by Melvyn Bragg
Cover: View of Country by Betty Beasley 2011 www.r-h-g.co.uk
Melvyn Bragg introduces Martin Palmer’s new book. Sacred Land by Martin Palmer. Piatkus, 2012, ISBN: 9780749952921
Martin Palmer is a man for whom the spiritual aspect of life is palpable. He has made himself a connoisseur of the great world religions, and radio audiences have been enriched many times by his fluent erudition.
Now he has set himself the task of uncovering, explaining and listing what he calls the ‘sacred places’ in Britain, which are still there to be found and in his view to be felt, even today. He begins by laying out his cards:
“I am often asked, ‘What do you mean by sacred?’ To my mind there are four kinds of sacred place, and I believe that they capture four kinds of sacred experience that run through time and through all faiths. Most people are familiar with the first type, as they are all around us. Communities decide upon a site that will be holy to them and then build their local church, chapel, synagogue, mosque or temple on that piece of ground...it becomes a holy place… The second type of sacred place might be a raging sea, viewed from a cliff top, or a giant redwood forest that stretches to the horizon…or a peaceful grove where the sunlight seems to dance through the branches. It is somewhere that overwhelms us with the sheer beauty or magnificence of Nature… The third type...has been made holy by history or legend… a small cave that has been worn into the cliffs by the sea in Whithorn, Dumfries…in the fourth century St Ninian would come here to be alone with God and Nature… or Stonehenge… or Clifford’s Tower in York…or Tyburn… or Lindisfarne… Finally there are those sacred places that mean something special to individuals… For me the Quantock Hills in Somerset are sacred because I used to go there as a child with my magical godmother… They are all sacred because they link us to the divine and give us a sense of meaning…”
I quote at some length because I want to emphasise the core of the author’s mission. It needs to be held onto. Such is his enthusiasm that he is perfectly happy to whirl us through the geographical ages, to skim across centuries of historical time, to expand in detail on the placing of an altar, to flourish the miracles that made saints and above all to raise the dead of all ages into the light of today.
A substantial portion of this book is devoted to lists which tell us where sacred places can be found: the ruins of abbeys, long barrows, henges, parish churches, battlegrounds, springs, rivers, forests, walls and what Palmer refers to as the ‘sacred environment’. His position on this is clearly stated in his opening paragraph. He helped launch the Alliance of Religion and Conservation (ARC), whose aim is “to protect as many of the world’s sacred places” as it can.
He wants people to “rediscover the heritage of wisdom, spirituality and respect for Nature that was built into the landscape for generations and which we are in danger of losing for ever”. So this is an act of reclamation and also an alarm call. We are provided with compendious guides at the end of each sweep of a chapter. The chief purpose of this book is to persuade us to visit these places and learn from them. It is boldly at odds with the prevailing culture of reason. He loves what appears to be out of reach, that which is as much myth as history, those largely invisible tracks of the growth of mankind made visible only to those who seek or try to understand the remains of their day.
There is much to disagree with. Palmer seems to hold that unless you have a religious sense you can have no true sense of beauty or harmony or peace. There are many who claim their experience disproves that. And some will doubt the outer range of his ‘sacred places’.
But there is much to relish too. He swings through from 1.5 million BC to the present day with such zest that at times the book trembles on the edge of a stream of consciousness as the author spirals into ever-increasing layers of information that he cannot bear us not to know. We have cycles and collapses of Nature; the sacred in every field, in language, in place names, in country houses… There is almost an infestation of sacredness here which the author passionately wants to draw to our attention. And it is full of rich information.
One great theme focuses on the customs through the ages of burying the dead. This is a fascinating strand. He fears that unless we take account of all this, the civilisation that we have today will implode for lack of essential spiritual sustenance. This is his case. He makes it with panache.
This is an edited extract from Melvyn Bragg’s foreword to Martin Palmer’s book, Sacred Land.