We were in the middle of making up the bed in the campervan when the whole interior was suddenly suffused with golden light after a stubbornly grey day. After ten more minutes of sunset it was dark; the wind finally gave way and the leaky windows stopped singing.
It’s not just us. We stand at the edge of the campsite and see doors and tents opening everywhere as shadowy dusk-darkened campers take photographs they may never look at again. The feeble flash of the phone cameras is an ironic commentary on our hubristic relationship with nature. It’s a scene from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” enacted every time the sky clears as night falls. We wonder whether the Green Ray will momentarily flash across the sea but it never does and it doesn’t matter, because if it did, every sunset afterwards would feel like a disappointment. So we stand there like penitents at the edge of the land, waiting for a blessing ; a sign that all will be well and all manner of things will be well.
“Isn’t that just so beautiful” we murmur without quite understanding how the earth seems to stand still at these moments which, strictly speaking, are the moments of extreme dynamism when day gives way to night and we, in our exact place and time, experience the loss of the sun with nothing more than faith and hope to keep us safe through the night. Of course we rarely reflect on this but turn to go back indoors and open another bottle, but perhaps a holiday – there’s a clue in the name – is the time when time is made for wonder.
When we are at the far western edge; in Cornwall,in Pembrokeshire and on the Lleyn peninsula, we see the sun setting over the sea. The last word of each day, you might say, is emptiness and silence with no human structure or invention intruding. The setting sun is silent but strangely the Moon always seems to me to have an ethereal sound trailing behind her. The sunsets here unite the elements of earth, air, fire and water which, in the West, are the constituents of life itself. The Taoists add wood and metal and take away air but that seems to me to spring from another, equally valid conception of our place in the world in which we are makers. What defines us as human is not so much thinking as detached observers of what the Taoists call the Ten Thousand Things; but our capacity as makers. Wood; Fire: Earth; Metal and Water – the elements that lie at the heart of the forge, the pottery, the farm and the building.
Air, though, as the medium of sound, has to fall still for there to be silence. St Davids Cathedral, in the absence of the crowds, is one of the most silent places I know save for the Jackdaws whose chatter almost enhances the absence of sound. Early in the morning and late in the evening the Cathedral sits in a protected valley – out of sight of seaborn raiders – so deep that uniquely, from my limited experience, the passer-by looks down on the roof and tower; so the sounds of ice cream queues, the pasty and souvenir shops and the constant flow of buses, coaches and minibuses barely intrude. The silence seeps into your bones and it’s good. The silence searches your inmost being and occasionally – if you wait long enough and quietly enough – will even speak; say something important. You needn’t even go into the building, in fact it may me more of a distraction to go through the great wooden door and be dazzled by the work of human hands. Any old seat outside in the sun or the wind and rain will do but it’s fine to wait for a sunny day because that makes it easier to wait.
And if you find, like me, that hordes of people are a bit off putting, try St Non’s Well about a mile’s walk away and the traditional birthplace of St David, but perhaps more importantly a place to take off your walking boots and bathe your tired feet in the cool water. The well itself is almost invisible to coastal path walkers with their eyes and hearts set on a personal best target, so you can sit there in silence for ages without being disturbed. Those that do see you usually hurry away in case you’re a threat to civilized human life!
That St David’s is a holy place is without doubt; but I doubt whether any religion has more than squatters’ rights to its benedictions.