Join Helen Moat on an exploration of why some locations thrill and chill us – and explore her 10 favourite ‘thin places’ in the Peak District.
There is a Celtic saying that suggests Heaven and Earth are only three feet apart, but there are certain places where that distance seems to evaporate. Places that stop us in our tracks and where, for a while, time seems to stand still. The Celts had a name for them: thin places.
Some of these thin places are ancient pagan sites: the standing stones of Callanish on Lewis; the burial chamber of Pentre Ifan in Pembrokeshire; or the stone circles of Avebury and Stonehenge in Wiltshire. Others are more recent sacred sites, such as the Gothic and Baroque Christian churches and cathedrals with their soaring spires and cavernous spaces: York Minster, St David’s or St Paul’s.
Thin places affect us in profound ways, but they don’t have to be man-made religious sites; some natural places are just as otherworldly. I defy anyone passing through the formidable ruggedness of Glencoe not to be touched by its dark beauty. And when the Atlantic swells and crashes over the shore of Ballintoy Harbour on the Antrim Coast, it snatches your breath away and assaults your heart.
Thin places can be profane, too. Wilton’s Music Hall in London, with its peeling frescos and crumbling walls, has a fin-de-siècle air of decay about it, and for fleeting moments can seem more of Heaven than Earth.
To my mind, the Peak District, my adopted home, has an abundance of thin places – all within about an hour’s drive from the surrounding towns and cities. You can lose yourself in the stone circles of the Nine Ladies on Stanton Moor or in the diminutive Nine Stones Close (only four are visible) above the castle-like tor of Robin Hood’s Stride. Arbor Low Stone Circle, wrapped in sky and upland makes my head spin, as does Tideswell Church, with its intricate pew carvings of nature and church life. Then there’s the porch of All Saints in Bakewell, which is stacked with stone engravings from the Middle Ages. All of these are potentially thin places, but it’s the austere, hermetic chapel of St Bertram in Ilam that captivates me.
Thin places, are deeply personal. Many lovers of the Peak District return time and time again to the same dale, moorland edge, church, historic site or public building to find inspiration and solace in their own particular thin place. Here are mine…