North-easterly V: Layers

A short walk along the coast from Craster is another of the most iconic sights on the Northumbrian shore…Dunstanburgh. The castle has inspired artists and poets over the centuries; Turner and Girtin both painted the ruins, and so did I, long ago, when I was teaching myself to paint. I had only ever seen the castle from a distance, though… this was the first time I would step within what remains of its walls.

Like the castle at Bamburgh, just nine miles up the coast, Dunstanburgh was built on a much earlier site. Our earliest ancestors had used the rocky outcrop and had built a promontory fort there, ringed with earthworks that were, almost two thousand years later, incorporated into the defences of the thirteenth century castle. It is a curious feeling to see those same ancient earthworks still intact, topped by the ruins of a grandeur a mere seven hundred years old.

The earth itself provides the foundations of the castle that is built on black basalt that juts up from the green earth and a gilded shore. Around the castle are the remains of the meres, the artificial lakes that would have provided fresh water for livestock and additional defences, whilst making the mirrored castle seem twice as impressive. There are fish ponds too, for the raising of freshwater fish, with the water being fed into the meres through a stone channel from a nearby spring. Within the castle is a well, and even besieged there would have been a water supply.

There are legends of tunnels connecting the castle to local farms and towers… stories of unknown men passing to and from the castle in secret through concealed trap doors. While it is possible that these legends are no more than a garbled memory of the water channels, it is no secret that Dunstanburgh was a place of intrigue and plots.

The castle was built between 1313 and 1322 by Thomas, the Earl of Lancaster. Thomas and his cousin, King Edward II had a very poor relationship and, by the time the castle was built, in full view of the royal castle at Bamburgh, Thomas saw himself as a rival for power. Having been involved in the capture and murder of Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall and the king’s favourite in 1312, Thomas was severely out of favour at court, so the castle may have been a safe retreat, away from the king’s armies in the south.

He may also have built the castle as a direct challenge, a taunt or a political statement. It was one of the largest castles in the country and cannot have met with anything but the king’s displeasure. Whatever the reason, the castle never served Thomas’ purpose. He rode to war, but was himself captured and executed after the Battle of Boroughbridge. The stories tell that the executioner was unfit for his job and that battle-seasoned soldiers who witnessed the execution fainted as the headsman struck eleven times before finally ending Thomas’ life. It is, they say, for this reason that his ghost walks the castle, carrying the severed head which bears an expression of utter horror…

 

The castle changed hands many times over the centuries, and even in its ruinous state still played a part on the defence of the north-eastern coastline during World War II. Dunstanburgh is a place of many layers, and as we walked towards it, we began to consider some of our own layers. The analogy of the castle as the ego, built layer upon layer by our own experience and that of those who went before still held true.

We build the shell of the ego from our reactions to all the situations and stimuli we encounter, including those passed down to us from our parents and to them from their parents… the layers go deep. This can be a good thing, as we learn from their experience… and just as we are taught early not to touch what may burn, or eat what will make us ill, we can also learn how to live within the society into which we are born and how best to treat each other. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work in a positive fashion. The accumulated wisdom of generations may also be contaminated by the acquired prejudices and misconceptions of an earlier era… and if we too acquire them, then the problems continue until we stop, look and challenge them for ourselves, stripping back the layers to see a kernel of truth from which we can form our own beliefs and make our own choices.

Steve also introduced the second thread of the weekend’s theme, that of pilgrimage… a sacred journey, deliberately undertaken. Although Dunstanburgh is a castle, not a sacred destination, we do not know for what purpose our earliest ancestors may have used the place. We had seen in Cornwall that the promontory forts may have ritual, rather than defensive roles. But for our purpose, it was symbolically perfect.

The ego is a necessary part of the human experience. It is our haven and shield, the face we present to the world, yet it is not who we are. Beneath the acquired layers, we are something more than our reactions, and the quest of the seeker is to take down the walls we have created around the shining core of being. Not completely… for the ego has its uses. Like this castle, where the natural erosion of time and weathering has reduced the impenetrable structure to beauty and bare bones, the ego dissipates as we grown and learn to know the inner beauty of the light within.

Curiously, another legend associated with Dunstanburgh is that of Sir Guy the Seeker. As night fell and a storm raged, an errant knight sought shelter beneath the ruined towers of the deserted castle. From out of the shadows, a wizard came forward to greet the knight… some say it was Merlin himself… and promised that, if Sir Guy would accompany him, he would be granted a vision of great beauty. The knight followed the wizard, who led him to a secret room. There, sleeping on a single radiant crystal, was the most beautiful woman Sir Guy had ever seen. She was surrounded by an army of sleeping knights, and on either side of her were a sword and a horn.

Sir Guy had, said the wizard, only to make the right choice and the maiden would be wake and be free of her crystal prison. The knight, dazzled by beauty, stretched out his hand and took the horn. Raising it to his lips, he blew a single note… and was plunged into darkness. As he lost consciousness, he heard a voice chastising him, crying shame on him for a coward for choosing the horn when a true knight would have drawn the sword.

Waking next morning, Sir Guy searched the castle for some trace of the maiden or the secret room, but none was to be found. So ardent was his determination to find and free her beauty that he spent his life wandering the castle in search of her, losing his mind and all thought of home. He wanders there still, and on stormy nights, they say you can still hear his desperate cries…

The castle is populated by ghosts. As well as Sir Guy and Earl Thomas, Margaret D’Anjou walks the castles grounds, weeping for those lost in battle. There is another story too, that seemed to fit our theme…that of a child imprisoned in the castle. The quest of the spiritual seeker…the pilgrim… is to release the inner Child from its prison. The story tells that she used the key to the dungeon, where many were tortured and killed, in order to escape. Once beyond the walls, she tossed the key into a field… and to this day that land remains infertile.

And so we wandered the empty space within the castle, passing the ruined chapel and exploring the gatehouse towers. In one, the breeze whipped through the empty windows, creating a vortex that whirled a mass of feathers around me like a snowstorm beneath the blue roof of late summer. From the other we looked out over the landscape and the castle’s tiny harbour to Bamburgh and beyond to the Holy Isle. Where next would our footsteps take us?

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