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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

26 November 2021

After climbing up Curbar Edge, Malcolm Guite is presented with an unusual sight

I CLIMBED up, the other day, to the beautiful heights and precarious cliffs of Curbar Edge, in the Peak District. I hasten to say that I was not climbing in the way the rock-climbers do, who first explored this edge and made it famous. I climbed no boulders, scaled no sheer cliff faces, used no ropes and tackle, but came the longer, but still steep, way up the little lane from Cliff College, which was hosting a retreat that I was helping to lead.

So I came, in the end, up on to the top, and could walk the path that skirts in and out near the edge itself, and stand on its huge flat rocks looking down into the Calver Valley and see the River Derwent winding below me, along whose tree-lined banks I had walked earlier in the day. After the still, quiet beauty of the valley and the riverbank, it was a glorious contrast to be up on the windy heights, gazing over, and to see at eye level — or sometimes even to look down on — the soaring and wheeling birds at which I had gazed up earlier.

Soon, I spotted some that seemed to have an enormous wingspan flying over the edge itself, suddenly gaining height as the land dropped away below them; and then I looked a little closer and saw that they were not birds at all, but large model gliders. They were true gliders, with no engines, but they were being flown by remote control. Launched over the edge, a glider would fall a little, disappearing over the cliff edge, only to catch the updrafts and rise again, then turn and fly, parallel with the edge, at eye-level to us on the height, but hundreds of feet above the valley floor. It would make beautiful arcs and ellipses under the skilful control of its pilot, who stood among the boulders and bracken near the edge, until he brought it back safely to land among the gorse and grasses on the other side of the cliff-top path.

It was fascinating to watch. When one of the gliders landed, I saw that the man who went to fetch it was hobbling painfully and using a stick to walk, as indeed was I; and yet he had also been the master of all those free and glorious movements of his glider. I loved that; and it seemed to me that perhaps the glider was itself an expression of that man’s soul, his true spirit, the way in which he himself would move were he not hobbled, as we all are, by “this too, too solid flesh”.

I stayed a while to watch them, entranced by the beautiful play of their hobby, but soon I had to make my way slowly down by the long lane for the next session of our retreat.

But, as I descended, it occurred to me that perhaps we retreatants were doing something similar: launching our gliders of prayer and contemplation off an inner edge, the edge of the unknown, off the edge of the ordinary, to rise on the updrafts of the Spirit and sail clear of “the immanent frame”, the dull gravitation of our secular mindset, and feeling a little, as that man felt it through his glider, of the lift and freedom that the Spirit promises to us all.

As it happens, the book that I was reading on that retreat, by the poet Scott Cairns, a book that gives an account of his own first retreat on Mount Athos, is called, appropriately enough, Short Trip to the Edge.

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