Two journeys, one destination (4) – two sides of the hill

On the second day of the Silent Eye’s ‘Pictish Trail’ weekend, we are beginning in what is, for me, one of the most beautiful places in the world. Portmahomack is a small fishing village on the north side of the Tarbat Peninsula. It’s an hours drive north from Inverness.

I’m at the end of the pier, gazing out across the deep blue sea towards highland mountains in the distance. Low in the line of dense green forest and near the sandy line of that far shore is a white fairytale castle. It could be a dream but it’s not. It’s real, and we will be visiting it on our way to the archipelago of Orkney, tomorrow. It’s called Dunrobin Castle, and is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Sutherland.

The museum at Dunrobin has some fine Pictish stones, and the castle marks the most northerly point of the Pictish trail. But the real historic trail points further north to Orkney, and that is a very different land and one-time kingdom.

No-one in the group has been to Dunrobin, before. Having glimpsed its pale spires glinting in the morning sun, we can’t wait…but our Saturday has more than enough for now.

Today’s explorations begin with the sight of an ancient church just over the rise of the hill at my back. I can’t see it from here, but I can feel its presence. I want the others to feel it in a different way to how I first discovered it. I want them to feel its ancientness before they see it. To do this I have to enter a state which is crisp and clear with anticipation, then share it – without words.

It’s one of the things we do – Sue Stuart and I. There aren’t always words for how it works, in fact it’s more powerful when there are no words at all.

There are no words from either of them here, Because they are not with us. They are hundreds of miles south in a hospital, where Sue is being tested for something serious. Where there are usually three of the Silent Eye Directors on our ‘landscape’ weekends, here, there is one, and the workshop needs to continue. We have a duty to each other – and to those who have travelled so far.

I’ve held the emotions back so far, but here they are overwhelming. Sue loves beaches, and this is one of the best… So this is for her.

We return to our vehicles and I lead the way from the bay and over the small hill to the other side of the Tarbat peninsula. In front of us, at the entrance to what looks like an old church, is a striking statue of a Pictish Priestess.

We gather around her and I describe a visualisation in which we are approaching this place, not by car, but in a boat, cutting its way through the choppy blue sea as it nears the sixth-century harbour of the old Portmahomack.

As the boat turns to make its landing, we look up at the large stones that pattern the spine of the peninsula – and mark it as sacred ground… In our vision, we can see them all, though some are miles away.

These large marker stones will form the basis of the rest of the morning. They will lead down the Tarbat peninsula and across its sister; the Fearn Peninsula. By the time we have travelled their length, we will be at Nigg, from where we can look out south, across the waters of the Cromarty Firth towards the Black Isle, our afternoon destination.

The boat nears the shore. We can pick out the outlines of the harbour, a farm, and, at the highest point, a church. Ahead of us is an entire Pictish village on the shore. It’s a large settlement for this age. At its heart is a monastery as influential as the (Irish-derived) Celtic Christian monastery at Iona, and founded at much the same time. This is 6th century Portmahomack, and the monastery is one of a chain of such institutions tasked with nothing less than keeping civilisation alive… in the face of barbarism. This village houses the central spiritual authority of the Picts.

Here, there is also a metalworking foundry and scholarly building where sacred texts are painstakingly copied or created by hand, in all their ‘illuminated’ brilliance. These would rival the works produced at Lindisfarne, many miles south, though all will be lost to history – and the attacks of the Vikings… but the evidence will remain in their unmatched stonework.

Scriptoria is the scholarly name for the historical creation of holy texts. The map, above, shows the location of monasteries with scriptoria that existed at the same time as that at Portmahomack.

(Above: the tools of scriptoria. The writing instruments were found in the foundations of the church)

Each monastery would have had a library of books for copying by hand; the work carried out by a hierarchy of skilled artists and calligraphers. This was the ancient science of sacred communication – as vital to the Pictish people as the internet is to us. The holy books taught that mankind was both beast and something more. Sacred texts fed the higher.

Everyone spoke, few people read and wrote… when the writers spoke everyone listened.

The books were loaned and gifted by monasteries to each other. They travelled long distances and the art they contained came to have a great effect on sculpture and metalwork. Strong examples of this can be seen at nearby Nigg and Rosemarkie. We intend to visit both, today.

Aided by this vision of the landing of our ancient boat, our day begins here; around and within the white building ahead. This is the Tarbat Discovery Centre, and they are expecting us…

The Portmahomack Discovery Centre is one of the best places to ‘immerse’ yourself in the world of the Picts, their culture and their civilisation.

The Discovery Centre is unique in that the main subject of its work is itself. In a very real sense, the church remains a partly Pictish building. No less than six churches have stood on this site, and the earliest construction – part of a stone wall that still forms a side of the recovered crypt – is as it was constructed by the Pictish builders of the 9th century.

(Above: the Discovery Centre is housed in the old church of St Colman. Bishop Colman led the ‘Celtic Christian’ contingent, centred in Lindisfarne, during the Synod of Whitby in AD 664. Under the jurisdiction of the powerful Northumbrian King Oswiu, the church of Rome prevailed, steering Britain’s history away from the more mystically-inclined and nature-facing Celtic tradition that had travelled with St Columba from Ireland. Bishop Colman – St Colman – is remembered in the name of the old church, though there are no records to show if he spent time here, as he and his monks from Lindisfarne departed into exile… It is likely that here, as in Iona, Celtic Christianity continued for a while after)

You can plan a weekend workshop like this, and have it go mainly to plan, but the exceptions will often form the best bits. The lady who runs the Tarbat Centre is a Portmahomack local and very welcoming. We are lucky. It’s still early and we have the place to ourselves.

She is in the middle of explaining the layout when a rather wild shout comes from above: “Margaret, I’ve done it!”

She smiles. “That’s Robert, one of our best volunteers…” she leaves it there… but you know there’s more to the story, as we’ll find out later. After watching a short introductory video, we wander… and it’s amazing.

The upper floor is the education centre where talks are given. The centre owes its existence to the results of the major excavation carried out by York University between 1997 and 2004.

(Above: the archeological work at Portmahomack, carried out by York University during 1997-2004. St Colman’s church is top right)

The centre has three levels. The main, middle floor is divided into exhibition sections. The crypt – the lowest level – dates all the way back to medieval times. It has lots of history and two skeletons…

On our first pass around the centre, we concentrate on the societal aspects revealed by the Tarbat discoveries – the importance of the Portmahomack monastery to the lives of all the Pictish people. There is one important aspect of this to consider before we can progress to the archeological relics: the question of how central the monastery was to the economy of the region. Two information boards describe this well:

‘The Tarbat peninsula contains some of the most productive agricultural land in Britain, But when the monastery was founded in the 6th century CE, the landscape was very different. The valley behind the church was marshland, which has been radiocarbon dated to the 1st millennium BCE.

Several Neolithic and Bronze Age flint arrowheads have been found close to the area suggesting that wild fowl on the marsh attracted prehistoric hunters. This wild marshland was tamed by the monastic community of Portmahomack, who drained it to create grazing for cattle and plough lands for grain.

Vast quantities of animal bones have been found during excavation which show that plenty of pasture must have been available for grazing cattle and sheep. Pigs were also eaten and may have been let loose to forage for food nearby. More rarely, deer bones have been found which shows that the land surrounding the monastery was home to wild herds.

Crops were also cultivated and the first signs of this were visible in the earth as scratch marks made by a wooden plough. In order to toughen the board against wear and tear, it was studded with small pebbles known as ‘plough pebbles’. The pebbles sometimes fell out and many have been found during excavation. An ancient ditch found beneath the church dated to the 6th century, contained burnt grain identified as barley. A massive barn found in the farm area of the monastery would have been used to thresh, dry and store the barley following harvesting by hand using a sickle.

For centuries, grain was ground by hand, using either a trough quern or a rotary quern, but both methods were time-consuming and hard work, The 8th century monks introduced the horizontal water-powered mill, in which a fast moving stream turned the mill wheel, which turned a millstone.

The dam for a mill has been uncovered at Portmahomack, made of a massive retaining wall with a culvert feeding the mill race. The mill itself may lie under the modern road. Monasteries like Portmahomack eventually came to control grain processing and this was an important factor in controlling the size and economy of the local population.’

A very important ‘village’…

Now, Robert is shouting from the lecture room that he’s solved another of Margaret’s problems, and I’m wondering how I’m going to fit any more into a single blog… and suddenly everything goes quiet, outside and in, and I realise we don’t have to…

The Discovery Centre is too good to squash into a single post… so let’s give it two…

Besides, ahead of me at this point in the retelling is one of the most beautiful chalices I’ve ever seen… And I’m eager to fit it into our newly discovered cultural framework of the amazing Picts.

(Above: a beautiful and mysterious chalice awaits us…)

In the next post we will examine the legacy of the Pictish objects found within the excavated Portmahomack site, before moving on, down the spine of the peninsula, to a beautiful glass-protected cross-slab… and two surprises, one of which will test our ingenuity to the full!

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, this is Part Four

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

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.

Two journeys, one destination (3) – the mysterious Picts

(Above: the view of the neighbouring Inverness Castle from the steps of the museum)

‘The Romans were frightened of them…”

I remember reading that the week before our Scottish workshop and being astonished. I knew the Picts had created some of the most mysterious stone carvings I had ever seen. But fearsome warriors? Weren’t these enigmatic people simply farmers?

We were in the Inverness Museum, which is one of the best places to study the history of the Scottish Highlands. Our interest was specific and restricted – though we could have happily been there half the day. We were there to gain a perspective on the story of the Picts’ existence: where they came from, how long they endured, the nature of their spirituality, and the location of their primary settlements.

(Above: the land of the Picts, stretching from the far north-east of Scotland, to the present site of Inverness, then along the Elgin coast towards Burghhead and beyond. Inverness, the site of the museum, is marked in red.
~Map adapted by the author from a photo of the panel in the Inverness Museum~)

Equipped with this mental map, the following two days of our Silent Eye weekend would enable us to place in context some of the most remarkable pieces of Pictish stone carving and other artefacts, as we travelled, in turn, up the Tarbat peninsula, down to the Black Isle and, finally, to Dunrobin Castle on our way to the Orkney ferry at Thurso.

(Above: Cast of the Brodie Stone, a mystery in two halves:)

Following the Pictish Trail throws up some wonderful mysteries and instances of great fortune. As an example (above), the Brodie Stone, a classic ‘cross slab’ – a cross carved within a surrounding stone surface. The real Brodie Stone stands in the grounds of Brodie Castle, Moray. It was discovered in 1781 during the digging of foundations for a new parish church. For many years it stood in the village of Dyke as a tribute to Vice-Admiral Rodney, for his success at the battle of Saintes, in Dominica. Since then it has also been known as ‘Rodney’s Stone’. It is actually a Class II Pictish stone, meaning it has a Christian cross on one side and Pictish symbols on the other. The Picts converted to Christianity during the 6th and 7th centuries, as we explore, below.

We’d had to reserve our places for the museum online, as the Covid-19 restrictions applied. We were allowed to enter only in small groups and at our allotted time. We were also expected to maintain a steady flow through the exhibits to prevent queuing at the entrance. A tall order, when we had so much to absorb… But at least photographs were allowed, and many of the information panels featured graphical summaries without which this post would have had much less illustration. Sincere thanks are due to the Inverness Museum for allowing this.

Before us were information displays on the geographical and geological history of the region, showing Scotland’s organic formation after the last ice age:

(Above: after the ice; the emergence of Scotland at the end of the last ice age)

The last ice age ended in Scotland about 9,000 years ago. The melting ice gave way to tundra – an arctic diversity of mosses, lichen and grasses, supporting mountain hares, arctic foxes and reindeer.

As temperatures rose, the tundra was invaded by birch scrub and then woodland, Oak and scots pine eventually replaced the birch, and cloaked the Highlands in dense forest. This became home to red deer, elk and wild cattle.. along with wolves, bears, lynx and, humans.

Around 9000 years ago, the European hunter-gatherers, enabled by the melting ice-sheets, reached the Highlands, and, as conditions improved, they settled permanently to become the first highlanders. They were originally nomads, but, as stone gave way to bronze and then iron – the iron age, the Picts established their home and became skilled farmers.

Then we came to the first of the Pict-focussed panels.

(Above: one of the panels in the Inverness Museum places the Picts and Romans co-existing from 80-399 CE. Beyond this, the Picts survived to around 900 CE, when they ‘mysteriously vanished…’)

The Iron-Age people who became the Picts were inhabitants of this Highland coast long before they were given their name by the Romans, who called them the ‘Picti’ – painted people; the reference being to their custom of painting their naked bodies before they went into battle, thereby giving a ghostly sheen to their skin and showing off their warlike body art and battle scars. Despite this frightening appearance, they were essentially peaceful farmers, whose ferocity appears to have been roused only when they were threatened.

(Above: a picture of the Pictish Hilton of Cadboll stone. We had no idea that the weekend would bring us face to face with a large and exact life-size replica! Note the twin circles in the upper and middle parts; these are considered feminine and depict ‘comb and mirror’. The inset ‘V’ shape is another classic Pictish symbol called a ‘V-Rod’)

The Picts left no written record of their history. What we know of them comes from the striking images they carved in stone – which therefore endured. They were written about by both Scottish and Roman writers. The Roman Eumenius, in 297 CE, was the first to refer to them as Picts. There is an alternative theory of the name ‘Pict’, which refers to their own word ‘Pecht’, meaning ancestors. This link to those of their own who ‘went before yet still remain’ has strong spiritual overtones, as we shall see when we get to the Orkney part of these journals.

Recent evidence suggests that the Picts came to Scotland from Orkney, and before that were descendants of Scandinavia, though they lived much earlier than the Vikings, who, according to some sources, were to feature cruelly in their eventual demise. Orkney played a fundamental role in the advancing civilisation of what became Britain, and the age, sophistication and influence of its works is staggering. When we come to consider the spiritual beliefs of the Picts, Orkney takes on an entirely different importance…

(Above: Wolf Stone
Found at Stittenham, Andross, Ross & Cromart
This incised Pictish stone was found in 1903 built into an old wall. The graceful figures of the wolf is depicted using a few carved lines to give a sense of movement and shows the power of the animal)

The Picts lived here in the Highlands; the Romans invaded. With the Picts, they came up against something they didn’t understand…and came to fear. If the local forces were losing a battle, they would simply vaporise into the landscape – a wild landscape they knew well, unlike their oppressors. The Romans became frustrated, then despondent, at the failure of their traditional military tactics.

The Picts held their ground against the invaders in a number of engagements, but also lost major battles. It’s often said that they lost the battle but won the war. Scotland was never successfully conquered by the Romans, though they tried many times and succeeded in establishing forts well into the Highlands.

(Above: a Pictish picture of an ‘unknown beast’. Also found at Stittenham, Andross, Ross & Cromarty)

The Picts left no writing, unless their art contains a hidden phonetic key, awaiting the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone that enabled the translation of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Written records, by others and about the Picts exist from 297 CE until 900 CE, when they supposedly vanished. Scholars caution against interpreting this as extermination, since it is likely that they simply merged with the surrounding Scots tribes. It is also probable that the Picts’ adoption of Christianity in the 6th century CE was (at least in part) political.

The ‘Scots’ were, in those times, the rival tribe to the south. Further south, still, was Northumbria – one of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe. In 664 CE, Northumbria’s King Oswiu hosted the Synod of Whitby at which the rivalry of Celtic and Roman Christianity was determined in the Roman Church’s favour. By the time the Picts embraced Christianity, the Roman church had become the de-facto Christian faith across most of Europe. That the Picts came to embrace it is the logical act of a people who wished to live ‘in harmony’ with their neighbours. This may also explain the eventual merging of the Picts and the Scots, and the apparent disappearance of the former.

But what of their art? One of the main goals of the Silent Eye’s weekend was to consider its extraordinary clarity of design, its refreshing simplicity and the use of recurring motifs. The museum had little to say on this, so we hoped that our further journeys to the Tarbat peninsula and The Black Isle would help us. We had been successful, however, in placing the Pictish people, in understanding a little of their motives and culture. We had a framework within which to work. Inverness had served us well.

(Above: The Achavrail Armlet
The example of ‘massive metalworking’ reflects the designs adapted from continental Europe. Dating to the first or second centuries CE, this large bronze armlet was made by the ‘lost wax’ casting method)

Our time was up. The enforced flow around the exhibits had meant a rushed gathering of information. What we needed next was a degree of immersion in the Pictish culture. In the morning, a forty minute drive north from Inverness would see us enter the Tarbat Peninsula (see map). There, on one of Scotland’s most beautiful coasts, we would find a former church dedicated to a much deeper social understanding of the mysterious Picts.

But first, it was time to chill for an hour or two and then get ready for some much-needed pizza!


(Above: Mobile populations.. The Inverness museum illustrates many facets of Highland life. Silver pocket watches by Primus Mink and Faller brothers, 1870s. Mink and Faller brothers were craftsmen driven from Germany by political unrest during the late 1800s. They and at least six other German watchmakers flourished in Inverness at this time…)

To be continued…

Other parts of this series of blogs:

Part One, Part Two, this is Part Three

©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.

Two journeys, one destination (2) – Inverness

It begins in Inverness, that beautiful confluence of water, road and mountain. Like any journey through northern Scotland, it will be dominated by water…

The year 2020 will be etched in all our memories. It was not a good year to try to hold the kind of workshop we run: three days of shared travel, feeling the landscape, and thoughts about the nature of consciousness; that most precious jewel every human carries. Add to that the possible extension to visit the archipelago of Orkney, and we had something very difficult to achieve.

Covid had caused us to cancel three of the planned workshops of the year. We hung out for the September one, hoping that the physical heartbeat of the Silent Eye could endure for at least one annual pulse in these challenging times. Bad news after bad news threatened it, but the core bookings had been made and we intended to honour them – even if it meant a small group.

Finally, it was time to get in the car and begin what was to be a vast journey… Inverness would be the point where those able to attend were going to meet up. For most of them, it was a journey of hundreds of miles even before they began the weekend.

(Above: one of the Pictish slab crosses in Inverness museum)

The workshop was to be in two parts: the first, centred in Inverness, would follow Historic Scotland’s Pictish Trail; the second would take advantage of the fact that we were already near the top of Scotland and could easily board the ferry to Orkney. Bernie and I had visited Orkney in 2018. We were keen to return with the others, and even more eager to share the wonders of this magical place.

(Above: the fine lines of Pictish art display the high culture of its people)

The mysterious Picts have long held a fascination for me; ever since I first saw their art, and was struck with an inner sense of wonder at what I can only describe as its ‘quality’. The only other time this had happened was when I saw an Egyptology exhibition in London, and gazed on that ancient civilisation’s wonders.

Decades on, I was lucky enough to visit Egypt with a mystically-oriented group and finally see the relief figures on their beautiful temples. Later in the trip, we were to encounter traces of a people even older than those Egyptians, and much closer to home…

(Inverness’ beautiful and formidable River Ness, with its set of islands connected by walkways. What looks like the far bank, here, is actually the largest of these)

But first, we wanted to have a beginning that would ‘wash away’ the miles that most of us had endured to get here. Inverness offers the perfect answer: a walk by the River Ness.

The River Ness is the channel that connects Loch Ness with the North Sea by way of the vast Moray Firth. It is one of the most powerful rivers in Britain… and yet, to my mind, one of the most peaceful. Near the city, it is criss-crossed by several pedestrian bridges, three of which link both sides of the river to a set of islands in the middle of its flow; effectively creating a set of natural wild gardens in the middle of the river.

Using these, we were able to take a circular walk and finish at a coffee stop that reminds me of something you might see in Paris. The bright and unexpected sunshine helped, and you could feel that the tired spirits were rising.

(Above: A Parisian-style coffee hut on the bank of the River Ness)

The coffee hut was a colourful place, and clearly popular with seasoned local folk – one of whom agreed to pose with ‘his’ seagull for this shot…

I had wanted the walking tour to finish here because of its proximity to one of Inverness’ hidden gems: the Cathedral Church of St Andrew, a Scottish Episcopal Church situated by the River Ness a few minutes’ walk from the city centre. It is the seat of the Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness – a vast geography.

(Above: the exterior of the Cathedral Church of St Andrew)

It is the northernmost cathedral in mainland Britain (but, later, we will encounter another, magnificent one in Orkney…).

Inverness Cathedral was the first new Protestant cathedral to be constructed in Britain since the reformation. The cathedral was built during the years 1866-1869. The foundation stone was laid by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Longley, in 1866. The architect was a local man, Alexander Ross.

(Above: the graceful lines of the Cathedral of St Andrew, created in the Gothic Revival style)
(Above and below: the eye is drawn to the high, wooden ceiling)

I had wanted to see inside this building because, since a visit to the Belgian city of Ghent, two years ago, I have developed an interest in religious icons, and I knew that the Cathedral of St Andrews contained a very special set.

(Above: The icons are located on the north wall of the nave)

The central figure is that of Christ. The inscription reads:

“These icons were presented by the Tsar of Russia, Alexander II, to the Right Reverend Robert Eden, Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness, on the occasion of is pastoral visit to the country in 1866’

A detailed review of the Cathedral is not the point of this post, but it is worth drawing attention to two more unusual features of the building, The first is the magnificent pulpit, rendered in marble and local sandstone.

The second is a beautiful reproduction of a Pictish Christian cross, located in a special chamber near the entrance. I know nothing of its origin, but spent a full ten minutes at the end of our visit just staring at it…

The magnificent Pictish-style cross

We had met well. The rest of our afternoon was to be spent in the wonderful Inverness Museum, deepening our knowledge of the Picts. We had much to learn…

To be continued…

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness.

Normality

“Normality is a paved road: it is comfortable to walk on, but no flowers grow on it.”
Vincent Van Gogh

There are certain things we learn in order to live as part of a society that has, at least, the potential to live in harmony. There are orderly patterns that make up our lives, dictated by everything from our natural biology and emotions, to societal pressures and the necessities of survival. To live a normal life is to adhere to those patterns.

Yet, it is seldom those who do so who achieve greatness in any field. It is the rule-breakers, the mavericks, the innovators; it is those who use the imagination to create… it is those ordinary people who end up living extraordinary lives who change the world and the way we see it.

Some actively pursue fame and fortune, bringing all their drive to bear upon the task in hand. Others find a different path leads them away from the security of their own normality and they may find themselves blinking in an unexpected spotlight. For most of us though, ‘normality’ is the path we tread.

Or is it?

How many of us fit the accepted mould of ‘normality’ and what is it anyway? The outer life may have a steady job, marriage, car, dog and… 2.4 children. That ‘.4’ has never struck me as ‘normal’ in any way… average, perhaps, but not what you would call normal. How is slightly less than half a child ‘normal’? The mind boggles…

heather 2015 derbyshire, higger tor, beeley circle, edensor, bak 102

But what about the inner life? Do you dream? Do you imagine? Do you wish and shape and change your world with every passing thought? Do you look at the stars and wonder? Imagination knows no bounds and creates its own normality… which may be far from the mundane outer world in which many of us must live. And a far cry from some arbitrary normality which refers more to a mathematical average. We are none of us ‘normal’… we are unique.

Those who break free of the accepted norm of the workaday world may find a rocky path ahead, with steep ascents, potholes, uneven surfaces and many twists and turns… but away from the concrete and asphalt is where the wildflowers grow and where wonder awaits over every horizon.

The road that carries us through the realms of necessity can be hard, straight and narrow. That is only part of our lives and we are free to break every limit within the realms of mind… and sometimes imagination spills flowers in our path.

heather 2015 derbyshire, higger tor, beeley circle, edensor, bak 089

Dr Joy’s Garden

Real dedication, like an enduring friendship, is a quiet thing…

I was standing, in the early morning light, with Tess, our Collie, in hand, entering a compact garden which overlooks the headland at Alnmouth. We are on a week’s holiday; Bernie and myself, her sister and my mother. In some ways, it’s our annual ‘offering’ because my mother needs a lot of looking after. She has vascular dementia, and, year on year, the condition worsens and the change in the previous twelve months becomes apparent in the everyday events of holiday life repeating themselves – but differently.

(06:30 – Our Collie, Tess, getting excited because the beach is just over that rise!)

I had taken Tess, our dog, for our early morning walk. These normally take place around 06:30, not long after the dawn . Doing this allows me to get a head-start on the day, and, quite literaly, calm myself. I return, about an hour later, charged with the morning’s dawn-kissed air, and set about the day with my ninety year old mother.

Each day, Tess and I walk a slightly different route. The small town where we are holidaying, for the fourth year in a row, is circular in its geography, though it takes a while for this orientation to establish itself in the mind. This being the case, one can criss-cross the beaches, estuary and streets in a variety of ways…

 

(Above: An eager Collie, wanting more throws of the ball)

And so it was that we found ourselves, at the end of our hour, with a cup of take-away coffee from the enterprising post office cum general store in hand, in a memorial garden overlooking the estuary.

I couldn’t understand why I’d never seen it before. It was as though the time had to be right… The name on the dedication plaque was Dr Joy.

(Above: Dr Joy’s Garden)

The plaque in Dr Joy’s Garden reads:

‘Dr Joy’s Garden. This fine viewing area in which you are standing was created following a generous gift to the community by respected cardiologist Dr Joy Edelman (1937-2004), a long-time visitor, resident and friend of Alnmouth

The words on the plaque touched me deeply, particularly the last phrase, ‘friend of Alnmouth’. How simple and how meaningful to be a friend of somewhere in that sense. How treasured…

(Above: Dr Joy Edelman – eminent cardiologist)

Before me was the half-circle of the River Aln in its final approach to the North Sea. The sandy curve is beautiful, and defines Alnmouth’s history as well as constraining it’s present..

There is no spare land in Alnmouth, so what there is has been in place for a very long time, and the only development possible is to replace what is already there… requiring permission not easily achieved. This town knows it is a hidden gem, and they like that status. Surprisingly few outside of the north-east even know of it’s existence.

(Above: Practically every corner of the old paths and streets of Alnmouth lead to a visual delight)

We’re in the most northerly county in England: Northumberland, a place where, historically, the royaly-appointed wardens of the North defended England’s most vulnerable border from the ‘troublesome and warring Scots’, and centuries of border brigands – ‘Reivers’ as they were known.

(Above: the town’s Information Board shows the thin spine of Alnmouth, encircled by the River Coquet)

The map on the park’s Information Board within the memorial garden, tells the story of this beautiful and largely-forgotten place. The town has only one major thoroughfare – Northumberland Street; but it’s full of beautiful and interesting buildings. We are, indeed ‘here’ on the map, facing out to the mysterious island with a tiny cross; an image that features in most visitors’ momentoes.

It was this scene, featured in an episode of the detective series ‘Vera’, that first brought Alnmouth to our attention, five years ago. We became avid watchers of the TV version of the books by Anne Cleaves, admiring how the production made clever use of the Northumberland landscape.

During one episode, we noticed an curving its estuary and an island with a small cross. Neither of us had any idea where it was. We ‘googled’ it and came here on our first holiday that summer. Every year we’ve been back. It’s poignant because these will become the memories of my mother that I will most treasure…

(Above: the seaward side of the one large street in Alnmouth)

Northumberland street has just about everything you could want: general stores, several cafes, take-away coffee stops, and several gastro-pubs. There’s also an enterprising art gallery with modestly priced prints of local artworks and a cafe.

(Above: the continuation of Northumberland Street, taken from a favourite cafe, just re-opened. The farthest point of the photo is the end of the town)

From the headland, where Dr Joy’s garden is located, you can walk in two directions. One takes you to the harbour, where a delightful hut announces itself as the Alnmouth Boat Club. I couldn’t help comparing it with the venerable ‘police box’ in the BBC’s Dr Who series; and idly mused if the club offered time-travel views of Alnmouth ‘through the ages’…

(Above: the much-loved Alnmouth Boat Club’s HQ. The passing figure of Tess the Collie gives an idea of its size…)
(Above: Beyond the boat club, the harbour teams with life)

If you go the other way down from Dr Joy’s garden, you come to two of the main features of Alnmouth: the golf club, and the long, sandy beach – one of the best in Europe.

(Above: Situated next to the beach, the Alnmouth Golf Club boasts that it is ‘The oldest nine hole links course in England. We didn’t see anyone playing there who didn’t have a smile…)
(Above: Alnmouth’s long, sandy beach – one of the best in Europe)

One of the most delightful aspects of Alnmouth’s buildings is the use of the local stone.

Northumberland County Council’s website says this:

“The predominant walling material is sandstone in shades of ochre, grey and pink, generally laid as coursed rubble, used both for buildings and boundary walls. The relatively large scale of the building stones, together with low window and door heights, enhances the small scale of the buildings.”

(Above: Taken not long after the dawn on our first morning, this shot reveals the pride in the local buildings of Alnmouth, and their conservation)

I hope this brief tour of Alnmouth has given you a flavour of this special place. Dr Joy Edelman was obviously moved by the delights of this remote haven. My mother loves it, too. In our own small way, we have become ‘friends of Alnmouth’, a quiet testimonial, like that of Dr Joy, to its tranquility and peace.

©️Stephen Tanham, 2020 text and images.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness.

Between the cracks

I wandered out into the early morning garden, clad in sandals and dressing gown, in search of The Ball. The dog had hidden the darned thing again and stood at the door grinning, while I did what I was expected to do and looked for it. The Ball… the only one of the two dozen she owns that is no longer a ball but merely a few disintegrating shreds of furry rubber… can turn up anywhere… in any room…even in a cupboard. But, in spite of the innocent looks, she almost always knows exactly where it is and, if asked, will give you clues.

I had tried all the usual places, like behind the stereo or under the cushions, and eventually found it, with a little help from the grinning fiend, tucked behind the compost bin. Thankfully, mine is not a large garden to search… more of a pocket-handkerchief affair, with one small flower-bed and a lot of digging to be done.

Between the ground baking iron-hard and having spent the past year on my son’s garden, mine needs some serious work and more materials. So, I try to keep it tidy, designing wonderful planting schemes in my head that I know will never happen. On the other hand, the little patch of green offers me wonderful surprises every year as I let Nature play. Unlike the dog with The Ball, I am happy to accept what comes.

The hawthorn hedgerow that separates my garden from the fields is heavy with May blossom, its perfume filling the morning air and its branches alive with birds greeting the day. With robins, wrens, blackbirds and the occasional thrush, it is seldom silent. There is even a nightingale that sings there some evenings.

My strawberries died in the heat last year while I was away. I thought I had lost them completely, with just the brittle remains looking rather forlorn and reproachful in their pot and yet, I have a fine crop of self-propagated plants now growing around where the pot once stood.

With a bare garden to fill, I rescued some of the ‘weeds’ from my son’s old driveway before it was ripped up. I now have a whole bank of mullein, whose pale primrose flowers will grow several feet high. The narrow spikes of purple loosestrife, real bee magnets, are growing in scattered clumps in the flower bed and in the gap between window and flagstones.

And, while I have no idea where the reeds, cornflowers or tormetil came from, the few tiny forget-me-nots I rescued now occupy any space they can find, from the drifts around my roses and across the gravel, to the spaces between the flagstones. I have always grown herbs, even when I have had no more than a windowsill to play with… now, while I have planted only sage, Nature has planted me a herb garden.

I even have the first of my tiny rescued roses in bloom, although an earwig seems to have claimed it as its residence of choice, bringing back memories of the deep, velvet-red roses that once framed my great grandparents’ gate. They had a perfume unlike any other and as I child I would sit on the garden wall and breathe in their fragrance… until the day I found myself nose to nose with an earwig.

So, although, in comparison to others I have planted and tended, I could hardly call this a garden… Nature seems to think otherwise and has made one of her own. And I like that. So will the bees and butterflies that love our native wildflowers.

I cannot help seeing how well my little patch of flowered earth illustrates one of the first lessons we learned during our adventures within the ancient, sacred landscape of Albion… ‘open up and get out of the way’. I could have wrestled with the ground, squeezing a few more traditional garden plants from the budget, hefted a couple of tons of hardcore and gravel and turned the space into a ‘proper’ garden… but would the wildflowers then have a place to grow? Would I allow ‘weeds’ to thrive between the paving slabs or smile at the paths the dog is wearing through the grass? Probably not.

We learned also that ‘leaving space for spirit’… letting the moment and the land work their magic in untrammelled freedom…  allows strange and wonderful things to happen. In consciously relinquishing the need to control, beauty creeps in through the cracks of normality…or, in this case, into every gap it can find.

Nature is a wonderful teacher and, at this time, when so much of our freedom has been curtailed, my little garden reminds me that life and beauty will always find a way.

Growing…

We took a stroll around the garden… my son leaning on my shoulders, me grateful that I am just the right height to fit under his arm. Weather permitting, it has become a daily ritual since we planted his new flower beds. I cannot help but smile quietly when my hitherto clueless-about-gardening son comments on how well the heuchera is doing and notes that the ajuga reptans is in flower.

My younger son prefers to grow vegetables and nourishes an ambition to build a greenhouse in his garden. For his birthday, a few years ago, I bought him seed potatoes, cabbages and strawberries… and that was that; he loved growing food for his family. This year, for my elder son’s birthday, just before the lockdown, I filled his wall baskets with pansies, sweet-smelling dianthus and trailing campanula, rescued from the wilting racks of the supermarket.

I love that both my sons have found joy in growing things, though one grows for beauty and the other for the table. It is interesting to see how watching things grow illustrates their different characters. There is the same excitement from both of them, but while my younger son cannot wait to show me how tall his brassicas have grown, the elder is having learn to be patient as Nature takes her time as he waits for plants to bloom.

So, every day, my son and I tour his garden, watching the progress of every leaf and bud, from the discarded forget-me-nots I rescued from the alley behind his house, to the latest acquisition, the Abracadabra rose. We have watched the tight buds swell and begin to reveal glimpses of colour. The new gardener asks ‘when’… the old gardener is just glad the roses survived being transplanted at this time of year.

Patience, I have observed, is not a trait that everyone shares. I used to be horribly impatient with most things…now it is only some things… so during my son’s recovery, I had a lot to learn. The recovery from brain injury is a long, slow process… like the unfolding of a flower, it happens at its own pace and cannot be forced. Holding back from doing something I could have done for him ten times faster than he could do it for himself was a hard lesson to learn… but had I not done so, he would have made no progress.

Not everyone is patient by nature, but watching things grow… whether it is flowers or people… helps you to learn the kind of patience that is born of accepting what is. A child cannot grow to adulthood overnight. A rose, even one named Abracadabra, cannot magically bloom before its petals have formed.

Gardening always makes me think of the well known ‘Serenity prayer’… “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time…”. Patience, when rooted in the acceptance of the moment, is often a gateway to serenity.

Accepting the gifts of the moment does not mean we cannot create change at need, or that we must accept that which we know to be wrong or harmful… like greenfly and black spot on roses, some things must be addressed as they arise… but where the moment gives us joy or beauty, it would be churlish to refuse its gift. And so I watch in joy as my son learns to wait for beauty to unfold.

Blinded by the Light…

*

… So, we return to the quest.

And turn shining eyes to the south.

Not that we ever left it, yet the churches had definitely ‘fallen off-line’…

Until Skipton.

Until one particular stained-glass window in Skipton.

It is tempting to think that later traditions lose much that is essential to preceding ones.

In magical traditions derived from the Hebrews, the Archangel Mikael is a guardian of the south quarter and if a ‘Michael Window’ is present in a church, it is a relatively safe bet that it will be found on a south wall of that church.

So, why were we charging around St Michael’s, Hathersage, looking at stained-glass windows on the north wall, with such singular precision?

Because we were desirous of another window.

This headlong, wilful charge, bugles blaring, could well have been our undoing, had we been alone.

There was no ‘Michael Window’ in St Michael’s, Hathersage.

But there was this…

*

*

So, what to say of this banner?

It is a work of art, certainly.

It is a work of art which transcends the medieval style of its composition, although, the ‘S’ as an ‘eight’ and the ‘M’ as an ‘omega’ are remarkable.

The ‘lance’ too, as ‘celtic crozier’, is a sublime touch.

*

Was the dragon always golden?

*

Does this hue, denote the beginning or even the end of a process?

*

Was the beast once much bigger?

*

Is this really how one earns one’s ‘spiritual wings’?

*

The spirals on the Saint’s shield are, to say the least, suggestive…

*

 But the burning question which most readily springs to our mind is this:

if we nearly missed this depiction

can we hope to find the Archangel when it is being deliberately ‘hidden’?

*

The Joyous Photograph

(Above: the first of four simple photographic techniques for making local walks very special…)

From a photographic perspective, we live in a wonderful age. Even the most humble of today’s mobile phones boasts a decent camera. Used within their limitations, we can achieve an amazing record of our days – even locally to our homes – with the use of a few simple techniques.

My wife and I, plus our cat and dog, are lucky to live in the countryside, just south of Kendal, in Cumbria. Like everyone else we are ‘locked down’ except for buying food and exercising our Collie dog. The emergence of the spring has been a welcome respite, and has enabled a wider choice of photographic opportunities.

In my experience, taking photographs is a deeply therapeutic activity. It gets you out of the house, and makes you focus on something very positive. For the shots I’ve used in this blog my criteria were:

1. To walk only a short distance from home. A typical morning dog walk takes us about two hours and sees us less than two miles away, as we meander and the collie gets lots of ball-chucking.

2. To photograph only objects that are commonplace. The essence of this kind of challenge is to find something special in the ordinary.

3. To use only my mobile phone to take the shots, leaving cameras with more sophisticated lenses at home. Generally this means that the emphasis will be on the close-up shot, but, as we shall see, there can be exceptions.

The opening shot, above, is at the farthest point of our walk. The path along the old canal bank takes a sharp left and dives down into a field with sheep. This removes the middle ground and opens up the perspective available. A few seconds spent exploring the composition through the viewfinder can reveal a pleasing mix of foreground and distant background – in this case, a faded view of the Lakeland hills to the north-west, contrasting with the old limestone and aged wood of the fence.

(Above: Sedgwick House – once a gunpowder mangate’s mansion)

The second image, above, is of Sedgwick House, in the middle of the village. Once the palatial home of a local gunpowder magnate, the gothic-style mansion has seen many roles; including army base and children’s home. Following a recent building conversion, Sedgwick House is now divided into luxury apartments.

I’ve photographed it many times, but today was the first time I’ve seen the light so perfectly balanced between the dappled area beneath the trees and the brighter approach to the building. The two tall trees should have interfered with the shot but, due to their helping frame the light effects, they have actually enhanced it.

(Above: the ‘skewed bridge’ in the centre of the village – this once carried the full weight of the canal across the main road)

The third shot is of the ‘skewed’ aquaduct in the centre of Sedgwick. What is now known as the ‘Lancaster’ canal once ran all the way into Kendal. The canal-carrying bridge was built using advanced stonemason techniques that allowed the shape to be bent. This avoided having to reshape the road into a ‘z’ bend. The photo deliberately emphasises the skewed right arm of the structure, thereby demonstrating its length. The tiny view into the continuing main street is a visual surprise in something so massive and dense.

(Above: the final shot – nature bursts out in the very special hue of spring green)

The final photo is simply a tree bursting with the unique green hue of the spring. It’s impossible not to feel joy in its presence – especially after such a long and muddy winter. Always look for the dappled light at the base of the tree – it’s a joyous as the green on a lovely day like this.

Four simple techniques and sample shots. Anyone can take such photos, and come back home feeling something deliberate and mindful was achieved in the daily exercise walk. In addition, the air is clear and beautiful, given that there is so little traffic on the roads. Get your camera out and take advantage while it lasts… It will give you a record to discuss with your grandchildren, if nothing else!

©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.