Spirit of the Age: Finding myself in the wilderness

IT IS NOT what it was, the wilderness. I had spotted a leaflet advertising a Wilderness Retreat, deep in the Yorkshire Pennines, organised by a group called Christians Aware. "We expect to hear God speaking to us in the wildness of our surroundings," said the leaflet. Packed lunches included.

But when we arrived at the Scout hostel at Blake Dean, although it had bare rough-cast white plaster walls and cold stone floors, it also had central heating and hot showers. Quite what Baden-Powell would have made of that - with his predilection for roughing it in the bush and taking cold showers to cool his over-ardent manhood - I wasn't sure. There were even bunk beds in dormitory. It's not what it was, Scouting.

But then maybe the rest of us aren't what we were either. The idea of wilderness has long been a potent one in mankind's spiritual quest. The Buddha went off and lived in it. The Jews wandered through it for 40 years after the Exodus. Jesus routinely withdrew to it for space and solace. And then there were in the 4th and 5th centuries in the sandy wastes of Egypt, Syria and Palestine the men (and women) who became known as the Desert Fathers.

Their kind of wilderness was serious stuff. These coenobite fathers and anchorite mothers enjoyed, as one commentator put it, "not much sleep, no baths, poor food, little company, ragged clothes, hard work, no leisure, absolutely no sex and even in some places no church either". How, I wondered, would the dozen folk in the Christians Aware group, who had travelled up from London, Leamington and Liverpool, have coped with that.

At first sight we seemed ill-equipped, that is to say over-equipped, with our Karrimor rucksacks, High Force anoraks, Gore-Tex boots and cars parked handily outside the hostel. But the talk by the spluttering wood stove after the evening meal gave the lie to that. A number of oblique shafts in the conversation, as it ventured out into that territory where people hint at their own vulnerability, intimated that the wilderness can be a psychological as much as a physical state. Spiritual journeys begin with an awareness of a sense of inner need. In our cars we had brought our wildernesses with us from the city.

Next morning we set out in heavy hanging cloud and fine drizzle up the side of steep bracken-clad hillsides which veer steeply up from the higher tributaries of the River Calder. All around the purple flowers of the moorland heather were fading into crumbly ochre husks which crackled in protest underfoot. The route took us across the surmounting heath past a farm called Egypt and along a rough, pathless high valley called Noahdale. With admirable restraint the leaders of the party made no forced allusions. (Just as well, we had already passed a place called Slack Bottom and the map showed another called Pisser Clough).

Instead we began a long tour of the ruined farmhouses of these upper reaches. They were once handsome buildings of fine-cut stone with elegant archways and mullioned weavers' windows to give extra light to the upper stories. Changes in the market for wool had forced their abandonment in the mid-19th century. Wilderness, the ruined habitations seemed to say, can come to places which least expect it.

At the valley top we struck out on a compass-bearing across a deep bog. An hour later we stopped and stood in silence on the blasted heathland. All around the barren, brown heather stretched to the horizon. The vista was broken only by the odd windswept bush whose bare branches were curved like the spine of a bent old woman. It is on mountain tops, the traditions of so many religions have it, that as the mist lifts, an awareness breaks through of something we can only half-grasp.

Back in the hostel, at the end of the five hour trek, the silence continued. The wood fire crackled like a live animal as the wet boots steamed gently before it. But otherwise there was nothing to unnecessarily interrupt the shared silence as some slept and others read or watched the flickering flames.

Of course, there was nothing here to match the privations of the real wilderness. And yet we were perhaps as far from the norms of our daily routine and its rush of noise and activity as were those Desert Fathers from the harsh facts of everyday life in 4th century Judea. Silence is not an austere preference for aloneness, the early fathers believed, but the opportunity to listen. It is a lesson in which our modern world is showing renewed interest; the National Retreat Association lists over 200 centres with year-round programmes in its handbook, which is already out of print for this year.

Finding wilderness, as with so much else about the contemporary search for the spiritual, is a question of finding new vehicles for the old verities. So it did not seem odd, the next day, Sunday, to share a service of communion high on a hillside by a broken stone wall. The words were quite conventional and the actions simple, with one of our number, an Anglican priest, celebrating. It was understated yet apt.

The mist descended with a vengeance. We walked in swirling cloud through the knee-deep heather but along a path that one of our party had reconnoitred some time before. We strode on, with our mist-shrouded eyes fixed on the uncertain ground and our thoughts occupied with unarticulated metaphor.

It was late lunchtime when we arrived at our destination, Top Witherns, the ruined farmhouse that was the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. The place was full of sandwich-stealing sheep and Japanese tourists for the Bronte town of Haworth was not far the other side. But it did not matter. When is comes to hearing the voice of God, it is the journey rather than the arriving that counts.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders