The Stone and the Pilgrim (6) final part

“It is what it is…”

I remember the evening Morgana said that to me, many years ago. We were in Glastonbury, doing the first of our year of bi-monthly talks.

The truth of it is profound. The sentiment behind the simple wisdom is how we resist what is…instead of embracing the new ‘world’ that has just revolved into view. The problem is like and dislike, of course, but that reaction is within us and nothing to do with the objective world that constantly reveals itself to the eye that watches from a different place…

It was the end of our weekend; Sunday morning – the last visit, and I wanted it to go well for all the Companions of the trip. Then the phone beeped. The text from Stuart said that half our party, travelling in the same car, were stuck on one of the roads leading to Lindisfarne, unable to overtake a large pack of cyclists who seemed unwilling to let traffic past.

“It is what it is…” I thought. Now what possibilities have just opened up?

We had a coffee, at a cafe that the others couldn’t miss on their way into the village, but, when it was going cold, gave up on Plan B and did some real-time adjustment. The issue with Lindisfarne is the tides… You only have so many hours to complete what you want to do before the sea returns and covers the causeway. There was a lot we wanted to do and only half a party. So, we did what anyone would do on a weekend named ‘Castles of the Mind’ – we went in search of our final one – castle, that is… We left a message with the others to meet up at the castle and set off…

From one perspective, I was dreading the first view of it. The last time I was here, and the time before, it was covered in scaffolding – the result of a complete refurbishment programme to weatherproof the exterior and restore the interior. As a result, once again, I had only been able to look at the workings, criss-crossed in its steel lattice.

But now, in the first of many wonderful surprises that the day was to contain, the castle that came into view as we emerged from the main street was wonderfully renewed…

And I started to smile, then laugh, as we made our way up the winding pathway to the high entrance… ‘Renewed’ – there it was: the key to the day, the gift to the symbolic Pilgrim, renewal at the end of a personal quest. What greater gift could there be?

The restoration work was a £3M project carried out by contractors on behalf of the National Trust. The castle has always been the main focus for visitors, though there are other very good reasons to visit this farthest part of the island. These include the headland itself – with an older and smaller mound nearer to the often wild sea; the lime kilns and the famous but often overlooked garden…

Visitors often assume that the whole history of the island is based on its religious past; but Lindisfarne’s intermediate history went far beyond its ancient holy status – though that religious link to a possibly more ‘vibrant’ and nature-facing Celtic Christianity is what attracts the thousand of pilgrims of all flavours who make their way to its shores. Monks don’t usually build castles – they build churches or monasteries. There was a monastery on Lindisfarne, too, and its ruins survive, today.

The history of Lindisfarne is written into the fabric of the castle, but we were not here to study history; but our own natures… It was therefore important to begin with what was there, now, before peeling back the layers of how it came to be so. In that, too, there was something symbolic to accompany our final footsteps.

The castle, with its restoration work complete, is a rather luxurious place – most unlike the typical castle. Thoughts of the previous day’s closing visit to the spartan Preston Pele Tower were fresh in our minds. There’s a good reason for this feeling of well-being: it was a luxury holiday home for a rich American publisher, Edward Hudson, from 1901 until the mid-1920s, and the restoration project has reinstated this look and feel. To accomplish this dramatic re-design of the building, Hudson used the services of a young architect and designer Edwin Lutyens, whose patron was the famous landscape gardener, Gertrude Jekyll. The latter contributed the planting scheme for the crags and added a small walled garden just North of the castle. Lutyens went on to become one of the most famous architects in British history.

The scheme for the work was to follow Lutyens’ plan to simplify the castle’s older structure by converting its interior into a great ’L’ shape. Rooms, doorways, fires and furniture were added, and a stream of well-heeled Edwardian visitors followed.

Sadly, the furniture is yet to be replaced and we were faced with a curious art installation, filling just about every room with wooden cubed frames, open on one side and – most of them – draped with coloured cloths. A poster explained that, as the furniture was still to be reinstated, the art ‘installation’ was deemed timely.

After much neglect, the castle was given to the National Trust by its third owner in 1944.

None of this is religious… To find the intersection between politics, power and religion, we need to go back to the time of Henry VIII, father of the future Queen Elizabeth I. Henry ‘dissolved’ the monastery of Lindisfarne in 1537. But such locations made useful coastal forts, particularly one so close to the troublesome Scots, and the last bastion of England – Berwick on Tweed. The result was that the island – and particularly the castle – became part of the Tudor military machine.

In 1543, France allied itself with Scotland. In response, King Henry mounted a military response designed to crush all such resistance to his rule. The military expedition was led by Edward Seymour, brother of Jane Seymour, one of Henry’s many wives. Seymour landed on Lindisfarne with ten ships and over 2,000 troops. This army set off from their temporary island base to punish the Scots… The campaign was brutal and achieved its goals. It was the last time that Lindisfarne was to play an important role in English military history, though Elizabeth I did order improvements and fortifications to the building. Coastal guns were deployed up to the 1880s, after which the castle was left to its decay until Edward Hudson found it and decided it would enhance his ‘English’ status…

But what about St Aidan, the man most associated with Lindisfarne – and the famous Lindisfarne illuminated Gospels. They belong to a much earlier time, a time when Celtic Christianity was spreading from Ireland via the Scottish Hebrides.

The man who would be St Aidan was born, on an unknown date, in Ireland. He is known as the apostle of Northumbria – the old name for the Kingdom of what is now Northumberland. Aidan was a monk on the island of Iona, in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland. King Oswald of Northumbria requested that a bishop be appointed to lead the conversion of his kingdom to Christianity (Celtic Christianity at that point) and Aidan was selected.

Aidan chose the island of Lindisfarne because of its proximity to the sea; the only way to travel, speedily, in an age where roads were tracks of rutted mud. Aidan was consecrated as Bishop of Lindisfarne in AD 635.

Aidan established his church and monastery within sight of our first location of the weekend – the royal castle of Bamburgh. Under Aidan’s direction, and that of his successors, particularly St Cuthbert, Lindisfarne flourished as a leading religious centre.

St Aidan died on 31st August 651, after a remarkable lifetime. It is ironic that Celtic (Ionan) Christianity travelled south and met Roman Christianity coming north. The latter was to win out at the Synod of Whitby, in AD 665, fourteen years after Aidan’s death.

Being next to the ocean had its downside, too, and in AD 793, the Vikings sacked the island, and the religious settlement was moved to Durham.

The story of St Aidan is well illustrated in the church of St Margaret, near the centre of Lindisfarne village.

We gathered here after a brief lunch, conscious that the tides were soon to encroach…

There is never enough time to see what Lindisfarne has to offer. Each time I go, I find new aspects to explore. We had to bring the Castles of the Mind weekend to a close. We were already running late and those attending had long journeys home.

Stuart knew of a small island, accessible at low to mid tide, which lay beyond the church. The simple wooden cross at its highest point marked the place of one of the original hermits. We picked our way across the wet beach and clambered up the rocks to see both cross and the view across to Bamburgh, our starting point.

It was perfect…

We conducted our last readings then held a silent meditation to mark the end of the weekend. Then we hugged and said our goodbyes.

Our journey as pilgrims was complete…


Interested in the next Silent Eye weekend?

Full Circle?  – Finding the way home…
Penrith, Cumbria
Friday 7th – Sunday 9th December, 2018


End of Castle of the Mind

©️Stephen Tanham

Other parts of this series:

Part One, Part Two,  Part Three, Part Four, Part Five.


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.

The Stone and the Pilgrim (5)

We stumbled upon the Preston Pele Tower, fifteen miles south-west of Bamburgh, back in February, 2018. My wife and I had seen a reference to it on a noticeboard in a cafe some distance to the north. It’s quite hard to find; tucked away down a tiny country lane not far from the A1 – the main road through Northumberland to Edinburgh. We’d never heard of a Pele Tower, either… We got out of the car and stared at it, never having seen anything quite like it. Was it a castle – or the remains of one? The location suggested not. It looked purpose-built, yet somehow incomplete….

Right up to the time the Castles of the Mind group approached the building, I didn’t know what part of the ‘self’ we could use it to describe. I entered the (to me) familiar building and trusted that the answer would reveal itself. Either way, and even at the end of a long day of adventure, the Companions of the trip were not disappointed, and seemed to be having the same ‘look at that!’ experience that we had enjoyed in early February.

The famous architectural historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, described Preston Pele Tower as ‘amongst the most spectacular pieces of medieval masonry in England’. Its stone walls are seven feet thick and carry the same mason’s marks as those of the evocative Warkworth Castle twenty miles south. Sadly, we did not have enough time in our short weekend to visit the latter… another trip methinks!

It was never a castle, but it is incomplete; what you see in the top photo is only a half of what was built, originally. So, imagine that the two vertical towers are reflected back on themselves and you have it as it was created in 1392 (pic above): a four section Pele Tower.

How to pronounce Pele Tower? Probably because of the famous Brazilian footballer, it’s natural to call it a ‘Pel ay’ tower – and some of the locals we spoke to did just that. But Sue, who’s a fluent French speaker, says it’s probably derived from a French word and should be ‘Peel’ – that the final ‘e’ is there to turn the ‘eh’ in the middle to an ‘ee’.

It matters little; but there were a lot of them – nearly eighty, in fact. So they were rather important in this part of the world… The hand drawing from the Tower’s museum shows the location of the fortified dwellings in Northumberland, most of which were towers. The original of this chart was drawn up by Henry V, just prior to his departure for France and the victorious battle of Agincourt.

Many of the fortified towers were constructed during the frequent wars between England and Scotland, which ended with the Act of Union in 1603 – after James I came to the English throne.  In the sixteenth century, while the rest of England enjoyed relative peace, Northumberland – the eastern border county with Scotland – remained on a state of alert due to a scourge called the Border Reivers, and the towers saw a second lifetime as an essential way for the landed gentry to protect their people, servants and livestock.

Reivers were lawless gangs, both sides of the border, who would steal, murder and rape their way across whole swathes of an undefended Northumberland and its disputed border with Southern Scotland.

One of the Preston Tower’s celebrated features is a combined great bell and clock. The bell is approximately four feet in diameter and weighs 500 kg. The mechanism for the bell, which strikes on the hour, is linked to the twin clocks on both sides of the Tower faces. The power is provided by a set of two giant stone weights whose ropes run most of the height of the building.

The clock mechanism on the second floor drives the twin clock faces on the north and south faces of the tower, and is based on the same mechanical design that powers Big Ben in London. The clock was added in the nineteenth century, which shows that the Preston Tower continued to be a place of historical interest for a long time.

AAPele Clock Mech

As part of its function as a museum, Preston Pele Tower contains rooms which are furnished as they would have been at the time of its construction in the 14th century. The recreated interior spaces are sparse, and, to us, feel very basic. Being safe during a time of great insecurity was their central function.

AAPeleBedroom

The basic cooking facilities are shown in the second of the two rooms.

AAPelePot Room on Fire

The staircase is a simple wooden structure that runs all the way to the roof on the east side of the internal wall.

AApeleStaircase alone

Once on the roof, the view of the countryside around is commanding.

AAPele rooftop 1 to sea

Standing on the roof, in the last few minutes of our visit, the key I was looking for came to mind: Hope

The Pele Tower was not a basis for aggression; its purpose was to defend the home and hearth, the family and those who worked for them, including the animals.

An image came to mind: that of the householder standing watch under the stars, scanning the horizon for reivers. The dawn is beginning in the east, but the sky is still filled with the strange darkness of the pre-dawn. He nods his head towards the coming light, then opens the door to descend to the chambers in which his family are sleeping, safe within the thick stone walls.

He pauses by the thin window, a defensive structure so narrow that a man could not pass through it. The shutters have not been drawn on this single light and he stops to consider the pale light, one final time. In that moment, I catch his thoughts in a line of poetry, a gift from the now that places such as these are so good at bestowing…

Through these thin lights, now so forlorn

Will one day stream a different dawn

It will take another hundred years – a time during which the rest of Tudor England will undergo transformation to modernity. But in this liminal zone of Northumberland, the change will be slower, as borders and reivers are set to rights.

But that day will come… and that fervent hope in my ghostly host’s eyes will empower it… And there is something very spiritual about that…

We left the Pele Tower quietly. Others had felt its unique personality. We were all tired, and the dinner booked at a nearby pub was very welcome.

Our mental and emotional preparation was complete. We had been witness to the internal architecture of the self as seen in these vast and very different structures of stone.

The sun would rise on a day dedicated to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne… and its ancient mysteries; the Companion Pilgrims were coming home…

The Preston Pele Tower is a privately-owned museum. It charges a very reasonable £2.00 admission and has car parking and toilets on site.

To be continued.

©️Stephen Tanham

Other parts of this series:

Part One, Part Two,  Part Three, Part Four,


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.

North-easterly III – Intriguing Anomalies

Two things struck me as we entered the State Rooms to look around the public parts of Bamburgh castle. The first was that the collection of objects that were on display was vast, rich and deserving of much more attention than we would have time for. We did notice, though, a shield that bore a remarkable resemblance to the crop circle we had been looking for at Cerne Abbas…

From decorated cradles to archaic helmets, ostentatiously carved furniture and delicate fans made of wisps of spangled gauze and ivory, all were displayed with no apparent order or relationship to each other. The symbolic comparison of a castle to the ego was evidently going to continue. It almost seemed as if the décor was saying there was no value to the priceless things on display except to be displayed. Now, I know that this is probably not the case at all. What can be left undefended by glass and barriers and survive the careless touch of tourists is the most likely reason for the items on display being chosen… but we had been asked to draw comparisons between the castle and the ego and observe our impressions.

I thought how many people I have met who define themselves by their achievements, success, wealth or possessions. I thought too how many of us seek to impress others in one way or another, and how our public faces reflect how we hope the world will see us… and decided that most of us fall prey to that desire in some form or another, even those who vehemently profess that they do not care a jot for how others see them; that very independence can become a ‘prized possession’.

The other thing that struck me forcibly was the lack of atmosphere. The two small salons, in spite of their beauty and décor, had no character at all; they felt unlived-in and ill at ease. It turns out that they were once kitchens before they became ‘State Rooms’, and their true nature was obviously at odds with their new finery. The castle is a grand and glorious place, though. Room after room is filled with history, art and portraiture, but it is not until you go deeper within its walls and reach the King’s Hall with its raised drawing room that there is any feeling of coherence.

Here, you can imagine the grand balls and state functions. It is supposed to be lofty, imposing, luxurious. It is not trying to be anything except itself… and, after the kitchen-salons, that gives a curious effect. Egoically, there is a statement there too; it matters little whether a place or a person is beautiful and impressive, or homely and humble… what matters is whether they are authentic… true to their nature and purpose.

 

I could have spent weeks learning about the art alone. There were anomalies there too. The overtly regal castle held a good many pieces that struck an odd chord. For instance, there were the portraits of Napoleon with hs two Empresses… the Emperor of France who had come by his position on the heels of the Revolution that had guillotined the nobility.

The very Catholic iconography displayed throughout the house sits cheek-by-jowl with portraits of the Protestant King James and his wife, Anne of Denmark. It was James who, after his bride had been delayed by storms that he blamed on witchcraft, instigated the North Berwick witch trials and he attended the torture of suspected practitioners of the Craft.

One picture in particular caught my eye, a sixteenth century group of the Holy Family, attributed to Marcello Venusti and titled ‘Silence’. The geometric composition of the figures is striking enough, but t was the figures themselves that caught my eye. The Holy Mother watches a sleeping Child that we take to be Jesus. He lays across her lap in a similar attitude to a Pietà. Behind her are figures we assume to be an elderly Joseph and John the Baptist, who could be Jesus’ twin. It may have been the fact that the boys are painted as older than the usual babes that caught my attention. Or that only Mary and John have haloes…. I found it curious too that the Madonna wears green, and that the sleeping Child, who lacks a halo, is as pale as death.

A little later research made the painting even odder. It was painted by Venusti, but the design was a detailed drawing by Michaelangelo. It is also very different from other versions of this painting. The ‘same’ painting at The National Gallery, for example, has the Virgin clothed in blue, the architecture and draperies completely different, none of the figures have haloes and John wears a leopard skin. And the text in the book that the Virgin holds is completely different. We can only assume it is meant to be a Bible, although that book would not be written until long after the Child’s death.

John makes a gesture of silence. Is he asking silence for the sleeping Child? Or indicating secrets…? Which painting is the ‘real’ Venusti? Are they all his? Are others copies? What does the difference in the text indicate? We would need a lot more time to unravel such mysteries… The ego too has its secrets, its blinds and confusions and it can take a lifetime to unravel them.

One mystery was solved though… although it leaves many unanswerable questions in its wake. There is a short corridor with steps leading through an arch. On one side, a huge tapestry, on the other a print of battles and reproductions of scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry. It has a disquieting ‘feel’ and I found I could not easily leave it. When I did leave, I felt compelled to turn around and go back, though I had no idea why. I spoke to Stuart who had followed me and turned to face him… finding that he was not there and I was, in fact, alone.

The moment left such an impression on me that I did some research when we got home. I am far from the only one to have sensed something there. During the war years the castle served as a hospital for soldiers, and one young man traumatised beyond bearing, committed suicide and shot himself in the head. He was seen and recognised after his death, seated on these stairs.

The lower we went in the castle, the more, it seemed, the life of its people made itself felt and the analogy of the ego continued to be apt. Most personal, in an odd kind of way, was the well in the basement rooms. The life of lord and serf alike would have depended upon its waters. The simple well bound their human lives together in a way no other artefact could show.

Lower still and we made the mistake of going into the dungeon. Expecting the empty rooms one usually sees in such places, we were confronted with graphic waxworks depicting every imaginable horror. Such things should never be perpetrated on living beings… and yet the ego can suffer the same levels of torture throughout its life. We witnessed one such torture being inflicted upon a child as we hurriedly left the room. You can imagine the scars the careless comment will leave. “This,” said the small child’s father, “is what happens if you don’t behave…”

Far from the pomp and circumstance of the stately halls, there were real treasures though, tucked away in tiny rooms and easily overlooked.  These were not just the objects that affirmed power, nor were they all the creations of gifted artists… many were the small and practical things that had held a place in the lives and hearts of the castle’s people. Simple carved stones from the chapel of St Peter where a saint’s relics were housed. A lost key. Fragments of intricate metalwork going back to the Anglo-Saxon fort. And tiny, glowing specks of worked gold, smaller than a fingernail, bearing the serpentine design of the Bamburgh Beast.

In just the same way, you have to work to get beyond the layers of ego to see the spark of gold that lies, often unregarded, at the centre of every being. It may be buried so deep that it is impossible to see, but, like the castle, the ego is both sanctuary and prison for the treasure at its heart.

There was one more thing we had been asked to do and that was to find within the castle a place we had imagined from the beach below. We were almost ready to leave before I found mine and understood its personal significance. The great black-leaded range reminded me of the one in my great grandmother’s scullery, and so I left the ‘State Rooms’ with a fond smile for remembered warmth and the aroma of oven-bottom bread.

Anyone who wishes to have a virtual wander around the castle can visit their website for a 360° tour here.

North-easterly II – Beyond the walls

Next morning, we gathered at the gates of Bamburgh castle. We had seen it from beyond its walls, considering how we could glimpse our own ‘inner fortifications’ from a perspective beyond the control of the ego, and now we were about to voluntarily enter a place that could be, like the conditioned defences of the personality, both a haven or a prison.

We had a little time to explore the outer shell and the façade that the stronghold presents to the world, as well as to see how it sat within, yet dominating, the landscape… a landscape largely shaped because of the castle’s very presence. Its landward face looks over the moat to the village that grew in its shadow. The old beehive dove-cote seems a reminder that the homes that cluster close to the castle walls once housed those in thrall to the castle’s lord.

To the seaward side, the imposing defences and lines of cannon send a clear message to any invaders seeking to attack. While where the land and sea meet, a medieval burial ground holds the memory of the dead. As an egoic analogy, it could hardly have been better chosen.

Passing beneath the arch of the gate, you are funnelled through a narrow and easily defended lane, where any visitor to the domain is immediately taken under control.  Our own defences are very much the same, allowing others to approach us only through certain channels, even though our ‘gates’ may appear… even to us… to stand open to the world. It is only when you have gained entry …or approval… that there is the freedom to explore.

Climbing the winding path that leads into the courtyard, you are met with defences of another kind. Although the walls are high and thick, especially on the Norman Keep, the real power that is now on display is that of wealth and position.

From the Tudor windows to the ornately carved shields, the inner facade of the castle seems designed to assert social dominance. Magnificently restored and well cared for, there are reminders of its martial past as well as its political position in history writ large in its stones.

Yet, for all it may be amongst the best of its kind, it looks very much like every other restored castle. Castles are serious. They evolve over time, taking on the forms and fashions of the day and yet the plans, well-tested by the centuries, conform to a relatively rigid form; one that serves its purpose admirably, but which appears to leave little room for joy. We see the desire to make a strong statement or to create an impression of solid and established power. The outer face of the inner castle leaves you in little doubt of how its lord sees himself, and here too the analogy is pretty apt.

We ‘let people in’… but just a little way at first. We still have our defences… often prominently displayed. But we seldom let anyone all the way in… not at first. We still have an image of ourselves that we project, a subtle and almost invisible line of defence that hides the reality behind something that looks interesting and attractive… but what happens when you look a little deeper?

Quite appropriately, given the symbolism we were exploring, we would have to wait to see beyond the inner doors, as the interior opens an hour later than the grounds. Stuart sat on the throne of Northumberland… a reconstruction based upon a carved stone found close by… and shared his first reading from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Then we wandered the grounds for a while until the State Rooms were opened and we were allowed to delve further.

I was drawn to an odd rectangle of grass, surrounded by some broken stone walling. There has obviously been another building here once upon a time, and the curved end of the space looked like the remains of windows in the apse of a chapel… which is exactly as it turned out to be.

St Peter’s Chapel was an important place of worship long ago, the spiritual heart of the castle. It held relics of King Oswald, a saintly ruler credited with much good during his lifetime and many miracles after his death. He died in 642 in battle against the pagan king Penda, who dismembered his body on the battlefield. Amidst all the glory of temporal splendour, this sacred place has been left unrestored, open to the winds and with a congregation of birds. The apse, where the altar and relics once stood, now holds only a bell that was taken down because it annoyed the lady of the castle and the villagers… and piles of small change, like a dragon’s hoard, now replace the votive offerings.

There may well be a new chapel somewhere within the castle, where there is indeed a wealth of religious symbolism, but for the purpose of our weekend, this sacred space left derelict in favour of worldly display seemed a poignant symbol for the unchecked ego that cannot see beyond its own projected image to the sacred heart within.

And yet, the chapel was not entirely barren, for within it is a single grave…or so I thought. The cross bears an inscription to ‘The first Lord Armstrong… a genius in his time’. He had loved Northumberland, had bought and restored the castle… it seemed only fitting that he should be buried within the chapel and remain at its heart. The records, however, show that he was buried at Rothbury, some miles away. Is the apparent grave no more than a memorial? An empty tomb… or a sign of love and respect? Perhaps the castle has a heart after all… and if so, it is a very human one.  Perhaps I had not looked far enough? And who am I to judge what any heart may hold… even that of a castle?

Over the centuries, many people have used the symbolism of the castle to explore spiritual and psychological concepts.  The intellectual exercise is, however, nowhere near as graphic as when you walk through these spaces and get the feeling of an idea built in stone. It was proving to be an interesting experience… and the State Rooms were about to open…

 

North-easterly…

We were heading for the Castles of the Mind weekend, so time placed a curtain wall around our freedom to meander. For once, therefore, we behaved, managing to resist all temptation to stop and visit places along the road as we made our way northwards. Our destination was Bamburgh and we had to arrive in time for tea. That we arrived early enough to book in to our accommodation and check out two churches before the meeting was our reward for not straying from the road.

The route we had taken was circuitous, avoiding the rush-hour traffic by the simple expedient of going south in order to head north on calmer routes. Thus, the symbolism of the weekend began early, because although the more direct route would undoubtedly have been quicker, we would have arrived bored by motorways and stressed by traffic, where instead we learned something about the land, found new places to explore and arrived eager to greet our friends, who had travelled from across the country and from the Czech Republic for the weekend. The straight road is not always the best from which to learn.

We would begin with a cream tea and a walk on the beach below Bamburgh’s iconic castle, where Steve would introduce us to some of the concepts he wanted to explore during the course of the weekend, using the symbolism of the castle to illustrate the workings of the ego.

No-one really knows how long there has been a fortress on the site, or whether the striking outcrop on the shore began its life as something other than a defensive bastion. What is known is that it was once a place of the Brittonic Celts, who called it Din Guarie, as early as 420AD. It has been an Anglo Saxon palace, a Norman stronghold and seat of rebellion and is now a private home partly open to the public. The castle has seen many changes over the years, but it still imposes its presence upon the landscape.

Castles are strange, contradictory things, when you think about it. They fulfil many functions, from keeping goods and people sheltered within the safety of their walls, to defending against attack, whilst being themselves both bases for armies and for ruling the surrounding land with the proverbial iron fist. They may epitomise strength, will and power, yet they are also rigid, limited and vulnerable. Under attack they may be broken, under siege they will fall to starvation, flame, or fear. The encircling wall which holds everything within it in safety is also its own boundary, through which both ingress and egress are carefully controlled. The bars of the portcullis can keep people in as well shutting them out.

We stood on the outside, looking in. The gates were closed against us and, in a perfect illustration, we were denied its sanctuary as a sudden squall battered us with wind and rain. Surrounded by the elemental forces of the water and air, it would have been easy to choose a retreat, seeking the shelter of stone walls and firesides.

But the rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and, after all, only we were wet. The sand still held the warmth of the day, the air still retained a memory of summer and the sea had not quite reached its truly northern chill. Closer to the waves, the sand already held more water than the clouds and the footprints it held told their own story. I was surprised by how many were booted, feet encased in miniature ‘castles’, isolated from the earth. It is undoubtedly a hassle to remove and carry boots and socks, then have to remove the pervasive sand from between the toes, but a few had done so and the very human prints ran with those of the dogs who bounded joyfully across the beach.

Already as wet from the rain as I was likely to get, with the sand soft between my toes, I walked along the edge of the waterline. It is a strange sensation, walking thus in silence with the susurration of the sea drowning all other sound. On one side, the waves roll in, in constant, repetitive motion, yet with each wave unique in form, force and sound. On the other side, the beached water rolls out to sea, levelling the sand as it passes, erasing all trace of what has gone before. You walk the path of balance, poised between the ebb and flow, a fragile creature, able to move forward in face of the elements, isolated by their song, yet part of the dance.

The sea too has its power and its will, the strength to erode the foundations of a castle, and the freedom of fluidity. Bounded only by the shores it creates, water rises to form clouds that travel overland and beyond the ocean’s visible limits. Even so, it is vulnerable and suffers at the hand of Man. It may protect its creatures, but it is dangerous, and like the lords of the castle, must be treated with respect.

Walking the shore, with the castle behind me, I would rather be at one with the sea than the fortress, yet both are neither more, nor less, than what they are, their form and function intimately linked and both serve their purpose. The real question, perhaps, is do I want to remain within the apparent security of the walls of my own nature or take my chances with a wider landscape of adventure… Perhaps the path between is the wisest place to walk.

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.

Dwellers in Towers

Minds in Towers2 - 2

A recent trip to the beautiful Northumbrian coast threw up a chance visit to Preston Tower, one of a type known as a ‘Pele Tower’ – a fortified place of refuge for well-to-do families, built during the times of the ‘Border Reivers’ – armed family gangs who took the law into their own hands in these often un-policed borderlands between England and Scotland.

In the famous Pevsner’s Guides to the architecture of the UK, the Northumberland guide describes this type of building:

“In the 14th Century Northumberland was almost permanently in a state of warfare, and in the 15th and 16th centuries the county was still so sorely harassed by armies, gangs and thieves that a tower house was the only possible insurance a man of sufficient property could take out.”
Minds in Towers2 - 19
In the entrance room is a model of how Preston Tower would have looked in the 14th century. Only half of it remains, but that is in very good condition and considered one of the finest examples in Britain.

Towers and their dwellers have always interested me, as they illustrate a particular set of human attributes: the needs for security and the power of fear – something whose controlling power we make reference to as a block to individual spiritual development in the Silent Eye’s three year self-exploration course, where one of the archetypes encountered is just that Dweller in the Tower.

Towers have featured often in spiritual literature. The famous Tarot Card of the “Blasted Tower” is a reference to the destruction by natural forces (lightning, in this case) of the upper levels of the Tower’s construction. To find the whole origin of the essence of the card we need to go back to the Bible, where, in Genesis, it tells that, in a land after the great flood, all ‘men’ spoke the same language. They decided to build a Tower to Heaven from the ‘slime’ of the earth. God confounded their plans by causing them all to speak a different language.

Blasted Tower
The ‘Blasted Tower’ from the Ryder-Waite Tarot Deck painted by Pamela Coleman-Smith. Wikkipedia Public Domain (source)

We might assume that a kindly God would be pleased at our attempts to build a tower to reach ‘him’, but the essence of the story is that the materials used were not those that would withstand a dialogue with so powerful a being; and hence that very force – or attempted dialogue – was the source of the destruction. A mystical interpretation is that a successful tower would have to be built from below and from above at the same time… But that is a topic for another post.

Minds in Towers2 - 43
Despite its apparent size, the interior space is minimal. The arrangement of the space is entirely geared to defence rather than comfortable living.

The Dweller in the Tower is secure but cut off from the world they fear. The fear is real, as is the perceived threat, but it may not be present.

The effect of separation from the surrounding landscape is a terrible price to pay. We might say that such an approach takes us away from the ‘flow’ of life – a flow that, if embraced openly, is the key to our personal evolution. This is not an easy step, and is counter intuitive. It is the kind of step we take only when we become convinced that our life (within the Tower) is no longer capable of providing any real sustenance.

Pele towers like Preston Tower were build by rich men. They subjected their families to terrible and cramped living conditions in the name of safety. Psychologically, we might say that our obsession with safety does much of the same, today…

Minds in Towers2 - 76

What would be attractive about life in a tower? One good thing might be the view. From a good height, we can see more… but not touch or feel or smell it. This suggests an isolation of the intellectual sense, that lives its life against a ‘picture’ of the world rather than the world, itself.

Minds in Towers2 - 52
The view from the roof of Preston Tower, near Bamburgh

From that height, using that view, I could see all around me. I could compile detailed maps of the world below, bringing all that knowledge back into my tower, like a spy might – but it would always be historical knowledge. My interaction with the world below could be minimal, or as slight as I wanted it. Whenever I felt the least bit threatened, I could close the thick doors and bolt them. Then, climbing the winding staircase, I could take myself farther and farther from what might hurt me… take myself farther and farther from life, itself, replaying only the bits I wanted.

Minds in Towers2 - 23

The Tower Dweller is not a complete human in the Silent Eye’s approach. He or she is an aspect of the personality, one formed from that part of the spectrum of ourselves which is associated with fear. The Pele towers were a very good model for one aspect of the modern personality, which feels itself under threat from things real – and many more, imaginary.

It takes targeted effort and a lot of self-honesty to see these deeply- rooted patterns in ourselves. The positive side of that coin is that they are fundamentals within our self. Any changes to these ‘magnetic poles’ in ourselves will alter the whole. If we simply concentrate on the Tower Dweller within us, then our self-work will be unbalanced. Far better to circumscribe ourselves so that we can see what other aspects hold the patterns of our vital energies prisoner.

Minds in Towers2 - 47
One day, we might climb to the roof for a different reason…

One day, we might climb to that roof and look at the view, all around, for a different reason. We might have come to a vision of the potential fullness of our real selves and want to take one last look at the landscape from above, before opening the door and venturing out into that world with a very different purpose. The map will still be useful, but limited, compared with being there.

As the first breaths of our new life enter the lungs, enriching neglected inner pathways with new life, we might look back at the soaring stonework and thank the Tower; thank it for keeping us safe until we grew confident enough in ourselves to make our destination the world and not its isolated heights.

Minds in Towers2 - 91

As the sun sets on the cold stone, we might find ourselves laughing and running into that forest, creeping up to shout ‘Boo!’ to the bogeyman who we once thought lived there…


Preston Tower details: http://www.prestontower.co.uk/


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, low-cost and supervised correspondence courses.

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

©Stephen Tanham, Silent Eye School of Consciousness.