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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

  • 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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor