I thought it might be interesting to take some of the less relevant episodes – the ‘out-takes’ – from the just-completed Scottish workshop (and subsequent journey to Orkney) and run them in reverse time-sequence. The Thursday blogs, here, will continue with the linear sequence of the Scottish and Orkney explorations.
That way the odd bits of the journey and the main storyline would meet somewhere in the middle – I have no idea where! Let’s see what happens…
The above image worked better than I thought it would. At face value, it could be a giant slide attached to a hotel on a headland, with a sandstone rock hitching a ride and about to decapitate the observer!
But it’s not, of course. It’s part of a sculptural installation on the headland at John O’ Groats, the most northerly point on the British mainland, and a few sea miles from the archipelago of Orkney, from which we had just sailed… at 06:15 in the morning.
North of John O’ Groats – between the coast and Orkney – is the Pentland Firth, famous for its fast and ferocious tides and cross-currents. Dire-sounding weather and tidal warnings for Pentland Firth are regular features of BBC weather broadcasts.
The deadly tidal rapids on the surface of the Pentland Firth are common knowledge, but less well-known are the resulting activities beneath the sea. Recently, a new insight was gained when researchers, supporting the growing commercial interest in the harnessing of some of the Firth’s vast tidal power, began surveying the seabed with a view to locating permanent turbines on the ocean floor.
During this exercise, it was discovered that large rolling boulders of up to 1.5 tons in weight – similar to that of an average car – were regularly moved great distances across the seabed by forceful currents!
This fascinated local artists Matthew Dalziel and Louise Scullion, whose work focusses on art and sculpture inspired by ecology and natural phenomena.
They put forward a proposal for a sculptural installation that mirrored their own delight at the thought of large deep-sea boulders wandering along the sea bed, powered by the stormy waves above. The result is what you see in the above photographs; something that puts John O’ Groats on the modern artistic map.
The information board sets the context:
‘Across the world, boulders that defy the weightiness, their solid stability and static nature and hint instead at a more animated past are often celebrated. Small pilgrimages are made to visit them and share in their unusual power...
… While the Nomadic Boulders of John O’Groats will forever remain shrouded in the deep and stormy depths of the sea, this monument serves to bring them to our consciousness, perhaps affording a tantalising glimpse of the world beneath the sea.’
Having sailed from Orkney on the early ferry, we were hoping to break the trip around the coast with a hot drink, before the long drive south. But at nine in the morning, on our first ever visit, John O’Groats was closed. We couldn’t even get a a cup of coffee. Scenic, though, and Larissa, one of our travelling companions and a skilled photographer, did gift us a fine portrait at the famous signpost.
To be fair, John O’ Groats is a fine and symbolic place, The harbour is lovely, and a pleasant place to wander around. The main view, though, is the sight of the Pentland Firth, and, beyond that, the outline of the Orkney archipelago.
…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.”
“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.”
“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.”
…It was, after all, rather disconcerting to be thus accosted by a total stranger…
“Does this count?” he demanded, ferociously,
and pushed an admittedly intriguing photograph across the bar at us.
“Does that count as what?”
“One of them ‘Black’ places”
“Well, it might do, what is it?”
“It’s one of them there mounds.”
“Is it really, it looks just like a pyramid of light?”
“That’s why I was thinking it might count.”
“Strictly speaking, in order ‘to count’ it would have to be called
‘Black-something’ or ‘Something-black’. Does it have a name?”
“Oh aye, it’s got a name alright.”
“And that name is?”
And at that, the Red-Lion, or so it seemed to us,
burst into a collective paroxysm of laughter…
Hidden Avebury: Seeking the Unseen
12th – 14th June, 2020
A Living Land Workshop
Almost everyone knows of Avebury, the great stone circle within which a village was built. A World Heritage site and one of the most incredible sacred complexes of prehistory, it is justly famous for its beauty and mystery. The site attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year but while most simply walk in awe amongst the majestic standing stones of the Circle and Avenue, there is far more to discover for those who will walk the paths less travelled.
Join us in June, 2020, as we explore some of the hidden corners of this amazing landscape, ranging beyond the boundaries of the Circle to seek a deeper understanding of what our ancestors hoped to touch by building this earthly temple to the stars.
Based in the landscape around Avebury and beyond, this weekend will entail some relatively easy walking. There will be time during the weekend to explore Avebury and its stones.
The weekend runs from Friday afternoon to early Sunday afternoon, and costs £75 per person. Meals and accommodation are not included in the price and should be booked separately by all attendees. Meals are often taken together at a local pub or café. For those arriving by public transport, we are able to offer a limited number of places in shared vehicles; please let us know if this would be required.
…The nearest church is St Nicholas’ of Great Kimble so we head off there.
“Why blue specifically do you think?”
“Well, we’re sort of assuming that it’s a healing energy but if we follow the Theosophists then I suppose it could be devotional.”
“And what are we expecting at St Nicholas’s?”
“To be honest I’ll be surprised if there is anything.”
“What, nothing at all?”
“We were given Our Blue Chapel, remember and I just think that it is special.”
“Well it certainly feels special but it will not be the only church built on an old site, I mean it went out as a definitive edict, to ensure the populace kept coming to the old sites they built their churches on top of them.”
“It very much depends on what has happened in the meantime.”
I hasten along the gravel path, and enter the church porch, pause, look back at Wen as mysteriously as I can, and then twist the iron door ring with a yank and lean into the heavy oaken door.
The door yields…
The door is open…
We step inside.
Now it is a curious thing that since experiencing Our Blue Chapel, we tend to judge all other churches by its incredibly exacting standards and if it does not immediately have the same feel, there is a definite sense of disappointment, which is palpable here, yet this is not a disappointing church by any means. It is well kept. It is obviously well attended and it has some wonderful features, a lovely little side chapel and some quite astonishing stained glass windows, Wen even picks up a bit of colour around some of the side aisles although to my eye there looks to be green mixed in with the blue which sets me thinking…
Wen is quite vociferous in her disappointment. She has appropriated the ‘corporate’ word for use in her appraisal of the place. If you know Wen, you know that ‘corporate’, is a bad, bad word…
“What if the colour is linked to the name?”
“…Blue for All Saints, Green for St. Nicholas… I don’t know… purple for Our Lady?”
“You are aware that there were tinges of purple in the central isles of Our Chapel and that the blue from the windows is a different blue to the blue on the walls and floors?”
“I was not aware of that no…It did seem though that the more I looked at the photos the more blue there was.”
“That’s probably just you attuning. The blue from the windows is a lapis blue, whereas the earth blue if that is where it comes from is more of a royal blue.”
“This is crazy…crazy… but true…possibly.”
“And how do they name the churches anyway?”
“There’s a special office, they’re called ‘planters’ but I suppose it’s like priests. There are good ones who know what they’re doing and there are those that don’t. Get a good planter, he tunes into the energy vibration of the place, sees the colour, or feels it and gives it the correct name.”
“It’s a stunning idea but I’ll be amazed if it works like that even though it evidently should.”…
… “And for a long time that is all we had.”
“That, and the Green light of the Lady Chapel.”
“That, and the Gold-Green light of the Lady Chapel.”
“And, when that is all you’ve got you tend to attend to it.”
“Enjoyed ‘tend to attend’ but what did we in fact, have?”
“Well, even that’s not certain.”
“So, what did we appear to have?”
“We appeared to have the head of Christ, which appeared to be floating.”
“I may have to take issue with ‘floating’. I may even have to take issue with ‘head’. I am duty bound to take issue with ‘Christ’.”
“Oh dear, taking issue with Christ is not a happy place to be. Is there a particular reason?”
“Ah, well, yes, red hair for Christ is, perhaps, not a familiar attribute, but he is wearing a crown of thorns and he is affixed to a cross.”
“‘He’ is wearing a green crown of thorns and the cross may be a halo and appears to be feathered.”
“Carried, or ‘raised’ by angels. Carried, or ‘raised’ by red haired angels to be precise.”
“Do we ‘know’ any red haired angels?”
“Michael has red hair.”
“That’s that then, but what about the head?”
“It looks more like the angels are carrying or raising a banner with the representation of a head on it.”
“Or, an icon! Is there such a thing in the tradition?”
“There is such a thing, although, whether or not it can be regarded as traditional is very much open to question.”
“Pray, tell of this thing?”
“The Veronica.” …
… “The Veronica?”
“It is one of the ‘Stations of the Cross’. One of Christ’s female adherents approaches her Lord and wipes the sweat from his face as he struggles to Calvary under the back breaking load of the cross. When he has gone, Veronica looks at the cloth, she has used to administer to her Lord, and it bears the imprint of his visage upon it.”
“Another miracle? But of questionable traditional authority you say?”
“The ‘Stations of the Cross’ are supposed to represent Christ’s journey to the cross and beyond as related in the Gospels.”
“The Veronica does not occur in the any of the four canonical gospels.”
“And the apocryphal gospels?”
“It is not in any that have so far come to light.”
“So where did it come from?”
“It was ‘made up’.”
“If he had a name it has long since been lost to the annals of time, but it is ten-to-one-on that we know not who he was but what he was.”
“You are starting to make less and less sense, ten-to-one-on?”
“He was a Jesuit.”
“Okay… Why would a Jesuit make up something like that?”
The village of Lastingham, of the southern edge of the North York Moors, was a fitting place to end our weekend – both for its mysterious wells and also on the basis that the crypt of St Mary’s Church marks the final resting place of St Cedd. Following the fateful Synod of Whitby in AD 664, Bishop Cedd returned to his beloved Lastingham, the place where he had founded his originally monastery; but tragically caught the plague and died, bequeathing the care of Lastingham to his brother, Bishop Chad – later St Chad. Chad became bishop of Lichfield shortly thereafter and had to manage his brother’s bequest from afar.
We have to wonder at the irony and sadness of this: first to lose (in the service of his king, Oswiu) the Celtic Christian tradition in which he had been raised since a boy; then to lose his life in one final visit to his beloved Lastingham.
Cedd was buried here, and the place of his burial in AD664 became the ground on which all the layers of the present church were constructed.
St Mary’s church attracts visitors from all over the world. Christian and non-Christian ‘pilgrims’ are welcomed here in a warm spirit of spiritual openness. Though not formally a Christian, I am entirely happy with the scriptural idea of Christ as the ideal and perfected ‘inner man’. I am at home in most temples of the spirit, but seldom have I felt the kind of harmonic energies that are present in St Mary’s.
There is, in the words of one of our companions of the weekend ‘Something very special here…’ And you can feel its presence in the air around you.
The original monastery was wooden, and nothing remains of it. But the present church of St Mary’s is built upon its site, and specifically, upon the original crypt that was constructed over the location of St Cedd’s grave two hundred years after his death. This region (of what was then Northumbria) was a wild place, and lawless – possibly one reason why Cedd devoted so much of his time establishing the original monastery as a spiritual refuge for the local people and their hard lives.
After the Synod of 664, the seat of religious power moved south from Lindisfarne to York, though Whitby survived for a while, in the form of the influential Abbey whose abbecy passed from Hild to Eanflæd, the wife of King Oswiu, upon his death. A royal princess and later queen to Oswiu, she brought grace and dedication to the abbey in the town that would later become Whitby.
But, the age of the Vikings was upon the land and the northern Saxon kingdoms were eventually overrun. Little is known of life here during that period and the former monastery was left to decay.
Over four hundred years later, in 1078, Stephen, abbot of the recently rebuilt monastery at Whitby, obtained permission from no less a person than William the Conqueror to take a team of skilled monks to restore the monastery at Lastingham as a Benedictine house.
Stephen designed the crypt we see today and built it over the place where Cedd had been buried. Above this crypt he began to build a new abbey church, but work was abandoned in 1088 when Stephen and his monks moved from Whitby to the all-powerful York; there to build St Mary’s Abbey… This may have been due to the increasing lawlessness of life within the hills making things impossible for the monks.
The Lastingham Crypt deserves a post in itself, but our story of the Keys of Heaven weekend (now ten posts) has to be brought to a close.
There was a communion service on that Sunday morning. We took care to arrive after it had finished, but I hoped we would be able to meet one or two of the local team. Historic places are fascinating, but the ‘now’ contains some miracles, too. As we pushed open the heavy oak door, one of the church wardens greeted us and we were welcomed into the ‘coffee area’ of the church and urged to join the larger than expected residual group of parishioners.
This was my third visit to St Mary’s. The main floor of the building is special in its own right, but I knew the ‘attracting power’ of what lay beneath. Most of our companions drank their coffees then melted quietly away down the stone staircase and into the crypt. But, by that time, as leader of our group, I had not only been given ample coffee and biscuits, but introduced to a cleric in a splendid set of robes… somewhat grander than I had expected for a small village.
Bishop Godfrey is well known throughout the North York area. He has served the Christian cause all his life and is now part-retired with a special attachment to Lastingham; a place in which he feels very much at home. He asked about our group and I was honest about our affiliations and goals. He seemed delighted with our attempts at local scholarship and offered to solve my one remaining problem of the weekend…
Ten minutes later, happy to pose for a photo as long as someone else was in it, Bishop Godfrey waved us with his blessing down into Lastingham’s very special crypt – the final resting place of St Cedd. As I walked down the stone steps I couldn’t help but feel just a little ‘blessed’ as we finally entered the place where the mortal remains of another very special bishop were interred.
Most of the group had already found their bearings, and were quietly exploring the beautiful crypt. But, one figure sat in the middle of a stone pew locked in total inner and outer silence. His back was to us, and he later described how the crypt had both embraced and entranced him… exactly the effect it had always had on me.
The meeting with Bishop Godfrey had made me late into the crypt and we had two important things to do. With an inner certainty, I knew that this visit was for my companions. I had done my part in bringing them here and the magical place was doing the rest. Snapping a few photographs to supplement the ones I had taken in October, I sat quietly, giving thanks that the weekend had gone well; and that we had largely achieved what we set out to do.
I could see that the group were tired and in need of some lunch. Across the road from the church is the Blacksmith’s Arms, a lovely and traditional Yorkshire pub with a fine Sunday lunch menu. There are no ‘facilities’ in St Mary’s church, but Bishop Godfrey and the landlord have reached an amicable agreement. The pub displays a sign saying that those attending or visiting the church may use the pub toilets but are asked to leave a donation towards the upkeep of the church. The bishop had smiled as he told us of the monthly cheque the landlord brought him…
The lunch was wonderful… An hour later, with the afternoon upon us and time running out, we set out on the last trek – a last walk around the village to visit Lastingham’s celebrated wells.
Space does not permit too much description, but, briefly, there are four of them. Two are set into the walls of local properties and one is in the garden of a private house near the church. None of these are currently flowing… but the fourth one – St Mary Magdelene’s well – is. The problem is that it’s well outside the village and very hard to locate. On our recce trip in October, Bernie and I had failed to discover its location, despite directions from the Blacksmith Pub’s landlord.
But now I was miraculously equipped with the more precise instructions from Bishop Godfrey and I could feel the ‘cogs of happenstance’ aligning.
I explained to our companions that we had the chance to discover St Mary’s well in a very real way. We drove to a where the place where I had given up looking in October and I pointed out the sloping bank to which Bishop Godfrey had directed us.
Within seconds, Gary – the figure in a peaceful trance in the crypt – had found it…
We stood around it in an arc and I explained the final purpose of the small empty jars given out to everyone on our opening trip to the beach, so long ago on the late Friday afternoon.
St Mary’s well is a small arch of stonework set into a stream-filled bank that leads down to the small river that flows through Lastingham. And now, as the only person with wellingtons, I needed to fill each of the jars. The only way to do it was to stretch my legs over the small valley of the spring and lean towards the stone arch, reaching down (thank you, Pilates) to fill each jar. I could hear the mental bets being taken that I would end up in the water, but reached the last jar still vertical, albeit locked into the muddy banks on either side…
A set of friendly hands were outstretched in case I lost my footing, but, with one last push and the weekend’s second sound of a mired boot breaking free, I managed to reunite my legs and scramble away from the water and mud. Everyone now had a Christmas candle and a small jar of very rare St Mary’s well water to take away.
Moments later, with jars tucked safely into travel bags, we hugged and said our goodbyes. The Keys of Heaven workshop was over; and it had been a success. In silence, I drove back to Runswick Bay to collect Bernie for our promised beach walk for Tess and our extra night in the location to unwind.
Later, we would walk through the darkness to the Cod and Lobster and reflect on the weekend. But that is where our story began…
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.