North-easterly V: Layers

A short walk along the coast from Craster is another of the most iconic sights on the Northumbrian shore…Dunstanburgh. The castle has inspired artists and poets over the centuries; Turner and Girtin both painted the ruins, and so did I, long ago, when I was teaching myself to paint. I had only ever seen the castle from a distance, though… this was the first time I would step within what remains of its walls.

Like the castle at Bamburgh, just nine miles up the coast, Dunstanburgh was built on a much earlier site. Our earliest ancestors had used the rocky outcrop and had built a promontory fort there, ringed with earthworks that were, almost two thousand years later, incorporated into the defences of the thirteenth century castle. It is a curious feeling to see those same ancient earthworks still intact, topped by the ruins of a grandeur a mere seven hundred years old.

The earth itself provides the foundations of the castle that is built on black basalt that juts up from the green earth and a gilded shore. Around the castle are the remains of the meres, the artificial lakes that would have provided fresh water for livestock and additional defences, whilst making the mirrored castle seem twice as impressive. There are fish ponds too, for the raising of freshwater fish, with the water being fed into the meres through a stone channel from a nearby spring. Within the castle is a well, and even besieged there would have been a water supply.

There are legends of tunnels connecting the castle to local farms and towers… stories of unknown men passing to and from the castle in secret through concealed trap doors. While it is possible that these legends are no more than a garbled memory of the water channels, it is no secret that Dunstanburgh was a place of intrigue and plots.

The castle was built between 1313 and 1322 by Thomas, the Earl of Lancaster. Thomas and his cousin, King Edward II had a very poor relationship and, by the time the castle was built, in full view of the royal castle at Bamburgh, Thomas saw himself as a rival for power. Having been involved in the capture and murder of Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall and the king’s favourite in 1312, Thomas was severely out of favour at court, so the castle may have been a safe retreat, away from the king’s armies in the south.

He may also have built the castle as a direct challenge, a taunt or a political statement. It was one of the largest castles in the country and cannot have met with anything but the king’s displeasure. Whatever the reason, the castle never served Thomas’ purpose. He rode to war, but was himself captured and executed after the Battle of Boroughbridge. The stories tell that the executioner was unfit for his job and that battle-seasoned soldiers who witnessed the execution fainted as the headsman struck eleven times before finally ending Thomas’ life. It is, they say, for this reason that his ghost walks the castle, carrying the severed head which bears an expression of utter horror…

 

The castle changed hands many times over the centuries, and even in its ruinous state still played a part on the defence of the north-eastern coastline during World War II. Dunstanburgh is a place of many layers, and as we walked towards it, we began to consider some of our own layers. The analogy of the castle as the ego, built layer upon layer by our own experience and that of those who went before still held true.

We build the shell of the ego from our reactions to all the situations and stimuli we encounter, including those passed down to us from our parents and to them from their parents… the layers go deep. This can be a good thing, as we learn from their experience… and just as we are taught early not to touch what may burn, or eat what will make us ill, we can also learn how to live within the society into which we are born and how best to treat each other. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work in a positive fashion. The accumulated wisdom of generations may also be contaminated by the acquired prejudices and misconceptions of an earlier era… and if we too acquire them, then the problems continue until we stop, look and challenge them for ourselves, stripping back the layers to see a kernel of truth from which we can form our own beliefs and make our own choices.

Steve also introduced the second thread of the weekend’s theme, that of pilgrimage… a sacred journey, deliberately undertaken. Although Dunstanburgh is a castle, not a sacred destination, we do not know for what purpose our earliest ancestors may have used the place. We had seen in Cornwall that the promontory forts may have ritual, rather than defensive roles. But for our purpose, it was symbolically perfect.

The ego is a necessary part of the human experience. It is our haven and shield, the face we present to the world, yet it is not who we are. Beneath the acquired layers, we are something more than our reactions, and the quest of the seeker is to take down the walls we have created around the shining core of being. Not completely… for the ego has its uses. Like this castle, where the natural erosion of time and weathering has reduced the impenetrable structure to beauty and bare bones, the ego dissipates as we grown and learn to know the inner beauty of the light within.

Curiously, another legend associated with Dunstanburgh is that of Sir Guy the Seeker. As night fell and a storm raged, an errant knight sought shelter beneath the ruined towers of the deserted castle. From out of the shadows, a wizard came forward to greet the knight… some say it was Merlin himself… and promised that, if Sir Guy would accompany him, he would be granted a vision of great beauty. The knight followed the wizard, who led him to a secret room. There, sleeping on a single radiant crystal, was the most beautiful woman Sir Guy had ever seen. She was surrounded by an army of sleeping knights, and on either side of her were a sword and a horn.

Sir Guy had, said the wizard, only to make the right choice and the maiden would be wake and be free of her crystal prison. The knight, dazzled by beauty, stretched out his hand and took the horn. Raising it to his lips, he blew a single note… and was plunged into darkness. As he lost consciousness, he heard a voice chastising him, crying shame on him for a coward for choosing the horn when a true knight would have drawn the sword.

Waking next morning, Sir Guy searched the castle for some trace of the maiden or the secret room, but none was to be found. So ardent was his determination to find and free her beauty that he spent his life wandering the castle in search of her, losing his mind and all thought of home. He wanders there still, and on stormy nights, they say you can still hear his desperate cries…

The castle is populated by ghosts. As well as Sir Guy and Earl Thomas, Margaret D’Anjou walks the castles grounds, weeping for those lost in battle. There is another story too, that seemed to fit our theme…that of a child imprisoned in the castle. The quest of the spiritual seeker…the pilgrim… is to release the inner Child from its prison. The story tells that she used the key to the dungeon, where many were tortured and killed, in order to escape. Once beyond the walls, she tossed the key into a field… and to this day that land remains infertile.

And so we wandered the empty space within the castle, passing the ruined chapel and exploring the gatehouse towers. In one, the breeze whipped through the empty windows, creating a vortex that whirled a mass of feathers around me like a snowstorm beneath the blue roof of late summer. From the other we looked out over the landscape and the castle’s tiny harbour to Bamburgh and beyond to the Holy Isle. Where next would our footsteps take us?

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…

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.

Bearding the lion…

“You busy?”
I flick the phone onto speaker, my hands are otherwise occupied. “Just a bit.”
“What’re you up to?”
“Sticking pasta in a beard.”
There is a long silence on the other end of the phone…
“Could you repeat that?”
“You probably heard me right.”
“I’m pretty sure I didn’t.” His startled tone makes me laugh. “Whose beard?” I can practically picture my son’s thoughts… he sports a rather magnificent beard of his own these days. Then I hear the shift as the light dawns. “Isn’t it a bit early for that?”

No, it is not too early, and even if it were, it would be worth it to have had that conversation. The annual workshop is barely past and we still have eleven months till the next April workshop, so yes, we have plenty of time to gather, make and play with props and costumes. We shouldn’t actually need many props next year, and the costumes will be simple enough, but the ones we do need have to be right. I’d rather start early, with the bits I am doing, and give myself plenty of time to start over if I make a mess. And, to be honest, I love this part of the process and couldn’t wait to get started.

And then, there is the whole time thing. It flies, these days. There are always workshops coming up, even though those we run in the landscape do not take much preparation in terms of making things, there is still research, planning and writing to be done. The time in between just seems to run away.

Our next workshop, in Dorset, is just a month away. Stuart and I have already been there for a research trip and work is ongoing, organising, writing and planning how best to illustrate the phenomenon of the mysterious patterns in the landscape.

Bamburgh Castle smaller
Image: Steve Tanham

We get to sit back in September, and simply enjoy the Castles of the Mind weekend in Northumbria, organised by Steve, where we will look at the physchological correspondences of the fortresses we build both in the mind and in stone.

We are back in the saddle for December, when we will be visting Cumbria, where Castlerigg, one of the most beautiful stone circles in the country, may show us a gateway to the otherworld of the ancient tales.

Then we will be into the final preparation for April’s residential weekend, Lord of the Deep, based upon the four-thousand year-old Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving great work of literature.

And another year will have passed before we know it.

It is both a blessing and a curse, perhaps. The years are sliding past at an incredible rate, it is true, but they are full of purpose, direction and a joy in what we are able to share. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But, if anyone has a current address for Old Father Time, I would happily beard the proverbial lion in his den and ask for an extension…

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Harlech

Leaving Portmeirion and its mysteries behind, we drove across the estuary to Harlech in search of lunch. Stuart and I had parked beneath the Norman castle that morning when we were in search of breakfast. The imposing bulk of the walls, towering high upon the castle mound, still makes a powerful statement today. I was glad we had seen it from beneath in the grey morning mist, with the remnants of its curtain wall enclosing the rock, as it allowed us to get a true impression of its scale and erstwhile might.

We had lunch in its shadow, looking back across the estuary to the mountains. Snowdon dominates the skyline here, almost everywhere you go, and I was torn between the desire to wander those hills and a need to get close to the sea. The hills make my heart sing…they always  do, no matter where they are. There is something about the high places that calls and always will. I can understand that; the hills were my first love, a place where I first learned the stories of the old ones from my grandfather and mother …and where I learned a sense of wonder that is with me still.

The sea is a different thing. I have always lived far from the shore yet the waves have always whispered in my veins. I suppose it comes of being island-born… although we tend to forget that our country is, after all, no more than a small island in a big world. The song of the waves touches something primal in most people.  Life arose in the oceans and so the waves sing of home. Although most of the ancient gods of the sea are male, they live within her ever-changing body and, like to like, she calls to us.

For the moment, though, we were poised between the hills and the sea, looking out at both and yet our attention was drawn, inevitably, by the vast stone presence of the castle. It was built by Edward I towards the end of the thirteenth century when he invaded Wales. There had been an impromptu Shakespearian theme running through the morning, though, and so, for me, it was the figure of Owain Glyndŵr, the last Welsh Prince of Wales, who caught my imagination. Glyndŵr had taken the castle in 1404 and it ecame his base thereafter. I had first come across him when reading Shakespeare’s Henry IV and, although I knew little about the man, the power of the name and character had stuck in memory and imagination. He could ‘summon spirits from the vasty deep’ and was described as ‘profited in strange concealments; valiant as a lion, and wondrous affable; and as bountiful as mines of India. ‘

There were those who were for knocking the castle down and restoring the hillside to its natural and more appropriate state as a holy place. It was here, so tells the Mabinogion,  that Bran the Blessed, high king of the Island of the Mighty, was petitioned for the hand of his sister, Branwen. When the marriage ended in tragedy, betrayal and war and Bran was mortally wounded, he instructed his companions to cut off his head and carry it home. It was here too that the severed head of the king entertained his court with stories for many years before being finally buried beneath the Tower of London on White Hill…. but that is another story.

Even though I was glad to have seen Glyndŵr’s castle, I had no real desire to walk its walls. To be honest, I would have struggled to climb its turrets… especially in the noon heat. I was fine on the flat, but slopes were still knocking me for six and the thought of the inevitable spiral staircase to the top of the tower was just too much. While most of our party explored the castle, a symbol of armed might and power, Stuart and I wandered off to the house of a Higher Authority… the parish church of St Tanwg.

St Tanwg is the patron saint and founder of the little church of Llandanwg, whose beach we would later visit. It is thought that the medieval church that remains there is built on the site of the original church dating back to the 5th or 6th century, when Tanwg, son of Ithel the Generous, came over from Armorica to assist King Vortigern in re-establishing Christianity in the area. There are several unusual carved stones in Llandanwg church dating back at least fifteen hundred years.

The church in Harlech, however, is not particularly old, nor does its architecture bear the marks of grandiosity. It sits on a hill at the centre of Harlech and was built in 1840 to replace the older church on the beach. It is a simple, peaceful building, cool in the heat of the day and with the colours of bare stone the only adornment on its walls.

It does, however, have some beautiful stained glass and a medieval font dating back to the 1400s. The font was probably once in use at Llandanwg church, but was found abandoned in the sand dunes before being moved to its current location. Around it are the toys and drawings of the children of the community, many of whom will have been baptised with the waters of the font, as their forefathers were.

In fact, the whole building has an air of being ‘lived in’ and used by the community. Plans for its modernisation are on show along with people’s comments and ideas. Evidence of meetings and events are everywhere. The nave of the church is very much alive with the life of the community it serves, while the sanctuary is set apart in simplicity, with an elegant cross bearing the risen and crowned Christ and the Four Holy Creatures marking the separation between the mundane and the sacred.

It is an odd and obvious contrast with the temporal power exhibited by the castle. The  display of secular power was designed to cow and coerce; there is strength and a violent authority built into the very fabric of its walls. Yet, just a few hundred years after it was built, it fell from use and into ruin when that power shifted, as it always does. The little church represents another authority, and while opinions of any organised religion may be polarised, there can be no denying that humankind has always sought a higher source of direction. The spiritual journey has taken many forms over the millennia, from the earliest stone circles and sacred groves, through the temples and great medieval cathedrals to the aspiration of the individual. No matter what shape it takes or Name it wears, the quest for Light remains at the heart of Man.