It stands proud and defiant, after nearly a thousand years – outside the public library on the flat expanse of green grass known as Castle Green. Apart from the library – a handsome brick building very much in keeping with the character of the town, it is surrounded on all sides by the usual clutter of modern life: small old cottages overshadowed and dwarfed by breeze block (cinder block) business and retail premises, a large open air car park, a strange system of roads and one-way traffic flows… and the ‘lovely’ Council Office block, which pretty well dominates this part of Barnstaple.
It was erected as a motte and bailey castle in Norman times, built on top of a Saxon graveyard. The castle has long since gone, and after a long and complex history, all that remains now is the motte, known today as the Castle Mound. It was grassed over and landscaped in the early 19th century, with a spiral path leading up to the top.
Gazing up at the mound and its spiralling pathway, I was reminded of the archetypal labyrinth, with its twists and turns and its single track leading to a central point and then returning to the beginning again.
I gazed for a long time at the mound and the trees growing all over it, many on this cold November morning almost bare of leaves now, and the tracery of their branches and twigs beautiful against the overcast sky. From the trees came the clear pure song of a single small bird.
I wandered around the park a bit – an ideal place to make a group labyrinth, but I could not see any handy materials nearby. I continued looking around at the trees, the grass and the shrubs and the modern buildings surrounding the whole area, then set off up the spiralling pathway of the mound, idly wondering whether I could persuade anyone over the age of 10 to climb up to the top with me.
The mound was like a library in itself. I was not much aware of its history until afterwards when I began to research - though as I climbed up and around, I could clearly see there was an infinite number of stories to be told. Signs and clues were everywhere: exposed fragments of masonry, sturdy stone edging along the sides of the track, and a flat top to the mound, with areas that had obviously held previous constructions.
Tempting to follow up the clues, but I focused on my journey, the movement of life all around – and upon the task I had set myself. I was planning routes and locations for some group Creative Walks I will be running early in 2014.
Going up, I left the everyday world farther and farther behind as the trees and the land gradually enfolded me, allowing me to drop into a relaxed peaceful state. At the top, looking down through the trees, the rooftops of the town looked tiny and insignificant. But the only way forward (apart from upwards) was back the way I had come. So I retraced my steps, taking note of the features: the stonework, the phallic rock art, the twisted creepers and roots, and measuring the width of the path with my feet… in preparation for my arrival back home.
Here is my ‘there and back again’ journey in pictures:
Down to earth again, my hands and feet suddenly felt cold with all that standing about in the wind and wet grass – so I had to find a cafe, coffee and a rather large scone with jam and clotted cream.