The story of a youthful Christ setting foot on English soil has attracted more than its fair share of theological eccentrics, crackpot cults and religious demagogues who have called upon it to support their equally eccentric and crackpot – and often rigidly fundamentalist – doctrines. As far as my research can make out, the only exception to this ‘colourful’ catalogue of exclusively male clergy is the reclusive, Dorset-based novelist Dr Simone Lacey (no relation). Her 1998 bildungsroman ‘Our Lady of the Orchards’ tells the story of a young woman coming to terms with her sexuality against a background of strict, repressive Catholicism. The sort of faith, one might imagine, of which her fellow authors might wholeheartedly approve. In the opening chapters, the novels protagonist, Samantha Lefebvre, is riding out her crisis of faith as a guest of the Dean of Wells Cathedral where she encounters Dr Hugh Lovehayne, a psychologist-come-amateur historian. An avowed atheist, he invites her to accompany him to Priddy, the village high in the Mendip Hills Jesus is alleged to have visited. His intentions are not honourable, he has every intention of turning Sam away from her faith.
Today I visited the lead mines around Priddy to try and put myself in Samantha Lefebvre’s shoes, given that I’m going through a similar crisis of faith. Jesus’ uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, was a trader and there’s no reason to believe that he might not have visited Cornwall and Somerset, the existence of the Glastonbury Thorn would corroborate that. Dr Lacey’s novel was published in a pre-Twitter, pre-social media age, she had no way of engaging with her readership. I wanted to redress that, revisit the landscape and see how much fact might merge with fiction, use her narrative to make the landscape come to life. Will she approve? I’m not sure I’ll ever know.
He'd said ‘why don't you come up to Priddy with me tomorrow, get out in the countryside, a bit of fresh air will do you good’. He'd said I looked a little pale and wan, he'd addressed me as Miss Lefebvre and I'd replied ‘Sam, please, everybody calls me Sam’. And then he'd put his hand on my shoulder and I'd felt hardly any pressure or weight. 'We can talk about this some more', he'd said. ‘If you like’.
'What are we going to look for in Priddy?' I'd asked.
‘For Jesus’, he'd replied, ‘we're going to find your God.’
The Mendips rise quickly and steeply out of Wells, the limestone from which the city is built manifests itself in every single corner of the surrounding countryside so that even on the brightest of summer days the underlying rock lends a degree of drabness to the scene. Thin grey walls partition the land into tiny symmetrical empires populated by flocks of newly shorn sheep. On the lower slopes a tractor makes its way through the meadows in monotonous passages: up and down, up and down, up and down the field. Further up small crags appear, valleys open out to give access to the plateau, bone-dry and river-less. The thirsty landscape quickly gulps down every drop of fallen rain into the depths of its subterranean body; the hills are a girt, humongous sponge, sucking the lifeblood from the land before excreting it into the low, flat Levels. The waterless plateau undulates imperceptibly, barely a hedge or tree in sight, just a stunted hawthorn struggling to retain its blossom, or a battered rowan clinging to the lee of a derelict building.
The mist curled over the crumbling wall, from behind a passing sheet of cloud a field of mounds and hollows emerged. ‘What are they?’ I asked.
‘Very good, Sam. I thought your powers of observation might have deserted you’, he remarked, his long, condescending vowels slipping easily under my defences. ‘These are the old lead mines, they date back to before Roman times. I think he came here.’
‘You think Jesus was here, in this field?’ My response bordered on the hysterical.
‘Hey! Don't get so wound up about it. It's no big deal, and I'm not saying it was exactly at this spot. Like I said yesterday, it's quite feasible. His uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, was a merchant; this was an important source of lead for the Middle East. From here they'd take it down to Cornwall from where they'd ship it out over the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, to the ports in Tyre, or...’
‘For Heaven's sake, Doctor Lovehayne, doesn't it mean any more to you than that, to be this close to the Lord Himself?’
I stormed out of the car and stumbled blindly into the field.
Well, I still wanted to believe it. It wasn't that I couldn't commit myself to that belief, it's just that I occasionally felt I deserved a little reassurance. I had no desire to finger His wounds or place my arm in His side; something demonstrably tangible and spiritual would suffice.
But I felt nothing except the cold wind on my pampered face; the frozen touch of nature, isolated and withdrawn. Kicking at the mounds didn't help, under the thin turf there was only soil and stone, littered on top small black globules of rabbit shit that smeared my brown boots. It was an inappropriate setting, surely, for Him to appear in. I’m used to the pomp and pageantry of a church and I can picture Him there, smiling benevolently over His flock gathered together to praise Him. In the dying light, amongst the detritus of man and beast, the vision begins to fade.
The cloud surrounds me, a gust of wind suddenly blows itself between myself and the real world; the warmth of Doctor Lovehayne's car which is all I want to go back to now. I'm lost and directionless, groping around for something, someone to hold onto. The white void hurled itself around me, buffeted me and when I ran to where I thought safety might lie, it followed, harassing, ridiculing.
Like a scoundrel in search of a refuge I turned towards the only place that might offer me sanctuary. The discomfort of the alternate scrape of gravel and white silence was at least equal to the mental torment I might find in the church but I knew that in the pain and anguish I'd find somewhere to hide my guilty head low in shame. The yew trees that guarded the gate – as if this was the entrance to some windswept Hades – hinted at death and decay, the neat rows of gravestones mocking our illusions of immortality. How could my God exist amongst all this? I'd been looking for an Eden, forgetting the Golgothas and the Calgaries, the deacon had said, but I'd hoped the pastoral hills of Somerset might soothe my soul and set my mind at rest. ‘Sam, my child, you need to get things in perspective. Sometimes I think that you look so hard for God that His presence completely passes you by.’
‘Have you come to see the grave?’
This image of Tilly remains firmly entrenched in my memory and I swear it will never leave until my dying day. It supersedes every subsequent episode, shapes and frames the very nature of our relationship. Far from chaperoning me into redemption, I now saw Doctor Lovehayne as the mercenary I’d later make him out to be; my escort into purgatory, at the entrance to which I currently dawdled. She turned from behind a cross that dwarfed her frame and appeared to filter the windblown mist so that it flowed over and around her body, as if she were frictionless. The gloom lightened a little when she came close, I felt she had the ability to reverse nature.
‘Have you come to see the grave?’ she repeated, emerging from the shadow of the monument. I remained silent and rooted to the gravel path. She smiled, cast back her heavy black hood to reveal a mass of curled jet-black hair then beckoned and took my hand. What then passed between us, I couldn't say, and if I knew I think I should keep it a warm, dark secret between the two of us. If she hadn't touched me I might never have moved but remained motionless in a graveyard already overrun with stagnant icons. I stumbled, she led. We came to a prominent mausoleum that stood in a distant corner of the cemetery, alone and aloof.
‘Here we are’, she announced, triumphantly. Her voice was tinged with the soft clip of long Somerset vowels but there was far more than farmers' blood in her proud body. In silhouette she stood elegant and tall, her hooked nose framed by her locks.
The engraving on the tomb confirmed what I'd seen on the walls of the Cathedral:
"Here lies the body of Count Nestor de Lacey, Duke of Nerôche, who passed away this twentieth day of March, 1796. Blessed are those whose eyes have seen the Lord, their sons shall live to reap great riches."
I turned my head in recognition. ‘You're beginning to understand, now?’ she asked.
‘I think so. But it’s not me you’re after, it's Doctor Lovehayne. He's the one who's interested in folklore.’
‘Folklore!’ she hissed, and spat on the gravel. ‘This isn't folklore, it's the truth. I know it and I believe. He doesn't understand. I don't expect people like him to,’ she added, sighing heavily.
‘But look, look, err...’
‘Tilly,’ she said, proffering her olive skinned hand. ‘Tilly Whim.’
‘Sam, Samantha Lefebvre,’ I replied; needlessly for I was aware she already knew. ‘I do believe, Tilly, but it isn't literal. This is … well, it's just a symbol and I don't need to see to believe. I have faith, Tilly, and that's all I need.’
She began to circle the monument then sat on a worn, chipped ledge. She took my hand in hers again and rubbed it against the rough masonry.
‘But you can still feel and believe,’ she whispered. ‘Do you not want to touch? Must you always deprive yourself of tactile pleasures? Here, it will help you.’
Perhaps it was the contrast of her soft flesh and the roughly hewn grain of the stone, in all probability it was just my imagination but when she placed my fingers on the tomb I reeled back as if a bolt of electricity had surged straight through me. Tilly held me as I flinched, she appeared to have anticipated my reactions and her grasp was both firm and comforting. Without her aid, I ran the tips of my fingers along the stone again. It was now smooth and warm.
‘Tilly?’ I asked, nervously.
‘You want me to tell you the story,’ she said. ‘You want to know if it's true.’
‘Yes,’ I nodded. ‘It is true, isn't it?’
‘Why should I lie? I don't need to convert you; I have nothing to prove or sell.’
I forgot the wind that tugged the cloud from the top of the mausoleum and left goose-pimples on my bare arms, the plateau took on a brighter hue. Tilly's words faltered then lilted in a sweet, liquid tone.