Dawn breaks foggy and chilly. I’m not up particularly early and it is mid-morning by the time I am at the entrance to Jesmond Dene with Lexi the collie.
Jesmond Dene is a remarkable place, a deep wooded valley in the heart of the bustling northern city of Newcastle, which was preserved for the community by the 19th century philanthropist Lord Armstrong. Walking into the Dene is like stepping out of the city into the wilds, and also like stepping back in time. It is a magical place.
Today the Dene is mist-shrouded, the tops of the tall trees lost in the fog. There is something oriental about the steamy scenery. In the fog, the veil is thinner and trees and rocks seem half nascent, half sinking back into the unknowable, formless realm. The crocuses and snowdrops have come and gone, but a scattering of wood anemones and primroses, the first greening of the trees, the chirping of songbirds, and the occasional drilling of a woodpecker reminds that spring is well underway.
We follow zig-zag paths to the valley floor where the Ouseburn gushes its way down to the Tyne. The paths are busy with Sunday morning dog walkers and runners. Today I am on a mission and instead of the familiar route along the burn; I seek a path I’ve not taken before that climbs steeply up the other side of the valley. Lexi is puzzled. She keeps running ahead and then looking back questioningly, unsure which way to go.
I am not sure either. I have found out that somewhere just beyond the west side of the Dene there is an ancient holy well known as St. Mary’s Well. I am on a quest for water for tea.
The path leads through a short tunnel under road and emerges in an unkempt grove where stands the ruined chapel of St. Mary. Once long ago this was one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Britain and the home of a cherished Christian relic. Now it is all but forgotten – a few ruins amid a tangle of scrub and sycamore. But not entirely forgotten, vases of flowers and crucifixes adorn some of the empty window holes. There is a sense of holiness here and also of sadness and longing for some transcendance and tranquility that is just out of reach.
There is the inevitable tourist information sign, but it makes no mention of the well. However a muddy path between the houses on the other side of the road looks inviting and a short walk leads to the place that I seek.
Through a wooden gate, down a short flight of stone steps into the shade of an ancient yew tree, there is the well, a stone-lined basin set into a mossy bank. There are more flowers here, a crucifix and a small statue of the Virgin Mary. She looks so similar to Kuan Yin. The word “gratias” is engraved on the stone above the basin.
And here, hidden away in suburbia, is water, living water, flowing from the earth, pure and unpolluted as it has flowed for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. “Gratias” indeeed.
While Lexi sniffs around, I stand for awhile in meditation, feeling the Earth under my feet and the sky above and letting the sense fields open to my surroundings: the vegetal, earthy smell of the place, the shades of green, brown and grey, birdsong, the steady drip of water from nearby trees, the sound of an airplane high above.
Wordlessly, I begin to feel that sense of connection, that nowness which tells me that the spirits of this place welcome my presence. I would like to linger longer, but Lexi is getting impatient. I’m not sure she really approves of Taoist contemplation. I taste the water. It is sweet with a hint of stoniness and surprisingly warm.
I fill the two bottle that I have brought and after a few more minutes of contemplation, toss the traditional offering of a small coin into the well, call Lexi to heel and depart . . .
End of Part 1 of Water for Tea. Part 2 will publish next Wednesday, November 12.