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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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.

Whitby Weekend: The church at Lastingham

It was only a few miles to the final destination of the Silent Eye’s weekend in North Yorkshire. We were heading for St Mary’s church at Lastingham, the final resting place, or so it is believed, of St Cedd, who had played his part in the decisive Synod of Whitby in 664, when the Roman form of Christianity was adopted in place of the old Celtic Rite in which he had been raised.

In the October of that year, St Cedd died of the plague at the monastery of Lastingham and was, according to tradition, buried there in a grave. When a stone church was later built, becoming the chapel of the monastery, his remains were enshrined within its walls and are now said to be in the crypt of the church, to the right of the altar.

In fact, Cedd’s brother, St Chad, who became bishop of Lichfield, took over at the monastery after his brother’s death and Cedd’s remains were eventually moved to be with those of his brother in Lichfield. Some of their bones were later taken to the Catholic Cathedral in Birmingham, so the best that can be said, according to Wikipedia, is that ‘Cedd is believed to be mostly buried at Lastingham.’

While it may seem odd to modern minds that bones and relics are scattered, it must be remembered that the reverence of saintly relics is still very much a part of Roman religious culture. It is also worth considering that in ancient times, the bones of the ancestors were revered and cared for, keeping those who had passed as more than faded memories and making them very much part of the living community. Even in Victorian times, relics such as locks of hair were taken from the deceased for love and memory. It is only in very recent times that the remains of the dead have been so definitively disposed of.

But, although the crypt was the object of our visit, the church itself was not to be ignored. It is a beautiful old building, St Cedd had founded the monastery in the seventh century and built a wooden church. Cedd’s monastery is thought to have been razed in a raid around 870, but in 1078, Stephen, the abbot of Whitby, restored the monastery and began the building of a stone church. The work under Stephen was never completed, but the main body of the interior is a place of beautiful, pure proportions in the Romanesque style.

The church continued to function, adding aisles and developing over the centuries, until a final restoration and completion took place in the late 19th century, in memory of a child who had died in her seventh year.

The exterior is simple, until you look closely at the carved stone corbels that seem to echo, albeit in a more restrained style, those of Kilpeck and here, as at Kilpeck, there is the curved apse and an association with holy wells and springs. At Kilpeck, a stream flows beneath the central line of the church and dowsers have reported four streams flowing in to that point. In Lastingham, there are four holy wells, that we would later see, and we had to wonder at the coincidence and its significance in the siting of the two ancient churches.

In spite of the inevitable changes and additions that have been made to the church over the centuries, it retains the sense of being a simple and sacred space. Traces of its history can be seen in faded carvings around the base of its pillars, the rounded arches and the repurposed Roman altars, which may once have served a vision of divinity different in name, but perhaps not in essence. Humankind’s search for divinity has worn many faces, but the heart of the quest is the same and all places that have been held sacred to that Light, regardless of our own beliefs, may evoke a sense of reverence.

We arrived just after the Sunday service had ended and the congregation was still gathered in the aisles, sharing refreshments in an echo of something more ancient and timeless than any organised religion. We were made welcome by the community, and while some talked, the rest of us wandered off to explore.

We have long since learned that, when visiting a sacred site of any age, if there is something in particular that you are there to see, it is best to explore the rest first… for the likelihood is that you will otherwise be so caught up in the moment that everything else will be missed. And Lastingham crypt was to be no exception…

Merlin, Beast-Master…

*

… It was night, the horns of the bright moon shone,

the vault of heaven’s lights gleamed…

*

From the top of a lofty mountain,

Merlin regarded the course of the stars…

*

‘Guendoloena has left me in my absence,

and now clings to another man.

When tomorrow’s sun shines, I will go

and take with me the gift I promised her when I left.’

*

So, Merlin went about the woods and groves

and collected a herd of stags and deer,

and he himself sat astride the largest stag…

*

When day dawned he had arrived at the gates

of the place where Guendoloena was to be married.

*

‘Guendoloena! Guendolena! Come!

Your presents are waiting for you!’

*

Guendolena came to the gates and marvelled

at the man riding on a stag at the head of a herd of wild beasts.

Her bridegroom who was watching from a lofty window

looked down, in wonder, and laughed.

*

When Merlin saw the bridgeroom

he wrenched the horns from the stag

 and hurled them at him smashing in his head

and driving the life of him out into the air.

*

With a quick turn of his heels,

Merlin set the stag a flying,

and went on his way back to the wood…

– Adapted from, ‘The Mystic Life’ by R J Stewart

 

 

 

Madding Merlin…

*

*

… After many years had passed under many kings,

Merlin the Briton was held famous in the world…

*

Peredur, King of North Wales

made war on Gwenddoleu of Scotland…

*

The troops were fighting, falling on

both sides in miserable slaughter…

*

Merlin had come to war with Peredur and

so too had Rhydderch, king of the Cumbrians.

*

Three brothers of the prince who had followed him

through all his exploits broke the battle lines.

*

They rushed fiercely through the crowded ranks

and soon fell, killed. Then, did Merlin grieve…

*

‘Could injurious fate be so harmful as to take from me

so many and such great companions, whom recently many

kings and remote kingdoms feared?

O dubious lot of mankind!

O death ever near, which has them in its power

and strikes with its hidden goad

driving out the life from the wretched body!

O glorious youths, who will now stand by my side

in arms, and repel the chieftains who rush to harm me?

Bold young men your audacity has taken your pleasant years from you.

Your broken bodies now roll on the blood strewn ground…’

*

Merlin called his companions from the battle

and bade them bury the brothers in a richly coloured chapel.

There he bewailed the dead men, rubbing dust in his hair,

 tearing and rending his garments…

*

For three days Merlin lamented,

before a new fury seized him,

and he fled, in secret, to the woods.

– adapted from, The Mystic Life by R J Stewart

 

 

 

 

Fear and Love in the High Peak – (2) “I want a posset!”

The first visit of the Silent Eye ‘Rites of Passage: Seeing Beyond Fear’ weekend was to the Derbyshire village of Eyam (pronounced Eem) – The Plague Village.

Our family has a personal connection with Eyam and the terrible events of 1665-6, when bubonic plague, newly arrived in Derbyshire from London, took the lives of 260 of its occupants: over seven-tenths of its population.

The parish church of St Lawrence, Eyam

No-one began the weekend thinking of heroes or heroines, but they were there in the records–and in the living landscape, though the word may not be entirely appropriate to describe the profound selflessness of its former inhabitants during that fateful year of 1665-6.

The Saxon cross in the church of St Lawrence

The name of the man who is our family connection was Edward Unwin. We do not know his occupation, but it was probably that of lead miner, a common occupation in those parts. This assumption is made on the basis that a close friend of his reported the strange events that follow to Catherine Mompesson, the wife of the new rector of Eyam, William Mompesson, who was a disciplined diarist. Her records are the basis of much of the history of the plague year of 1666.

From Diary of Catherine Mompesson, 5th July 1666:

‘I first encountered John Carter [the neighbour of Edward Unwin] on the morning following his summoning of Marshall Howe to give his ministrations to his near neighbour…’

Catherine Mompesson’s journal goes on to explain how Carter, the neighbour of Unwin, was ‘sharp-spoken’ and unkempt in the way of the local lead miners, but was ‘direct and honest’ in his conversation. In common with the other lead miners, he looked ten years older than his reputed thirty-four years. Catherine Mompesson relates that, in telling the tale, he had ‘a certain jocose air’ about him as he related the story of the previous day.

The grave of Catherine Mompesson, wife of Rector William. She died in 1666 of the plague.

The journal continues: ‘Knowing that Unwin was either dead or on the verge of death, Carter had summoned his fellow miner, Marshall Howe, who was acting as a self-appointed ‘sexton of the plague’; seemingly heedless of the danger to himself, but well aware that, since Unwin’s wife had already died of the plague, choice possessions from Unwin’s house would pass to him as his fee for the ‘sexton’s’ funeral duties…

Bodies had to be buried in the gardens of the deceased’s dwellings to reduce the risk of contagion from communal graveyards. The journal tells that Marshall Howe had already dug Unwin’s grave in the man’s ‘sweet smelling’ orchard at the back of the property and was carrying his body over his shoulder down the stairs when:

‘The still-warm body started to writhe and thrash.. then shouted out, “I want a posset!”

The interior of St Lawrence’s church

Edward Unwin was my wife’s tenth great grandfather. He survived the encounter with the ‘plague sexton’ and got his posset from a sympathetic neighbour. The self-appointed sexton fled but is recorded as subsequently continuing his job and surviving the plague. The incident gave voice to the opinion that Marshall may ‘have been overzealous in the execution of his duties several times…’

We know that Edward Unwin survived the plague. My wife, Bernie, hopes that whatever resistant DNA he may have had was passed down through the generations. The posset in question was a mixture of boiled milk, ale, bread and fats – a miner’s favourite sustenance and inexpensive, too.

Edward could not be described as a hero, regardless of his miraculous recovery… But the plague village and the area around it did have its heroes. Eyam, discovering that it was the new centre of a potential explosion of bubonic plague infection, did something remarkable: with some guidance from the clergy, it chose to cut itself off from the surrounding villages and towns, condemning all those ‘within’ to almost certain death.

The credit for this is normally given to William Mompesson, the young local clergyman. But the truth is more complex… Two rectors were involved in the formidable alignment of wills that gave Eyam its fame and historical status.

1662 was the date of the Act of Uniformity. Charles II was on the throne of England and Scotland, and Cromwell’s age of the Puritans had come to an end. The Act of Uniformity forced the ‘ejection’ of hundreds of puritan clergymen from their ‘living’. One of these was Eyam’s much respected rector, Thomas Stanley.

The old sundial on the walls of the church

Traditionally, these ‘ejected’ clergyman were expected to leave the region in which they had ministered. But Stanley continued to live close to Eyam – something the nearby Duke of Devonshire had the power to correct but didn’t, such was the standing of the former rector.

William Mompesson, Rector of Eyam Church. I could find no surviving pictures of Thomas Stanley.

The plague arrived in Eyam at the end of August, 1665, in the bite of fleas wrapped in a damp bale of tailor’s cloth. The inexperienced rector knew he had to do something radical but struggled to gain support from the people of Eyam – until he met with Thomas Stanley and shared views across the new religious boundary. Together, they framed the stance the people of Eyam would adopt; to imprison themselves, facing almost certain death, in order to protect the surrounding populations.

The Story of the plague. An unlikely stained glass window in St Lawrence’s church…

The Earl of Devonshire deserves mention in this context, too. He and his family resolutely supported Eyam in its self-imposed isolation. They provided food and other vital supplies for the villagers, left at safe boundary points, for the duration of the plague’s effects.

William Cavendish, First Duke of Devonshire and benefactor of Eyam during the plague. Image Wikipedia, public domain

Space precludes more detail of the beautiful village of Eyam, but Sue Vincent’s recent blog describes our exploration of Eyam in considerable detail.

The day in Eyam had generated heavy hearts, even though these events were four hundred years ago. They let us reflect on the nature of fear… and of love. But this was an important counterpoint to the following day, which would begin on a much more sun-filled note.

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©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.

Fear and Love in the High Peak – part one

It’s not the best of photo resolutions, but the above image says it all. Briony saluting the Derbyshire landscape in her own way at the end of three days of the Silent Eye’s Tideswell-based workshop: Sue and Stuart’s creation; and a wonderful experience for the group of souls who braved the provocative title for the weekend…

Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond Fear

…and decided that they would examine the roots of their own fears… and face them in the warmth of loving companionship and symbolic danger.

It’s a time-honoured formula for all mystical organisations; one that brings us all to a point where the day to day ‘fog’ of habitual perception is cut through by the vividness of landscape and experience. That’s what we hope to achieve on these weekends. This one worked well – and in different ways for each person, as it should, for we all have different stories that have brought us to our ‘now’.

Sometimes, especially in reviewing such things, it’s better to start at the end. The picture (above) of Briony is of her at the ‘peak’ of the weekend; the last act of the formal part of our physical, emotional and spiritual wanderings across the ancient and mysterious landscapes of Derbyshire.

A short time later, we would be laughing in one of the oddest, oldest and most wonderful pubs in England…

But that’s for the final chapter of this short series of blogs. For now, let’s drift backwards in time to the sunshine of the Saturday morning. A day of ‘Indian Summer’ as good as any we been blessed with over the years.

Baslow Ridge

We were up high in a place called Baslow Ridge. Looking down on a series of valleys that lead to places like Bakewell, and the glories of the Chatsworth Estate.

The Eagle Stone – a place of proof of maturity, and a precursor to local marriage

The Eagle Stone stands alone, an outlier from a distant time of glaciation. It dominates the landscape like the monolith did in Kubrick’s film of Arthur C. Clarke’s story 2001: A Space Odyssey. People are drawn to it from miles around. It even featured in the BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as the place that Elizabeth Bennett visited and climbed… to get away from it all.

It is still used by local folk as a rite of passage. Those who seek the hand of marriage with the girls and ladies of the nearby town of Baslow are expected to demonstrate their suitability by climbing the stone unaided. It’s not a trivial ascent, as this second shot of the rock shows:

The Eagle Stone close-up shows how the higher layers overhang the lower; making an ascent difficult

The Eagle Stone is an example of a sacred folk-object at the centre of a local custom; a ritual, in this case. The ritual was a gateway into adulthood–and maturity. There would be real caution – if not fear- for anyone faced with the challenge. But, with some secret help from your friends, there was only an element of danger, rather than the certainty of death…

The Riley Graves

But many in the history of these parts have not been so lucky. Going back in time to our first visit of the weekend, we were brought face to face with personal fear and sadness of a degree that would be hard to envisage in modern life… and one of the most heart-rending sacrifices we could have encountered.

It’s 1666 in a small High Peak town, not far from Chatsworth. In the space of a single week, a lone woman buries all six of her children and then her husband. No-one will help her; no-one can help her. It is the most awful piece of personal history imaginable and yet the act which surrounds it is of the highest nobility.

Stuart… showing how it should be done

And so the story – the plot – of the weekend, moves from an historic example of fear and self-sacrifice – but seen through modern eyes, through the ancient stones set in the Derbyshire landscape and their cultural and symbolic use, to its finale in a rather foreboding place, high above a valley with a dark history…

Seen like this – backwards from the end, we can appreciate the careful construction of the weekend carried out by Sue and Stuart. Sue has begun its re-telling in her Silent Eye and personal blogs. She’s a great storyteller and there is little point in my replicating her excellent eye for detail.

Instead, I will pick certain moments of significance and focus on them – and hence this backwards-in-time introduction to set the scene.

It’s a long way from the Friday meeting place at Eyam to our final (small for drivers) glass of Black Lurcher at the Three Stag’s Heads near ‘Hanging Rock’, but it’s a fascinating journey. The weekend demanded a degree of serious intent… but we had lot of fun, too.

In the end, on Sunday morning, everyone was alone for a moment on that dark peak… Very Carlos Castenada, really…. but that’s just my personal take on it.

Next time we meet, it will be August 1666 and, in this part of Derbyshire, something remarkable, unique and utterly selfless will be about to happen.

 

 

©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.

The Cycle of Life

The approach of the autumn always makes me reflect on the nature of life; in particular the way the mysterious essence of life takes form and shape, ‘living’ for a while, then giving up its life and surrendering the elements of that form back to the earth from which it arose.

We all feel the poignancy of life’s seasons, but it’s useful to align ourselves with the processes of the autumn and reflect more deeply on the ‘life lessons’ that nature lays before us… quite literally.

Soon, I will walk in my muddy boots, through crisp and cracking leaves; leaves that, a few short months ago, glowed with the mysterious and magical green of the spring. These days, I cannot help but feel a kind of kinship with their fate, as the inevitable process of attrition by the wind, rain…and my walking boots, crushes them into smaller and smaller particles of their former selves, ready for the chemical dissolution that will complete their natural recycling.

But is it just the leaves that are recycled in this way–or something else? The form is a container for the indefinable ‘aliveness’ of what is inside it: its essence. We never actually see this essence, but we feel it – and it glows with the joy of being alive within that spring green which heralds the return of collective outward life. This capacity to feel what we cannot see is an important part of being human – and is really another sense.

Spiritually, we can learn from each season. We can also use our feelings to see a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

The four seasons offer us the following parts of this whole:

In spring, we feel the freshness, the new light, the change of colours, the return of milder weather. We also feel a surge of new energy as the Earth extends itself – through nature – into all the inherited forms of life. Like the leaves, each of these forms is unique; no two of them are exactly the same and yet each follows a type. The type is inherited through nature’s coding of evolution, and makes us what we are – physically.

The spring contains joy, a fundamental characteristic of being. In the spring it is made manifest.

The summer that follows is a time of fulfilment. The promise of the spring is carried to fruition beneath the calm, blue and golden skies above us. There is a feeling of completeness, a deep sense of inner rightness. The fruits of nature’s beauty are there for us to consume, so that we, in turn, partake of the bounty of fullness. In summer, we have that feeling of going outwards into the world.

The autumn is a time for reflection. Winter is around the corner but not yet with us. It is a time for gathering-in; preparing our selves – and those who depend upon us – for the harshness ahead. Our feeling of openness is replaced with the poignancy of knowledge of what lies ahead and a saying goodbye to the forms of things which have shared the spring and summer with us, such as the leaves falling from the mighty and enduring trees. Winds begin to pick up, again, completing the process of outer reduction, and the shaking free of the old.

But the autumn is also a time of harvest. We ‘plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the ground’ as the harvest hymn goes. Animals scatter the seeds of life for the natural world, ensuring life’s best chance for continuation away from the ‘tree’ from which they fell.

Finally, winter ‘reaps’ that which is no longer fit to contain the invisible life. But the strong things remain. The starkness of the outlines of bare trees dominate the natural landscape… but we cease to see them after a while. Trees are wonderful structures. Ouspensky described them as ‘living four-dimensional patterns’ because they show all the stages of their personal evolution.

We each have a winter tree inside us. It is the pattern of logical and emotional learning in our minds. Like a physical tree it shows us the forking and branching that our life’s journey has taken. It is a friend, an inner book; and we can learn much from its contemplation.

Nature’s key processes in the winter are beneath the ground – within the roots of organic life. They cannot be seen or felt, except by contemplation of the innermost purpose, while the bare structures of the trees above endure the cold, rain, ice and snow.

There will come a time to lay down that personal tree – to offer it and our life’s history to the greater cycle of life. We will have reached a different point of completion in this winter journey, and what we really are – invisible and ineffable – will return to the state from which it can begin a new life, restored, recharged and refreshed. Our small tree of experience will merge with the universe’s story, adding a tiny but important contribution that truly belonged to us, but which now may be read by all life.

©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.