Ancient stories

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One of the things that have struck home over the past few years, wandering around the churches of Britain, is just how much we learn and understand from stories and images. The record held in these ancient places goes back over a thousand years, with artefacts much, much older preserved in many of them. And these are not random old buildings, but all aligned with a single tradition, a single faith, a single story that the builders, artisans and holders of the lore saw as paramount.

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Painted walls, carved stone and wood, stained glass… these were marvels of media that recounted the biblical story for all with eyes to see. At a time when books were hand-drawn and precious, the masses untutored, unable to read or follow the Latin of the service, these images were the key to understanding. In many churches there are older, pre-Christian artefacts. Were they a remnant of the desire to convert almost through stealth or a genuine acknowledgement of the sacredness of the older pagan faith? That is not impossible given Pope Gregory’s instructions to Mellitus in the 6th century Mission, “Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.” The whole letter is revealing.

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It is fascinating to see how the emphasis of the story has evolved and shifted to suit the needs of the prevalent authorities, secular and religious, and how thought has been subtly directed. Many of the oldest churches, particularly in areas where Celtic Christianity was prevalent, seem to focus simply on a gentle faith not dissimilar to some of the older tales, and we can trace many of the early stories of the saints back to pre-Christian deities, adopted and absorbed into the new story. Then comes the hellfire and brimstone, later still the break from Rome followed by the Puritanical obliteration of imagery in many places. Yet another thread winds through as the local barons and lords endow churches in a display of political power and wealth, matched in kind but surpassed in magnificence by the lords of the Church with the great cathedrals and abbeys. No matter who ruled the land, it was easy to see where the balance of true power resided.

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Yet away from the seat of power was the guy in the street… the you and me… and in spite of a constant bombardment of imagery quietly shaping thought, behaviour and morality, mankind has always had both imagination and questions. There have always been those who do not conform and who, while paying lip service to social necessity, have walked their own inner path of interpretation and discovery. While entry to the clergy was for many a true dedication of service to their God, there must have been many too for whom it was more a career move at a time when such choices were limited. The stories of many minds are preserved in the old churches and not all seem to hold to what would have been the prescribed line.

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A language of symbolism evolved, one that would have been readily readable long ago but which we have lost the habit of reading in the same way we have lost the old languages. Yet it doesn’t take much to begin delving behind the appearances to the inner meaning, for symbols bypass the processes of the surface mind and speak to something deeper, a more archaic and instinctive level of understanding less coloured by the times in which we live. Many can be universally understood, some belong to a specific tradition… on the surface at least… but can be interpreted from the human perspective of emotions or from the viewpoint of the spiritual journey. While stories once widely known may have faded, and traditions are lost in the dust-covered recesses of history, it takes little to begin to glean the meaning behind them from the images that survive.

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Few of us now know the old legends of the pelican, for instance, but this common symbol can be readily understood in Christian terms simply by looking at the picture of the great bird restoring its young through her blood. Even traditional colours and geometrical shapes hold meaning, like the trifoliate leaves for the Trinity for example, and a little thought opens many possibilities to explore. Very quickly you begin to see that no part of the story written in images… or any story for that matter… stands alone, and there are many possible layers of meaning.

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What we read in these ancient symbols is less a reflection of the symbol itself than it is of the knowledge and understanding we bring to them and our openness to new ideas and interpretations. What the artist or the patron who commissioned any work intended should be encoded there may not be what we see… or not all that we see… as our own minds bring their own meaning. I have often wondered about some of the stranger symbols we have found whilst visiting these places to write The Initiate and its sequels… symbols that seem surreal or out of place within the churches. Maybe they were simply a bit of humour, or artistic licence… perhaps they hold the thoughts of another questioning mind touched across the centuries or maybe they were designed to be so surreal we would have to take notice and start thinking instead of blindly accepting.

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Whatever the case, we have found without doubt that there are more stories written in these ancient buildings than the laity would have ever seen or understood and few today do more than marvel at their beauty or antiquity. Yet the stories follow common themes, and the closer you look the more obvious it becomes that there is little difference except detail in these stories, through time and space mankind asks the same questions, seeks the same understanding, we simply do so from different starting points and in different clothes. Not just in our little churches, but in the ancient temples the world over, in fairytales and rhymes, in the stones and the very land itself, stories wait to unfold their mysteries, their revelations and their complex simplicity to anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear.

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Whitby Weekend: The church at Lastingham

It was only a few miles to the final destination of the Silent Eye’s weekend in North Yorkshire. We were heading for St Mary’s church at Lastingham, the final resting place, or so it is believed, of St Cedd, who had played his part in the decisive Synod of Whitby in 664, when the Roman form of Christianity was adopted in place of the old Celtic Rite in which he had been raised.

In the October of that year, St Cedd died of the plague at the monastery of Lastingham and was, according to tradition, buried there in a grave. When a stone church was later built, becoming the chapel of the monastery, his remains were enshrined within its walls and are now said to be in the crypt of the church, to the right of the altar.

In fact, Cedd’s brother, St Chad, who became bishop of Lichfield, took over at the monastery after his brother’s death and Cedd’s remains were eventually moved to be with those of his brother in Lichfield. Some of their bones were later taken to the Catholic Cathedral in Birmingham, so the best that can be said, according to Wikipedia, is that ‘Cedd is believed to be mostly buried at Lastingham.’

While it may seem odd to modern minds that bones and relics are scattered, it must be remembered that the reverence of saintly relics is still very much a part of Roman religious culture. It is also worth considering that in ancient times, the bones of the ancestors were revered and cared for, keeping those who had passed as more than faded memories and making them very much part of the living community. Even in Victorian times, relics such as locks of hair were taken from the deceased for love and memory. It is only in very recent times that the remains of the dead have been so definitively disposed of.

But, although the crypt was the object of our visit, the church itself was not to be ignored. It is a beautiful old building, St Cedd had founded the monastery in the seventh century and built a wooden church. Cedd’s monastery is thought to have been razed in a raid around 870, but in 1078, Stephen, the abbot of Whitby, restored the monastery and began the building of a stone church. The work under Stephen was never completed, but the main body of the interior is a place of beautiful, pure proportions in the Romanesque style.

The church continued to function, adding aisles and developing over the centuries, until a final restoration and completion took place in the late 19th century, in memory of a child who had died in her seventh year.

The exterior is simple, until you look closely at the carved stone corbels that seem to echo, albeit in a more restrained style, those of Kilpeck and here, as at Kilpeck, there is the curved apse and an association with holy wells and springs. At Kilpeck, a stream flows beneath the central line of the church and dowsers have reported four streams flowing in to that point. In Lastingham, there are four holy wells, that we would later see, and we had to wonder at the coincidence and its significance in the siting of the two ancient churches.

In spite of the inevitable changes and additions that have been made to the church over the centuries, it retains the sense of being a simple and sacred space. Traces of its history can be seen in faded carvings around the base of its pillars, the rounded arches and the repurposed Roman altars, which may once have served a vision of divinity different in name, but perhaps not in essence. Humankind’s search for divinity has worn many faces, but the heart of the quest is the same and all places that have been held sacred to that Light, regardless of our own beliefs, may evoke a sense of reverence.

We arrived just after the Sunday service had ended and the congregation was still gathered in the aisles, sharing refreshments in an echo of something more ancient and timeless than any organised religion. We were made welcome by the community, and while some talked, the rest of us wandered off to explore.

We have long since learned that, when visiting a sacred site of any age, if there is something in particular that you are there to see, it is best to explore the rest first… for the likelihood is that you will otherwise be so caught up in the moment that everything else will be missed. And Lastingham crypt was to be no exception…

Whitby Weekend: Within the Abbey

We did not visit the Church of St Mary, perched on the edge of the cliffs. I have to wonder for how much longer it will stand and was glad to have spent some time there on our previous visit to Whitby… even if it is one of the strangest and most claustrophobic churches I expect to see. With that cliff edge coming ever nearer as the land erodes, it has been suggested that the Whitby headland, along with its archaeology, could fall into the sea by 2030 and there is a lot of history to explore before it disappears.

There was an Iron Age settlement at the site that seems to have been used for metalwork and glassmaking. Before that, archaeologists have found carved stones that may be either boundary markers or ritual stones, dating the human use of the headland back to a thousand years before the birth of Jesus.

However, neither the church nor the headland was on the itinerary for this visit. Instead, we entered the converted seventeenth-century manor house of the Cholmleys, passing through the unusual pebble garden graced by a replica of the Borghese Gladiator.

The manor now houses a small museum, tracing the Abbey’s history back to its founding and beyond. Oddly, there was a greater press of people packed into the shop selling gifts and replicas than we saw at any other time over the weekend and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

The Abbey itself is a beautiful but empty shell. We have visited so many ancient sites and churches over the past few years that I have lost count, but I have never felt a place as empty as this one, as if it had been scoured of all life and sanctity. I loved the place as a child and was especially drawn to the well… I do not remember it feeling so skeletal and lifeless, as if even its ghosts had gone, erased by the sea winds and the passage of many feet. But even as a child it was never the grand ship of stone that attracted me, so much as the older ghost of the first Abbey and beyond.

Although we were following ‘in the footsteps of St Cedd’ for the weekend, examining how to find unity from division, the Abbey is most associated with St Hilda, or Hild. Her name means ‘battle’ yet although she was a strong character, she was a woman of peace, called to be Abbess of the Celtic religious community founded here in AD 657. She was a princess of the Deiran royal line, but took the veil to become the Mother of her community of monks and nuns, sharing a life of faith together.

Nothing now remains of her Abbey, a wooden building, sacked and destroyed by Danish invaders in the ninth century. What stands there now is the ruin of a grand affair, built between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, which fell into disrepair after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the monasteries, and was further damaged when it was shelled by German battlecruisers in 1914.

St Hilda, from St Mary’s Church

We wandered through the Abbey ruins for a while, seeking a spot that would symbolise what we had learned from the sequence of words we had chosen at random the day before. Each of us found a place and explained it in terms of how it might relate to our own lives, both in a general and personal sense.

For all the Abbey had been the venue for the Synod of Whitby that chose to follow the Roman model of Christianity rather than the Celtic version, there are many Celtic-inspired symbols still clinging like apologies to the crumbling masonry. At the time of the Synod, Christianity itself was but a few hundred years old and they were already arguing over exoteric details. I wonder what was lost by focussing on the form, rather than the spirit, of their faith?

Full Circle: Fragments of home

 

Penrith is a lovely old market town with narrow alleys and some wonderful old buildings. Sadly, we would not have time to do the place justice over the weekend, but at least we had a glimpse as we walked to our next site, the Parish Church of St Andrew.

The church itself is an interesting one. It appears to be a Georgian edifice, having been largely rebuilt and remodelled in 1720, by Nicholas Hawksmoor, inspired by St Andrew’s in Holborn, London. The elegant interior seems almost out of place in a northern market town, and lacks the homely feel of churches that have retained their character and appearance of antiquity. But the church has stood on this spot since 1133 and, taking a moment to ‘feel beyond form’, you can indeed feel its age and the centuries of prayer its walls have held.

The building is perfectly cross shaped, but, unusually, the ‘crossing’  is at the far end from the altar. You may enter from any of the three short ‘arms’ of the cross, with the nave and altar forming the longest axis. Coming in from the cold between the incongruous pillars that flank the west door, we found two medieval grave slabs and a carved font… one of three in the church of various ages. The font is used in the rite of baptism, which could be seen as one of the keys to the ‘way home’ for those choosing to follow the path of Christianity. This particular font is carved with symbols and we asked Steve to explain the one representing the nature of the Trinity.

On either side of the entrance, stairs lead up into the tower whose height was extended in the fifteenth century. The stairs are flanked by the weathered effigies of a husband and wife in Tudor dress.

On our visit a few weeks earlier, we had found the nave decked with banners bearing the names of the Celtic saints… it seems that the Ionian form of worship still has a place in the heart of the northern church. This time, though, it was discretely decked for Christmas, with each window embrasure holding a small tree, dedicated to various sectors of the community… including a poignantly bare tree for those who cannot celebrate this Christmas.

Leaving everyone to explore, we asked them to think about what the idea of ‘home’ might mean to the congregation here, knowing that the embrasure of the East Window behind the altar holds a heavenly mural, painted in 1844 by local artist Jacob Thompson.

There is plenty to see inside the body of the church, including some beautiful stained glass by such renowned makers as Burlison and Grylls, Clayton and Bell and Hardman and Powell. These are all ‘modern’ windows, with the newest being installed to celebrate the Millennium.

The oldest windows, though, consist of mere fragments of medieval glass, salvaged from the depredations of time, storm and war. Most of the fragments are unidentifiable… just whispers on the wind of time. A few can be recognised… the hand of St Peter holding the Keys of Heaven… the angels of Revelation swinging their censers… a crowned and sceptred king who may well be Richard III.

Set into another modern window embellished with the white roses of the House of York are two fragments once thought to represent Richard and his queen, but they are now thought to be his grandparents. It is curious that Richard, the last Plantagenet king, should feature so much in Penrith, when the theme of the weekend was ‘finding the way home’. Richard was killed in battle at Bosworth Field in 1485 and his body, tied naked to a horse, was taken to Leicester and, eventually, buried at Greyfriars Church. That church was lost after the Dissolution, and Richard’s remains were thought lost too…until a team from Leicester University managed to locate them in 2013. There followed a long, and ultimately unavailing campaign that sought to bring the last monarch of the House of York back ‘home’ to Yorkshire.

There were monuments too to those who had fallen in more recent battles, that their names and deeds might, at least, be carried home, even though their remains are scattered across the battlefields of the world. And a tree in a window for those who have no home at all.

So many concepts of ‘home’ in one small church, so many layers of history; a story two thousand years old had seen nine hundred years of worship in this place. Did the story of this site, though, go back even further? Many old churches are built on far more ancient sites, where once a wooden chapel may have stood unrecorded, chapels which may have been built upon pre-Christian sites. Although there seemed to be no definitive mention of an earlier church here, there were certainly clues in the churchyard… and as the light began to fade, we headed outside to have a look…

The Giant and the Sun – Accident or Design

Although the hexagram was the main ‘pattern in the landscape’ that we had come to investigate… with a little help from the Giant on the hillside… there was another pattern that had been intriguing our companions… that of the crop circle that had recently appeared on the hills opposite the Giant.

We had no luck in finding it with the scant information we had that morning, but the girls had been doing some research of their own, and it was no surprise when they bounded into the pub, looking as pleased as punch.

Crop circle below Hackpen Hill, Avebury

Trawling the internet for pictures and asking the locals, they had, between them, located the circle and two of them had gone in search of it on the ground. They had found the field in which the crop circle had gone down but had been unable to find anywhere on the narrow lanes to park their car and walk. Could we, perhaps, knowing the area a little better, find the time next morning, before the final site, to go and have a look? We agreed a meeting, set the rendezvous for the last visit of the weekend and eventually headed to bed.

The nature, purpose and origins of crop circles may be open to debate, but their fascination is a given, especially the ones that had appeared around the village with such seemingly perfect timing. First, when we had only just made the decision to do a workshop in the area, the very first thing that came up when we Googled ‘vesica’ and ‘Cerne Abbas’ was a crop circle of a vesica containing a goddess figure; uncannily appropriate when we were looking at wholeness and completion below a giant priapic chalk carving.

This latest figure was just as strange, having gone down days before, and being made up of the same geometric elements as the symbols we were using. Steve had given one of his excellent presentations at a workshop some years ago, where he demonstrated that the astrological glyphs representing the planets can all be drawn using elements of these simple forms… the circle, the semi-circle and the cross. At Cerne Abbas, we were working with those planetary symbols… and so, coincidentally, were the creators of this latest crop circle…

Next morning, as is our habit, Stuart and I were awake and out very early. We decided to see if we could find a way of accessing the crop circle for the girls and headed for the hills. We found the field with no problems, found a spot to park and even found a footpath. We had about three quarters of an hour before we were meeting the girls. We could actually see the landmark of the mobile phone tower, yards from the circle.  Plenty of time!

We set off down the track at a fair pace. We soon realised that the tower was much farther than we thought. We pushed on, determined to walk till the last possible minute. As we neared the tower, we passed a huge boulder beside the track, remarking that it looked like a ‘significant stone’, but there was no time to linger. As it was, we had run out of time before reaching the tower and had just a minute or two to verify the presence of the circle, snap a few useless pictures and dash back to the car.

Image© Richard M 1992-2016

There would not be enough time to get to the cop circle before meeting the rest of our party for the final site, but at least we had clear directions and a parking spot for the girls, two of whom would be back in a couple of days, though Helen would not be with them.

When Larissa and Alethea did return, they visited the crop circle… and I hope Alethea will tell more of her story when she gets the chance. What they did not know, because we did not know, was just how odd it was that the circle went down just there.

It was not until I started playing with Google Earth, when we were home again, that I had chance to work out where our hypothetical vesica in the landscape might fall, and things got even odder. Using the positioning of the six churches to create a hexagram, you can extend the geometric forms to draw…and therefore find… a vesica. I am no expert with that software, but even I could see that Cerne Abbas itself was not the exact centre of the hexagram as we had assumed. The centre of that shape, which, with the extended geometries is also the base point of the vesica, falls close to the hamlet of Up Cerne. I took a closer look.

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I trawled all my usual sources and found they were referring to an ancient way-marker or boundary stone beside a track.  My sources had pictures. Not only was it the same ‘significant stone’ that we had noted on the approach to the crop circle, it was the Bellingstone that stands beside the Wessex Ridgeway and which we had decided, prior to the workshop, would be far too difficult and time consuming to locate. Instead, we found it by accident.

The crop circle is in a field close to the Bellingstone, close to one of the best viewing points for the Cerne Abbas Giant. According to Peter Knight, the stone and Giant are astronomically aligned with the Beltane sunrise. Belenos is one of the old Celtic gods whose name means ‘Shining God’. Beltane is celebrated with fires and Belenos was worshipped as a solar god. The sun is the centre of our planetary system… and the crop circle made of planetary symbols was, as near as I could determine, right at the centre of our hexagram… and one of the two points of the vesica we had been seeking. Apparently, we had found that by accident too.

You cannot, as the saying goes, make this stuff up. No-one would believe the sheer volume of coincidences… and yet they happen. All the time. Why and how? Do we simply read more into coincidences than is really there? Does the subconscious process unconsciously gathered information in some way we do not yet understand? Or are there indeed unseen forces moving us like pieces on a chess-board? If so, they have a wicked sense of humour!


The Giant and the Sun: Patterns in the landscape was the Silent Eye summer workshop weekend. These informal events are held several times every year and are open to all. You do not have to be a member to join us as we wander the rich landscape of Britain, visiting ancient, sacred and intriguing places. We seek out myth and mystery, exploring what the land and its stories can teach us about our own daily lives and our place in the intricate tapestry of human Being.

After each event, we publish an account of the places we have visited and share a little of what we have discussed during the course of the weekend to give a taste of what we do.

If you would like to join us for a wander through the mysteries and history of Britain, please visit our Events page.

The Giant and the Sun – The one in the garden…

On our research visit to Dorset, we had really had to look for the Church of St Mary the Virgin at Hermitage. We had driven up and down the lanes for ages, before finally spotting a sign that led behind the village green and into the gardens of a cottage. We could see the church… a tiny, single-cell building, but felt a little awkward invading someone’s garden to get to it. Apparently though, that was the path to the church.

One of the reasons we had been unable to locate the church originally was the lack of a tower. Not only had this made our quest a little more difficult, it had also obliterated our theory about the tall towers and their significance within this six-pointed landscape in the shadow of a priapic giant. Luckily, however, a bit of digging soon reassured us on that point at least.

The village of Hermitage is said to take its name from the presence of the Augustinian Friars who settled here nine hundred years ago. They were under royal protection and were eventually given grants of land by the Crown. The friars remained for three hundred years, and built the little church in the fourteenth century.

The present church was heavily altered and restored in the seventeenth century and the font dates from this period. There was once a tower, that contained an apartment for the curate, but that was removed, leaving only a lonely gargoyle, jostling for place with the modern wires.

Around 1800, the barrel roof was installed, giving the church its current appearance. There is still a medieval door in the north wall and a scratch dial… the primitive sundials used for telling the times of the services… on the outside of the building.

The setting, like the church, is simple… it is very much a part of the community and obviously loved. Not far away is The Lady’s Well, a sacred spring once used by the Friars, but whose origins…and the Lady to whom it is dedicated… may go back much further in time.

Within the church, the Lady is the Virgin Mother with Her Son, a beautiful and unusually human sculpture. In some magical systems, the dark, Cosmic Mother is associated with the planet Saturn, the planet at the centre of our meditation, while the little church, filled with summer light, we had assigned to the Sun.

For our purposes, though, the chair carved with the hexagram seemed a most appropriate find, as it was here that we would complete our meditation. Beneath the ghost of the tower, we ourselves symbolised the seven points of the hexagram, moving to bring the fire and water triangles together to create a symbolic representation of harmony and wholeness.

Our day was complete. We were to meet for dinner at the old inn in Cerne Abbas that had once been part of the Abbey buildings, so everyone had a little time to themselves. Some went back to their hotel. We went for petrol and spent a little while in the quiet of the Silver Well. And some went off on an adventure of their own, hunting yet another pattern in the landscape… 


The Giant and the Sun: Patterns in the landscape was the Silent Eye summer workshop weekend. These informal events are held several times every year and are open to all. You do not have to be a member to join us as we wander the rich landscape of Britain, visiting ancient, sacred and intriguing places. We seek out myth and mystery, exploring what the land and its stories can teach us about our own daily lives and our place in the intricate tapestry of human Being.

After each event, we publish an account of the places we have visited and share a little of what we have discussed during the course of the weekend to give a taste of what we do.

If you would like to join us for a wander through the mysteries and history of Britain, please visit our Events page.

The Giant and the Sun – The one with the magician…

5 Batcombe (41)

Our penultimate church was in Batcombe… these days a small and straggling hamlet, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. There has been a church on the site of St Mary Magdalene for nigh a thousand years and very possibly more. It stands in a green valley, far from enough people to make a congregation seem barely feasible.

The church boasts a tower taller, in proportion to the rest of the single-celled building, than many grander churches we have seen. Indeed, the first impression you get when you arrive is of the height of the tower and the isolated beauty in which it stands.

The church is a simple one, with the main entrance still being through the base of the fifteenth century tower, and leading to a nave and chancel. It is a long, narrow building and lacks both ornamentation and stained glass. It is vaguely unkempt, appears almost abandoned… and yet it has a curious tranquillity and a welcoming feel. Of all the churches we visited, this was the one where I felt most at home.

Outside, there is a warmth about the stone and the simplicity of the doorway is inviting. There are gargoyles watching from the four corners of the tower and a pair of heads flank the door.

An odd shield-shaped marking…perhaps a mason’s mark… looks rather like a smiling face, positioned close to the door. Around the corner, a fragment of pre-Norman masonry hides amongst the flints on one of the buttresses, suggesting the presence of a Saxon church on the spot, long before the Normans arrived and began building the churches we appreciate so much as repositories of art and local history.

All in all, it is an inviting place. Once inside, the air is cool and ‘clean’ in some indefinable way. The tower walls hold a handful of memorials that show a little of the history of the community.

I was particularly taken by the elaborate border of one memorial that combines an angel with fruits, foliage and a skull, as well as the rather startled-looking skull on another that has an almost cartoon-like feel.

The font stands at the back of the church, where the tower meets the nave, and is a curious affair. It has a Norman column with a curvaceous yet cube-shaped limestone basin which is older than the pedestal upon which it stands. There are circles inscribed on the sides of the basin, looking very much like those odd consecration crosses we had found earlier at Cerne Abbas.

 

There is little to see in the rest of the church at first glance, especially after the wealthier places we had already visited. But look a little more closely and there are still wonderful artefacts to be found.

The fragment of an old screen hides beside the organ. Pews hide an ancient holy water stoup and a rare twelfth century pillar-piscina, set against a triangular alcove.

A carved stone screen separates the nave from the chancel and illustrated Bible graces the lectern. The fifteenth century collar-beam roof is held in place by roof bosses carved with foliage and curves gently over the nave.

Victorian restorations erased the Minterne Chapel that once held a very curious burial and a bit of local folklore. The local squire was known as ‘Conjuring Minterne’. He dabbled in magic and was regarded with fear and superstition. After setting off to ride over steep Batcombe Hill one day, he suddenly remembered he had left his spell-book open on the table, where his servants might find it.

To save going back by the road, he turned his horse round and spurred it to attempt a massive leap over the church, knocking off the pinnacle as he soared clear over the tower. The fearful villagers were afraid that they might offend the devil by repairing the damage, and bad luck was promised to those who attempted to do so… and for a hundred years they left it alone. When it was repaired, they repaired it at a crooked angle.

It is said that Minterne vowed that he would be buried neither in nor out of the church, so he was buried half in and half out of the Minterne Chapel. The church was redesigned and rebuilt by John Hicks in 1864, and the Minterne chapel was sadly lost. The memorial tablets were repositioned on the north side of the tower and one must wonder if the John Minterne mentioned in the carvings is the conjurer…

A “conjurer” used to be an important character in a Dorset village, and was held in respect. He was supposed to be gifted with supernatural power, which he exercised for good, and by his incantations and ceremonies he could cure many sicknesses.

In another of those curious coincidences, we had assigned this church to Mercury as part of our meditation…and in many systems, Mercury is associated with magic.

The afternoon was drawing to a close…we had one more church still to see, if time allowed, yet it was with some reluctance that we left Batcombe. With its air of quiet, resilient grace and a standing stone hidden in a nearby hedge, it really is a magical place. 


The Giant and the Sun: Patterns in the landscape was the Silent Eye summer workshop weekend. These informal events are held several times every year and are open to all. You do not have to be a member to join us as we wander the rich landscape of Britain, visiting ancient, sacred and intriguing places. We seek out myth and mystery, exploring what the land and its stories can teach us about our own daily lives and our place in the intricate tapestry of human Being.

After each event, we publish an account of the places we have visited and share a little of what we have discussed during the course of the weekend to give a taste of what we do.

If you would like to join us for a wander through the mysteries and history of Britain, please visit our Events page.

The Giant and the Sun – The one with the light…

The current Church of the St Nicholas, at Sydling St Nicholas,  dates largely to the fifteenth century, with the tall tower being the oldest part of the building. However, it stands on the site of at least two earlier churches that go back to the earliest days of Christianity in the country.

We had been unable to get inside the church when we had come down to reconnoitre for the workshop weekend as it was in use, so this would be an adventure for all of us… we had no idea what we might find.

There are a good many unusual features. For a start, the church is covered in gargoyles, all of whom are up for adoption in an effort to raise funds to preserve the building. Gargoyles were working sculptures, designed to carry water away from the foundations of the building when it rained, while grotesques served either as decorations only or as a symbolic spiritual message… although there are many that seem to be a covert commentary by the mason, making a point about local notables.

Above the porch, an ascetic saint holds his finger skywards in blessing or warning. Most of these niches are now empty, but most parish churches would have had a similar statue before the Reformation. There is an old fireplace in the porch, where, one assumes, the parishioners could warm themselves in winter. I doubt if Cromwell’s Puritans would have approved of that either.

They certainly did not approve of the stained-glass, and little of the early glass survived their stones and muskets… just a few intriguing fragments placed in a frame and hung above the font at the base of the tower.

The font is a really curious affair, most unusual. It appears to have been made from a Roman column and set upon a later pedestal. Beside it, leaning forlornly against the wall, is another old basin, large enough to be a font.

High above the nave is a collection of painted roof bosses. Most of them are simple floral designs, but a few of them seem to have more to say…

The protruding tongue of one of the bosses is echoed in another fragment of old masonry, now ensconced in the squint. Traces of the old pigment remain and you get a glimpse of how magnificent, colourful and possibly garish these churches once were, when they were painted throughout. They must have been startling indeed to the common folk for whom dyes, tapestries and colour were largely out of reach.

They were reserved for the wealthier families, like the Smiths who once lived at Sydling Court. Rumour has it that there is, or was, a tunnel from the crypt of the church to the Court too, and not for the first time, I wish we could access some of the lesser frequented areas of these old churches.

There are several memorials to the Smith family, including one to Mary Smith, a mother of twelve who lost eight of her children in infancy. She died aged eighty-one in 1797, ‘full of years and good works’.

4 Sydling St Nicholas (30)

The two most intriguing features of the church for us, though, were in the east and west. In the east, on the altar, is a carving which we assume must be Christ with outstretched arms as it sits in the place of the Cross. I wasn’t the only one to think this figure looked rather like an alien from a sci-fi movie…

In the west is the tower where we gathered for our meditation. We had assigned the planet Jupiter and the colour orange to this spot, along with our seed thought. As we finished our meditation, the sun came through a small fragment of stained-glass and it appeared that we had made the right choice…


The Giant and the Sun: Patterns in the landscape was the Silent Eye summer workshop weekend. These informal events are held several times every year and are open to all. You do not have to be a member to join us as we wander the rich landscape of Britain, visiting ancient, sacred and intriguing places. We seek out myth and mystery, exploring what the land and its stories can teach us about our own daily lives and our place in the intricate tapestry of human Being.

After each event, we publish an account of the places we have visited and share a little of what we have discussed during the course of the weekend to give a taste of what we do.

If you would like to join us for a wander through the mysteries and history of Britain, please visit our Events page.

The Giant and the Sun – The one with the dragon…

The little church of All Saints at Nether Cerne is in the most beautiful and peaceful location imaginable. On our first visit, we drove down the tiny country lane that runs beside the infant River Cerne, expecting to find a village. There are only a couple of cottages, a farm and a beautiful seventeenth century manor house… and a sign saying ‘to the church’ which seemed to point between two tracks leading into the middle of nowhere.

Leaving the car, we took the right-hand track, following it behind the manor’s stables, until we found a gap in the wildflowers through which we could see the church. Feeling rather like naughty children, trespassing where we shouldn’t, we followed the hint of a path into the manor gardens.

The church is tiny and stands opposite the door to the manor. By contrast, its tower is proportionately huge. There are a handful of graves, including a military grave bearing a carving of crossed rifles, and a feeling of utter peace.

All Saints, though remaining a consecrated place of worship, is a retired church. After eight hundred years, the building is at rest, yet it retains a luminous sanctity and tranquillity matched by few others we have seen. It is a place that simply needs to be felt.

It is surrounded by fields, sheltered by trees and a silence broken only by birdsong and the quiet whisper of the river. We did not expect it to stand open… yet the door swung inwards to allow us entry to a little church that keeps an antler with the candlesticks.

Although it was built in the thirteenth century, it was remodelled two hundred years later. It is a very simple church, seeming bigger on the inside than the outside.

There is little to see at first, just a few stained-glass windows, two of which are superb. The face of the Christ in the East window, above the altar, has faded and lost its features, but the Lamb and the Crucifixion are worthy of any place of worship.

The font is a curious affair, oval, rather than round, and looking rather like half an upturned melon. It is pre-dates the present church and may come from a much older building. I cannot find out whether the Purbeck marble font was part of a church already on the site, or whether it was brought from elsewhere, but it appears to be at least nine hundred years old.

The tower is the most interesting part of the building, with a tiny door leading to the stairs and some curious carvings on the pillars. Small, shield-bearing angels guard the entrance to the tower, but from within, you look up to see an eagle and a tiny dragon.

As we gathered there for our meditation on the planetary colours and seed phrase, it was evident that these could not have been better chosen.

 

 


The Giant and the Sun: Patterns in the landscape was the Silent Eye summer workshop weekend. These informal events are held several times every year and are open to all. You do not have to be a member to join us as we wander the rich landscape of Britain, visiting ancient, sacred and intriguing places. We seek out myth and mystery, exploring what the land and its stories can teach us about our own daily lives and our place in the intricate tapestry of human Being.

After each event, we publish an account of the places we have visited and share a little of what we have discussed during the course of the weekend to give a taste of what we do.

If you would like to join us for a wander through the mysteries and history of Britain, please visit our Events page.