A narrow Devon lane with hedges so high that they almost meet overhead leads from our rented cottage to the harbour, which consists of an ageing stone wall, a couple of rough ramps and a stream that flows under the road and between two low walls, out towards the sea.
An ancient house stands on one of the ramps, its gable end facing toward the waves, defiant. There is nothing smooth here, nothing nicely finished. Out in the bay, pieces of cliff are left to form grass-topped stacks, dangerous, unreachable.
The lane sweeps steeply down on both sides of the village, reflecting the rollercoaster cliffs that stretch east and west between Ilfracombe and Woolacombe. A combe is a wooded valley, but that sounds too pleasant, round and countrified for what you see hereabouts: deep cuts in the landscape, sharp and clinical.
Yes, there are trees, but they are dwarfed by the majesty of the cliffs. And on the beach the rocks again reflect that majesty: we follow the steep smugglers’ path from cove to cove at low tide, almost wanting to be caught by the sea, just to witness its power at first hand.
Sharp hands of slate reach up from the beach, with pools and tiny waterfalls created by this magical juxtaposition of rock and sand. My granddaughter climbs fearlessly up the jagged edges, her bare feet and fingers secure.
Later we watch the sea reclaim the beach, inch up and eventually smash against the harbour walls, as if to say: “You weren’t fooled, were you? All this is mine.”
This is my kind of beauty, and it reminds me again of the poet Rilke’s words, “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror that we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so, because it serenely disdains to destroy us.”
The right reaction to beauty is surely just that: a sharp intake of breath, a kind of astonishment at its near-perfection and a fear-tinged wonder at what could be at the other side of it.
Top-class literature or drama can have the same effect, as can a song – a song like Leonard Cohen’s Alexandra Leaving or Dylan’s Visions of Johanna.
I get the same feeling of awe, it has to be said, from the words of Jesus and from the idea of redemption and resurrection, the story that appears over and over again in the world’s literature and will not go away.
What does it all mean? Where did it all come from? Somewhere else, that’s for sure.