North-easterly II – Beyond the walls

Next morning, we gathered at the gates of Bamburgh castle. We had seen it from beyond its walls, considering how we could glimpse our own ‘inner fortifications’ from a perspective beyond the control of the ego, and now we were about to voluntarily enter a place that could be, like the conditioned defences of the personality, both a haven or a prison.

We had a little time to explore the outer shell and the façade that the stronghold presents to the world, as well as to see how it sat within, yet dominating, the landscape… a landscape largely shaped because of the castle’s very presence. Its landward face looks over the moat to the village that grew in its shadow. The old beehive dove-cote seems a reminder that the homes that cluster close to the castle walls once housed those in thrall to the castle’s lord.

To the seaward side, the imposing defences and lines of cannon send a clear message to any invaders seeking to attack. While where the land and sea meet, a medieval burial ground holds the memory of the dead. As an egoic analogy, it could hardly have been better chosen.

Passing beneath the arch of the gate, you are funnelled through a narrow and easily defended lane, where any visitor to the domain is immediately taken under control.  Our own defences are very much the same, allowing others to approach us only through certain channels, even though our ‘gates’ may appear… even to us… to stand open to the world. It is only when you have gained entry …or approval… that there is the freedom to explore.

Climbing the winding path that leads into the courtyard, you are met with defences of another kind. Although the walls are high and thick, especially on the Norman Keep, the real power that is now on display is that of wealth and position.

From the Tudor windows to the ornately carved shields, the inner facade of the castle seems designed to assert social dominance. Magnificently restored and well cared for, there are reminders of its martial past as well as its political position in history writ large in its stones.

Yet, for all it may be amongst the best of its kind, it looks very much like every other restored castle. Castles are serious. They evolve over time, taking on the forms and fashions of the day and yet the plans, well-tested by the centuries, conform to a relatively rigid form; one that serves its purpose admirably, but which appears to leave little room for joy. We see the desire to make a strong statement or to create an impression of solid and established power. The outer face of the inner castle leaves you in little doubt of how its lord sees himself, and here too the analogy is pretty apt.

We ‘let people in’… but just a little way at first. We still have our defences… often prominently displayed. But we seldom let anyone all the way in… not at first. We still have an image of ourselves that we project, a subtle and almost invisible line of defence that hides the reality behind something that looks interesting and attractive… but what happens when you look a little deeper?

Quite appropriately, given the symbolism we were exploring, we would have to wait to see beyond the inner doors, as the interior opens an hour later than the grounds. Stuart sat on the throne of Northumberland… a reconstruction based upon a carved stone found close by… and shared his first reading from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Then we wandered the grounds for a while until the State Rooms were opened and we were allowed to delve further.

I was drawn to an odd rectangle of grass, surrounded by some broken stone walling. There has obviously been another building here once upon a time, and the curved end of the space looked like the remains of windows in the apse of a chapel… which is exactly as it turned out to be.

St Peter’s Chapel was an important place of worship long ago, the spiritual heart of the castle. It held relics of King Oswald, a saintly ruler credited with much good during his lifetime and many miracles after his death. He died in 642 in battle against the pagan king Penda, who dismembered his body on the battlefield. Amidst all the glory of temporal splendour, this sacred place has been left unrestored, open to the winds and with a congregation of birds. The apse, where the altar and relics once stood, now holds only a bell that was taken down because it annoyed the lady of the castle and the villagers… and piles of small change, like a dragon’s hoard, now replace the votive offerings.

There may well be a new chapel somewhere within the castle, where there is indeed a wealth of religious symbolism, but for the purpose of our weekend, this sacred space left derelict in favour of worldly display seemed a poignant symbol for the unchecked ego that cannot see beyond its own projected image to the sacred heart within.

And yet, the chapel was not entirely barren, for within it is a single grave…or so I thought. The cross bears an inscription to ‘The first Lord Armstrong… a genius in his time’. He had loved Northumberland, had bought and restored the castle… it seemed only fitting that he should be buried within the chapel and remain at its heart. The records, however, show that he was buried at Rothbury, some miles away. Is the apparent grave no more than a memorial? An empty tomb… or a sign of love and respect? Perhaps the castle has a heart after all… and if so, it is a very human one.  Perhaps I had not looked far enough? And who am I to judge what any heart may hold… even that of a castle?

Over the centuries, many people have used the symbolism of the castle to explore spiritual and psychological concepts.  The intellectual exercise is, however, nowhere near as graphic as when you walk through these spaces and get the feeling of an idea built in stone. It was proving to be an interesting experience… and the State Rooms were about to open…


8 thoughts on “North-easterly II – Beyond the walls

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    I was thinking about the dismemberment of many of the so-called enemies of the state, or enemies of those in power at any given time. Somehow it seems that those doing the dismemberment were actually afraid of the power of those whose bodies they dismembered. They perhaps thought that in so many pieces, the body could never return to haunt them. It is perhaps also why oftentimes ruins of forts, etc. were destroyed. Even though those who had won were the only ones left, I think they likely feared something that was not visible to the naked eye, and would do anything to prevent it from returning. Perhaps that thing was the spirituality of the people who had gone before. They had, after all, built these structures. What if their spirits were lurking somewhere within the forts?

    As I thought of these things, I thought of a post I made on my blog called “Summoning Forth the Boogeyman.” It is odd that no one generally tells us about the boogeyman, and yet we come to fear this creature and search for him every night in our closet, under our bed, behind the drapes perhaps. Once we are assured that the boogeyman is not coming to “get” us, we can then go to sleep. This continues through the years until one day we stop looking for the boogeyman anymore. This appears to be the case with some of these sites, which may be why some of them still exist in large part even though it is clear that they have indeed had some parts destroyed.

    And it brings up the idea of personal empowerment for me. Once we get over all of the boogeymen or the ruins in our lives, we are empowered and no longer need to fear anything except, as Churchill once said, “We have nothing to fear except fear itself.” For whatever reasons forts and castles were built, or churches, what we build in our minds to surround and protect our innermost compasses of life, they can be both our worst enemies and our best friends depending on how we tend to use them. If enemies do attack us, and we allow them to break down our own selves, they can come back again and again to haunt us with their arbitrary things that cause us to react and shudder, seeing ourselves metaphorically dismembered. Little by little, the parts of us that are real, begin to disappear. So we have to go in search of them until we find them again just as we looked for the boogeyman until we know once and for all that we are more powerful than anything the enemy can do to us. I might be off base on this, but this came to me as I read once again of someone being dismembered by the enemy.

    There is so much to be learned as we make this journey in search of our authentic being. It may be a lifelong search as far as I can imagine, but it will be worth every step of the way.Thank you all once again for adding another depth of meaning to these journeys. Anne


    1. Interesting observations, Anne. Fear is the one thing we really should be afraid of…and yet, as is so often the case, fear too has a valuable part to play in our survival. I think it is a question of where do we allow the controlling force to come from… external pressures or our inner being.


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