A FEW weeks ago, I drove north to Wydale Hall, a lovely remote retreat house nestled into the head of a valley on the edge of the North York Moors. It was, unfortunately, the day that winter chose to infringe on the rights of spring and fling its last worst flurries of snow at us, like someone who has stormed out of a room and then storms back in again because they’ve thought of one more really cutting thing to say.
So I drove into an almost complete white-out of intermittent blizzards on roads that had lost all their markings, at first in crawling traffic on the main roads, and then on roads so lonely, and as white as the fields around them, that I feared I might have lost the road altogether and would end up in some frozen ditch or hedgerow. But, at length, I found, and somehow surmounted, the steep track that led me up, far later than I had planned, to the welcoming lights of the old hall, and was ushered in to warmth, comfort, and rest by the kindly warden.
Of course, I’d missed all the scenery through which I’d been driving, because I was snow-blinded and just gripping the steering wheel in grim determination, trying to hold the road; but the next morning I saw the little valley from my window, pristine and sparkling in the fresh snow, stretching away to distant hills, breathtakingly beautiful. And, the day after that, restored by strong spring sunshine, the same vista was new again, clothed and folded in fresh green, sudden, unexpected, and, as Philip Larkin says, “Utterly unlike the snow.”
That second day, I took the little path from the house and along the valley edge and then up over its lip, and had scarcely gone five steps when, as I looked back, the valley seemed to have disappeared, together with its graceful house, so completely tucked away as it was, in the steep folds of the hill.
It reminded me of the description in The Hobbit of how they come upon the hidden valley of Rivendell, searching apparently in vain among the stony paths until they come to the lip of the vale, the path drops steeply, the air warms, and they hear the welcome sound of running water and glimpse, as dusk falls, the lights shining in “the last homely house”. The similarities didn’t end there, and, by the end of my three days at Wydale, I knew that Tolkien’s lovely account of Elrond’s Rivendell was true of this place, too: “His house was perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or storytelling, or singing, or just thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Evil things did not come into that valley.”
On that retreat, we did indeed have a pleasant mixture of all those things. It set me thinking that perhaps all retreats, whether or not the retreat house is physically in a hidden valley like this one, are a kind of sojourn in Rivendell.
We take shelter in the folds of a sacred place, and, although it seems soon to disappear from sight as we take our onward journey, its hidden goodness is still concealed in the folds and contours of our souls, and, from time to time, we can drop back down, out of the weather and weariness of the world, and hear the stream running, and find warmth and welcome in a house that, in some sense, we have never left.