The Heysham Labyrinth
“Heysham has one of only two possible examples of pre-Roman labyrinths in Britain”, wrote Dr George Nash, Bristol University archaeologist, in 2008.
An ancient labyrinth? At Heysham? I’m interested. I like labyrinths. I’ve written about a labyrinth in Crete1, a labyrinth in Amiens cathedral2. A friend made a turf labyrinth in Dorset that we walked.
A labyrinth is not a maze.There are many ways through a maze, you can get lost in it: it is a puzzle to solve. There is only one way through a labyrinth; it combines circle and spiral in a path that meanders but is purposeful: it is a path to follow. At Chartres it is called the Road to Jerusalem, the Road to Paradise. As a meditative practice it is the road to the self. As a religious artefact it is the portal to another realm.
From their origin in Crete (the Theseus and minotaur story is accepted to be a Greek distortion of a Minoan labyrinth ceremony conducted by a bull-masked priest), they spread along the Bronze Age trading routes the Greeks took in search of tin, to Iberia and then to the British Isles. Pytheas wrote of his 4th century BC journey to the Orkneys – it is likely that the Ring of Brodgar is the ‘circular temple’ in which Apollo was worshipped. [Letter 13]. The other British labyrinth is at Tintagel, close to Cornish tin mines. And Heysham is on old Irish Sea trade routes – St Patrick is said to have visited, and the hogback stone in the church [Letter 10] is thought to be the grave marker of a Viking trader.
The Heysham labyrinth was discovered in 1996 by a local reporter, and a photograph printed in the Morecambe Visitor.
Working from the photograph, Nash concluded that the labyrinth had been pecked – rather than carved – consistent with pre-Historic petroglyphs. But when he visited in 2008, he found it smoothed and eroded. It was fading away. Time for me to find it.
It isn’t easy to find. I have a couple of photographs, but there are acres of sandstone ledges on the headland, pavements and cliffs, and I am looking for a faint carving eight inches across. It takes two visits. On my first visit I find a boat engraved into a rock face. On my second, from reference points on the photographs, I find the place. It is on a flat outcrop of rock, at high tide level, that would be submerged by the highest tides. It is on a wide ledge, next to the engraved boat. Is the labyrinth here? I see it. I don’t see it. It is only when I photograph it that I fix it. But when I bring a friend the next day, neither of us can see it. It is in yesterday’s photograph. But I don’t see it now. Is it there?
What to do with this story? Perhaps it is from pre-History, having a significance, long covered but revealed by an exceptional storm, and we have from 1996 to the moment it finally disappears to resolve our relationship with it? Perhaps it is a hoax, like crop circles, created as bait for New Agers to fit into their theories? Perhaps it was created by a group as their talisman, a group I should be seeking out …? Or this:
‘On the day Ship arrived [Letter 10], she saw the identical figures facing away from each other to different worlds, and realised that he would go far, naming, and doing great things; while she would stay, come again and again to experience the sea and sky cupped in the steel hull, and listen for what the wave says …
The day he leaves, wandering the shore, she finds the engraved boat. And close by, as if directed to it, the labyrinth. All the times she and he clambered over, sat on, swam from this ledge, without seeing the boat, the labyrinth … This day, and from now on, the boat represents him; the labyrinth is hers.
She studies the labyrinth, each curve, in minutest detail. She wets her finger, touches the labyrinth, tastes the sandstone, the salt. She follows the curves with her fingertip, the involutions and evolutions, in to the centre, out to the edge. And sometimes, at the centre, through. Eyes closed, her fingertip reads the story, like braille. So many stories. Eyes closed, the walls of the groove rise high on either side as, like the needle in a vinyl record, she brings into existence its song. So many songs.
On sunny days at low tides she sits beside it and looks out over the vast tawny pelt of the Bay, smooth as chamois, and inscribes words, makes patterns, creates worlds upon the pelt.
On moonless nights at high tide she stands over it, the dark water lapping at the ledge, aware of the limitless surging ocean, is drawn to dive in; instead draws the ocean into herself, encompasses it.
The labyrinth in the stone fades. Her finger continues unerringly to follow its curves. The labyrinth in the stone erodes away, is erased. But it is there, she feels it, knows it, touches it, holds it to herself. While she lives, the labyrinth lives.’
1 Dionysos’ Island, p147-164.
2 In Search of France’s Green Meridian, p43.