Rites of Passage: Brief encounter…

The Silent Eye weekends are not just about what is built into the schedule, they are also a chance to spend time with people we have come to know through the events and who have become friends. We are always glad when there is time to spare, as that allows us to take a more leisurely approach, whether that is a long talk over dinner or, if we are lucky, time to visit and share an extra site or two.

On Saturday afternoon, we found ourselves with a couple of hours to spare and a rather curious site not five minutes away from where we were. Rowtor Rocks is a favourite haunt, one we have visited many times, both on our own, with friends and as part of a previous workshop. It is a curious, natural landscape that has been altered by man, from the prehistoric rock carvings to its reshaping by a local clergyman.

Many of the rocks have faces, there are strange ‘blinds’ and false paths leading to sheer drops, caves and a staircase that seems to lead through a narrow cleft to rebirth. It could be a dangerous place for the unwary, with steep cliffs and misleading pathways, but with a little knowledge and care, it is a fascinating place to explore.

We have theories… a good many of them… but the most pertinent to the journey we had been taking that weekend was that, whether seen through the Christian symbolism of the Stations of the cross, or from a more esoteric perspective, the Rocks had been re-designed to provide a perfect initiatory landscape, where the need to face the deepest of human fears is part of the journey. We had looked into the history and possible functions of the site in some depth during our Riddles of the Night workshop and, although we would not have time to share it all with our companions, there would be time enough to give an overview. It was as I was pointing out a skull-like rock with a ‘font’ cut into its crown, that a vacant-eyes woman appeared and approached, wafting a stick ineffectually at the undergrowth. My impression was that she was wearing a floral tea dress, reminiscent of the forties, such as my grandmothers would have worn… and that whoever was supposed to be watching her needed to take far greater care with the steep drops from the rocks. She neither spoke nor acknowledged us, just wafted dolefully and retreated after a few moments.

On the next level up, a man with both the moustache and dress of Clark Gable in Mogambo was also watching us. He looked vaguely angry… and his expression never changed throughout the encounter. I did not hear him speak either and that was odd, as everyone else we passed exchanged smiles or greetings. There was just something odd about them… apart from their dress from half a century ago…

The two gave the impression of being together but did not communicate with each other, at least, not verbally. Taking one of the company into a cave, I missed most of what happened next and will have to leave it for one of the others to fill in the gaps. I came out of the cave in a hurry, having the distinct impression that our other companion was somehow under threat. It made no sense, but that was what I felt. There had been a brief encounter, but the situation had been diffused.

It is difficult to convey the sense of unease, as if something was ‘not quite right’ with the two oddly garbed figures. It was even odder when, after they had disappeared, we compared notes and found that while we could all describe the man, we all recalled the woman as being dressed differently, though the colours we remembered were the same. Even odder when we realised that they had left the area via the steps at the far end of the platform… steps I had warned our companions against climbing as they are slippery and broken… and lead to nowhere beyond what can be seen except a sheer and unclimbable drop…

For no reason we could put into words at that point, the whole encounter had been rather unnerving. Even so, we put it to one side as we showed our friends the series of caverns and played with the acoustics. One of the caves is incredibly dark. I had borrowed a torch to check the safety of the floor before inviting everyone in… it would not do to have broken glass underfoot in the pitch blackness. That too is unnerving…until you turn to look back at the light from whence you came and realise that it is not really dark at all. The shadows are all perception.

Above the caverns, we showed how easily a great boulder can be moved; so perfectly balanced is the rocking stone that it moves with the lightest touch. Further up, we looked at the isolated pillar that is impossible to reach… and the three ‘judgement seats’ carved into the stone, before looking down once more to a prehistoric symbol of light.

It was just a shame there was no more time. We saw only a part of what there is to see… but it was enough. Rowtor is a place of contrasts. Dark and light, man-made and natural, ancient and modern, Christian and pagan, winding paths and sheer drops. In many ways, it was the perfect precursor to what we had planned for the next day. But first, we had planned dinner in Castleton, and if we were lucky, there would be just enough light to show our companions the Shivering Mountain and a little of the spectacular limestone countryside…

Rites of Passage: Going deeper…

We had only a field to cross before we reached or final planned destination of the day. Doll Tor is a secluded little circle, now set within a wooded grove, a little off the beaten track. Following the unofficial addition of stones to the circle in the 90s, by well-meaning but misguided visitors, archaeologists carefully restored the site to its original layout, removing extraneous stones and it now looks much as it would have done when it was first built in the Bronze Age.

Thankfully, the site had been well documented. The circle is around twenty feet in diameter and consists of six standing stones which were once connected by drystone walling, traces of which still remain. The design reminded us of Barbrook II, though here the connecting walls take a back seat and may be missed by those concentrating on the standing stones. As we had seen at Nine Maidens, and on previous trips to Barbrook I, there is a cairn close to the circle, this time, though, instead of being at a small distance away, it is right beside it. Almost connected to it. Given the nature of the finds unearthed here, it could be seen perhaps as a mortuary temple… or perhaps its purpose was to forge a strong connection with the ancestors.

Bateman’s excavations in 1852 uncovered burial urns and cups within the circle. Eighty years later, Heathcote found five more cremations and a number of urns within the stones. In the cairn, he found a central stone cist containing the cremated remains of a woman. Around the edges, four more cremations had been buried, along with a faience bead. For such a small, withdrawn circle, set apart from the main settlement, sites and cairns of Stanton Moor, it was obviously a place of some importance to contain so many burials… almost as if it had been ‘supercharged’ with ancestral presences. It gives the impression of a place set apart for a reason.

Because of its seclusion, Doll Tor is a place still used by those for whom there is still magic in the land. It is one of those places where saying that the ‘veil is thin’ is more an accurate description of the atmosphere than a cliché. Our own experiences at the site had convinced us that the link between the land and its people was still functioning and we hoped our companions would join us in an experiment to reconnect with the ancestral presence.

We feel that this was once a place of seers. It has a distinctly feminine feel and even its form echoes that of a gravid goddess. The trees that shield the circle from view offer their own presence and the grove of wood and stone feels very much alive.

While two of us held the space, we would journey back, following the paths that open on the screen of imagination, and see what might come into the mind. Opening ourselves to the unknown is another threshold of fear, whether in everyday life or in any form of psychic or magical work. The pathways of the mind can lead us to some strange places, not all of them comfortable.

Motionless, with arms outstretched, we stood as our companions walked the inner paths that lead beyond time, space and realities. What they found there is not our story to share, but it is safe to say that for them, too, the circle was still alive and functional.

Such experiences may be dismissed by the sceptical as pure imagination…which is, after all, one of the most powerful forces in our world and the root of all innovation and creativity. For others, it is psychism or vision. When images surface from the deeper levels of the mind, such labels matter little. To those who experience such a moment, what matters is what is felt and learned. And none of us were left unmoved.

Before we left, we shared bread and wine, a symbolic communion of Earth and Spirit, that has its roots in a tradition far older than its current religious association. There is shared purpose at such moments, and a trust that knows no barriers. Then, having performed the closing visualisation, we made our way back towards the road.

A glance at the clock told us that the scheduled day had finished earlier than anticipated. With our table for dinner not booked till eight, we had time to spare…and a very intriguing site just five minutes down the road. The chance for a whistle-stop tour of the site seemed too good an opportunity to miss. It is a strange place, but one we know well. We knew our companions would find it interesting. But we were not expecting the weirdness that would find us there…

Rites of Passage: War and peace

We had left two of our companions to return to the hotel, as one of them, gallantly sharing the weekend in spite of upcoming surgery, had turned her ankle and needed to rest. We were, therefore, a reduced company who crossed the road to make our way across the field to another of those natural, wind-worn sentinel pillars. The Andle Stone does not just look back, though, towards Stanton Moor…it guards the passage to a secluded site we would shortly be visiting.

At first glance, it seems just a huge boulder, over sixteen feet high and surrounded by a small, green copse. Nineteenth-century climbers had once again carved hand and foot holds into the face of the rock…a bit of history I would rather not see. But there are older carvings too, as the stone reportedly has cup marks carved into its upper face, far older than the names of intrepid graffiti artists from the past two hundred years.

There is also another legend carved on the stone, and it is one that is easily missed. As our theme for the weekend was fear and how we can not only choose to face it but turn what is usually seen as a negative emotion to the service of a greater cause, it seemed uncannily appropriate.

Carved on the back of the boulder and almost hidden from sight is an inscription, commemorating Lieutenant Colonel William Thornhill of the 7th Hussars, a veteran of Waterloo, and Arthur Wellesley, better known as the Duke of Wellington, who commanded the decisive battle against Napoleon. We had not realised, when we planned the weekend, that Wellington had died a hundred and sixty-seven years ago on the same date that we would be visiting the Andle Stone, a date which is also, coincidentally, my birthday.

Thornhill’s regiment, the 7th Hussars, had seen some of the worst of a battle that left the army in tatters. Of the three hundred and eighty men who took up their position near Hougoumont, less than a third would end the day alive and without serious injury.

File:Castle of Hougoumont during the Battle of Waterloo.jpg

We paused to consider for a moment, what they might have felt as they waited for the battle to begin…and when it had begun. How can we imagine the filth, noise, stench and horror of such a battlefield, where men were hacking each other to pieces with sabres, shelling each other with cannon and musket, and fearing the erratic flight of the new rockets designed to rip the squares to shreds?

It must be remembered, that, in spite of guns and cannon, much of the fighting was hand to hand.  You saw the eyes of the men you killed or maimed… or those who would do the same to you. The acrid odour of gunpowder, burnt flesh and spilled blood… the all-pervasive mud made slick with blood… the screams of horses and the whimpering of the dying… There was no pressing of buttons, no ‘surgical strike’…  battle was personal and there was nowhere to hide from horror.

It was the bloodiest of campaigns, with almost a quarter of the French and Allied armies being killed or wounded. Wellington, a hard leader, known to have called his ‘infamous army’ the ‘scum of the earth’, wrote of the battle, “ My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”

Regardless of our personal stance on the evils, rightness or necessity of war, we can empathise with the men who stood and waited for what might come. However brave their faces, whether they waited with forced laughter, thought longingly of home, loved ones or safety, or whether they held back tears, wondering why the hell they had ever taken the King’s shilling, none of them can have been unafraid. And yet, they stood.

Many tales of heroism reach us from humankind’s battlefields, tales of self-sacrifice that surpass the call of duty or personal fear, of small kindnesses and of the breaking of barriers. It is often only when we are in the grip of fear, carried along by events over which we can have no control, that we learn what we are capable of, both as individuals and as a species.

Even the smallest light shines bright against the darkness. There are so many stories of bravery, selflessness and humanity to emerge from these bloody chapters of human history. We tend to think of those who shine in such circumstances as fearless, yet, there can be no courage where there is no fear… the hero is the one who refuses to be ruled by fear and chooses, instead, to act.

“All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I call ‘guessing what was at the other side of the hill’.” Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.

We sat with the stone for a while, listening to a reading and watching as a fearless young father scaled the rock in seconds, standing proudly upon his perch and surveying the land. As we stood to leave, heading towards our final official site of the day, we heard his voice on the wind, unconsciously illustrating the heart of Wellington’s words…

“Er… how do I get down?”

Rites of Passage: Worlds apart

Our next stop was not only a site extraordinarily rich in archaeological remains, but also a local beauty spot with plenty of parking nearby and well-defined paths… always a difficult combination. We would always wish to have these places to ourselves, but as they are freely accessible, the better known sites are seldom deserted on a sunny afternoon. It is a balancing act… while it is undoubtedly a good thing that people visit these sites, taking even a cursory interest in their history and thus helping to preserve them for future generations, not everyone treats them with respect. Much damage has been done over the years, and you never know what you are going to find.

One of the first things you see as you enter the area known as Stanton Moor is a pillar of wind-worn gritstone known as the Cork Stone. The face of a watcher guards the entrance to the moor, a place where, for over four thousand years, a continuous human story has shaped the land.

The past few hundred years have seen damage and changes wrought by quarrying, plantations and medieval field systems, but it is the Bronze Age that renders this area one of national importance and spiritual significance. By the time you reach the Cork Stone, one of four such guardian pillars on the edges of this small patch of moor, you have already passed between two of the seventy or more burial cairns veiled in heather and bracken.

Many of these cairns were excavated in the mid twentieth century. Interred cremations and skeletal remains were found, along with grave goods, food vessels and personal possessions, all of which show care and attention to the dead, both as individuals and collectively, rather than our more modern attitude of fear and hasty disposal.

The grave goods imply a belief in a life beyond this one and a place for the ancestors within the lives of the living. Why leave offerings unless the departed with know about or need them in the space beyond death? Why worry about their remains, save for love and respect, unless you expect them to still be around in one form or another?

The cairnfields cluster around four stone circles. Most are almost impossible to find except in winter when the vegetation is sparse, but the best know, Nine Ladies, draws many visitors. The legend, a common one for stone circles, says that the stones are nine maidens, turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath and the outlying stone was the fiddler who played for them.

There are, in fact, ten stones at Nine Ladies… in addition to the outlying King Stone, a flat stone was found to the east in 1976. The small stature of the stones is typical of Derbyshire circles and, although the circle is over thirty feet across, none of the stones are more than three feet high. To those used to the tall stones in other parts of the country, it would be easy to dismiss these small circles as somehow ‘lesser’ than their grander counterparts, but when you are lucky enough to stand alone in their presence, you are very aware that here, size really does not matter.

There is a possible embankment around the circle and there may once have been a cairn or burial at its centre. A solitary stone now stands in the path a few yards away. This is the King Stone; long thought to be an outlier, it has now been found to be the central pillar of a ring cairn, now lost. It has sadly lost much of its height thanks to a collision with a car… vandalism has long been a problem at this site.

Most, but sadly, not all of the time, the damage is not deliberately caused. The stone circles draw innumerable visitors and simple erosion by the passage of thousands of feet will eventually create problems. When we arrived at Nine Ladies, we were treated to the terror of a young lamb, separated from its mother, fleeing for its life from an uncontrolled dog… its owner nowhere to be seen. There were families, campers with hammocks strung from the trees and walkers… and, with the poor lamb having just run through, the atmosphere was not good.

It strikes me as sad that these old places, once sacred centres for their builders, should be given less respect than more familiar places of worship. Those sprawled across the stones or partying in their midst would not dream of repeating their behaviour in a church, even if they do not subscribe to its faith. We may not wholly understand the beliefs of those who built the stone circles, but we know they were seen as sacred places… and I believe that their beliefs deserve respect.

We stopped at the threshold formed by the King Stone, the central pillar of the now-invisible cairn, unwilling, for the moment, to go closer. The juxtaposition of cairn and circle is seen at many of the sites in Derbyshire. Barbrook, Doll Tor and even Arbor Low seem to make this deliberate connection between the rites of the living and the presence of the dead.

Quite how significant this may have been we have no way of proving, except by working with the sites and seeing what comes. What is known though, is that the cairns and circles on this stretch of moor and beyond were arranged in quite specific alignments.  Author John Barnatt, senior survey archaeologist for the Peak District, has used modern methods to confirm these alignments… though their purpose may elude us.

The archaeological evidence, however, does indicate that life and death were seen as intimately linked and suggests a belief that there was a line of communication between the two. Perhaps the ancestors were thought to care for the living, even from beyond the veil, perhaps they were believed to be able to influence or advise on events. It also suggests that while the innate, life-preserving fear of dying would have been at least as strong in our ancestors as it is in ourselves, the fear of the dead, and of death itself, was less prevalent than it is today.

In a society where the ethos of winners, losers and ‘every man for himself’ has become the desired and necessary approach for those seeking material success, we seem to have lost that sense of community and continuity that places the wellbeing of the many before the desire of the one. Ego is in the driving seat…and ego fears nothing as much as its own obliteration.

With a certain reluctance, we led the way into the circle, allowing our small company time to become acquainted with the stones. The circumstances were not ideal, but when we gathered to share the visualisation of the Web of Light, we might as well have been invisible.

We began the long walk back, passing through the huge but hollowed cairns, as well as those yet to be excavated, that line the pathway. Two by two, caught in our own part of the story, we headed back towards the Cork Stone. With more time and fewer people around, we could have spent a day exploring here. As it was, there was a quieter place that we wanted to share before the afternoon ended…

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

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

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

The parish church of St Lawrence, Eyam

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

The Saxon cross in the church of St Lawrence

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

From Diary of Catherine Mompesson, 5th July 1666:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The interior of St Lawrence’s church

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

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

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

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

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

The old sundial on the walls of the church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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©Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

Rites of Passage: Familiarity…

It isn’t always what you know that counts… it matters more what you understand well enough to bring it into consciousness. Some of us were to get a graphic example of that as we took a break for lunch in the Derbyshire town of Bakewell.

It is a lovely town, in spite of the inevitable hordes of visitors that flock there ever summer, with one of the best churches, replete with stories, history and mysteries. From the Saxon crosses and Masonic gravestone in the churchyard, to the dragons and the white stag in the stained glass, it has something to discover on every new visit.

We have run a workshop based in Bakewell, explored pretty much every nook and cranny, as well as having spent many a lunch-break on the banks of the river Wye, watching the huge brown trout and the innumerable birds enjoying the swift, shallow waters.

Although we would not have time for a proper visit on this trip, it was the perfect place, midway between sites, for an extended lunch-break that would allow our companions to explore. Arranging to meet at the river, we went our separate ways.

We returned early to the meeting place and, finding all the benches full, Stuart took up a perch on a tree as we waited. As we did so, a tiny old lady, as fragile as a whisper, whipped into a newly vacated spot with surprising alacrity. She must have been in her nineties… frail and almost transparent, yet in spite of the  trolley upon which she leaned, her movements were bird-quick.

And the birds were quick to notice her as she reached into her trolley to take out their lunch. It was obviously a ritual of long standing, as dozens of birds recognised her movements and arrived at her feet, showing no fear at all of either their benefactor or those, like us, who were seated close by.

Wild birds are supposed to be wary of humans, but that fear is a learned behaviour. Birds were around, in one form or another, for millions of years before humans came along and decided that their meat, bones  and their feathers were a useful addition to their hunted supplies. Birds learned to fear us and that fear has been passed down through the generations.

I thought of the Dodo, living safely on its island throughout its evolution. With no predator to teach it to know fear, it was only curious when Man arrived and that was its undoing. In just decades, the Dodo was extinct. Not only does the Dodo provide a graphic illustration of how fear, in its rightful place, can be of service,  it also shows something we all know, but seldom think about… fear has to be learned.

It may be learned through personal experience, or through the cumulative experience of our ancestors, but whether it is a finger burned in a forbidden flame or the genetic memories that preserve us, fear is an acquired and instinctive reaction. Yet these particular birds, used to the constant stream of munching tourists  as a food source, as well as their regular suppliers, like the little old lady, had  learned something other than fear…they have learned to trust.

It cannot have come easily to begin with. You can even spot the newcomers who find safety in the crowd but who are still wary when separated from the flock.  But, with personal experience… getting to know the environment, its gifts and its people, the inborn and instinctive distrust built up over the course of millions of years has been set aside in favour of a newly-learned trust. And, if the birds can do it, so can we.

Our own behaviours and reactions are learned, whether from early experience, those who raised us, or from the generations of ancestors who went before. But the world is a rapidly changing place.

Countries we could only dream of seeing, even a generation ago, are now easily accessible as holiday destinations, places to work or are instantly accessible via the internet. Behaviours that served to keep  our distant ancestors safe may no longer serve us, only keep is separate and fearful, creating division and prejudice. Perhaps we too can learn to see beyond fear to trust… and find that, in doing so, we are richer for the change of heart.

It had taken so little to bring this point home. Our little old lady had been there only a few moments, yet she had the joy of feeding the birds and seeing them flock to greet her…and they, through their trust, had been nourished. Their interaction, fleeting though it was, had been beautiful to watch.

As our companions gathered once more by the bridge, I reflected on how simply Nature can teach us…and how easily we can miss her lessons, forgetting, in the hustle and bustle of urban life, that we too are her creatures and part of the vast and intricate dance of life on this planet we call home.

Rites of Passage: On the Edge…

On Saturday morning, we gathered on the Edge above Baslow. The rocky landscape here is one we know well, capturing and melding the wild essence of the land with the lives of its people, through history, necessity and modern Man’s pursuit of beauty.

You have to wonder if the stark beauty of the high crags with their panoramic views over the valleys played a part in why our ancestors chose this spot to build a settlement. It is logical to assume that the dictates of practicality and safety made them seek a place with water and a defensive position. We know that many of these sites were considered sacred too, given the purposes for which they were used. To a culture already crafting beautiful things and colourful garments, perhaps the land itself spoke to them and asked them to call it home.

It would not have mattered which way we had chosen to walk… there is history beneath every step here, from the cairnfields and stone circles of the Barbrook complex, to the enclosure, rock art and standing stones of Gardom’s Edge, the ancient settlements of Big Moor…or the cairnfields around our destination, the Eagle Stone.

We opened our day with a visualisation, then the party separated. Some chose to walk along the path that runs along the Edge, where the view over Derbyshire is spectacular. Others followed the more direct path, keeping our eyes open for the ‘scrying bowls’ we wanted to share on our return.

First though, we wanted to explore other aspects of fear, both physical and the more tenuous fear of failure and its consequences… or perceived consequences…within a community. As we gathered around the Eagle Stone, we asked if anyone could see a way to climb to the top.

The Eagle Stone is a naturally occurring gritstone boulder, some twenty feet high. Wind and rain have carved the huge boulder into fantastical shapes that give the stone a different face from every angle. While it is possible to see an eagle poised for flight from one position, there are laughing faces from others.

Some stories say that it got its name simply because eagles would perch upon the rock, other tales tell that it was cast there by a pre-Christian god, who could throw stones no mortal man could lift, and that its name should be Aigle’s Stone. It is also said to turn around three times when the cock crows… but we were a little late to verify that.

The Eagle Stone stands close to a Neolithic cairnfield on the Edge above Baslow. Given its proximity to the many prehistoric sites of the area, it is safe to assume that it would have been seen as significant by our ancestors and that what has come down to us in folklore may have its roots in the distant past.

Local tradition states that, before a man may marry, he must scale the Eagle Stone. As there is no easy way to climb the overhanging rock, this test of manhood has, since time beyond memory, been used to determine a youth’s fitness to mate and provide. The custom persists, with groups of young men, adorned with bridal veils, gathering to help their friends to the top. Perhaps ‘manhood’ is not only defined by the ability to face fears and overcome hurdles, but by the ability to cooperate and help each other.

Going back through the mists of time, we might consider that this surviving folk custom had its roots in a deeper mystery. Was it seen as a rite of passage into manhood? Watched over by the ancestors in their cairnfield, was this test of physical courage, strength and ingenuity the test that carried boys into adulthood and gave them a place within the clan? If so, then failure would have had dire consequences, whether from a fall or by the loss of place and face within the community. Is it too much to imagine that those who succeeded became the warriors or hunters, the ‘eagles’ of their tribe?

We still face similar ‘tests’ today and our position within the community is too often ranked by our success or failure at climbing the social, academic or business ladders. We are frequently judged by what we can ‘bring to the table’, instead of who we are as human beings and the higher qualities of humankind that we can teach our children. Individuals value such qualities, societies, it seems, do not. Many who should be honoured for their kindness, compassion and self-sacrifice are simply swept under the societal table because their focus was not on the ephemeral glitter ball of its approval.

As we returned, we stopped to look at the ‘scrying bowls’ that dot the moors and a huge boulder perched upon smaller ones that looks for all the world like a collapsed dolmen. The scrying bowls are usually filled with water, but for once, they were empty. While they may be no more than natural features… and I have found no record of a dolmen here… it is entirely possible that they would have been recognised and used by our ancestors.

Our visit was more light-hearted than serious. There had been merriment as some of our company made an attempt on the Eagle Stone. There were dogs and their owners to greet, people whose barriers came down for a moment to share the laughter and the sunshine… a stark contrast to the sad faces we had seen in Eyam the day before.

To the ancients, the Eagle Stone and the cairnfield where their forefathers were buried may have been a gateway through which they could touch the Unseen. Such ideas are often dismissed as superstition, but we deal with the unseen all the time. We feel the peace in an old village church and the tension in the atmosphere of a room without any obvious cues. The atmosphere of Eyam had been as darkly infectious as the mood was light on this walk across the moors. As we left Baslow Edge behind and headed for lunch in Bakewell, we couldn’t help wondering what our companions would make of what we had planned for later…

Rites of Passage: Beyond well…

Our last ‘official’ site for the day was Mompesson’s Well. The small, stone-capped well-housing sits in an enclosure above the village of Eyam, on the old salt road that once joined Sheffield to Cheshire. The well is fed by a stream and we had hoped that its pure waters would symbolically wash away the taste of grief after plunging ourselves into the dark history of the plague.

Mompesson’s Well, renamed in honour of the clergyman who had convinced the village to quarantine itself in 1665 when the plague had struck, was one of the places where money and goods were exchanged during the village’s self-imposed isolation. Money was left for supplies for the plague-ridden village, and the coins washed in the water in the belief that it would prevent infection. There are still coins left at the well today, though whether that is in homage to its history or part of an older tradition of leaving offerings by sacred springs is debatable.

The plague in Eyam lasted for fourteen months. The quarantine was lifted a little while after the death of the last victim of the pestilence, farm worker Abraham Morten, had died on the first of November 1666. It must have been a time of both hope and terror as the village held its breath, waiting to see if he were indeed the last.

Figures vary from source to source about how many people were living in Eyam when the plague first struck and how many died. The church holds records of two hundred and seventy three deaths, but that may not be the full total. While one source claims there may have been around seven hundred villagers at the start of the plague, many seem to agree on a mere three hundred and eighty. Either way, the loss is a staggering proportion of the population and no-one would have been left untouched by loss.

Yet, without their chosen actions and self-sacrifice, the plague would have undoubtedly spread, not only to the villages immediately surrounding Eyam, but thence to the towns and cities such as Bakewell, Buxton and Sheffield where poverty and the density of the population would have spelled disaster.

The quarantine was no empty gesture. The villagers knew that through their choices, most were condemning themselves and their families to a painful and horrible death. There was no effective treatment for the plague in the seventeenth century, but while tens of thousands were dying every week in London, in Derbyshire, the comparatively low death toll  is due to the sacrifice of this one village.

And yet, there is, in spite of their actions, and in spite of the vibrant internal life of the modern village, still a heavy taste of old fear hanging over Eyam. Even the atmosphere of the well did not feel truly clean… it was not the place to end our day. It is not always enough to heal the body; old pain leaves its scars and its ghosts. Instead, we followed the road up onto Eyam Moor, where older inhabitants had built stone circles thousands of years ago and where the air is clear and clean.

We had begun our afternoon together with a visualisation, placing our work within a circle of Light. High on the moors, amid the last of the heather, we offered what light we shared for the healing of old pain.

All that remained for us to do was to return to base. We had booked a table for dinner at the Queen Anne in Great Hucklow, the inn that has seen us every year during our April ritual workshops. The pub, just three miles from Eyam and built in 1621, is just a few years older than the story of the plague. There was something rather comforting about its familiarity at the end of such an emotional day. And sometimes, warmth and friendship are all it takes to make the world right.

We had been lucky with the warm weather too… a beautiful autumn day. As we watched the sun go down from the pub’s garden, we were hoping for fine weather for the next day too… for we would be spending it high on the moors with the stones…

 

Rites of Passage: A mother’s grief

High above the village of Eyam, overlooking the hills, valleys and rock edges of Derbyshire, is a walled enclosure. It is a beautiful spot and well worth the walk along the leafy lane for the magnificent views of the landscape. But this is Eyam and these are the Riley Graves… and their weathered stones tell the saddest of stories.

It was the summer of 1666 and exceptionally warm. The bubonic plague was at its height in Eyam, the village that had chosen to quarantine itself rather than risk the spread of disease to the neighbouring town and villages. There were no public gatherings, except in Cucklett Delph on the outskirts of the settlement; people stayed away from each other as much as possible in the hope of escaping infection and the churchyard was no longer used for burials, with each family burying their own dead.

The Hancock family had a small farmstead on the edge of the village at Riley Top, close to the home of the Talbot family. Talbot was a blacksmith and had a smithy close to the road, as well as working the land. Having already survived a year of the plague in the village, perhaps the two families had hope that their isolated position and the fruits of their land might keep them and their children safe.

On the fifth of July, 1666, Briget and Mary, daughters of Richard and Catherine Talbot, fell victim to the plague and their father buried them beside their home. In the days that followed, Richard buried two more of his children, Ann and Robert, and his wife, Catherine, before he too succumbed to infection. Only one child remained, and when he too died, on the thirtieth of July, there were none but the Hancock family to bury him.

That final act of charity was to prove fatal. Just days later, on the third of August, two of the Hancock children, John and Elisabeth, sickened and died.  With her husband already ailing, the grieving  mother buried her children, digging shallow graves with her own hands and dragging their bodies to a spot close to their home, with a towel wrapped around their feet to avoid, as much as possible, the risk of carrying infection back to the rest of her family.

I cannot begin to imagine how that felt for the grieving mother. When someone we love passes over, regardless of our spiritual beliefs, we want to see their bodies treated with care and respect… it is a final act of love. In my mind, I see a woman not only grieving for her lost child, but the horror and despair she must have felt, seeing and feeling the small body bounce and scrape over the earth. Necessity may give us the strength to act in a manner far beyond that of which we would normally be capable, but it does not take away the horror or the pain.

Elizabeth’s son, Oner, died during the night of the sixth of August, followed a few minutes later by his father, John, and, before dawn, young William also died. Once more, Elizabeth faced the appalling task of digging their graves and dragging the bodies of her loved ones across the rough field to bury them.

Only two daughters now remained with Elizabeth. Alice died on the ninth of August and Ann on the tenth. For the last time, Elizabeth dug graves for her children, laying them beneath the earth of home with her own hands, watched, from a neighbouring hilltop by the villagers of Stoney Middleton.

It is almost impossible to imagine what she must have felt. The grief for the loss of her husband and, almost certainly, the loss of her home and livelihood on land she could not farm alone. The searing grief that any mother feels when a life begun within her own body, nurtured beneath and within her heart, is extinguished, must have been multiplied not by six, but a thousand times.

When a child is ill or in pain, all a parent wants to do take that pain away. To watch one child suffer, knowing there is nothing you can do to ease that suffering, and no way to prevent them dying a horrible and painful death… to watch their fear and pain as the disease progresses… will  feel like a knife twisting in a parent’s heart. To have to watch as first your friends, then all of your children, and your partner too, fall victim to such a dreadful predator as the plague, is unimaginable.

With no-one to whom she could turn to for comfort, no shoulder upon which she could weep…and the inevitable guilt and dreadful questions that must have plagued her about why she alone had survived, Elizabeth had to find a way to live. Eventually, she left her home to spend the rest of her days with her surviving son, who had been away from the village serving an apprenticeship. It was this son who later erected the memorial stones to his father, brothers and sisters. Around his father’s tomb are carved the words Orate Vigilate Nescitis Horam, which roughly means, ‘watch and pray, you know not the hour’. Upon the top of the tomb, is inscribed:

Remember man

As thou goest by,

As thou art now,

Even once was I;

As I doe now

So must thou lie,

Remember man

That thou must die.

It is a good reminder that the stories we tell and see played out upon the pages of history are our own. It is all too easy to look at events from which we are separated by time, culture or distance as if we were looking at a television screen. We can look and yet maintain our personal space, deflect the emotional impact, almost pretend that those involved are not ‘real’ people. We do not do so deliberately, it is probably a defence mechanism, especially in today’s world, where we are constantly bombarded by so many images of violence and tragedy that, were we to take each one to heart as if it were our own, we would founder beneath the weight of grief and despair.

Sometimes, our protective barriers are torn down and we are as one with the victims of tragedy. How many, for example, who watched the Twin Towers fall, will ever forget or be unmoved?  Even those of us who were half a world away. Sometimes a story touches us and we open ourselves to it. It becomes personal. The separations wrought by time and distance mean nothing as we share, for a moment, the life of another human soul.

Not one of us would wish to face such a nightmare scenario and none can know how we would cope or how we would act in such circumstances. But we can recognise a parent’s love for their children and hope that even while fear might drive us to reaction, love would call up a deeper strength that would allow us to act from the heart.

As we outlined the story of the Riley Graves for our companions, both empathy and sympathy blossomed as Elizabeth’s story touched our hearts. We could stand in her shoes, just for a moment, protected by the passage of time, and feel an echo of her fear, loss and grief. Her home is now gone, its stones long-since removed and absorbed into the walls that criss-cross the landscape. But, although the graves of her family, within their enclosure, still seem an open wound upon the green of the field, for most of us, the overwhelming impression with which we were left was one of love.