Sacred places: England before the fall

A lifelong traveler reflects on his own piece of heaven.


Pico Iyer
August 28, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

It is the light, on summer evenings, drifting on till 9 p.m. or later, and slanting above the elms, the musky river; it is the scratchy smell of grass, the thunk of bat on cricket ball. It is the flow of a brackish stream, the twittery, gnattish nothingness that is a drowsy English town on a summer day going nowhere. It is the sound of bells tolling across the fields, and the morning walk to class when the dew is still on the grass.

It is, of course, nostalgia -- geography's déjà vu -- that marks a large part of what we call the "sacred." Born in England on a winter's day, I grew up thinking of it only as the place I longed to flee. As soon as I could, upon the completion of my studies there, I got on a plane and never looked back. England is red-brick houses to me, and lowering gray afternoons, the inertia of a social system that has no room for growth, the soot and filth and dreariness of Industrial Revolution factories that blacken the already smudged sky on winter afternoons. Even on summer days, when I return, almost all that I can see is porridge-colored tower-blocks and circumscribed lives and hopes, the milk bottles lined up outside the scruffy gardens as for a rainstorm that will never come.

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Yet for all the unyielding griminess, England remains the place where I was a child, careless of the future and in a state of perpetual discovery. It is the place where I stepped outside the hours, and had no sense of yesterday or tomorrow. And so, even now, half a world and half a lifetime away, in the country where I've chosen to make my home (a romantic England, you could say, or an exotic one, so much like the place of my boyhood that on these rainy Japanese afternoons I half-expect to hear the cricket scores recited on TV), I find myself returning to some quality of light and languidness and suspension that belongs to an English summer evening, the insects twittering as the lights come on as in a garden production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

A sacred place, I mean to suggest, is only a place where we get a taste of eternity -- and that taste comes strongest of all, or most repeatedly, when we are hardly conscious of it (children, the Romantics believed, still carry with them a memory of the heaven they have just quit). The past is the site of our wounds, our fears, the habits that cripple us, the tangles we long to escape; yet it is -- only it can be -- the place from which we derive our most palpable sense of heaven. Every visit to Eden has a quality of recollection.

Many of us travel, more and more, to the "sacred places" of the globe -- to Angkor and Luxor and Cuzco -- and partake there of the sacraments and rites of someone else's paradise; we are visitors, even trespassers, in a foreigner's alien church. Those powerful places have a sacredness that hits us as the glance from a magnetic stranger's eyes, but their magic is one that is not really ours to claim. The "sacred places" that lie in memory, individual as a thumbprint, or a scar above one's right eye, are the personal piece of heaven that are ours to carry round with us, our barely discernible memories of life before the fall. The place, the life, the weather may all be everyday and unremarkable, but when I hear the opening strains of a certain hymn, I am walking through the lanes of a neverending twilight, the sound of a choir coming from behind some stained-glass windows, in a place as magical to me as Tibet. A place whose tiny limits give out upon sheer boundlessness.

Closing my eyes, I see the sun declining over fields and fields. I hear a tennis ball being thwacked, and the return of a quiet unsmudged for a thousand years. I see the first outlines of a moon rising above the trees, the sluggish water, the silhouette of ancient spires. I think that sacredness means only having so strong a sense of trust that we hardly know the meaning of the word, and find a world without change even in the midst of "dark Satanic mills" and a land so familiar that we know it's home only because it's the place we always -- always -- long to flee.


Pico Iyer

Salon Travel Contributing Editor Pico Iyer is the author of "Video Night in Kathmandu," "The Lady and the Monk," "Falling off the Map," "Cuba and the Night" and "Tropical Classical."

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