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.

geo

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.

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

We had assigned our second church, All Saints in the village of Piddletrenthide, to Mars, but nothing less warlike could you imagine than the tranquil stream and thatched cottages that surround one of the finest churches in the area.

Like the previous church, it has an inordinately tall tower, surmounted by more really intriguing gargoyles. Not for the first time, I am grateful for the long lens on the camera, which allows at least a glimpse of what is hiding in plain sight, just too high to see. It is an interesting church with a lot to see…

There is a plaque in the churchyard pointing out the Dumberfield graves… the family that was the inspiration for the D’Urberville family in Thomas Hardy’s book. Being a local man, Hardy crops up on many of the places we visited.

There are heraldic beasts perched on every protuberance around the exterior of the church… which, on closer inspection and in spite of their regal appearance, seem to be the symbols of the Evangelists… quite unusual they are too, given their placement. A sundial still casts a shadow to tell the time… and, like the one at Buckland Newton, it bears the ‘daisy-wheel’ symbol that had intrigued us at Cerne Abbas.

Beneath it, the Norman door is closed against the ingress of baby swallows. We watched their aerobatics… the parents seemed to be taking the babies out for a training flight and we were lucky enough to see them circling within the porch. For some reason, swallows seem to favour church porches as nesting places.

There are Norman carvings on the capitals of the pillars within the church too, but most of the present building dates back only to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries… and was inevitably and heavily restored in 1852 by John Hicks, though he left the squint in place, through which worshippers in the side chapels could see the Host being raised and which, rather oddly, today seems one of the most vibrant details.

There are a number of very fine Victorian memorials, showing weeping women, broken pillars and all the usual visual tropes of grief from that era. Apart from their historical and artistic value, these elaborate memorials never draw me.

One memorial stood out, though, and that was a stained glass window dedicated to those fallen in battle, in memory of a young fusilier from the village killed, aged twenty-five, during WWII. He stands at the foot of the Cross, his sword has been laid down, and Jesus seems to look down with love and compassion.

Curiously, there are stars surrounding the Cross and, given some of the questions thrown up by our quest, this seemed appropriate. Another window shows the Christ within a vesica once more and the pulpit is carved with the hexagram.

All the stained glass, though, is magnificent, particularly the Madonna and Child and the West window in the Tower. The Madonna is one of the best I have seen, while the great West window is a wonderful depiction of the Ascension with attendant angels.

This church has everything going for it. All the right historical and architectural details, a literary association, wonderful glass, Norman carvings and an idyllic setting. As we gathered to meditate on the colours and symbolism of our attribution of this beautiful church, I could not help thinking how inappropriate it seemed to assign this place to Mars…  or how right it felt.

When we had first visited the church, I had been excited about everything we saw… but somehow, the place left me cold. It spoke to the mind, but failed to touch the heart. The next church, however, would be the complete opposite…


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.
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Drawing a dark veil…

“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.” Pope Gregory’s letter to Abbot Mellitus, 6thC, on the conversion of Britain.

***

You have to admit, Pope Gregory was sneaky. The mission to bring the blessed isles of Britain into the Christian fold was not to be accomplished so much by conversion as subversion. To ‘convert’ means to turn in a new direction, to subvert means to destroy from below… and that, is pretty much, the definition of sneaky.

The instructions to the missionaries were clear… take and use the old sacred places for the new worship. The letter was quite detailed in how this should be done, but basically it meant allowing the people to celebrate the same festivals, in the way they had always done, and in the same places. The only difference wa that, while they were doing so, the clergy of the Church could gradually add a Christian gloss to the festivities. Many of the old gods were adopted as Christian saints and their stories rewritten accordingly, magical places were rendered ‘officially’ sacred by appropriating them for Christian myth and the symbolism of ancient festivals was reallocated to the Christian story.

Gregory was right. The people were soon turned to the new religion.

They may have neither noticed nor cared; when you worship God made manifest in Nature, the names and stories of the gods matter less than natural and cosmic force they represent… and Britain already had a long history of accepting ‘foreign’ gods into the pantheon. The new Jesus-god was little different from many who had come and gone before, after all. Miraculous births abound in religious history, across the globe and throughout the ages. Gods who walk the earth as men are not uncommon, nor are the gods who come to teach. Saviour gods and sacrificed gods were ten a penny, and Jesus was not the first to be hung upon a tree.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

Gregory must have been well aware of this ready acceptance of new gods into the pagan fold. Throw in a few incentives…and eternal life isn’t bad for starters… add a dash of hellfire and brimstone to put the fear of God into the laggards, put learning, healing, economic and political power into the hands of the priests, and he was right; within a generation or two, the conversion was pretty much complete. The old gods faded into myth and their altars were forgotten…or repurposed.

But, let’s be honest, Gregory was not exactly the first to bring Britain to Christianity, whatever his letter might suggest. The process had been going on for quite some time. There were already Christians in Britain before the Romans left in 410AD. The very earliest missionaries, according to the legends, had arrived much earlier than that, when Joseph of Arimathea had come to Glastonbury, bringing with him relics of Jesus’ life and mission, and founding the first Christian oratory there. Joseph, according to the Bible, was the man who asked Pilate’s permission to remove Jesus’ body from the Cross… so, if the legends are true, then Christianity came to these shores within a few years of the Crucifixion.

Celtic Christianity, which carried a greater love and respect for the natural world, was already firmly entrenched in these isles before Gregory wrote to Mellitus. The last pagan warrior-king was Penda of Mercia…and he died in 655AD. So it was not so much Christianity that Gregory wanted to bring to the land, but Roman Christianity. be that as it may, after the Synod of Whitby in 664, Britain was officially under the sway of the Bishop of Rome and the spiritual landscape was confined to the churches and chapels.

For those who seek a greater understanding of our spiritual past, Britain is particularly rich in archaeological remains dating back thousands of years. There are over a thousand stone circles, innumerable barrows and many other ancient monuments to baffle, intrigue and illuminate the seeker. Sacred sites continue to document the evolution of belief throughout the Roman Occupation, then you hit what was known as the Dark Ages (until political correctness renamed it the Early Medieval period) and nothing much remains except the imported Norse and Saxon gods and the earliest beginnings of the Church. The lines between them blur as the one blends with the other and our original spiritual story sinks further into myth… and the seeker is left with the task of unpicking the resulting tangle.

Unfortunately for Pope Gregory, his directive had an unexpected result. By building his churches on sites of a far more ancient sanctity than the sanction of Christianity, many of those sites were preserved. We not only know where they were, they are still there.

There are barrows in churchyards, ancient yews, once held sacred, still cast their shadows on holy ground, sacred springs run beneath foundations and local saints with strange names and even stranger stories leave a trail of breadcrumbs for us to follow.

And follow them we do, finding mysteries and motes of ancient light as we delve into the origins of belief. Why do we search? What can such ancient beliefs offer us, and how do they relate to the modern world? You have only to look at the political evolution of ‘official’ faith to see how murky the waters can be and how the minds and hearts of a nation can be quietly subverted.

But somewhere beyond all the chicanery, beyond dogma, beyond all organised religion, when we reconnect to our ancestors, we touch a time when the questions we still ask today were first being explored. Their world was simpler… everything was either sacred or magical, or both. There were spirits in stone and tree, there was healing in the waters. Everything was seen as connected. Animals, even the hunted, were held in reverence and the green and growing land was the body of a goddess. Nature was the self-expression of divinity and mankind no more than a part of that expression. With humankind seemingly determined to despoil and destroy our home, I believe that perspective to be more than relevant today.

Going west – the Yews of Nevern…and other surprises.

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I was looking forward to Nevern Church… another one of those, like Kilpeck, that we would visit ‘one day’…and were visiting at last. To think that we had seen so much since Kilpeck, just three days before, seems incredible. But that’s the way these trips seem to work… time takes time off to stretch for a while, leaving us space to play. The trouble with some of these places, though, is that you come across them in researching other places…and forget what it is that you actually wanted to see. All I could recall was that Nevern was home to the Bleeding Yew and was, in fact renowned for its avenue of ancient yew trees, some of them over 700 years old.  Just like Kilpeck, though, we found far more than we imagined.

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The Bleeding Yew is not an uncommon gardening phenomenon, but few have a place in legend or are credited with being miraculous. This one is said to exude the viscous, blood-red liquid because a monk was hung there for a crime of which he was innocent. Or because the Cross on which Jesus was crucified was a yew and the tree bled in sympathy. Or because it weeps until a Welsh king sits once more on the throne. Kings may have something to do with the story indeed; according to a theory expounded by Martin Porter at The Greenman, King Vortigern himself may have found his final resting place at Nevern when he fled from the Saxons in defeat. Whatever the true reason, it is a strange sight.

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Vortigern takes us right back to the days when this church was first built…and back to the days of King Arthur. The Arthurian legends that we all know and love are mainly drawn from later, romanticised retellings, but there are so many ancient sites and snippets of folklore that associate Arthur with Wales, as well as the later stories that ‘the once and future king’ may well have originated there. He is certainly associated with Nevern in folklore. Not only as some say that it was at Nevern that he met his end, but there is a Pilgrim’s Cross cut into the stone of what seems to be a bricked-up cave halfway up the hill to the remains of the castle…a site we would have no time on this trip to visit… and one legend has it that Arthur hid the Grail in this cave. Another, more Christianised version, is that the Knights Templar hid the Cross of the Crucifixion in the cave, the proximity of which might explain why the yew bleeds…. or at least why the legend arose. The timing would be about right for the yew if it is over seven hundred years old, as the Templars were forcibly eradicated in 1312.

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Behind the miraculous yew, I found a touching tribute to a late loved one on a grave. Left there many years ago, protected first by glass cloches, then covered with wire frames to prevent breakage, wreaths of delicate stone roses still rest on a tomb. It was when I looked up from the grave that I saw it, framed beneath the curve of a branch, and one of those expletives you really shouldn’t use on holy ground escaped my lips. Not that you could have missed it… not when it stands thirteen foot high and as fresh as the proverbial daisy beside the church…

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The Nevern Cross… that was why I had wanted to come… not just for the yews. Wasn’t it? It was well worth the trip, just on its own. The Celtic Cross is over a thousand years old. Made of the local dolerite stone, it is carved in two pieces, with the cross head held in place with a mortice and tenon joint worked in stone. The sides are covered with the classic intertwined designs, crosses and swastikas… an ancient symbol of light… and there is a Latin inscription. On one side is written H/AN/.EH… the meaning of which seems lost. On the other DMS, which may be an abbreviation for the Latin word Dominus, meaning ‘lord’.

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It is an incredible survival, the carvings still sharp and clear in spite of a millennium of weathering. What is less clear is the meaning of the knotwork and symbolism that adorns it. That the designs of the knotwork incorporate more than just beauty, there can be little doubt. At least part of it is a symbolic ‘language’ that would have been familiar to those who made it. Some symbols, like the swastika and the triquetra, the three-pointed designs that indicate the Trinity, we can at least partly understand, but much is now lost to us of these visual teachings.

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Local folklore tells of how the villagers would gather at the stone on St Brynach’s feast day on April 7th, to wait for the first cuckoo to perch on the stone and bring with it the spring.  To me that smacks of an older story and I thought of the Hunting of the Wren, wondering how that might tie in with the story. We marvelled at the cross and wandered around the churchyard that is filled with wildflowers, butterflies and interesting monuments before heading back towards the church to go inside. Then we saw it, and I remembered exactly why I’d wanted to come to Nevern… the Vitialanus stone.

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The Vitialanus Stone is where Vortigern comes into the tale as the theory goes that this might be his tombstone. Not that we knew that at the time, that came with the research later. What we did know was that this was older by far than the Nevern Cross… dating from around AD500 and a very early Christian artefact… if indeed it was ever Christian at all. Indeed, catching Stuart’s eye, I knew just what was going through his mind and sure enough, the outwardly irreverent, though accurate descriptive we use for these obviously phallic stones was the first thing he said. There is nothing to tie this stone to the religion of the Church, just an inscription in Latin that reads ‘VITALIANI EMERETO’, variously translated as ‘to the honour of Vitalianus’ or ‘the monument of Vitalianus’. But that wasn’t the really exciting part. The best bit was that along one edge of the five foot stone, Vitalianus’ name is carved in Ogham script.

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Ogham is written by making short, but precisely written lines along the edge of stone or wood. The position  determines the letters. One legend tells that it was the mythical Scythian King, Fenius Farsa, who invented Ogham, shortly after the fall of the Tower of Babel. He journeyed with 72 scholars to the plains of Shinar to study the confusion of languages, but they had already dispersed. Remaining there himself, he sent his scholars to find the languages and collated them himself into a perfect script, naming the 25 letters after his scholars. A symbolic story if ever there was one, especially as Amraphael, king of Shinar, was one of those to whom Melchizedek, the priest of the Most High, served bread and wine. Another tale says it was Ogma mac Elathan (Ogmios), a master of poetry and speech, who created the script, intending it only for the bardic elite. The first message was a magical warning written on a beech tree, and the letters thus all bore the names of the trees. Either story will do for me as both have meaning.

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It was an incredible find…there is something very moving in seeing the script of our distant forefathers, knowing what was written, though not why… it brings them close and makes the encounter personal, erasing the centuries and affirming the connection across time. Nevern has been well worth a visit… and that was before we even crossed the threshold of the little church!

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