The Stone and the Pilgrim (2)

Part 2.

Rested, the group of pilgrims gathers beneath the vast presence of Bamburgh Castle. The castle was restored to its present glory by the 19th century munitions entrepreneur and inventor William Armstrong. Lord Armstrong bought it from the Crewe trustees in 1894 for the sum of £60,000 – a fortune then. He went on to spend a further one million pounds creating an iconic English castle which would be used as a convalescent home for ‘well educated people who had fallen on hard times’.

Armstrong’s descendants still own and use Bamburgh Castle, though they have other dwellings, too. They are very much a part of Northumberland’s life and social hierarchy.

The portrait above was painted in 1846 and hangs in the museum within the castle walls which is dedicated to his work.

But we are not here for history. We are here to engage with the now, in a way that invokes the surroundings as a metaphor of our ‘interior’ state.

Seen from the beach the previous evening, the castle was the embodiment of protection… but also, possibly, conformity and obedience. Its structure is heavy, fixed. Whatever ideas gave rise to its creation are reflected in its unyielding stonework. The way it has grown and evolved is an accurate parallel to how the egoic self arises and dominates.

On the Friday evening, In our minds, we created an image of a portcullis being raised, and a mental journey into the castle to locate a symbolic key that would epitomise our pilgrim’s journey from here to Lindisfarne. But we know that things will happen when we actually pass inside its walls…

Psychologically, we will be transformed from being free but vulnerable, outside; to being safe but caged, inside. It’s not a new dilemma. The very first cell of biological life created that polarisation – that duality. From then on, the vehicle of life – the final product of organic chemical organisation – would thrive, but only inside the container which allowed protection and persistence… The world of consciousness changed at that point- becoming dual: the in-here and the out-there.

Sea bacteria became plants. Plants became fish. Fish became land and sky animals and finally, mankind emerged. At each stage, nature built on the best of what had gone before, while still allowing diversity in all its glory. The castle supports and protects ‘the best’. The inheritance of its wealth and prestige mirrors the DNA that allows life to endure in a cellular world, but only in a material sense.

We pass through the heavy wooden door and are assimilated into the interior of the ancient building. From here, even as group leader, I cannot speak for any of my companion’s experiences. Each is here to experience for themselves; each will or won’t find a key emotional space within the castle.

The first of the two ‘small rooms’ is unimpressive. Weapons and paintings hang from plain, white walls. There is no connection here, no sense of a powerful emotion related to our weekend’s quest, no test for the pilgrim…. it is spartan in its ‘feel’.

It is only in the next room that I discover that these two ‘small rooms’ were once part of the kitchens, which explains their plainness.

The connecting corridors and staircases wind into the centre of the building. The ancient is mixed with the familiar and familial, such as this bronze of Lady Armstrong and her two children, crafted by sculptor and film maker David Rawnsley, who, earlier in his multi-talented career, had produced the famous wartime naval epic ‘In which we serve’. The film was based upon the life of Earl Mountbatten.

A warship would make another good model of the egoic self, I think to myself…

And then the nature of the interior changes. It becomes obvious that we are approaching a different part of the castle; one with very different functions.

The stone is somehow grander. The lustre of the wood is deeper. The final flight of stairs is steep and heralds a dramatic change of perspective as we emerge into the King’s Hall.

The roof of the great hall is what first catches your attention. The false hammer beam ceiling is made from Thai teak. The King of (then) Siam was a close friend of Lord Armstrong and is said to have personally helped with the intricate carving. The King’s hall has served as the main ballroom and function suite since Edwardian times. It contains a minstrel’s gallery to house the musicians.

The austerity of the previous two rooms is replaced by a physical and emotional warmth. This is a place you want to be. Though only the ‘best’ would get that right, of course. It is ours for a few minutes. Within that time we each need to decide its significance in the scheme of the weekend.

‘I’ feel very at home here. The opulence speaks of a place evolved to suit the needs and the feelings of a ruling class. That is not how I feel about myself, of course, but I can appreciate the effort and skill that has gone into its design. There’s little here that is new; it’s all traditional – and of very good quality. The sheer height of the ceiling casts a sense of ‘freedom’ about the place. We who live in low-ceilinged, modern houses forget how special this feels.

And then it hits me: how far in mind I am from the spirit of the group on the beach, the previous evening; how I have indentified with the quality of the contents in the hall. And there, now plainly visible, is the slow undermining of the search for the real Self that such luxury promotes. It’s quite natural to want to be comfortable, to appreciate quality things, but the purpose of this weekend is to make visible the working of the egoic self and its (literally) trappings.

Smiling, I do a little nod to the power in the room and leave…

The two martial figures, devoid of real content, couldn’t be better placed. Their presence is almost threatening: “Look, we’ve tried it the nice way, but you’re being stubborn.” They seem to say. “Just turn around and embrace the opulence… forget the other nonsense…”

Seen with a ‘normal’ eye, it’s just dark humour. But we don’t do these things to see with normal eyes; we try to see differently. Here’s a classic case: the finding of a key, the resolution to ‘leave it behind’ and then the act of running straight into authority. That’s exactly what the ego does to us when we challenge its position at our centre. It has a scary counterpart in the ‘superego’ – an internal authority figure that mimics someone in your life – like your mother or father; someone whose standards you can never live up to.

But the suits of armour have another attribute that fits them well with our search for metaphor: they may look fearsome but they are empty… And, in particular, they have no centre of being. They are just a shell, grown in reaction to life to protect us. But what protects also imprisons…

Now, my time is nearly up and I’m on a mission to leave, to get out of there. I have one more thing I want to do, and that’s outside the main body of the castle. I walk quickly though the remainder of the rooms on the higher level, looking for the exit staircase to the lower corridor.

But, just before the staircase there is a well – a very ancient well, mentioned in the History of the Kings of England and dated 774 AD. It is nearly 44 metres deep and two metres wide, and was cut through hard rock to reach the water-bearing sandstone, below, giving the castle its life-sustaining water for over a thousand years.

Suddenly, my subjective day has a very special connection with the objective world ‘out there’ and my hand slides over the wooden cover in a gesture of gratitude as I take the staircase and leave the castle.

At the far end of the interior grounds of the castle is a raised platform on which sits the old windmill. From it, I know I will get a view of the whole structure – just like being on the beach. For long minutes I stand and look back, restoring the perspective of the evening before. Then, conscious that the others will be gathering outside the halls, I walk to join them.

Stuart, one of my fellow directors of the Silent Eye School is there, already. He is sitting in a reproduction of the ancient royal throne of Bamburgh, reconstructed from a fragment found on the site. Behind him, the companions of the weekend are gathering after their own interior experiences. Whenever we can, we open such moments to any kind of reading or spoken observations. Poetry or prose is a popular choice. Stuart has on his knee a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress…

We gather and listen… It’s surprisingly apt.

To be continued.

©️Stephen Tanham

Other parts of this series:

Part One,


Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation 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.

You’ll find friends, poetry, literature and photography there…and some great guest posts on related topics.

Pilgrims of Blood and Stone

 

 

Castles 25Jul Rose and Warkworthv1

The blood: the Life that flows through us, taken in as breath, fresh each second, flowing out to be renewed in the world of nature; natural, given.

The stone: the fixed structures we rely on to ensure persistence of that life-force made flesh. The riddle, the contradiction – the mystery… beginning with that most profound and persistent structure: the body…

There is no more beautiful a coastline in which to explore the mystery of our being than Northumberland. The beaches are wonderful, the climate is usually mild late into the Autumn. The mellowness of September will be perfect.

This former Kingdom in its own right is rich in history; ancient and modern. Yet, it remains unvisited by most. Look on a map and you’ll see how it’s lovely hills and coast form a separate realm between England and Scotland.

Northumberland from Google
( Image above: Northumberland – an ancient Kingdom between England and Scotland. (Google Maps))

The castle or the fortified tower is capable of being used as working symbol of the way we guard against life; and Northumberland is full of such treasures. They mirror its history, from the ancient political and religious roots to its lawless centuries when gangs – land pirates – roamed, unchecked, in the times of the Border reivers.

img_1446
(Image above: the fortified Tower – about which, more later….

Pilgrims have always come this way, drawn by the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. We, too, will be drawn towards its mysterious and ancient shores, the birthplace of English (Celtic) Christianity. But, before we make that last odyssey across the causeway (or sands, for the adventurous) to that final island of the soul, we will make other journeys along the edge of the land, journeys that use coast and castle to explore the seemingly contrasting nature of survival and spirituality.

img_9764
(Image above: the castle on the far point of Lindisfarne. Taken from the Tourist Information board)

Day One: Friday 14th September, 2018

To begin our journey as pilgrims of blood and stone, we will gather, in the late afternoon, of Friday 14th September, in the lovely village of Bamburgh – home to the world famous castle of the same name. The Victoria Hotel will host us for tea, coffee and cakes while we make introductions, meet old and new friends, and discuss the plans for the weekend ahead.

(Image above: The Victoria Hotel, Bamburgh village – our Friday meeting place)

Bamburgh village - 1 (1)

After this, we will do what pilgrims have always done; we will walk, in essence, beginning our symbolic journey to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. One of the finest beaches in Britain is a few minutes away from Bamburgh village, and we will continue to set the scene by strolling and considering the splendour of Bamburgh Castle, seen from the shore.

During the walk, we will share thoughts and readings on the themes generated by the idea of Castles of the Mind – our name for this Walk and Talk workshop. We will ask the first of several questions, questions designed to shape the weekend from an emotional and spiritual perspective. All our answers will be unique; there is no right or wrong, they simply reflect our experiences and our aspirations.

The geographic base for our weekend is the lovely fishing harbour of Seahouses. We will retire there after our beach walk at Bamburgh

img_1131

A stroll around the harbour will help us work up an appetite for that most important ingredient of any trip to Seahouses: their world-famous fish and chips. Other dishes are available…

To finish our Friday, we will retire to one of several sea-facing pubs to relax. Tomorrow will be a busy day…

Castles 25Jul EndDayOneV4X

Day Two: Saturday 15th September, 2018img_1174To begin the Saturday, we will drive the short distance to Bamburgh Castle and tour this famous landmark, known as the King of Castles. Bamburgh is the royal seat of the kings of Northumbria and is still a family home–though no longer to kings… The admission price is £11.00 per person and, as with the entry fee for other locations, is not included in the Silent Eye’s booking fee.

The guided tour will tell the story of Bamburgh’s many incarnations over the centuries, from Anglo Saxon Royal palace to its reconstruction in the Victorian period by inventor and industrialist Lord Armstrong; to whom it was the vision of a perfect castle. From the guidebook:

“Our vast and imposing walls have witnessed dark tales of rebellion and bloodshed, spellbinding myths, millionaire benefactors and ghosts who love Bamburgh Castle so much, they never want to leave.”

After this, ghosts permitting, we will take refreshments in the cafe, then gather on the ramparts overlooking the sea and consider the second of our discussion questions:

We will then drive a few miles south, along the coast, to arrive at the beautiful fishing village of Craster.

Craster is very compact, and easily explored. A short walk up the hill is the Jolly Fisherman pub, famous for its seafood dinners and ‘light’ lunches.

img_1033

This will be followed by a relaxed walk along the dramatic cliffs of the coastline between Craster and Embelton.

img_1310

A twenty minute walk will take us to the haunting ruin of Dunstanburgh Castle, which stands on a remote headland. Dunstanburgh became a key stronghold during the early fourteenth century; a tumultuous period in English history. Relations between King Edward II and Earl Thomas of Lancaster had broken down. Earl Thomas had begun the construction of the castle in 1313, very possibly as a provocative symbol of his opposition to the King. The Earl mounted a rebellion, but, when it was defeated by King Edward’s forces, he was arrested before he could reach the safety of his intended fortress.

Earl Thomas was executed in 1322. Dunstanburgh Castle passed, eventually, to John of Gaunt, who used it to defend against the Scots, converting the twin-towered gatehouse into a keep. During the Wars of the Roses, it was the scene of two sieges and eventually fell into Yorkist hands. Today, it survives as an impressive ruin, but visitors speak of how its ‘presence’ lingers in the memory….

Dunstanburgh Castle is operated by English Heritage, with reciprocal honouring of  National Trust memberships. Admission is £5.40. Concessions are available.

At Dunstanburgh, we will consider our third question, then, we will drive a few miles east, to visit one of Northumberland’s least-known historical gems: the Preston Pele Tower at Ellingham.

Northumberland, has a bloody history; largely because of its position as one of two border counties between England and Scotland. Few places convey the vivid fear and caution of the past as well as the Preston Pele Tower. The tower is owned by Major Tom Baker Cresswell and is privately managed. It was constructed in the 1390s when warfare between Scotland and England was at its height. At the time of the battle of Agincourt, there were 78 such pele towers in Northumberland. Among its owners was Sir Guiscard Harbottle, who was killed at the battle of Flodden in 1513 – the conflict that brought Mary, Queen of Scots to the Scottish throne.

By the 16th century, the rest of England was enjoying peace and prosperity. But, in the Borders of Northumberland, raiders, known as ‘reivers’, crossed freely though the area, ravaging and looting. This led to the continued use of ‘tower dwellings’ among the well-off families. The idea may sound attractive – and we could say reflects today’s ‘gated communities’, but the intact interior of the Preston Pele Tower, with its reconstructed rooms, shows how primitive such living had to be.

Castles 25Jul Pele Tower interior1 X

The Preston Pele Tower (and gardens) is privately owned, and admission is a very reasonable £2.00.

The extreme nature of this isolation illustrates the power of fear to drastically change lives. With this in mind, we will carry out a mystical and psychological exercise related to our coming arrival in Lindisfarne on Sunday.

There are no refreshments at the Preston Pele Tower, but an early dinner will be booked at the nearby Pack Horse Inn in Ellingham.

img_1047

After the long day, and our early dinner, we will retire back to Seahouses for a possible nightcap before retiring for the night. A very special Sunday morning awaits…

Castles 25Jul EndDayTwoV4X

Day Three: Sunday 16th September, 2018

Our final day is a physical and spiritual homecoming. Our pilgrimage is to end on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, which can be reached (subject to the tides) by car, over the causeway. Lindisfarne can also be reached on foot, across a three mile stretch of marked path over the sands. We will consult on the day, and if there are those who wish to make the final journey a true walking pilgrimage, then we will arrange for one or more cars to be left at Lindisfarne so that the walking is one-way only. Be prepared to be very sandy/muddy if you wish to walk! Having said that, to arrive at a place of pilgrimage after a degree of ‘hardship’ is an entirely appropriate thing.

Castles 25Jul Lindisfarne main street x - 1

Lindisfarne needs little introduction. The monastery there was founded by an Irish monk, St Aidan. Aidan had presided over the monastery at Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. He was sent to establish the Lindisfarne community in the year 634 AD, and remained there till his death in 651 AD.

The holy island of Lindisfarne has attracted pilgrims for hundreds of years. It is a fitting and beautiful place to end the Castles of the Mind weekend. The village comprises:

  • a large car park; the first major feature you come to, having crossed the tidal causeway.
  • Two main streets, one of which leads to the crossroads and, beyond, the excellent museum; the other involves a fifteen minute walk to the far end of the island where the castle is situated.
  • There is also a meditation garden, which we may use if time permits.

For ease of finding, we will meet at the Oasis Cafe, which lies on the road from the car park.

The castle is currently undergoing work, but the visitor centre within it is open. The walk down from the village is well worth the views of the beaches and the headland on which the castle is built.

If we have worked our collective intentions well, we should each feel a certain ‘presence’ when we arrive on the island of Lindisfarne.

To conclude our weekend, we will remember the bravery of the early fathers of religion, such as St Aidan, who set sail into the complete unknown to establish their faith on distant shores. We can, perhaps, have little understanding of the depth of that faith; but we can, in our own ways, recreate that ‘setting off’ into the unknown – without fear.

Our final gathering will be a powerful and moving close to a wonderful weekend. Why not see out the end of the summer in style and join us…

 

Castles 25Jul EndDayThreeV3X

Castles of the Mind workshop

Weekend of 14-16 September 2018.

Location: Northumberland

To join us on our Castles of the Mind weekend email us at:

rivingtide@gmail.com

Or Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

Enquiries: rivingtide@gmail.com.

We’d love to have you with us. You can find our more about the Silent Eye School of Consciousness here.

Weekend Costs

There is a charge of £50.00 per person. All other expenses, such as accommodation, food and entry charge for the sites visited, are the responsibility of those attending. Meals are usually taken together in a local pub, and the costs shared.


Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find the reality and essence of their existence via home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised.

His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

You’ll find friends, poetry, literature and photography there…and some great guest posts on related topics.

©Stephen Tanham