Highway’ out of Taumarunui.
North Island countryside follows a certain pattern, one largely laid down by its hugely explosive volcanic past; sharp, angular grassy hills in jagged rows.
This was a journey between two volcanos. Mount Ruapehu, the irregular giant at the end of Lake Taupo taking up the heart of the North to the uniform, neater cone of Mount Taranaki, guarding the southwest coastline and looking out to the brutal Tasman sea.
The Forgotten highway cuts through the central plateau linking Stratford and New Plymouth to Taumarunui. It is a long, old road carving through precipitous gorges and the ubiquitous farmlands and then, suddenly, it ends and the landscape becomes flat as the fertile plains emanating out from the nearly symmetrical Mount Taranaki are reached.
And so New Plymouth, a coastal city with a definitive beachy vibe, interspersed with some colonial architecture and modern glass shopping centres. A small shiny, bright city. Like the air here.
New Plymouth is so named due to it being here that the first landfalls of the West Country settlers were made. Mount Taranaki would have been the first thing that met their eyes as they neared this part of Land of the Long White Cloud. An alien sight to the people used to the relatively gentle hills of home, although the battered coastline around the south-western cape called to mind immediately areas of North Cornwall around Treyarnon, Trevose and Harlyn so perhaps it also did to the first Cornishmen on the William Bryan.
The ‘settlement’, incidentally, did not go well. Heavily affected by famine, disease, mutual distrust and eventual war with the local Maori Iwi. Taranaki is sacred in Maori lore and the surrounding plains were relatively densely populated by the Maori during European colonisation so conflict was inevitable
Mount Taranaki is a startling sight, magnetic, I had to force myself to keep my eyes on the road as the clouds lifted from the summit.
The Surf Highway follows the hemispherical coast and the coast circles the mountain. From the air the peculiar landscape is made obvious.
The odd green circle is the National Park boundary, where the native bush starts and the fertile, artificial farmland – mainly dairy – ends.
These mountains have a certain mystique about them I find, being so singular and dominant. I can perfectly understand why Maori legend personifies them into separate quarrelling entities, ancient god-like beings, a conceptualisation brought all the more sharply into focus when their latent geophysical power is taken into account.
Taranaki then was once standing with other Volcanoes in the central plateau but was sent retreating to his lonely position after viciously losing to the powerful Tongariro in a battle for the affections of the diminuative but beautiful Pihanga, where it is said that when he remembers his lost love he calls the clouds in to hide his tears.
And that was how we left him, returning to Taupo after a clear night under a Supermoon and inverted constellations.
So I have settled, for the time being at least, in a ramshackle but charming hostel on the shore of Lake Taupo. New Zealand is an expensive country to travel about in and winter employment was in order.
The town of Taupo (toe-paw, not t-ow-po) is fine, occupying an inlet at the north end of the lake, the second largest in Oceana, it has the standard grid system, uninspiring buildings and general air of a smallish kiwi town. Not much in itself other than a relatively friendly, community vibe but New Zealand’s prowess does not lie in its urbanism, although there are some notable exceptions, the country’s prime attraction is its natural beauty.
Taupo is well situated for scenic splendour and is a principle reason that in season it is one of the busier places in the North Island. It capitalises on its location, having established itself as a central hub for providers of various adventure tourism activities.
The grand volcanic plateau, pinnacling in the mountains of Ruapehu (2797metres), Tongariro (1978 metres) and Ngrauruhoe (2291 metres), rears up from the south side of the drinkably clean, trout packed lake. These peaks are not large by global standards, or even domestic – Aoraki (Mount Cook) on the South Island is 3724 metres – but their topographical prominence and often snow-capped summits lend them a somewhat majestic air. I have been known to exhale dramatically at small hills in Cornwall so these are impressive to me at least. Lending to their majesty is that they are very active volcanically speaking. Thus they could wreak untold havoc at any moment. In fact, it’s a geological certainty they will at some point.
The town of Taupo is situated rather close to something even more humbling. A Supervolcano (yeah I linked Wikipedia). It could not be any closer actually, being directly on top of it as it is.
Supervolcanoes are one of the many potentially cataclysmic things modern humans carefully and dutifully ignore, one that is quite literally under our noses here in Taupo. Happily providing us tourists with various exciting and relaxing leisure activities. When they erupt in earnest, rather large swathes of, well, everything becomes quite inconvenienced.
Thus it is an unfortunate fact of Kiwi life if the Taupo Caldera – which comprises the entire lake – decides to go, and it seems there could be little warning, the North Island, as it is, goes with it.
It has blown before, the last in was in 120 AD and the consensus is that it will again. The Oruanui eruption occurred roughly 25000 years B.P. and is the world’s most recent supervolcanic eruption. Without a doubt this eruption affected things for us Homo Sapiens who were still firmly within our Paleolithic (living in caves and sharpening rocks with other rocks) phase. The most recent major eruption here (‘major’ being an eruption with a volcanic explosivity index – or VEI – of 3 or more ) was the Hatepe eruption in 180 AD, a relatively mild event compared to the Oruanui. This one affected the global climate extensively enough for the Romans to look up and wonder what had happened to the sun for a while. For comparison the Hatepe eruption expelled 120 cubic kilometres of material, the Oruanui ejected 1170. Well, shit.
This notion is really quite present in my mind. The steaming streams and geothermal pools that we recline in, the faint odour of sulphur in the frosty mornings, the occasional rumble in the earth as I lie in bed serve as little elbow nudges, reminding me I am dwellling in a part of the world where the earth’s crust is somewhat thinner than I’m used to.
I haven’t really written about New Zealand. I have been writing other things. Which is nice as I haven’t really written anything of note for a long time.
It high time that I do put some words out on this strange new place though, if only to collate some solid opinions – does anyone else find that opinions sometimes only coherently form when you actually set about writing?
The first thing I noticed is that the air is pure. It’s fresh, clean and clear. Taupo is indeed colder than most places on the North Island (which might explain why it’s full of English people) being at a rough elevation of 500 metres but still, whichever way the wind blows the air retains its clarity. Even in Auckland in the tail-end of Summer the air was crisp enough. The southern hemisphere is fairly renowned for having less pollution and less ozone than the north so this wont be a surprise for most but I notice it a great deal. Following this the sun really is outrageously strong. I had heard this, taken note of it and still burned myself to a comical extent within my first half an hour of solar exposure, foolish pallid human that I am.
I was also under the general impression that there are great deal of similarities with the UK, culturally there are some of course but there is little resemblance in the landscape.
The British landscape is ancient. Its geological turbulence long since passed, with that comes a stolid solidity, the hills and mountains are impassive, the rivers entrenched and old, the land is well trodden and the seas are overfished. I love the ancient air of home, theres magic in it, but New Zealand feels much younger, much more active and volatile but also much more vitalised and healthy and there’s a different kind of magic in that too.
This sense of youth bleeds over into its anthropological history as well. All valid historical evidence points to the islands first being happened upon by the genius level oceanic explorations of East Polynesians in the late 13th century. The lush, green, spacious and temperate land was subsequently – and presumably enthusiastically – settled and thus formed the beginnings of the Maori Culture (for the record Maori is pronounced ‘Ma – aowl – dy’). This is remarkably recent for a such large landmass. Incidentally, in Maori tradition, Taupo is one of the first places the great priest/chief Ngātoro-i-rangi came to when New Zealand was first settled by the Maori and where he named the peaks of the volcanic plateau.
There are fringe theories about pre-Maori settlement but absolutely no reliable evidence to support them and as far as I can tell the theories that posit a celtic/megalithic history are largely racially motivated, which is most unpleasant.
That said, there is solid evidence that Australia has been peopled for around 65000 years, an enormous span of time really, so perhaps there is a remote chance ocean navigating people reached New Zealand before the Oruanui eruption and subsequently had their culture – which presumably would have been Paleolithic hunter-gatherer in the same vein as the Aboriginal Australians – erased but I also know very little about the pre-history of this part of the world so I’m merely thinking aloud, as mentioned I’m not aware of any evidence to support this. I’ll have proper read over the next few months.
Anyway, yes, I like New Zealand, it’s home at the moment and I am stuck/settled in the town of Taupo until I save up enough money to get the hell out. Handily I have landed centrally so barring imminent supereruptions I will be motoring out and about more now the weather is improving and I have a dashing beige Honda Odyssey which I am quite fond of to do it in. Sweet bru.
It seems I have traded the North Atlantic for the South Pacific, a world apart.
This ocean is different; bluer, warmer, stronger.
I have always longed to see the Pacfic ocean. I can now say I have swum in three of the worlds oceans, the others – the Southern and Arctic – are not quite so accessible but maybe one day.
Whoever named these vast expanses of water had poetry in their veins, I grew up with these words. The Atlantic is home to me; green, cold and wild. The Pacific is foreign, full of new things and where the power of the ocean is a way of life.
I suppose I will write of the new things here, when I get the chance.
When we started to drive, with teenage abandon, around the lanes that connect Polgooth, Sticker and St. Ewe a story started to trickle down into our hot-boxed Peugeot 106.
In between St. Ewe, Polgooth and Pengrugla there is a little triangle of woods, a copse really, that the road dog-legs around, which we called Nunnery woods. The local legend we nurtured states that if and when you see a silent, solemn Nun standing by the side of the road here, late at night, your death is close at hand.
I had always assumed the story was the result of skunk induced paranoia so as I happened to be driving past with my camera I thought on a whim I’d have a gander into this strange little wood. You can enter into the copse by jumping a hedge. I immediately set about looking for evidence of buildings, if there had been a Nunnery here there would be evidence of foundations at least.
Nothing. Just the usual refuse to be found in wooded sites less travelled. Plastic oil drums, strongbow bottles and tyres mainly. There are a few ditches – for drainage probably – but little else of interest. I left after half hour or so fairly disappointed and leaning to the conclusion that our story was groundless.
Nagged by feeling of incompletion I thought to dig a bit on the net and found that the investigation was not over.
I had no idea until I saw this map that the hill around this wood is actually, legitmately called ‘Nunnery Hill’. Perhaps our folklore had legs after all.
The only references I can find are this, which claims there was indeed a Nunnery NE of this point and a small paragraph in Samuel Drew’s (Cornwall’s only well-known Philosopher) 1824 ‘History of Cornwall, Vol. II‘ who comes to the solidly academic conclusion that since it’s called ‘Nunnery Hill’ there was probably, once, a Nunnery in the vicinity.
Lanhadron Farm nearby is in the Domesday book but there is no mention of a Nunnery. So, if there was one it was likely in existence between this time, 1086, and the dissolution of the monasteries in 1541. I would say the evidence points to something of note here, the name is clearly not new, the road takes a strange detour around the area and there is a local legend attached.
So the folk-memory of a lost nunnery has persisted in a place name and a ghost story for over 400 years. Without our teenage re-telling of a story – presumably passed to us from previous generations – I wouldn’t have found a little lost piece of history. Lovely. Hope you don’t see any Nuns though, should you visit.
A few days ago I was reading of Norilsk, an unimaginably oppressive, filthy, cold, dank industrial city high in the Arctic Circle. Once known for its Soviet Gulag labour camps (in which tens of thousands of prisoners died), it is now a hub of mineral mining. Nickel primarily but also palladium, cobalt, arsenic and coal. The average temperature in the winter months is -20 degrees C. The concentration of relentless and remorseless mining and smelting industries here mean that it is one of the most polluted places on earth, with an average life expectancy of roughly 60 years. The Norilsk people essentially dig out and process hazardous minerals from the arctic tundra and live out their spare time in an almost eternally dark, frozen, carcinogenic smog. It’s also closed to anyone but those who work here.
I read of this and all I could think of is how much I want to go there. I am thus starting to accept I am drawn to the dark places of the world.
I should probably state that I approach almost everything on the skeptical side of agnosticism and as I have no tangible first-hand evidence of anything ‘paranormal’ I am a non-believer. But, as I have said before, some places have different feelings to them, some raise your hairs, some have powerful and inescapable lore attached to them that stir the imagination, some are too old to comprehend fully and these are the areas I like to seek out.
Either way I give you the first in a mini-series – or as many as I can get in before I exit the Country in a few days, whatever.
St. Denys Church. I’d heard a few stories about this place before I first explored it almost a decade ago. My own Mother – not known for her indulgence in such things – had to leave the graveyard due to an overwhelming fear. Others spoke of it quietly, that it was always colder than the surrounding area.
I remember feeling trepidation on my first approach. Even from a distance there is something about St. Denys church.
The first thing you will note is that it sits perched at the apex of a perfectly conical hill, looming above the surrounding area. The next is that crowning the top is a perfect ring of trees, surrounding Church building itself, leaving only the top of the buttressed tower visible from a distance. When you enter the churchyard through a rusted wrought iron gate indeed the light is diminished. The trees that crown the hill and surround the church all seem to reach inwards towards the granite tower and create a strange enclosed feeling. I’m not sure I’ve seen this before in any church. Usually trees are manipulated by prevailing winds. Lastly the radiating down from the churchyard is a lovely and ancient complex of fields enclosed by brittle granite dry-stone walls. The whole site is made all the more peculiar sitting as it does now amongst the white mountains of the Clay.
I first came here to try and find something and found absolutely nothing other than a feeling that it is a special place.
Which it most certainly is, St. Denys church is actually built directly within the remnants of a Hill Fort. This is rather rare. Glastonbury Tor is probably the most famous example of this overt Christianisation of pagan sites but whereas Glastonbury is warm and inviting, St. Denys is cold and aloof.
It is of course the overwhelming age of the site that gives St. Denys church its power. Hillfort earthworks have their origins to the Iron Age (600bc – 60AD) but just as Christian sites were oft sited on pagan hallowed ground, hill forts were often a new type of fortification on a more primitive hill-top defence system used right back to the Neolithic, 3000bc.So when you walk around the cool air of St. Denys churchyard, amongst the Rowan and the Yew you may well be walking around a somewhere that has been site of spiritual significance for 5000 years – possibly seeing the ritual sacrifice associated with the Celtic period. I think that amount of sedimented human life and belief in such a small, concentrated area is probably going to leave something in the air.
Time moves on and we get used to it. As our accustomed minds gradually and continually fill up with life find ourselves shocked when we take note to see an hour or a week has passed with not much to show other than an underlying sense of non-achievement.
The terminal feeling of helplessness at the passing of time is part of the human condition. The only way I can attempt to ameliorate this is to reflect and remember details – and remember that the hours are the same speed they always were.
A camera, a view on a bright, clear early Spring day. A sailing yacht at anchor, a flock of Oystercatchers and their ember-red feet. Life in the rockpools after a dull winter, fishing trawlers coming in.
Spring, clean and crisp. Views to Devon in the pure air, travels in Cornwall, as always. Coastal. A coastal time. Early swim.
Warmth in June. Lush and verdant. Humid walks amongst damp tall grasses, pollen and midges in the late afternoon sunlight.
Cold swims in the ocean, beach dust and tobacco smoke.
Mown grass and garden spiders in September, fattening in their careful webs. Craneflies and the roads quieten. Peaceful and warm.
Autumn was all change. Job, house, life. All of it. The most colourful Autumn for years.
And then the change to Winter.
And the impetus stutters and stalls in winter.
This winter has been far more beautiful than the last.Cornwall shines in the winter I think.
So resolutions and the like are made and it’s nearly February.
Just off the south side of the arterial A30 that cuts the Moor in two one can find Temple. A collection of farm houses and out of the way cottages, there is not much other than the small community that dwell here.
Temple Church is the prime attraction. You see, if you blunder across anywhere in England that has the name ‘Temple’ in it, you can guess, with some accuracy, that the area or buildings had something to do with the Knights Templar at some point. This solid, stolid little church is the only Templar site I know of in Cornwall, although no doubt other areas and buildings would have had connections to the group.
I’m not going to go into reams of detail about the Templars – there really is a great deal of utter shit spoken about them – suffice to say they were an early fraternal order of Knights (wealthy, landed men who were trained to fight) started in the early 12th century, who grew pretty rapidly to hold a great deal of financial, political and military influence across Europe towards Jerusalem. They were a very early form of bank actually and their financial practices and habits of lending earned them a great deal of money and had a lasting influence. This was a time when Europe was largely working together under a fanatical religious imperialism to ‘reclaim’ what is now Israel plus parts of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. I speak of The Crusades, of course. If this all seems a bit familiar then that’s probably because with a few different phrases, ideologies and name changes we can largely take the rhetoric of the crusades and apply them to the modern conflicts in the area. Nice to see we learn.
The Knights Templar were eradicated in the very early 14th century; dislodged, ousted and delegitimised through a fairly transparent but effective campaign of fear and disinformation led by the French King Philip IV and Pope Clement V with the last of the Grand Masters, Jacques de Molay, burned alive in Paris. That’s largely it for the real, historical Templars.
So why the fudge did they built a tiny Church in the Moors? Places like this were refuges and stopping points for pilgrims on their way to various places and pilgrims = money. Irish pilgrims to the Holy Land would often save themselves the perilous seas around the Cape of Cornwall and travel overland from Padstow to Fowey and then onto France. Hence this convenient moorland stopping point, a days hard walk from Camelford.
The Church passed to the Knights Hospitaller after the suppression of the Templars and led quite the life of intrigue and macabre detail afterwards. It remained with the Knights of St. John until the dissolution of all things Catholic and Papal under Mr. the VIII, upon which it somehow managed to retain a legal loophole through which the young and wildly impulsive couples of Cornwall could elope across the moors and marry each other without the need for banns or licence. This was ended in 1753 whereupon the church was left to crumble (which it did so upon a remarkably unfortunate vagrant sheltering inside, killing him). It was rebuilt by the great Cornish architect Silvanus Trevail – who later shot himself on a train to Bodmin, which is perhaps understandable – in 1883 after a community funding effort.
These days this isolated rural church doesn’t have many services and has somehow gained a reputation for the occult and magical rituals, perhaps due to the history, perhaps due to the occult in general having fascination with the Templars or perhaps due to its isolation.
There is certainly an unusual sense about Temple Church though, its interior is remarkably spartan. It has simple wooden chairs rather than ornate pews, it is also pleasingly entirely lit by candlelight and the altar is a very basic oak table with a dusty copy of the bible placed upon it. The walls are clean and whitewashed and lead to a bare slate floors and a relatively simple oak beam ceiling. The whole building feels like an empty scene – a set, strangely calm and serene.
As far as I would ever go is to say that places have feelings to them and Temple Church has a particular feeling. A lot has happened on this little patch after all. I have no idea about the details of the rituals undertaken here by witchy-folk, but generally speaking (I am a layman) ritual that takes place on overtly Christian land tends to be somewhat dark in nature – as it is meant to be intentionally blasphemous to Christianity. I don’t really care what happens here to be frank. People believe what they like, but certainly each thing that does happen here adds to the building’s intriguingly rich and often macabre history.