Awe in the Imagination

There are, I think, three categories of awe related to a place.

The first is raw awe. You need only functioning senses to be awed by somewhere with this. Get off a ski-lift ten thousand feet up, where you can see five hundred mountains all covered in snow, and you don’t need to even know the name of the one you’re standing on to think “Wow.”

The second is awe of the imagination. Some places look unassuming, dull even. Being awestruck by them requires knowledge and imagination. Stand in the huts at Bletchley Park, or walk round the Los Alamos National Laboratory or Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre, and all you see are non-descript buildings. It is with the knowledge of what happened there that the awe comes.

The third, and my favourite, is when the two combine. You find yourself in a location which is, in and of itself, beautiful or shocking. Add a little knowledge of history and a little imaginative empathy, and one can step back in time.

An example of this is Hardknott Pass in Cumbria, England. The steepest road in the country, with a view to catch the breath, it’s already somewhere special. But a little imagination can put you back two thousand years, in the sandals of the poor old Roman soldiers who manned the fort that was built on the pass. In this rainiest corner of the coldest country the Romans ever conquered, auxiliaries recruited from around the Mediterranean must surely have wondered what they’d done to deserve such a posting. Standing at the fort in a Goretex jacket, microfibre fleece and modern boots, you feel for these people who walked thousands of miles to reach and live in this spot.

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