A little care…

jan wet dawn 002

The narrow village street is busy with rush hour traffic. The lorry coming towards me on the other side of the road is respecting the speed limit, the impatient driver behind him is not. Without warning, the car pulls out onto my side of the road, overtaking the lorry and coming straight at me. In that scintilla of clarity that happens at these moments, I realise there was nowhere for me to go. I could turn into the path of the lorry…but that is hardly a good choice. I could wrench the wheel to the left and plough into the schoolchildren waiting at the bus stop… and that is no choice at all. Or grit my teeth, hold the wheel, and slam the brakes on, hoping the cars behind me are going slow enough to stop.

I hit the brakes… so does the lorry… and the impatient driver hits the accelerator, raising one obnoxious finger to the world, squeezes through the gap with millimetres to spare, racing off to whatever destination is more important to him than the lives of others.

I am not a timid driver and I don’t scare easily… but this brief incident left me shaking all the way to work. It had been close.

Sadly, it is the kind of scenario that happens every day on our increasingly busy roads. This time, tragedy was averted by the quick reactions of several drivers. It is not always so, and the toll of death and destruction on the roads rises daily. Accidents happen often enough, both on and off the roads, but many are not accidents at all, they are simply the result of heedless or selfish behaviour and, when lives are lost to such causes, it is tantamount to murder.

How would the lorry driver have fared emotionally, as well as legally, had I turned my car beneath his wheels? How would I have lived with my actions had I instinctively turned away and hit the children? How would either outcome have affected others… witnesses, those who care about us, the parents of the children? How many lives would have been injured, broken or lost? In both cases, the road would have been clear for our impatient motorist to speed away and possibly remain unaware of what he had done.

I could not help reflecting on the fragility of life. This gift that we are privileged to share can be torn away at any moment, by any number of unforeseen circumstances and there will be nothing left of us but a memory. Our emotional lives are just as fragile and can be broken by just such a lack of care as was shown by the reckless driver. We may be the guilty party, the one who causes harm… sometimes through a genuine misunderstanding or error, sometimes through a lack of empathy or care…  yet because we move forward with our own lives, we may not see the devastation we leave behind.

Our society is increasing the distance between us in many ways, even while it brings us closer in others. It is easier than ever before to keep in touch and to watch events unfolding across the globe, yet it is probably easier than ever before to remain isolated, touching the world only through the medium of keyboard and screen. It is our responsibility to ensure that we do not lose our ability to care… that, although we are undoubtedly the central point of our own consciousness, we do not learn to see ourselves as the sun in a universe of lesser satellites.

Consideration, empathy and kindness are social skills, and without social interaction, we can forget how central they are to allowing society to function. We see the effects of isolation every day and how quickly and insidiously these essential skills can be forgotten. Awareness and care for others can be unconsciously replaced with a false, but inalienable sense of self as the central point for all things. When one person’s journey…in their own eyes… becomes worth more than that of any other, tragedy will not be far behind.

It costs nothing except a moment’s thought and feeling to consider the impact of our actions. We will not always get it right, regardless of how well-intentioned we may be, but a little care goes a long way towards making sure that we do not go too far wrong. We cannot always avoid disaster, but if we can take responsibility for our own actions and open ourselves to the needs of others, we may not only be helping them, but saving ourselves untold heartache too.

The gift of memory

One of the things we take away from our weekend workshops are the memories. Faces, places, people, conversations and realisations, all combine to create a kaleidoscope of intangible souvenirs that find their own place in the hierarchy of memory. We may share an adventure, but the memories are unique for each of us and it would only be by combining all of them that a true picture of the weekend would even begin to emerge. We each bring our own perspective to the experience, and what will seem unimportant to one may be awe-inspiring to another. Some of what we experience will seem so mundane that it fades into the background, barely registering its presence in our minds, some moments will make such an impression that they remain fresh and evergreen for the rest of our lives.

Memories are more important than we consciously realise most of the time. They form the foundation of who we are and, in many ways, define who we become. Our loves and dislikes, our dreams and even our most illogical-seeming fears all have a basis in memory and, when it is lost, through illness, age or accident, we lose much of the person we have always felt ourselves to be, as well as the person others knew.

It is not that the memories have been erased… they have simply been filed away and the key to unlocking them lost. This is something I have come to understand in a far more conscious way since my son’s brain injury…  all the details are still there, but he cannot access them unless he is given the right key. That may be something very simple and seemingly unrelated… and yet it can unleash a flood of memory and the chains of association reveal layer upon layer of recollection.

At our Northumberland weekend, I was given a birthday gift that did the same for me. The ceramic art reminded me of the Moorcroft pottery that I love with its colours and textures… which in turn took me back to running my own antiques stall, working with my mother and learning the trade, a day looking in awe at the glorious Moorcroft shop in Windsor with a friend… and the tiny plate I was given months later. It opened up a vast chain of details I had forgotten from my children’s childhood… a vintage fox fur with which two small boys chased each other around grandma’s shop, tea and buttered scones as Mum and I talked and taught the boys to play chess in the storeroom…and then back to my own childhood, playing in the toy shop that my mother managed and being fed sweets by Mrs Brown who owned both toy shop and sweet shop with her husband. The memories flowed…

The subject was bound to take me back… to a time and place when the world was opening its doors to me and I lived in a state of wonder and adventure. Paris… walking the wet pavements after dark, feeling my heart skip a beat every time the dome of the Sacré-Cœur came into view, talking until the small hours with the artists who were my friends in Montmartre… a time when the emotional rollercoaster of youth rode every high and low with untrammelled enthusiasm in a place I loved with all my heart.

There was something else too. The gift had been chosen because it would remind me, and that gesture of thought and friendship conjures its own memories, from first encounter to the birth of the Silent Eye and beyond… with all the faces and places in between… until past meets present and the future begins to reveal its paths at our feet, where yet more memories will be made.

Memory adds depth and richness to our lives and anything that sparks our innate ability to revisit a moment time through its good offices is a gift beyond price. Yet, we cannot and should not live in the past… even if we retrace our footsteps, seeking out places and people we once knew, the present and the past will never be the same, for we ourselves have changed, and hopefully, grown, often because of that moment in time to which thought and memory may carry us. We may never return, but the past lives in us and adds the colour and texture of its story to our own.

North-easterly VII: A final grace

 

“…Manifest thy light for my regeneration, and let the breadth, height, fullness and crown
of the solar radiance appear, and may the light within shine forth!”

Abbe de Villars, ‘The Comte de Gabalis’

“We’ve just got to the top of the slope by the castle,” said the voice on the phone, in answer to my query. We had been a few minutes late arriving on Holy Island, and our companions had begun to stroll out towards the medieval castle that dominates the island landscape. Having failed to find them in any of the three cafés where we had looked, we had located them by phone and, putting on a bit of a spurt, finally caught up with them. From here we could look back at the beginning of our journey, over the water to Bamburgh Castle, just as the spiritual pilgrim looks back on his inner journey and sees with greater clarity than before, how short was the true distance he had to travel , no matter how difficult and tortuous the route he felt he had to take.

The plan was that we should spend an hour exploring in our own way before meeting for a light lunch and our departure, so while some visited the castle, the rest of us walked back into the village and met the sparrows. Time always makes its presence keenly felt on Holy Island, which is odd, because, in so many ways, it is a timeless place. As you cross the causeway from the mainland, that sense of stepping outside of time is one of the most striking feelings, and, if you remain when the tides come in, flooding the causeway and cutting off the island from the shore, there simply is no time, only the spirit of place. Yet the tides rule all and the clock ticks regardless, and for those who must leave before the waters rush in, time is always limited. The very consciousness of that knowledge makes every moment precious.

When we had gathered once more, we walked over to the ancient parish church, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. In spite of the fact that there have been people on the island since the very earliest of times, this is the oldest building to remain. It is built on the site of St Aidan’s original monastery, founded in 635, and parts of the building date back to that century.

A service had just finished, and we had no wish to intrude, so simply sat quietly for a while, in contemplation. Faith is unique to each of us, no matter by what name we know it or what path we walk. Each of us has our own relationship with something other and greater than ourselves and the simple silence of St Mary’s seems to welcome all those who turn their faces to the Light.

There are beautiful stained glass windows, touching tributes to those who have served in the church and those who have lived on the island and worked with the sea. There are windows that glow with colour and light, a statue carved from elm and called ‘The Journey,’ that shows the monks who carried St Cuthbert’s coffin on its long odyssey, a transcript of the Lindisfarne Gospel… the beautifully illuminated manuscript from the last years of the seventh century, made by a monk called Eadfrith in honour of St Cuthbert.

Fourteen hundred years is a long time for any place to be at the heart of a tiny community, and the church holds that community in its heart.

You ‘may sense the ‘thinness’ linking with the ancient saints who trod the same ground so many years before,’ says the church website. And you can. There is a very real sense of the sacred here, of something older and deeper than the exoteric Church that we know today. It is impossible not to be moved by the echoes of so many centuries of prayer.

In the churchyard, the lives of those who walked here are both remembered and forgotten. The oldest inhabitants have no grave-markers, their names and stories are, for the most part, lost. Only those whose stories were written in the annals of history are remembered by name and deed, and those who lived recently enough that their headstones survive.

Two nineteenth century headstones caught my eye. One was that of a Freemason and soldier who served in India. His affiliation to Freemasonry is not explicitly mentioned in the inscription, but the Masonic Square and Compasses tell their own story. Another local rejoiced in the name of Field Flowers. Time and weather have worn away much of the inscription, but he still rests in the shadow of the Saxon Abbey.

From the church, we walked down to the shore, passing the old well that shelters beneath the walls. I had long wanted to visit St Cuthbert’s Island but on our previous visits, either the tide or time had always been against us.

St Cuthbert’s Isle is a tiny islet just off the island’s shore. At low tide, it is just a short walk across the mussel-encrusted rocks, but to fully appreciate its isolation from the rest of the community,you have to see it when the tide comes in, completely sundering it from the island. We had done so one day, when we had stayed the length of a sea-tide on Holy Island, watching the sun gild a roseate path to the mainland as it sank beyond the hills.

It was to this tiny islet that St Cuthbert would retreat when he needed solitude. He had become a monk after a vision that came to him the night that St Aidan died. he felt called to a contemplative life, but his kindness, charm and generosity, as well as his gift of healing and deep faith, were to take him from his cell and make him Bishop of Lindisfarne and one of the best loved of the early saints.

The little island was his retreat, until in later years he sought the greater solitude of the Farne Islands. Today the foundations of his chapel remain on the islet, marked by a simple cross where pilgrims still leave tokens of respect, and earthworks that may be the foundations of his cell.

 

I once heard the monastic life described as being ‘in the world, but not of it’. In some respects this relates too to the journey of the spiritual seeker… pilgrims in the land of the living… who embrace the earthly life and its world fully, yet who know that the source of being is not of this world. It was the perfect place for us to end our weekend.

From here we could see the mainland and the dark outline of Bamburgh Castle. We could look back too at the Holy Isle and see the ancient church and the Abbey. Our journey together was drawing to its close, yet our journeys would continue. For a moment, we were once more outside of time and the spirit of place caught at the heart.

“I can hear mermaids singing,” said one of our companions. Sure enough, she was right. Turning our eyes to the sea, we scanned the waves and saw their faces in the waves. It was indeed magical to watch the seals watching us from the sea… playing and diving through the waters with what looked like joyful abandon.

But time touched us even here, and it was time for the weekend to end. Gary read the beautiful Invocation to the Flame from Abbe de Villars’, ‘The Comte de Gabalis’ and Barbara ended the weekend with a poem she had written. Then, with hugs and the knowledge that we would hopefully meet again soon, we parted.

For three of us, there was still a little time. Just enough to linger on the island for a moment or two… long enough to realise that the dark shadow on the sandbanks was not seaweed, but our ‘mermaids’.

The three of us, joined by silence and friendship, watched from afar, listening to their song. Such moments can justly be called a grace.

The sea-song continued, eerie and haunting on the wind as we left the islet and climbed to the Heugh. Sheltering in the lee of the ruined Anglo-Saxon chapel, we watched the seals from afar and saw a heron gliding over the waves.

But although, for once, we were in no hurry, Gary had a long drive ahead and had to leave. We walked the length of the Heugh, looking down into the ruined Priory that was already nearly a thousand years old when the castle was built. Time and distance were about to make themselves felt and it was with a certain amount of sadness that we descended from the outcrop, knowing that the world was about to take us once more by the hand. And that although at such moments we may wish the demands of the world elsewhere, it is right that it should do so. We are born into this world for a reason and to live in it fully is at least part of our purpose.

The weekend held one final and surprising gift though. As we walked across the fields towards the village, we came face to face with the past in the most surprising manner. Our timing could hardly have been more perfect and we watched archaeologists brush fourteen hundred years of earth from the faces of the early monks in the newly uncovered Priory burial ground.

“These men would have known Aidan or Cuthbert,” said the archaeologist, when I asked if it were permitted to take photographs. “Treat them with respect if you use the pictures.” I could not do anything else, for these were the men in whose footsteps we had walked the island, the men who had ‘trod the same ground so many years before,’ and whose faith has made this a place of pilgrimage, both religious and spiritual, for centuries. I may not share their particular form of religion, but we share the essence of faith and, in coming face to face with the past, I came face to face with myself. And surely, that is what any pilgrimage is supposed to achieve?

With thanks to Steve Tanham and Barbara Walsh for organising the Castles of the Mind weekend.

If you have enjoyed reading the story of our time in Northumberland and would like to join us for one of our informal weekends exploring the spiritual landscape of Britain, or at our annual April Workshop in Derbyshire, please visit the Silent Eye’s Events page.

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North-easterly: Legends…

There are many stories associated with the castles of the Northumbrian coastline, some historical, others apocryphal, but it is often buried within the myths and legends that some fragment of truth may be found. Few tales will pique the interest as much as when dragons or the name of King Arthur are mentioned. Stuart has told the story of the Laidly Wyrm of Bamburgh, in which a princess becomes a dragon, and were that the only tale the castle had to tell, it would be enough. But the castle has not always been known by its present name. It was once at the heart of the ancient realm of Bryneich, or Bernicia, and the castle was known as Din Guarie, a name that comes down to us through the Arthurian legends as Dolorous Guard….

The Dream of Lancelot~ Study by Edward Burne-Jones

The Castle of Dolorous Guard was the home of Sir Brian of the Isles, who some call King Bran Hen… Bran the Old… a cruel and evil knight and the sworn enemy of King Arthur. Sir Brian had learned enchantments from the Lady of the Lake and turned them to sate his own vicious pleasures. He took great delight, so the story goes, in imprisoning and torturing both men and women alike.

Many of Arthur’s knights were lost to Sir Brian’s enchantments, for whenever a knight approached the castle, they were faced by a band of ten warriors at each of the two gates and were forced to fight. Many made the attempt, but none succeeded. Even Gawain, one of the greatest knights, was captured and cast into the dungeons with the rest. As each knight was imprisoned and their helmets hung upon the wall as trophies, a mysterious gravestone sprang up outside the castle, bearing their name and they were lost to the world.

Sir Lancelot du Lac, had been raised by the Lady of the Lake and had her favour. He asked Arthur for some quest with which he could prove himself and was sent north to Bamburgh in search of the lost knights, armed with a magical shield.

Lancelot conquered the guardian warriors expelled Sir Brian, who fled south to Pendragon Castle, but the enchantment could not be broken until he had spent forty nights under its roof. Exploring his conquest, Lancelot came upon a large metal slab encrusted with jewels, which bore the inscription:

Only he who conquers La Doloreuse Garde

will be able to lift this slab,

and he will find his name beneath it.

Summoning all his strength, Lancelot raised the slab and found beneath it another inscription:

Here will repose Lancelot of the Lake, the son of King Ban.

Abandoned as a babe by the Lake and left to be found and raised by its Lady, it was only now that Lancelot learned of his royal lineage, and he knew that this would be his final place of rest.

In the castle’s chapel, Lancelot found a door which led deep underground and into a cave. The earth shook, and a deafening noise filled the cave. As he entered, two copper knights armed with huge swords attacked. Lancelot did not falter, defeating the metallic monsters and moving deeper into the cavern. There he found a wailing well, guarded by an axe-wielding monster. Lancelot fought with all his might, breaking his shield upon the creature’s hide. At the end, he throttled it with his bare hands and cast it down into the well.

Catching his breath, he raised his head and saw a beautiful maiden clad in copper and in her hand she held two keys which she offered to the victorious knight. Taking them, he realised that they were the keys to end the enchantment. One unlocked a  copper pillar containing thirty copper pipes that screamed. The other unlocked a casket from which a whirlwind escaped. Then, at last, the castle was free of the evil spell.  The mysterious gravestones and the trophy helmets disappeared, the lost knights were found and released from their prison and Lancelot took the castle for his own.

Lancelot renamed the castle Joyous Guard, filling it with colour and light. Delicate bridges linked the towers upon which were carved fabulous beasts, the dark chambers were ablaze with candles and the rich glow of tapestries and the walls were plastered and gilded so that, catching the rays of the rising sun across the sea, the light of the castle could be seen far across the land.

It is told that many knights and their ladies were his guests, including Arthur and Guinevere, his queen, with whom Lancelot fell in love. His love was returned and the two, loving their king, were broken hearted.

Perhaps it was for this reason that Lancelot allowed the ill-fated Tristan to stay at Joyous Guard with Isolde after the two had fled from her husband, King Mark.

Accompanying Arthur to Camelot, Lancelot’s love for the queen was exposed and Guinevere was condemned to death. Lancelot rescued her from the pyre and carried her to Joyous Guard, but the tragedy unfolded, Arthur laid siege to the castle, inflicting heavy damage, and Lancelot was forced to return to the land of his birth. The castle sank back into gloom, becoming once again the castle of Dolorous Guard.

Yet, the story tells that Lancelot returned. His body was brought back to his castle and laid in a vault. It lays there still, buried by the sands of time and veiled by the mist that rolls in from the sea.

North-easterly VI: Ringing a pele

There is something about a map, a proper, paper map, that makes a journey personal. We don’t tend to use sat-nav, resorting to such technologies only when cities force us to do so… and we had invested in a brand new map too, the other one having been worn to shreds over the past couple of years. So, instead of following the directions given by the leader of the expedition, we took the winding backroads to get to the last site of the day and arrived there a little while before the others. We killed a little time by snacking on the remains of lunch, then had a wander up the path to wait outside the tower.

Time, though, was getting on. Knowing Steve had been really impressed by this place and worried that it might close before the others arrived and we had chance to see it properly, we decided to go inside. They couldn’t close the place while we were in it, and we would have hated to miss it, so it seemed the best thing to do.

Preston Tower is a pele tower, built between 1392 and 1399 to give the alarm and protect its people when Scotland and England were in an almost constant state of war. It looks like a miniature fortress and that is exactly what it is. Built with walls seven feet thick to withstand attack, a small postern door through which the animals could be brought inside in case of danger, and with tiny windows that could be blocked in case marauders attempted to smoke out those within, it seems almost impregnable.

In later years, the most common problem was caused by the depredations of Border Reivers, the cattle rustlers from across the Border between England and Scotland, whose lands were seldom enough to support their clans as all estates were split on the death of their owner between all the surviving sons. The Reivers had a code of honour, nonetheless, and it was required that they help each other regain their own cattle or answer insult… and any man who refused to do so could be put to death, thus perpetuating the feuds and bloodshed.

Within the tiny entrance to the tower we found another map, this time showing where the Border clans were based, including my companion’s clan on the West March. It may well be that he was the first of his clan to actually get inside the Pele Tower.

The ground floor was reserved for bringing the animals in to safety. But also housed a tiny guard room and a prison cell. We had not, at this point, found the light switch, and the atmosphere in both was that of a condemned cell. The darkness, alleviated only by the merest slit of a window, was oppressive, heavier than darkness should be. The guard room is only slightly larger than the prison cell, and the floor-space is little bigger than a coffin. It feels like one too, even when the lights are on.

We went up to the next floor, climbing a precarious wooden staircase, taking in the two tiny chambers, furnished as a sleeping chamber and living room, after the fashion of six hundred years ago. Above that are other rooms, marked with curious geometric symbols which have been highlighted in yellow and are probably masons’ marks.  Here too is the mechanism for the Victorian clock that was added to the tower, and above it on the roof is the eleven-hundred-pound bell which, when it struck five, was loud enough to wake the dead.

The tower is incomplete, being only half of the original building, but it gives a very complete picture of what life must have been like for those required to retreat within its walls. The conditions are incredibly cramped, daylight almost non-existent and the thickness of the walls effectively cuts off all sound from the outside world. It must, we agreed, have been hellish, but as nothing compared to the absolute hell suffered by those in similar towers when the attack came.

You can imagine the stone cracking as flames that could not breach the walls were kindled to smoke out those trapped inside. You could hear the panic of the animals on the ground floor, adding to the fear and chaos, the crying of children and the sound of battle from the roof. A safe haven? Perhaps… but it could also be a deathly trap.

More than either of the grand castles we had seen, both restored and ruined, this was the perfect illustration of the ego and we could see why Steve had wanted to make it part of the weekend. Our lives are varied… we have roles in many arenas… but at the core of the ego is a strongly fortified haven within which we can survive and into which we retreat when we feel threatened in any way. Like the tower, the very thickness of our own personal walls can protect us from harm, real or perceived, but like the tower, it can be a trap. Any refusal to come out into the world for fear of its dangers will lead to our becoming increasingly isolated from our fellow beings, and if we linger too long within those walls, cut off from the beyond, the light and life within us will surely perish.

We looked out from the rooftop across the trees to the sea. There is a place in our lives for looking inwards, a time to withdraw and contemplate what is real, who we are and what truly matters to us. But freedom lies in stepping beyond the barriers we beset ourselves with and in embracing life in its entirety… even, and perhaps especially, when we fear it.

Far below us, we saw cars drawing up and the faces of our friends laughing up at us. Leaving reverie behind, we rejoined the human race. An evening would follow where the ‘walls’ stayed down and, fuelled by excellent food, a little wine and much talking, peals of laughter followed our visit to the the pele tower. We would share stories, discover coincidences, chat with a complete stranger about the magical community, find the fact that two of our number shared a birthday… and oddest of all, that the gentleman we had met in such strange circumstances in a Cornish fougou five hundred miles away, was a member of a group run by one of our companions for the weekend. Later, three of us holed up with a glass of mead and talked until we were falling asleep… None of which would have happened had we immured ourselves behind our inner walls…

 

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?

North-easterly IV: Pause for thought…

After Bamburgh’s glories, the simplicity of the tiny harbour at Craster made a welcome change. We had brought sandwiches rather than joining the rest of the party for a pub lunch… what little time we had could be used for visiting the church, or so we thought. The church, though, proved to be reluctant to reveal itself, which was a shame as later research showed it to be a tiny place with some beautiful stained glass.

Instead, we sat on the harbour, watching the pebbles move on the shore, or so it seemed as a hundred small birds trawled through the seaweed and stones for their own lunch and oystercatchers explored the shallows.

The little village is now famous for its seafood, but I was more interested in the sea. The sights, sounds and smells of the shore are far from me at home, and this trip would be my last sight of the waves for another year. I love the light by the sea… you can tell when you are close by the luminescence and I love how it changes, colouring land, sea and sky with its moods, moment to moment.

In the end, we did little after lunch except catch an ‘oyster’ of our own and we sat eating the ice-cream and nougat confection in the lee of the harbour wall. Behind us was a plaque commemorating its building as a memorial to one of the Craster family who had held the lands here since 1272.

Captain John Craster had served with the 46th Punjabi Regiment and was one of the few British soldiers killed during the Younghusband Expedition to Tibet in 1904. It was curious to find this connection to a death half a world away after seeing so many of the Younghusband family memorials the day before at Bamburgh.

There is an odd square arch at one end of the harbour, looking like a misplaced Egyptian pylon gate, but which is a leftover from a structure used to load stone from the local quarry onto the ships that would carry it to London to be used as kerb stones. There is a very real sense in this tiny place that the world may seem large, but nowhere is more than one connection away.

Life went on around us as we took time out of the timetable. On the surface, there were tourists, visitors, people simply dipping their toe in the waters of the life of the village before moving on. Behind the scenes are all the human histories; the fishermen and stonecutters, the wives who watched the sea and the mothers who waited for a soldiering son to return. They are stories that echo in both past and future, matched by the joys and sorrows hidden behind every front door.

We travel through time and space as we move through our own lives, glimpsing, as through a window, moments from the lives of others. It is a strange feeling when you realise the wealth of stories that are unfolding all around you as you simply sit and watch.

But for us, there was another chapter about to begin as our companions strolled along the harbour to our meeting point to begin the journey to our next destination…

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Exploring islands and castles – and ourselves ~ G. Michael Vasey

Gary Vasey shares his experience on our recent Walk and Talk weekend in Northumberland:

This time, the Ryanair flight from Brno to Stansted was on time. This time, I arrived at the scheduled time and skipped through immigration without issues. I found my hotel and had an early night after all, it would be a long drive the next morning. After a British breakfast (a treat!), I went for my rental car – now this was a slight issue and I will only say this – do NOT rent from Easirent (difficult and expensive rent is more apt I think). Finally, I left the Stansted area around 10 am – an hour behind schedule but no matter – I was in good spirits.

Now, the drive from Stansted to Seahouses looked doable. Google maps told me 5 hours and if I factored in a couple of breaks, I should arrive on time around 4pm. I forgot about British traffic and more importantly – roadworks – but, I duly arrived at the meeting place just 30 minutes late. Before I even got the hotel door, Sue and Stu emerged to greet me – they had been watching out for me.

This was the third time I had met Sue – a very good friend of the last umpteen years. She and I have been through a few things and used email, telephone and thought messages to help each other. She had even put up with a call during which I managed somehow to consume quite a lot of gin to the point that when I awoke the next morning I did feel quite worse for wear and somewhat embarrassed…. Stu I had met one time before and we had got on like a house on fire. As importantly, it was Sue’s birthday! One important reason why I had made the trip frankly.

Continue reading at The Magical World of G. Michael Vasey

North-easterly III – Intriguing Anomalies

Two things struck me as we entered the State Rooms to look around the public parts of Bamburgh castle. The first was that the collection of objects that were on display was vast, rich and deserving of much more attention than we would have time for. We did notice, though, a shield that bore a remarkable resemblance to the crop circle we had been looking for at Cerne Abbas…

From decorated cradles to archaic helmets, ostentatiously carved furniture and delicate fans made of wisps of spangled gauze and ivory, all were displayed with no apparent order or relationship to each other. The symbolic comparison of a castle to the ego was evidently going to continue. It almost seemed as if the décor was saying there was no value to the priceless things on display except to be displayed. Now, I know that this is probably not the case at all. What can be left undefended by glass and barriers and survive the careless touch of tourists is the most likely reason for the items on display being chosen… but we had been asked to draw comparisons between the castle and the ego and observe our impressions.

I thought how many people I have met who define themselves by their achievements, success, wealth or possessions. I thought too how many of us seek to impress others in one way or another, and how our public faces reflect how we hope the world will see us… and decided that most of us fall prey to that desire in some form or another, even those who vehemently profess that they do not care a jot for how others see them; that very independence can become a ‘prized possession’.

The other thing that struck me forcibly was the lack of atmosphere. The two small salons, in spite of their beauty and décor, had no character at all; they felt unlived-in and ill at ease. It turns out that they were once kitchens before they became ‘State Rooms’, and their true nature was obviously at odds with their new finery. The castle is a grand and glorious place, though. Room after room is filled with history, art and portraiture, but it is not until you go deeper within its walls and reach the King’s Hall with its raised drawing room that there is any feeling of coherence.

Here, you can imagine the grand balls and state functions. It is supposed to be lofty, imposing, luxurious. It is not trying to be anything except itself… and, after the kitchen-salons, that gives a curious effect. Egoically, there is a statement there too; it matters little whether a place or a person is beautiful and impressive, or homely and humble… what matters is whether they are authentic… true to their nature and purpose.

 

I could have spent weeks learning about the art alone. There were anomalies there too. The overtly regal castle held a good many pieces that struck an odd chord. For instance, there were the portraits of Napoleon with hs two Empresses… the Emperor of France who had come by his position on the heels of the Revolution that had guillotined the nobility.

The very Catholic iconography displayed throughout the house sits cheek-by-jowl with portraits of the Protestant King James and his wife, Anne of Denmark. It was James who, after his bride had been delayed by storms that he blamed on witchcraft, instigated the North Berwick witch trials and he attended the torture of suspected practitioners of the Craft.

One picture in particular caught my eye, a sixteenth century group of the Holy Family, attributed to Marcello Venusti and titled ‘Silence’. The geometric composition of the figures is striking enough, but t was the figures themselves that caught my eye. The Holy Mother watches a sleeping Child that we take to be Jesus. He lays across her lap in a similar attitude to a Pietà. Behind her are figures we assume to be an elderly Joseph and John the Baptist, who could be Jesus’ twin. It may have been the fact that the boys are painted as older than the usual babes that caught my attention. Or that only Mary and John have haloes…. I found it curious too that the Madonna wears green, and that the sleeping Child, who lacks a halo, is as pale as death.

A little later research made the painting even odder. It was painted by Venusti, but the design was a detailed drawing by Michaelangelo. It is also very different from other versions of this painting. The ‘same’ painting at The National Gallery, for example, has the Virgin clothed in blue, the architecture and draperies completely different, none of the figures have haloes and John wears a leopard skin. And the text in the book that the Virgin holds is completely different. We can only assume it is meant to be a Bible, although that book would not be written until long after the Child’s death.

John makes a gesture of silence. Is he asking silence for the sleeping Child? Or indicating secrets…? Which painting is the ‘real’ Venusti? Are they all his? Are others copies? What does the difference in the text indicate? We would need a lot more time to unravel such mysteries… The ego too has its secrets, its blinds and confusions and it can take a lifetime to unravel them.

One mystery was solved though… although it leaves many unanswerable questions in its wake. There is a short corridor with steps leading through an arch. On one side, a huge tapestry, on the other a print of battles and reproductions of scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry. It has a disquieting ‘feel’ and I found I could not easily leave it. When I did leave, I felt compelled to turn around and go back, though I had no idea why. I spoke to Stuart who had followed me and turned to face him… finding that he was not there and I was, in fact, alone.

The moment left such an impression on me that I did some research when we got home. I am far from the only one to have sensed something there. During the war years the castle served as a hospital for soldiers, and one young man traumatised beyond bearing, committed suicide and shot himself in the head. He was seen and recognised after his death, seated on these stairs.

The lower we went in the castle, the more, it seemed, the life of its people made itself felt and the analogy of the ego continued to be apt. Most personal, in an odd kind of way, was the well in the basement rooms. The life of lord and serf alike would have depended upon its waters. The simple well bound their human lives together in a way no other artefact could show.

Lower still and we made the mistake of going into the dungeon. Expecting the empty rooms one usually sees in such places, we were confronted with graphic waxworks depicting every imaginable horror. Such things should never be perpetrated on living beings… and yet the ego can suffer the same levels of torture throughout its life. We witnessed one such torture being inflicted upon a child as we hurriedly left the room. You can imagine the scars the careless comment will leave. “This,” said the small child’s father, “is what happens if you don’t behave…”

Far from the pomp and circumstance of the stately halls, there were real treasures though, tucked away in tiny rooms and easily overlooked.  These were not just the objects that affirmed power, nor were they all the creations of gifted artists… many were the small and practical things that had held a place in the lives and hearts of the castle’s people. Simple carved stones from the chapel of St Peter where a saint’s relics were housed. A lost key. Fragments of intricate metalwork going back to the Anglo-Saxon fort. And tiny, glowing specks of worked gold, smaller than a fingernail, bearing the serpentine design of the Bamburgh Beast.

In just the same way, you have to work to get beyond the layers of ego to see the spark of gold that lies, often unregarded, at the centre of every being. It may be buried so deep that it is impossible to see, but, like the castle, the ego is both sanctuary and prison for the treasure at its heart.

There was one more thing we had been asked to do and that was to find within the castle a place we had imagined from the beach below. We were almost ready to leave before I found mine and understood its personal significance. The great black-leaded range reminded me of the one in my great grandmother’s scullery, and so I left the ‘State Rooms’ with a fond smile for remembered warmth and the aroma of oven-bottom bread.

Anyone who wishes to have a virtual wander around the castle can visit their website for a 360° tour here.