Walking the Cleveland Way

I have written before about walking and the power of pilgrimage here. It is something that I continue to explore as a defining power and influence in my life and there is more to come on this for you other walkers and journey makers soon at some point. It is something that I feel has quite literally, at times, saved my life this year.

For now, I wanted to share a video I made this past week of a pilgrimage I made with my Mum along the Cleveland Coast in Yorkshire. It was her first long distance walk and something she’d wanted to do for a really long time. I was honoured to make the journey and spend the time with her. This links through to my youtube channel with other journeys made, and more on the way.

The Cleveland Coast Path



‘Wilderness’, it’s such an evocative word. For me, it immediately evokes daydreams of wild places, mountaintops, vast plains, windswept beaches, storm-drenched coast, beautiful nature in its unspoiled element. Our genes are programmed to love these places, to crave air and space and sunshine and rain. We need these things to thrive, to be happy. Research shows us this time and again. Yet, here in Britain this small crowded island with its cities and agriculture, for all our green and pleasantness, mountans, valleys and rivers, there is little that is truly wilderness; by which I mean, the places that nature is allowed to be, untouched, unmanaged by humanity. Almost every inch of these islands is grazed, managed, copiced, cleared or ‘protected’. Short of travelling a considerable distance most of us have very limited access to wilderness.

If you are anything like me though, you crave it, feel the ancient need for it deep within your bones and search for it as an essential source of healing. As a pagan, nature is where I find my deepest source of solace, I think of my ancestors who for thousands and thousands of years walked and lived in vast tundra and dense forest, the nearest neighboring tribe might have been days walk away. That’s not to over romanticise an idyllic existence of course, modern life brings us much comfort that I would not be without, but it illustrates the point that we’ve lived in the wilderness for far longer than as urbanised creatures. Even here in rural Leicestershire, in my tiny village of 180 people, I struggle to think of a single place I can go, certainly without getting in my car, where the horizon in every direction is free from settlement or farm building, where my view contains no field boundary or managed hedge.

In a search for the wild, perhaps for many of us, the places that we find wilderness most easily may be on the inside. We are animals after all, our humanity is just a civilised gloss over creatures who just need to eat, sleep, love, birth and screw; just as every other creature does. It is only our unique mental processes and the ability to manipulate our environment which affords us an illusion of difference. However, whilst we crave the romanticism of the wild, so often we fight it too with every fibre. We are social beings. We fundamentally need interaction, relationship and support in order to survive. We fear to be alone, really alone, or venture into the dark places of our heads where no one else can follow. Those places are scary and we avoid them, often for good reason. We fill our lives with constant interaction, facebook, phones, TV, radio. I suspect that we do this sometimes, to avoid the dark places. There is good evidence to suggest that the sights and sounds of the modern world, noise, traffic, screentime, crowds actually have abnormal affects on our brainwaves, changing our thought patterns and responses to the world negatively. Conversely, natural sights and sounds, green spaces, woodland, sky, birdsong, positively modulate and normalise our brain patterns and responses to stimuli.

How many of us can say that we have the balance right, spending MORE time in benefical environments allowing ourselves to naturally process our feelings and emotions than we do in the places, both physical and virtual, we are bombarded with images and chatter? I know that my interactions with social media for example can be profoundly damaging if I am not extremely careful, at times removing my ability to think clearly or independently. I’m overwhelmed by the detail of others lives and a level of interaction and sharing that feels to me sometimes, to be profoundly abnormal and intrusive. I am caught between the need and want to support friends and the need for peace, headspace, and solitude. It’s hard to get the balance right. For many of course, social media is extremely beneficial, relieving feeling of lonliness and social isolation, connecting people accross oceans and distance. But for others it adds another layer of complication to modern life to be navigated and managed. Or worse, becomes a sticking plaster to the things we really should be thinking about and dealing with, but aren’t.

All this returns me again to the need for wilderness. Sometimes we just need to disconnect from the chatter, let it all go, and to work out again what is authentic, the people, relationships and things that matter to us most in the real world. Sometimes in order to do that we need to be alone, to wander a little and get a bit lost. I would argue that there are times in our lives where this wandering is not only desirable, it’s absolutely essential because without it we only ever know ourselves as we are reflected in the eyes of others. To return to the wilderness even if that is a metaphorical wilderness is part of an ancient human process, when we can no longer bottle it up, button it up, suck it up, and when to continue to do so does us more harm than good.

When we need to find again a sense of self which is independent and a strength which comes from centre and not from others, getting lost can be helpful. There is profound use in stopping, sitting and peacefully acknowledging your surroundings, realising that you have no idea where you are or what to do. In the moment that you stop pushing, stop fighting, stop running, stop trying to be somewhere else, and recognise that you are lost in the wilderness, the panic and urgency is calmed and the answer emerges – for there is no other – you learn to say simply, “I’m here” and find a sense of presence in the moment. In the moment, we breathe, are able to hear the birdsong, the sea, the wind in the trees, and smell the honeysuckle when before we were distracted. In the moment, we can look for the place on the horizon where the sun rises or the side of the tree that the lichen grows to help us orientate again. But we can only do this effectively when we have the space and time to do so.

Of course few of us are ever truly alone, enforced  lonliness is a terrible place to be and the point is not to permanently isolate ourselves in the quest. Having people around us, who honour our need for wilderness and support the vision quest is vital. In such a way we can be lost in quiet company, where those who understand the need will stand with you and hold the compass as it spins, or quietly watch as you smooth out the map. What is needed in the wilderness are those able to suspend their own need to locate, push, solve the problem, move, chivvy or cheer us, knowing that wilderness is healing in itself, and the process of stopping and locating ourselves is the only way to go forward. This may take time, a lot of time, but when we finaly find the courage to move again, located in the moment, the path will emerge from the undergrowth and the wilderness will return to the familiar. The clarity and strength we have gained will teach us to be less frightened of returning to the wilderness again when we need to, because we come back to the world stronger than we left it. Perhaps most importantly though, in experiencing wilderness and its capacity to heal, we learn to support the process for others, suspending our own needs, and witness quietly as they too stop and smooth out the map.






It is hard to explain to those who do not know,
the depth of entanglement that can exist between women.
No a longer a moment, but a knotted thread that cannot be unpicked
by even the brightest painted fingernails,
or snipped at by the sharpest, sewing scissors.
A snarl at the core looks with brilliant eyes and says,“yes,I know you.”
Body and soul, I know you.
For we are cut from the same imperfect stuff
and a line of stitching leads us back, always back.
There comes a point where you finally trust that it always will,
for how could it ever not?

They are laughing at us, you and I; the old women
who weave the world and set that entanglement to begin.
We spent so many years wondering where the path would go,
little did we know that we need not have wondered at all.
A cord around the wrist sealed in blood.
A spindle’s mark to keep us.
If there are between us, spells of silence, know this
My Everything Girl, know this;
It is simply because you need never compromise your dreams for me.
They are so precious. It only means I did not know
how to tell you when it mattered.



Sunlight shifts across the balcony.

In the early morning beat of the cicadas,

cyprus and lemon, salt tang and dust

hang in the rising heat.

He spoons thick yoghurt into my bowl,

pauses, pours the yellow, orange and thyme

scented honey over it, slowly.

I reach for his hand, his slim brown fingers,

and kiss them. Still salty

from the sea and last night’s love.

He smiles, his eyes full of a darkness

I have yet to find the bottom of.

Were we still very young there would have been

gauloise to go with the coffee,

sweet smoke drifting through the lemon grove.

But instead of smoke there is a clarity,

a love that becomes more simple for all its complexity of years.

A calm settles around us. I follow his eyes to the horizon,

where an inky blue line joins sky and sea.

September 2015


“…As she raised her hands to unlatch the door in front of her, a beautiful light shone from them both so that earth and sky and sea were brighter for it…” (The Poetic Edda).

Gerða or Gerð, usually anglicized to Gertha or Gerda) is a mountain giantess who is a member of the Norse-Icelandic pantheon and her name appears in both the Poetic and Prose Eddas, which date from 13th century Iceland. Whilst she is a little celebrated goddess, she is probably best known for being the wife of Freyr, one of the most important gods of the Norse pantheon, who presides over harvest, abundance and fertility. She is also named as being a one of the Asyniur, the goddesses of the AEsir pantheon who reside in the world of Asgard, one of the Nine Worlds from Norse mythology. Gerða is also mentioned in Snorri Sturluson’s Inglinga Saga where she appears as the wife of Freyr, named there as the King of Sweden. Between them they have a son named Fjollnir which means ‘manifold’. She is also listed as having been a sexual partner of the god Odin. Although Gerða is not mentioned in any of the Anglo Saxon texts, Freyr is, so it is possible that she was also known in the British Isles during the Saxon period as well as throughout Scandinavia.
The most famous story in which she appears is the Skirnismal or Lay of Skirnir. After spying on her from afar and falling in love with her great beauty, Freyr sends his messenger Skirnir to woo Gerða for him and to bring her back to Asgard. Freyr’s love for Gerða is such that he gives Skirnir his magical horse and his sword to complete the task. When Skirnir arrives at Gerða’s father’s, hall, he offers her precious gifts if she will consent to be Freyr’s wife. When she is not moved he threatens her, which she also finds unimpressive, saying;
“”For no man’s sake will I ever suffer,
To be thus moved by might…”
Finally Skirnir resorts to a terrible curse which calls madness, rage and longing upon her if she will not acquiesce. Gerða then gives in, saying that she herself loves Freyr, and agrees to meet him nine days hence in the forest of Barri where their union takes place. Skirnir carries the news to Freyr who is overjoyed by the news but devastated that he must wait nine nights for her.

It is difficult to know how Gerða was honoured historically as very little of her lore remains. As the wife of a fertility god, and a mountain giantess she is often associated with the earth and fertility and may have originally represented the cold of the winter earth being coaxed to life by the warmth of the sun, which is closely associated with Freyr. There are certainly elements of the ancient dynamic of the union of earth and sky about their marriage. Yet, such explanations may be overly simplistic and Gerða’s guarded response to Skirnir’s wooings, despite her own love for Freyr holds important clues to her nature. Those who work with her in a modern context generally agree that she is a goddess of reserved temperament who hides hidden depths and passions that she does not reveal easily. She is often described as wearing brown and earth-coloured gowns which cover her completely with her hair in a long dark plait that reaches to the floor.
Further indications of her nature can be found within her name. Gerða in Old Norse means ‘fenced in’ or ‘to guard’ and she is often associated by modern devotees with the concept of Innangarð meaning ‘inside the enclosure’ – that which is tamed or safe sanctuary, and Utengarð, meaning ‘outside the enclosure’ – that which is wild, dangerous or chaotic. These two concepts most usually refer to physical spaces, but may also be used to denote cultural, psychological or social states too. Gerða is often associated with the peace and safety of Innangarð, holding the sanctuary of sacred space and as such she may be called upon for healing.
Gerða’s close association with the earth, healing and the guarded enclosure has meant that she has come to be associated with walled gardens, particularly herb gardens. Planting and tending an herb garden is a way to honour her and she may enjoy offerings of herbs, teas, or essential oils. However, her name may more accurately denote her as a goddess of the physical boundary or barrier that divides the inner and the outer, rather than of the spaces themselves. As such she can be seen as the boundary between the wild and the tamed, keeping the balance between the two which makes human society and culture possible. Humanity has always sought to moderate the environment in order that existence may be more viable or comfortable. We seek out new modes of agriculture, medicine and technology, build libraries, and fly to far flung corners of the globe, but there must be a balance. In seeking to overly control our environment, separating ourselves from nature, we risk damaging or changing it beyond recognition and compromising our own survival at the same time. This may be seen not only in humanity’s relationship with the environment but in our personal relationships too. In working with boundaries, Gerða can teach us how far we can or should push this fragile balance in order to obtain what we need.
Gerða and Freyr represent the meeting of two very different peoples, the Giants and the Gods, between whom there is often fighting and disagreement. Consequently, as a couple, they are often called upon to bless marriages between people for whom being together is difficult, perhaps coming from different religious or cultural backgrounds, or opposed by family or friends. Their love shows us that there can be harmony between two seemingly opposing worlds but that this needs to be negotiated and considered with care.

Muddy Puddles and Sheild Maidens

Hmmm, two posts in a week; I think I need my head examining. Still, as is the way with most of what I write, I start out journalling and end up sharing if it seems the thing to do. This means that most of what I write doesn’t make it, but sometimes you seem to have spent a few months having your head kicked in until you learn something. So that means a lot of journalling. This is the first time I’ve written about this and it feels like it takes courage to do so, not least because my take on this subject is probably so very different to the usual pagan/druid approach and at the very least may be somewhat controversial.

I think mostly though, I’m writing simply to find myself present in the world again as I’ve seriously frightened myself over the past month or two, sinking into a place I have felt completely incapable of extracting myself from. That’s unusual, normally I have a handle on it. I know the signs, I shake myself, refuse to submit to it, give myself a good talking to, determined that the muddy puddle will not suck me down. I’ve watched my Dad, utterly consumed with it for the past three or four years and I WILL NOT be there. Decision made, no arguments. You see, this ‘it’, this thing more normally called ‘Depression’ is interesting; firstly, I should probably say that I don’t call it that quite deliberately, not in relation to myself anyway, others do of course chose to use the word and that is fine, everyone deals with it in their own way, I’m not devaluing that.

If you read this blog regularly you probably know that I have a vivid imagination and like to tell stories. Personal mythology and imagery is such an important tool when the rational will not do, and so I prefer to think of my depression more as a muddy puddle with a whirlpool in the middle. Not a small whirlpool either, but one of those Pirates-of the-Carribean-Calypso-made-this-and-I-can’t-see-the-bottom whirlpools. My mud puddle is a selfish, clawing thing that likes attention and validation, it’s hungry and it wants feeding. To give it a label, particularly a medical label, makes it a THING, and that makes it happy and self-important and rather more powerful than I like to think it deserves, so it doesn’t get a name. It also makes it something that you can apparently treat, medicate and solve, and 20 years experience on and off of flolloping in the mud puddle tells me that this is not so.

Of course there is depression that is related to chemical and hormonal imbalances and whilst there is a huge amount of overlap on this spectrum, that is a slightly different thing. In any case the causes of depression are debated and whilst the seratonin theory is widely accepted, it’s just as widely questioned, particularly by psychologists, see Seratonin and nurogenesis. Whilst this is only an article, it’s actually quite good and will point you in the direction of actual research if you’re interested. But either way, I’m not talking about that, I haven’t the space. Nor am I talking about the kind of pathological, acute mental health conditions that get you hospitalised. I’m talking about the 40% of depression that antidepressants don’t work for, the kind of depression that happens for other reasons, and that happens to lots of us because sometimes, we are just not that great at dealing with the things that the world throws at us. Because sometimes those things are just too big and too much, and staying sane and functional is sometimes a very big ask. This is worth a read, again, just an article, but it points to some interesting World Health Organisation research about differing rates of depression around the world.

I deliberately use terms such as ‘mine’ and ‘my’ when I talk about my mud puddle, as they are incredibly important. This is me after all, a part of my soul, not something that is seperate, not someone or something else, not something that happened to me, not something I suffer from, just me. The decision to take ownership is a powerful one. There is a tendency, in modern health care to set the disease apart from yourself, to make it something that attacks you from the outside, that you become a victim of. Not something that you can own, that you create from the inside as a response to the world, something which you actually can make choices and decisions about. But I feel that this approach makes me powerless. The mud puddle is not something outside of myself, but something right in my middle, integrated, inseperable, an emotional tide that must be swum. If I’m to own it and have a any sort of autonomy with it, it has to be mine. This too is controversial; the debate surrounding the degree to which we have a choice about depression will run and run. It’s easy to write off this kind of approach when you don’t want to believe that you have a choice, but there is a stack of research on the subject suggesting that it makes a difference, which is well worth an explore if you are inclined. Personally I believe that choice is not everything (clearly it’s not) but that we have much more of a choice than we imagine. Whilst we can’t always control what happens to us, we have a choice about how we respond to the shit that does happen. I also believe (from very personal experience) that one of the symptoms of depression is that it robs us of the belief that we have a choice at all. That’s also important; it robs us of the belief, it does not rob us of the choice. Our ability to chose is in direct proportion to our belief that we can choose. Believing I am helpless is step one towards being swallowed by the whirlpool. Remembering that I have that choice not to remain there, not to allow it to define me, is what helps me claw my way out. Every single time.

The other things that help? A sense of humour. Having important people in my life who don’t give it the time of day either. That’s not to say that they aren’t supportive, but they don’t engage with the depression or validate my “poor me, I feel so awful” outlook, recognising that’s not helpful. They engage with me, in just the same way as they do when I’m ok. I have other friends who deal with chronic physical pain and in just the same way, they will articulate that engaging with them as a person not the disease and not being defined by it, is what they need. Again that’s not about not being loving and supportive but about remembering that this is a person, whole, a bit broken, a bit messy, but a person not a disease. Being normal, is so helpful, not being affected by someone else’s pain, emotional or physical is vital. As a midwife, being with women in pain is what I do. You don’t need to take it away, or feel it, or be overwhelmed or frightened by it, you just need to be there through the process. I believe that this is true whether the pain is emotional, physical or a bit of both.

It’s easy of course to tell me that my mud puddle is not, cannot be that bad. If I cope with it (usually), if I can get out of it (mostly) and am not medicated (never yet!), but this particular brand of mentalness, and I apologise for the irreverence but it’s important in maintaing my perspective, runs in my family. Lots of us are just a bit crazy. There are a number on medication, a good few in counselling and a few admissions to the local unit. As a health care professional myself, I know exactly how I would be diagnosed and probably what I would want prescribed for me, should I chose to go down that route. So I’m not speaking from the position of someone who doesn’t know how it feels. But here is the thing, the usual medical approaches don’t and haven’t helped so many people I know. The people I know using those approaches are the people who don’t seem to make any real improvement, or actually get worse.

Please don’t imagine that I’m saying that medication or medical expertise should not be utilised and is never needed, it absolutely has a place. I just cant help wondering how often we actually pathologise what is essentially normal in so many, many cases. This robs the individual of power and autonomy. Again, over pathologising mental health is another debate all of it’s own and one we are having regarding postnatal depression and the emotional changes following birth, in midwifery in particular. But (and this is my observation only, both professional and personal) the people who seem to cope best and get better, whether they take meds or not, are those who maintain the belief that they have some choice and responsibility, and refuse to believe they are helpless.

So the Sheild Maiden? Well, she’s another of my stories, my personal mythology and she is of course associated by many with Freya. She’s my medicine and my saviour. The image of the Sheild Maiden, striding forward into battle is one that is common in popular culture at the moment. She is historically rather debatable, but I’m not sure that matters overly much and she captures the mind and the imagination nonetheless. In a man’s world, I think we understand warriors best on the battlefield and so that is where she has ended up. Although as women, we do fight in the wider world, for our children and families, for justice, for peace, in the armed forces, for so many things, women also know that sometimes the greatest battles are the emotional and hormonal ones in our very centre. This is where the magic of the sheild maiden lies. Those battles require courage, bravery, toughness, fearlessness, skills of attack and retreat and strategy.  I find her within myself as the emotional warrior, she who is not afraid of what is at the bottom of the whirlpool. It’s she who says “ok, lets see whats down there this time” and walks all the way in when she feels it sucking at her toes, rather than being swept away. However scary it is, she knows that we may not have much choice about going in, so we might as well make the most of it. She makes the choice to explore and she makes the choice to fight her way out when she’s ready, bloodied and wiser, with scars and trophies but alive to fight another day. I scared myself this time, at how long it took to find her but I did and that gives me the courage to believe I will next time too.