Wings of love

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The red kites are teasing me again, circling low over the garden… until I grab the camera, disappearing in their typical fashion as soon as the lens is pointed skywards. They were at it all morning, yet all I managed was a blurry pic and a handful of distant dots in the sky as usual.

I love those birds and cherish an ambition to get a really good photograph of the great birds in flight, one of these days. I can get a clear picture when they have landed, but in flight it always seems that I click the shutter when they are head down, or in odd positions where it is difficult to see their majesty, or a blurred one eye to eye. The birds seem to smile at my naivety.

It reminds me of the incident with the feathers. When we first began following the kites all over Buckinghamshire, it seemed that everywhere we went there were feathers of every conceivable colour. I kept picking them up. Stuart shook his head every time I took anything out of my bag, as clouds of the things fell out, the interior of the car began to look as if someone had been pillow fighting and I had feathers of every variety… except kite.

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Then, on one exceptionally hot day, we climbed our first real hill and walked miles in the heat. It was right at the beginning of the adventures that led to the writing of The Initiate and we barely knew what we were getting into at that point. It was, looking back, the first real physical effort we had put into our quest too. We walked up through ancient earthworks, seeking the path with dowsing rods and really getting a feel for the landscape. I remember Stuart talking about the sacrifice of energy required to climb the hills as part of the ‘contract’ with the heart of the land…. and then a red kite flew out of the sun.

We walked on, awed, in the searing heat… waterless as usual… climbing ever higher and following the ancient path of the Ridgeway, until I caught sight of something. I bent to pick it up… a whole bunch of kite feathers, plucked, it seemed, from the breast and shimmering with unexpected iridescence. We felt then that we had been accepted for the quest. If that sounds odd, it must be remembered that we had learned to trust and follow the birds, heeding the lessons in their flight, so it felt ‘right’ in ways I probably can’t explain. That afternoon unfolded with magic as we began to understand where and how we were being led.

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I came home that night and proudly displayed the feathers on the table. And because I left them there, the dog ate them. So, I was gifted a lesson in non-attachment too… and a reminder that a gift once given must be cherished and cared for; take it for granted and all you have is a memory.

So, although I still try for that perfect picture, it still eludes me and it feels as if the denizens of the sky are laughing gently. The elusiveness of the kites holds another lesson too, for some things are simply too big to fit inside a camera or to frame within the terms of the physical world. They are gifts of the moment to be treasured. Sure, I might get a good picture… but the great birds are more than just beauty and aerial grace; to watch them fly is to watch the spirit of the air and the feeling that brings is one of awe; something I don’t think any photograph could capture. They evoke a feeling I can only call love and it seems I can watch to my heart’s content, accepting the gift and grace of their presence, as long as I do not attempt to pin down their grace and essence… which is exactly how love should be.

Yet there is an acknowledgement, a reciprocal amusement, it seems, where I still try and they indulgently tease; a daily reminder that both spirit and love exist in freedom and their gift is there to be known, accepted in all simplicity, for as soon as you try to hold them, they lose something and are changed. You can only accept the gift and the grace when it is given… and cherish it.

If I get that ‘perfect’ photo one day, it will not be when I try to take it, but when it is given. All I can do is be open to the gifts of the day…

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Quest for a Quest: The Initiate’s Story

Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

17-19 April 2020

A Living Lore Workshop.

Contact us at Rivingtide@gmail.com for more details. Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

Fragments of Light

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I was talking with my son about the way life works out. The daily round of events and occurrences great and small that seem to be scattered, like pieces of broken glass, across the table of time. Some events hit your life with all the destructive power of a truck at full speed. Caught in the emotions of the moment it is hard to see beyond the pain, the fear, or the grief. Some are joyous rays of light casting bright pools of colour in the shadows. Most are the simple small-doings of everyday.

Taken individually, like pieces of a puzzle, they can be difficult to interpret… a patch of featureless blue or indistinct green may be hard to place within the image… especially if you don’t know what the picture is to begin with. Yet with a little patience, the pieces can begin to fit together. A detail here, a match there, and you begin to see the sense in the colours, to get an inkling of what the picture may be.

I am reminded of this when I am wandering around the old churches with their beautiful stained glass. Look too closely and they are just fragments of colour, odd shapes and sizes with little meaning. Stand back a little and the picture becomes clear. You can see how the seemingly random shards have been pieced together by a master hand to produce a glowing jewel of an image.

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Some windows are simple; easy to read, as the images are those we readily recognise from life. A face, a form, a creature or landscape. Others are abstract and require closer attention and more thought before the design becomes clear.

In some places, I see where fragments of glass have been salvaged from the destruction of history. There is no knowing what the original image may have been, yet the shards have been lovingly collected and fashioned into something new… different from the original design, but having a beauty all of its own when the light shines through.

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All the fragments have their place. We may not always see the bigger picture to know where they are supposed to fit, especially when we are concentrating too closely on the details. They may seem as though they will never make sense, or even as if they do not fit our design at all. Sometimes it seems things need to be broken apart so, as a friend put it, the light can shine through. Even the most glorious window, after all, is colourless in the dark. It is only with the light that the beauty becomes visible. The fragments of glass may make the picture, but only the light behind it gives it life.

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Our own lives are so much like these fragmentary shards, a jumble of bright and dark as we immerse ourselves in them, dwelling on the details and getting so close we have no hope of seeing what the picture holds. If we stand back a little we may get a better idea, seeing the traced design running through our days.

When you are lost in the events it is hard to make sense of them, but looking back you can sometimes see how all the pieces, light and dark, have their place and time, taking on a rhythm and a purpose, building up the picture that is our own becoming.

Devil in the Detail…

*

St Dunstan, so the story goes,

once pulled the devil by the nose,

with red-hot tongs,

which made him roar,

that he was heard three miles or more…

*

Another story relates how Dunstan nailed a horseshoe to the Devil’s foot when he was asked to re-shoe the Devil’s cloven hoof.

This caused the Devil great pain, and Dunstan only agreed to remove the shoe and release the Devil after he promised never to enter a place where a horseshoe is over the door.

*

Have you ever wondered about the nature of truth and its relation to story-telling,

or about the true nature of time and its ability to foreshadow eternity?

Join us in April as we embark upon the Quest of Quests…

*

Quest for a Quest: The Initiate’s Story

Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

17-19 April 2020

A Living Lore Workshop.

Contact us at Rivingtide@gmail.com for more details. Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

The Flickering Present

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(Above: Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria… and the mysterious ‘green flame’)

I’ve taken a lot of photographs during the past ten years, but none of them like the one above. Taken at Castlerigg Stone Circle, near Keswick, in December 2018, it depicts what I’ve called the ‘green flame’.

The photo was part of a set taken during the ‘Full Circle’ Silent Eye weekend. Sue and Stuart had created the weekend and were doing the detailed write ups, so I just filed the photos away without really looking at them. Recently, I was searching for a photo of Castlerigg to use on a blog, when I came across this… and just stared.

First reactions. It reminds me of ‘Kirlian’ photography, where subtle electromagnetic fields around living things are photographed using special cameras. But this is a stone circle, not a living thing.

Castlerigg – one of the oldest stone circles in Europe – is a place of intense ‘spiritual’ focus, and has been so for thousands of years. The presence of the ‘green flames’ would immediately be seized on as evidence of the paranormal by some… I’m open to its vital connections, but I prefer to remain objective about what else it might be…

Many photographs taken in bright sunlight contain chromatic aberrations. These range from mists or fogs, through shadows that look like ghosts, to single or multiple ‘orbs’ that fill part or all of the image with bright and colourful spheres. There are many more types of photographic interference.

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(Above: The Hypostyle Hall of columns at Karnak, Egypt. Image Wikipedia, Licence Public Domain)

For one photo I took, years ago, in the Hypostyle Hall in the Karnak temples of Egypt, I used a flash in total darkness. When I looked later at the image, it was packed with the most gloriously coloured ‘orbs’ filling the space of the columned temple in a 3D progression. The photo is long lost to a system crash on my old PC, but I remember it well. At the time, I dismissed it a pleasing set of orbs.

But when I saw the above photo from Castlerigg, I began to consider alternatives…

At first glance, the photo is so convincing that you wonder if it’s been manipulated in a computer application such as Adobe’s Photoshop. The green flames rising from the winter ground follow the basal contours of all the stones they appear to touch; even changing intensity from a white to green as they leave the earth and lick the stones. I can assure anyone reading this that the photo is completely unretouched, apart from my addition of the copyright to this low-resolution copy.

The green flames are transparent. They vary in ‘density’ and this allows us to see the stones and other features behind them. If I’d had the skills to do this in Photoshop, I’d be proud of the results…

Let’s consider the other side of the argument: that they are a satisfying chromatic aberration. The first thing to note is the position of the sun. It’s almost opposite the camera. It could be argued that this gives the potential for a mysterious accident of the light. But, in years of deliberately using too much sun to create background images, I’ve never seen any such ‘effect’ appear to wrap itself around a set of objects.

The green flame seems to be around the leftmost of the two portal stones – and the small stone on the ground next to it. The portal stones are the entrance to the circle and the place of alignment with the midwinter sunset. The honouring of the shortest day and longest night was a celebration of the initiation of the journey towards the light, rather than away from it, as at the summer solstice. It was a time of profound importance to the ancient priests.

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(Above: Sue Vincent’s photo, from the December 2018 Workshop, shows (bottom centre) the location of the portal stones which were aligned with the winter solstice.

I’ve gazed at the photo for a long time. When I first started to do this it suggested itself as a good illustration of a pet theory of mine: that of the flickering present.

Imagine that each of us is a lighthouse, and our beams of light rotate, not to be seen by ships at sea, but to light up a landscape that is our world. Our brains assemble the flickering images and create something apparently seamless – our lives – from what is seen. Things that are dangerous or very beautiful require us to spend time studying the landscape so that we can spot their patterns in the future.

The speed of rotation of our lighthouse and the brightness of our light determine how well we can see the ‘reality’ of our existence – our ‘out there’. Certain phenomena are rarely seen and appear to be in the ‘wrong’ place in our world. We may call these ‘psychic phenomena’ and they may be frightening – the unknown often is, especially when we are taught fear of it by our elders or forebears. But such things may simply ‘be there’, but not often seen in our ‘beams of light’.

If the green flame is real, then I may just have got lucky with the microsecond timing of pressing the shutter, aided by the brightness of the sun, opposite us in the sky. Certainly, I did not see the green flame at the time of taking the photograph. The green flame may be there all the time… or it may be present at periods of high energy related to its original use, during the Stone Age.

Or it may be an illusion, happily fitting into the contours of the stones in question.

Castlerigg is around 5,000 years old and is one of Britain’s earliest stone circles. Its 38 stones, some as high as three metres, have seen a lot of solstices… Whatever is in the photo, it’s in good company…

[For more information on the Silent Eye’s ‘landscape weekends’, click here]

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Ancient stories

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One of the things that have struck home over the past few years, wandering around the churches of Britain, is just how much we learn and understand from stories and images. The record held in these ancient places goes back over a thousand years, with artefacts much, much older preserved in many of them. And these are not random old buildings, but all aligned with a single tradition, a single faith, a single story that the builders, artisans and holders of the lore saw as paramount.

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Painted walls, carved stone and wood, stained glass… these were marvels of media that recounted the biblical story for all with eyes to see. At a time when books were hand-drawn and precious, the masses untutored, unable to read or follow the Latin of the service, these images were the key to understanding. In many churches there are older, pre-Christian artefacts. Were they a remnant of the desire to convert almost through stealth or a genuine acknowledgement of the sacredness of the older pagan faith? That is not impossible given Pope Gregory’s instructions to Mellitus in the 6th century Mission, “Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.” The whole letter is revealing.

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It is fascinating to see how the emphasis of the story has evolved and shifted to suit the needs of the prevalent authorities, secular and religious, and how thought has been subtly directed. Many of the oldest churches, particularly in areas where Celtic Christianity was prevalent, seem to focus simply on a gentle faith not dissimilar to some of the older tales, and we can trace many of the early stories of the saints back to pre-Christian deities, adopted and absorbed into the new story. Then comes the hellfire and brimstone, later still the break from Rome followed by the Puritanical obliteration of imagery in many places. Yet another thread winds through as the local barons and lords endow churches in a display of political power and wealth, matched in kind but surpassed in magnificence by the lords of the Church with the great cathedrals and abbeys. No matter who ruled the land, it was easy to see where the balance of true power resided.

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Yet away from the seat of power was the guy in the street… the you and me… and in spite of a constant bombardment of imagery quietly shaping thought, behaviour and morality, mankind has always had both imagination and questions. There have always been those who do not conform and who, while paying lip service to social necessity, have walked their own inner path of interpretation and discovery. While entry to the clergy was for many a true dedication of service to their God, there must have been many too for whom it was more a career move at a time when such choices were limited. The stories of many minds are preserved in the old churches and not all seem to hold to what would have been the prescribed line.

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A language of symbolism evolved, one that would have been readily readable long ago but which we have lost the habit of reading in the same way we have lost the old languages. Yet it doesn’t take much to begin delving behind the appearances to the inner meaning, for symbols bypass the processes of the surface mind and speak to something deeper, a more archaic and instinctive level of understanding less coloured by the times in which we live. Many can be universally understood, some belong to a specific tradition… on the surface at least… but can be interpreted from the human perspective of emotions or from the viewpoint of the spiritual journey. While stories once widely known may have faded, and traditions are lost in the dust-covered recesses of history, it takes little to begin to glean the meaning behind them from the images that survive.

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Few of us now know the old legends of the pelican, for instance, but this common symbol can be readily understood in Christian terms simply by looking at the picture of the great bird restoring its young through her blood. Even traditional colours and geometrical shapes hold meaning, like the trifoliate leaves for the Trinity for example, and a little thought opens many possibilities to explore. Very quickly you begin to see that no part of the story written in images… or any story for that matter… stands alone, and there are many possible layers of meaning.

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What we read in these ancient symbols is less a reflection of the symbol itself than it is of the knowledge and understanding we bring to them and our openness to new ideas and interpretations. What the artist or the patron who commissioned any work intended should be encoded there may not be what we see… or not all that we see… as our own minds bring their own meaning. I have often wondered about some of the stranger symbols we have found whilst visiting these places to write The Initiate and its sequels… symbols that seem surreal or out of place within the churches. Maybe they were simply a bit of humour, or artistic licence… perhaps they hold the thoughts of another questioning mind touched across the centuries or maybe they were designed to be so surreal we would have to take notice and start thinking instead of blindly accepting.

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Whatever the case, we have found without doubt that there are more stories written in these ancient buildings than the laity would have ever seen or understood and few today do more than marvel at their beauty or antiquity. Yet the stories follow common themes, and the closer you look the more obvious it becomes that there is little difference except detail in these stories, through time and space mankind asks the same questions, seeks the same understanding, we simply do so from different starting points and in different clothes. Not just in our little churches, but in the ancient temples the world over, in fairytales and rhymes, in the stones and the very land itself, stories wait to unfold their mysteries, their revelations and their complex simplicity to anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear.

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Walking through history

We were out before daylight again, the dog and I. In spite f the storms, wind and rain, there are daffodils in flower and everywhere there are signs of spring. While the human half of this pre-dawn duo cowered gratefully in an overlarge coat, the smaller, but more energetic half bounded along joyfully, breathing steam like a miniature dragon. A resilient creature, impervious to the rain in, I realised, a resilient landscape.

Instead of our usual walk through the fields, and because I needed to call at the village shop, we returned to old haunts and walked down the lane towards the hamlet of Wormstone, so tiny it gets a mere one-liner in Wikipedia. Parish records indicate the name is derived from the Old English for Wærmund’s farm, but I have always preferred to wonder if there was an older, more interesting story of dragons and sacred stones behind the name. And why not? Man has always dreamed and wondered.

Still, even the name Wærmund takes the history back well over a thousand years, and I crossed the path of the old Roman road as I walked, taking history back even further, catching a brief glimpse of the site of the Iron Age remains in the fields beyond. Prehistoric flint tools have been found here, and human occupation seems to have been a constant in the area. There is even archaeological evidence of a vineyard under the site of the school, which, on this cold and wintry morning, seems rather bizarre, though gardeners still tended their allotments alongside the site until work began on the new houses that are being constructed.

To the casual observer, there is no evidence of this history. Few of the villagers seem to be aware of the long story of their home and the changes wrought by man are overlooked unless they are obvious… and then we simply accept them as part of the landscape. It does not take very long for life to move history forward or for Nature to colonise and conceal the traces of human habitation, folding a green counterpane around our passing.

The dog does not ruminate on her place in history. Her attention is immediate, especially when the jewel colours of a pheasant stands bright against the green or the red kite calls from the air. I huddle in my fur-lined coat and watch instinct take over as she freezes into the classic setter stance and I  cannot help but smile at the simplicity of her joy in her futile pursuit of winged creatures.

We are, after all, such small creatures. Our individual lives insignificant when compared to the slow life of a stone or the majesty of a mighty oak. There are ancient trees in the landscape here, beneath whose boughs lovers have met for centuries. Streams whose waters have run through the chalk to the rivers and seas, rising to the heavens before falling again to give life to the ground.

Every life matters, every life has its place in the pattern of this rich tapestry. We matter to ourselves and to each other, to those we love and who care for us, to those affected by our actions or our work. We matter in the grand scheme, because without each and every life the design would be incomplete and different. Imperfect.

Insignificant as we seem, every single one of us changes the world every day by the choices we make and the actions we take. We can change it for the better or for the worse, but change it we do. No matter how small the arena in which we feel we live, the effect we have on those around us and our immediate environment is real.

As a race, a species, we have deliberately altered the face of the planet more visibly than any other species, adapting it to our needs. Our actions have wide-ranging consequences for the lives of the other creatures with whom we share this world. Even the least of us can reach out across the globe with the technologies at our fingertips.

As individuals, we are not responsible for humanity’s collective past, but we hold its future in our hands. We are responsible for the mark each of us leaves as a footnote in history, even if our individual stories are neither written nor remembered but fade like the morning mist wraiths in the sun. The mark we leave on the greater landscape of life, no matter how faint,  is indelible.

Virgin of the Ridge…

*

…Come together in this countryside, where so much has lately gone undone,

Come armed with wisdom and intelligence, together we shall utter the words of truth,

which heaven’s saints are wont to hear and they will come down amongst us…

*

…We are now clambering back into Wen’s low slung car. “I have much higher hopes of the next one.”

“Which is?”

“The Virgin of the Ridge… Twelfth-century construction or earlier… presence of wall paintings…”

“Sounds promising. The presence of wall paintings seems to be particularly germane, don’t you think?”

If the church sounded promising, it looks even more so when we catch our first glimpse of it, when cresting a rise in what appears to be the forested heart of the whole area.

The Virgin of the Grove perhaps… and on closer inspection, it does indeed stand upon an idyllic spot, another raised mound surrounded by trees and fair bristling with bird song.

With a growing sense of expectation, I once more take up my role as opener and hasten into the porch. The door yields and swings inward to reveal the first of the wall paintings, which is… a scroll?

 “Oh dear, someone’s obliterated the wall painting with a scroll, with a number of scrolls in fact… The tree over the arch is quite nice… but it is still… ”

“…part of a scroll. Oh Don, I had such high hopes for this place.”

“I know, me too. What are the colour readings like?”

Wen consults her camera, “There are traces of blue light, particularly in the nave area, but they are only very and I mean very faint traces…”

“Where there’s life and all that.”

Wen has now moved into the centre of the church. ”I can feel a definite energy transfer here. It moves from hot to cold quite radically. ”

“It is odd to have the tower in such a position in the church.”

“They’ve obviously added a bit at a later date. I would say that the warm bit is original and then they’ve added the altar space and completely messed up the energies of the place.”

We move into the altar space. “That is an impressive enough window, though,” I say, admiring the Shepherd of Souls. There are a number of screens arranged around the walls depicting scenes from the ‘Stations of the Cross.’  I can see Wen eyeing them distastefully. “Well, we are still at the back end of Easter, but I know what you mean. It has never really sat particularly well with me either. This obsession with the crucifixion to the exclusion of all else… it’s akin to bad news television.”

“Regulation Fear!”

“And yet… it is not so much different than celebrating the beheading of saints. I mean, the paintings on the wall of Our Blue Chapel in all their original glory would have been, well, quite gory really… but that doesn’t seem to bother me the same, I don’t know why.”

Wen sighs, “How long have you got?”

“As long as you like, but let’s go outside.”

We reconvene on a bench in the churchyard of what, despite our various disappointments, are still idyllic settings for a church.

“Actually, it won’t take that long really. I think I can answer that question in one sentence.”

“Answer that question.”

“Anyone can become a Saint but no one else can be Christ.”

“You’re right, that is a sentence. I can hear the prison doors clanging shut.”

*

Quest for a Quest: The Initiate’s Story

Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

17-19 April 2020

A Living Lore Workshop.

Contact us at Rivingtide@gmail.com for more details. Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

Horseman in the Mist

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The lovely town of Cassel, near Lille in Northern France, is shrouded in mist – the same mist that had accompanied our first ever visit to the World War One cemeteries of Vimy and Notre Dame de Lorette.

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(Above: The town of Cassel in the populous Nord region of Northern France)

Six of us are slotted, snugly, into the mid-size people carrier bouncing at speed into the centre of Cassel. Behind us are a variety of warm coats that are going to keep us alive when we get out of the car. It’s freezing out there… and misty. It’s a biting cold that has followed us throughout our trip.

It’s all very French…

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(Above: The market square in Cassel. It’s so cold that taking photographs is painful..).

Christophe beats another driver to the one remaining free spot in the market square of Cassel and steps out, smiling at the cold. He slides on his thin coat. He’s our resident ‘action man’; a runner, swimmer and cyclist. The day before, he insisted on taking us to a long beach in northern Calais so that we could walk one of the family’s dogs… and he could swim in the sea… In mid-mid January, for heaven’s sake…

That brief cameo is amusing but doesn’t do him justice. He’s very intelligent and full of warmth. He’s a man of immense hospitality. Three years ago I didn’t know he existed. My wife, Bernie, discovered his family through the online Ancestry website. We had known the French side of the family existed, as my great uncle Stephen stayed in France after surviving the WW1… including the Battle of the Somme, whose site is only a few miles away. Christophe is his grandson.

Stephen married a French girl – the daughter of a baker in St Omer. They trained him up as (in their own words) ‘a kind of baker from Bolton‘, and he and his new wife prospered and had four children. We’ve visited Stephen and Adrienne’s grave. It was quite a moment.

Christophe is their grandson… and my second cousin. For over eighty years the two branches of the family were lost to each other. I’m hoping to write a book on the story and the amazing stroke of luck that led to the discovery of their existence.

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(Above: location of Cassel. Source Wikipedia)

Christophe and his mother, Mado, have brought us to Cassel as part of a day’s touring to show us some of their favourite towns in this part of France. The department of Nord lies in the far north of France, It was formed from the western halves of the historical areas of Flanders and Hainault, and the Bishopric of Cambrai. The nearest city is Lille -where the other branch of our long-lost family lives. The French Flemish dialect of Dutch is still spoken here, side by side with modern French.

The first thing to say about Cassel is that it’s a town on a hill – Mont Cassel. This is a flat part of France. At 176 metres above sea level, Mont Cassel towers over the surrounding countryside. Its peak offers a vantage point from which you can see all of the surrounding landscape… If the prevailing weather is not freezing fog as it was during our visit.

The main rock of the hill is limestone, capped with a harder outer layer of iron-bearing rock. This geological layering has made it an ideal base for military and social fortifications throughout its long history.

The hill was occupied during the late Iron Age by the Menapii, a dominant Belgic tribe who made their hill fort the capital of a vast territory extending from Calais to the Rhine. The Menapii fought against Julius Caesar, but the Roman governor of Gaul, Carrinas, subsequently quelled their rebellion, and the Menapii culture and territory were absorbed into the Roman Empire. The modern town takes its name from the Roman settlement, not the later middle ages fortification shown in the historic map, below:

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(Above: a painting from a 1641 edition of Flandria Illustrata showing the ‘peak on a peak’ on which the medieval castle stood. Flandria Illustrata was a description of the main towns and villages of the former country of Flanders. Little remains of the castle.
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(Above: The start of a very strange hill…)

But, first, Christophe wants to show us a different face of the hill in Cassel. The summit and its fortifications have long been re-purposed, and Christophe points us up a steep, cobbled path with some very strange concrete ornaments.

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(Above: the Alpin Stairs – considered a Bel Époque masterpiece in its day)

From the information board:

“The Alpin Stairs are a vestige of ‘rock-work’ architecture, typical of the end of the 19th century, like those at Buttes Chaqumont in Paris.

These pseudo-rustic architectural compositions imitate mineral or vegetable elements like stone or wood.’

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(Above: Another visitor postcard from the turn of the century)

I stare at the concrete forms. They are old and dirty; and it’s necessary to see beyond that facade to get to the spirit of their origin. The visitor board goes on to say that they were designed for two purposes: ‘to reflect nature and to remind visitors of the ‘atmosphere of the mountains’. In that latter sentiment, I can suddenly see what they meant… and with that comes a memory of another artist and architect of the time of the Art Nouveau movement – Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

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(Above: Glasgow’s own Charles Rennie Mackintosh had similar goals – to reflect the forms of nature)

At the top of the Alpin Stairs we come into the Jardin des Mont du Recollets (Garden of Remembrance). Normally, it provides expansive views over the plains of Flanders and, on a very clear day, the North Sea, but not today…

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(Above: from the elevated gardens, the view would have been spectacular…)

Historically, it was said that from Mont Cassel you could see five kingdoms: France, Belgium, Holland, England … and Heaven. We smile, ruefully and turn to examine the beautiful gardens.

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(Above: The Ornamental part of Cassel’s Garden of Remembrance)

Beyond the geometric beds, the pathway winds round a beautiful set of willow trees, frosted with the freezing fog. At this point the fog begins to add great beauty to the place..

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(Above: the freezing fog adds great beauty to the gardens)

The Kasteel Meulen is a real ‘Castle Windmill’ situated on the highest point of Mont Cassel on the site of the former castle. The original windmill, constructed here in the 16th century, burned down in 1911. It was replaced in 1947 by an 18th century windmill that was moved from nearby Arneke. The mill works and is still open to the public during the summer.

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(Above: the Castle Windmill is a functioning mill, open to the public in the high season)

The garden also hosts an equestrian statue of Marshal Foch and the Monument of the three battles. Marshal Foch was the Supreme Allied Commander during WW1 and Cassel served as his headquarters between October 1914 and May 1915.

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(Above: the dramatic statue of Marshal Foch, the Supreme Allied Commander during WW1)

He moved his headquarters to Cassel to take advantage of its strategic position near the northern end of the Western Front.

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From 1916-1918, Cassel was the headquarters the British Army under Sir Hubert Plumer. The town avoided major damage during the war, though it came under occasional shelling when the Germans advanced to within 18 kilometres during the Battle of Lys in April 1918, shortly before the end of the war.

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(Above: We leave quietly. The gardens have cast their beautiful spell – even in the cold fog…)

We leave the Remembrance Gardens quietly. They are a place of great beauty and contemplation. We may never be back and it feels good to have spent time here…

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Getting engaged…

Some places just seem to have a timeless quality. Almost exactly seven years after our first visit, ‘our blue chapel’ looked the same… still as beautiful and serene as ever. We sat on the rickety bench that is still there, basking in the sunlight of a perfect spring day, in a churchyard decked in flowers and with the obligatory hawks in abundant attendance.

It is not really the same, though… change is the one constant in life. The churchyard was not full of snowdrops on that first visit… there are more graves, more memorials and a different generation of birds watched over us, less elusive and less camera-shy than their forebears.

The biggest change, though, is in us. It is not just that we are seven years older, or that the then-nascent friendship has gone on to produce books and workshops inspired by what we have learned from our adventures in the landscape. There is a connection to the land here that was lacking before… an odd feeling of being welcomed when we revisit old haunts.

It is difficult to describe…and goes deeper than memory or familiarity. I had known this area well for many years and before we began to explore it together, it seemed to have nothing to offer except beauty and history. While I believe that both of those are to be cherished in their own right, the living presence of the land had never caught at my heart in the way that my northern hills have always done.

I had looked at and appreciated the green fields and chocolate-box landscape but I was closed to it; I never reached out to it or allowed it to touch me. I had taken a good many friends out in the area too, to show them how pretty it is here… so it had to be something more than the simple act of sharing the landscape that made the difference and finally made me feel, after twenty years or so, a sense of ‘home’.

The one thing that had really changed was that instead of looking at the landscape, I was engaged in learning from and working with it. Seeing beyond the surface prettiness to the thousands of years of human history and reverence that it has known, learning to see and recognise the regional quirks and differences of the human quest for the sacred that spans the millennia and defies the labels that separate belief systems… or the borders that humankind has imposed. Such engagement makes the relationship with the land, its creatures and its history both intimate and personal.

Perhaps it is simply that paying attention opens doors in the mind. I doubt we have ever been out on a foray in this familiar area without seeing, learning or realising something new… or finding a speculative theory backed by something we have seen any number of times, but never really seen.

On this sortie, we were reconnoitring the upcoming workshop. Places that we know like the backs of our hands. And the well-known sites changed what we had planned quite dramatically… while our little blue chapel managed to reveal a secret, hidden in plain sight, that we have studied and photographed… and yet, its full mystery was not unveiled until we were ready. It is moments like that which make ‘playing out’ in the landscape a constant delight.


Quest for a Quest: The Initiate’s Story

Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

17-19 April 2020

A Living Lore Workshop.

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