“HERE JOHN TURNER WAS CAST AWAY IN A HEAVY SNOW STORM IN THE NIGHT IN OR ABOUT THE YEAR 1755”. And on the other side “THE PRINT OF A WOMANS SHOE WAS FOUND BY HIS SIDE WERE [sic] HE LAY DEAD”.
Thursbitch: from the Old English Pyrs – demon and baech – valley. First documented in 1384.
It’s a short car journey from my home to Thursbitch. I have made that journey only three times in all the years I have lived here, which isn’t especially odd, until you compare the miles of walking, the hundreds of photographs taken, and the lifelong investment of time I have put into exploring the local folklore of the landscape I call home. Wells and springs, sacred hills, haunted houses, black dogs and standing stones; I’ve gathered them all, written them down, captured their image and remembered them to make them live again, but Thursbitch doesn’t need me; it is already alive.
I don’t want you to think I’m a lowlander who’s simply overwhelmed by the wind thrashed, sheep-shat, trackless heights of the Derbyshire moors; I lived on ‘the tops’ for many years, several of them on my own, and loved the silence and solitude and spectacular snowfalls. I like wild stuff. I like wind and weather. But I also know when I’m pitted against something bigger than myself; the moorland eats strays, it grows heather through their eye sockets, it mineralises their story into granite. It will find its way through your Gortex clothing, fiddle with your compass and ditch your four wheel drive. You approach the high places entirely on their terms.
There’s a boundary you cross as the hills start to rise: police warnings, road warnings, large flashing snow warnings; this is the high tide mark of the modern world. This is the line where the Old Gods take over, and you can’t say you weren’t warned. The stone walls become wobbly, the barbed wire sags, the sheep sashay casually before the speeding BMWs. It’s untidy, it’s uncanny, and Thursbitch is the uncanniest place of all.
I’d already spent a bright-dark, hot-cold summer’s day walking the environs of Thursbitch, photographing its closed-mouthed, claustrophobic chapel (where, according to local lore, they married ‘the odd’) and feeling the hard, marbly eyes of its Genus Loci fixed upon my every move, before I read Alan Garner’s unsettling novel of the same name. It would be years later that I discovered the even more unsettling transcript of a lecture he’d given on his initiation into the story of Thursbitch, a story that completely validated the pricking of my thumbs. I’ll place that lecture here; Alan Garner’s writing is high magic, and his words are not to be trifled with.
His lecture has sent me off on various paths, collecting little shiny objects along the way. I ask you, who’d have thought St John the baptist (after whom the chapel at Saltersford is named) was one of very few saints to have cloven feet and horns? And, that his festival is Midsummer Eve? I think I smell a rat – or a bull, or a ram, or a stag.
It has also allowed me to document and photograph the site of the large prehistoric monolith that stood beside the crossroads opposite St John’s, which disappeared the same year the chapel was built. It was decorated and offerings made at Midsummer.
I’m always fascinated by old field names and was particularly interested in the name for the field where John Turner’s memorial stone was placed: Osbaldestane croft; Old English for ‘stone of the bright god.’ There are several fields, families and ancient monuments in this area that carry the name ‘Balderstone’ – another shiny, little object to pick up and examine closely, along with fact that this stone has been replaced at least once, and possibly more considering the howling cold of Erwin Lane. By whom? And why?
The locals still remember the otherworldliness of this place. 1735, the year that John Turner, son of this parish, was cast away in a snow drift, is considered almost within living memory. Time folds in on itself when the names in the chapel’s graveyard are the same as the names of the farmers herding sheep on their quad bikes; old quarrels are not forgotten, family ties are a thread strung from generation to generation, and stories are repaired like dry stone walls.
The Genus Loci still sits on the old wall of the chapel, watching, and come Midsummer I’ll take him a cup of butter and bunch of St John’s Wort, and then, maybe, I’ll get to walk the line of stones to the heart of Thursbitch. If I’m lucky, and the butter is good, I may even be allowed to walk back.
For more shiny objects:
All things Alan Garner.
Photographs of Thursbitch