The mysterious Picts… and beyond

Three questions are asked about the mysterious Picts of the Easter Ross coast of north-east Scotland: Where did they come from? What was the meaning of their wonderful art – miraculously preserved in stone for us to explore, today; and where did they go?

For more than six hundred years, between the 3rd and 9th centuries C.E., the Picts – literally ‘The Painted Ones’, sustained a kingdom running from a southern line between what is now Glasgow and Edinburgh – then known as the Antonine Wall, and the coastline of Easter Ross, north of Inverness in the Highlands.

For centuries, popular history viewed them as ‘half-crazed savages’. But these ‘wild painted men’ fought back the might of Rome’s legions before vanishing from history. They left no written records, but their culture and beliefs are etched into Scotland’s history.

(Above: a tiled mosaic of a Pictish design, outside the Pictish museum, Rosemarkie)

The Picts created intricate and sophisticated designs, which surpassed any other native art in Britain at the time. The subjects of their art varied from animals and mythical beasts to Pagan and Christian symbols; they appear to have easily synthesised the old and the new religions, and made it their own.

(Above: the beautiful beaches of Easter-Ross)

Although there are no written texts, the Picts left behind a wealth of spectacular standing stones, elaborate carvings and intricate sculptures for future generations to discover. We plan to explore several of these – and their stunning landscapes, during our weekend. We will also look at the nature of their art, and, possibly recreate something of our own using the Pictish symbol system.

(Above: Pictish Queen at Portmahomack)

The Easter Ross Pictish trail is has been established by Historic Scotland and offers a spectacular journey through a landscape which has been inhabited since the dawn of civilisation.

“Mysterious and often beautiful, Pictish sculpture presents one of the great puzzles of Dark Age archaeology” (Joanna Close-Brooks 1989) 

The Silent Eye had a series of workshops planned for this year. Due to the Covid-19 situation, these have, so far, been moved to the corresponding months of 2021.

The coming September Workshop: ‘The Pictish Trail’ presents us with an opportunity to resume our celebrated weekends of wandering and learning from the landscape…and each other.

As of the date of writing this, (22 July 2020) The Scottish government rules on travel and groups have been relaxed to a degree that will permit the Pictish Trail workshop to go ahead. Outdoor sites were never a problem. However, as of this week, Historic Scotland are relaxing their restrictions, and an increasing number of indoor locations are being re-opened.

(Above: the ferry across the Cromarty Firth will be one of the features of the weekend)

Administration of the weekend

Inverness will be our base location, due to its facilities, though much of the weekend will be spent on the coast to the north of here. We will convene on the Friday afternoon (or evening) for a visit to the first of the Pictish Stones and a shared meal. If time permits, we can enjoy a walk around the town.

Saturday and Sunday morning will be spent further north, following the official Pictish Trail along the beautiful coast of Easter Ross, and the nearby hills. We will return to Inverness for Saturday evening.

The dates are: Friday 11 September 2020 to Sunday (lunch) 13 September.

Transportation, accommodation and meals are not included in the £75.00 per person fee. Please make your own arrangements for the above, though meals are usually taken as a group, in local pubs, and the costs divided.

Should the event be cancelled due to Covid-19 issues, a full refund of the monies paid to the Silent Eye will be made.

A mainline train service runs to Inverness from Edinburgh. A small number of car places will be available from Inverness from those driving to the event. If you are travelling on foot, please ensure you have checked this availability before your departure.

To confirm your interest, please send an email to rivingtide@gmail.com, attention Steve Tanham

Optional Extension to Orkney

A small group of us are intending to continue on the Sunday northwards to Orkney, via car and passenger ferry from Scrabster – Thurso’s port. We will sail to Stromness, returning to the mainland on the morning of the 17th September. As of the time of writing, some of the previously closed centres of interest are being re-opened to limited number of visitors. Orkney sites such as the wonderful Ring of Brodgar, have continued to be available during the Covid restrictions. Further updates will be given to anyone interested in joining this. Orkney is beautiful, spiritual and unique. This is rare chance to combine two events and visit it.

©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.

Tobias and the Angel: A dog called Toby…

Domingos Sequeira – Tobias heals the blindness of his father

*

…  If Tobias walks a recognised Pilgrimage route when carrying out his Father’s instructions it would certainly go some way to explaining the presence of the two other Archangels in some of the paintings even though there is no mention of them in the story.

Tobias’ destination is just given as a ‘far distant land’ in the version we have but it,

maybe, cannot be too far distant if Tobit is related to the family Tobias stays with, which he is.

Curiously, all the angels look decidely feminine.

Michael could at a push be described as Androgenous,

Raphael and Gabriel are definitely Gyandros.

Gabriel’s ‘lily’ is orthodox…

Raphael’s ‘vial’ presumably holds eye ‘salve’ for Tobit…

The fish by this stage is purely symbolic…

But what of Michael’s golden apple?

An allusion to the Garden of the Hesperides, guarded by the many-headed dragon.

*

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1e/Francesco_Botticini_-_I_tre_Arcangeli_e_Tobias.jpg

*

Ninevah and ‘large fish’ appear to be related and that is what originally excited us.

We were following the Johannine link, Jonah swallowed by the ‘Whale of God’ et al.

‘Make straight the way of the Lord!’

*

And the dog?

The dog in some of the depictions seems almost transparent.

Like a Phantom Dog!

Whatever, we shall call him Toby for he has to do with threes,

and is the right provenance and time,

and tradition for the link with the theatrical puppet-play to be sustained.

We were quite right about the word play on that one, all those years ago.

‘To be or not to be…’

*

It may even be that our Guardian Angel is three-fold.

*

Threes, in this tale certainly play their part.

Not least in the age of Tobit when he dies,

but I am not altogether sure whether a fish actually posseses

the attributed organs, which in itself maybe suggestive,

but if Sara ‘gets’ the ‘heart’ and Tobit gets the ‘gall’, who gets the ‘liver’?

*

The dog!

*

Whether or not ‘Toby’ gets the liver, he always gets the sausages…

Tobias and the Angel: Grateful Dead…

William-Adolphe Bouguerea

*

… If a story is canonical in one tradition and uncanonical in another

it immediately raises two questions.

What makes it ‘canonical’ for one tradition?

What makes it ‘uncanonical’ for the other?

*

In this case it might have been supposed that it would have been more likely

to be canonical for the Hebrews, considering its age and subject matter?

Not so!

*

Many years ago when I and a fellow writer, and friend,

first became aware of Apocryphal Bible stories,

we got very excited about this tale when we heard about it,

especially in view of the fish connection.

We immediately procured a copy of said Apocrypha,

at no little expense, and looked at this story first,

fully expecting to be accosted with highly significant arcane knowledge.

But drew a blank!

*

And now?

Well now, I strongly suspect that there is highly significant arcane knowledge within it.

The trouble with arcane knowledge; it is very difficult,

if not impossible, to transmit in mundane terms.

An attempt, though, has to be at least made…

*

Perhaps the first clue to the importance of this story

is to realise that it is a Grateful Dead tale…

*

Before Tobit sends his son, Tobias, on the ‘errand’ there is a long introduction to the tale which establishes Tobit in, for wont of a better term, ‘righteousness’. He lives in Ninevah, a place which does not recognise his religion, and yet he continues to practice that religion despite persecution from the ‘local authorities’. As part of this practice he comes across a dead man who has been flung out into the street and his body left to rot. Tobit, an old man, single handedly buries the body and performs the funeral rites of his religion but then falls asleep by the side of the grave in exhaustion. As he sleeps, sparrows fly over him and their droppings land in his eyes so that when he wakes up, he is blind.

*

…At this stage it does not appear that the ‘dead’ were overly ‘grateful’.

But all good things come to those who wait.

It is at this point in the tale that Tobit, now having lost his sight,

and the means to a livelihood, decides to send out his son

on an errand to bring in what he is owed.

*

Now, although, ‘errand’ is an interesting enough term

for Tobias’ journey, in and of itself,

what if we were to deem it a ‘pilgrimage’, instead? …

*

Tobias and the Angel, Davide Ghirlandaio (David Bigordi) (Italian, Florence 1452–1525 Florence), Tempera and gold on wood

David Ghirlandaio  circ. 1479

The Old One and the Gatekeeper

Part One

The Old One crested the rise in the road and turned to look back at the land he had loved. If all went to plan, it would be the last time he saw his home.

The breeze that should have been summer-warm was cold and frigid, yet carried the warm stink of corruption. He could no longer breathe its air. He had to leave; had to find a new home for the few years that remained. The low nature of man had triumphed. Now, only nature, herself, could return the rotted civilisation to the country’s soil and make it fit for fresh seeds.

Ahead of him the final barrier to his exile loomed in the near darkness. The old tower that guarded entry and exit along the western road spanned the track, its heavy wooden gate lowered to forbid the unbidden. High up in a recess in the black stone, a single light burned. Had he been seen? The skin on the back of his head began its familiar sensation of ripples in the sand, as though an incoming tide was patterning his mind, as in the paintings he had seen of beaches…

There was no escaping the onset; in the other world, he was being eaten by the way, the path, the track… In the other world; the one that flowed over and alongside this seemingly fixed and rigid one. The one that was more real than this land of rocks could ever be.

Ahead of me a lamp in one of the high windows burns. The thought would not leave, the rippling scalp remained. Its signature was on this moment. There would be no escape from the payment demanded.

Before he could cross the short distance to the gatekeeper’s door, the heavy portal opened and a kindly face – at least as old as his – peered out, straining to see in the half-light.

“Is it you?” the voice croaked at his approach.

The Old One was startled… and began to laugh at the sentiment. Is it me, indeed?, he mused, tripping over an unseen stone by the roadside and landing in the dust at the other’s feet.

“It would appear to be me… arrived in all my diminishing glory.”

The Gatekeeper smiled down at him, extending his hand to a man he did not know, but had wanted to all his life. The Old One took it, grateful, and they came face to face.

“I saw you once, passing through the royal courts. You’re the Royal Archivist, yes?”

“I was…” The Old One replied, returning the gentle fire in the other’s eyes. Glad to be with a man he hoped would not only understand but become a friend. “Now I am nothing… and hope to stay that way…”

The Gatekeeper nodded. “Many now leave the realm by this west gate. Have no fear. My respect for you is as great as my thirst for your knowledge of the Way.” He looked down, embarrassed at what he was about to say. But the old eyes blazed with fire and resolution.

“I will give you food and shelter and in return I ask that you teach me a little of that understanding.”

“You cannot teach understanding,” the Old One said. “But I will pass to you some knowledge and we will see if you can begin the Way… for those whose first steps are firm may find the Way teaches them.”

The Gatekeeper nodded and they climbed the wooden stairs together – slowly, for the four legs had seen younger days…

——-

The warm fire smouldered in the grate. The wooden bowls contained only crumbs – and few at that. Before them, the two wooden goblets of huangjiu, the local yellow wine, lay untouched; to be savoured during the discourse to come. The Gatekeeper’s eyes were fixed on the Old One, but he said nothing to his guest, who appeared to be sleeping in his chair.

“I am not asleep,” the Old One remarked, eventually. “I am listening to the Way, and how it will approach the task of leaving you something meaningful.”

The Gatekeeper bowed and remained silent.

“Do you remember how I fell over the rock in the road?” The Old One smiled at the memory.

The Gatekeeper shook with mirth. “Solid things, rocks…”

The Old One’s head nodded. “More sense to go around it, had I seen it at all!”

The Gatekeeper was seized with a sudden depth of understanding. “And you speak, not just of that rock, perhaps Lǎoshī!”

The teacher smiled at the use of the formal name. “Good. The Way is a flow, it does not resist, for to resist is to increase the ‘me and it’ : the opposition of the situation. Action belongs to The Way, and so, in any situation, it will seek the flow by which the resistance is made small…When we are aligned with The Way, then we become it, in action – which is its own fulfilment.”

The Gatekeeper bowed his head, again, understanding. He was silent for a while, while the Old One watched. Then he asked, “How do I come to know The Way, Lǎoshī?”

“You must talk with it, Gatekeeper.” said the Old One. “You must read its thoughts and let them guide the changes in your life.”

“And how will I read those thoughts, Lǎoshī?”

“You will consult a book of its wisdom, and in that way become a Man of Calling.”

“And where will I find this book, Lǎoshī?”

“When you wake in the morning, you will find it waiting for you… Now drink your yellow wine and sleep.”

“And what will you be doing, while I sleep, Lǎoshī?”

“I will be writing the book!” said the Old One, furrowing his brows in mock anger.


When he awoke in the morning, the Gatekeeper found what became known as the Dao Book of the Way (Dao De Jing) on his table. There was no sign of his guest, whose last action was inaction – leaving no trace. No-one ever met Lao Tzu, (literally, the ‘Old One’), again, though many, including Confucius, had known and respected him.

In the next few posts, we will explore Lao Tzu’s astonishing legacy, beginning with some of the fundamental principles that informed his view of life, the universe and the meaning of ‘meaning”.

We will also look at the second such ‘book’ of ancient Chinese wisdom, the more familiar ‘I Ching’ – Book of Changes, and consider the process and power of divination using such treasure-chests of wisdom.

We’re all going to need access to wisdom in the coming years of turmoil – much as Lao Tzu did in the face of a collapsing society whose values had become meaningless.

30 April 2020

©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 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…