Rites of Passage: Lurchers, Stags and a mummified cat

Just over the road from the entrance to Cressbrook Dale is a pub. It is a most unusual pub and we could not pass up the opportunity to take our companions there to end the weekend.

The Three Stags Heads is a seventeenth century longhouse, that seems barely changed since it was first built. From outside, you could drive past and never realise it was there, unless you noticed the sign, three stag skull mounted on the wall. We had driven past for years, until an American friend who knew the area took us there. The door was shut, the place seemed closed… it needed a certain amount of courage to lift the latch and enter what appeared to be someone’s home. We did not expect what we found…

The Three Stags Heads in Wardlow Mires is owned by Geoff Fuller and his wife, Pat. They are artists and Geoff’s beautiful and usable pottery filled the bar, with regulars drinking from his handmade flagons.  The main bar was a tiny room with a couple of rickety tables, a number of benches and three-legged stools and a vast old cast-iron fireplace. There were lurchers on the tables, dogs on the stone-flagged floor, and a mummified cat in a case in the corner… found in the chimney where it had  been placed to ward off evil.

The menu was simple, and seemed to vary depending upon what came in, wrapped in sackcloth. The beer was mostly bottled and the Black Lurcher, the house beer, quite lethal. Mobile phones and modern gadgetry were not allowed. It was a place where time held no meaning and it was easy to step beyond it. Folk musicians were gathering for the regular impromptu session in the other, slightly bigger room…and we felt as if we had stepped into Geoff’s kitchen… or the inn from the Saragossa Manuscript.

Geoff seemed to take a bit of a shine to me and spent most of the time we were there showing me his collection of animal skulls and fossils. The young barman looked on, obviously taking note of the new customers, for when we went back a couple of years later, he greeted us in a way we would come to know and had remembered what we had ordered.

Sadly, Geoff’s health has taken a turn for the worse and old friends have stepped in to run the place and preserve this unique window onto another and timeless world. The changes being made are minor and practical, designed only to help draw customers to keep the old place going and we were glad to take our small party in and share one of our favourite pubs with them.

We settled down one of the small tables and I found myself, oddly, sitting in Geoff’s usual chair, with my carved-headed staff propped up on the wall beside me. The young barman, seated with his friends, noticed the staff and came over to have a look.

“You could have ruled a tribe with that three thousand years ago,” said he. “Or started one…” It was an odd thing to say, given how far back in time we had drifted over the weekend… but then, the Three Stags is that kind of place.

There is a magic in ordinary things… and ordinary places… that is often overlooked in the quest for the wand-waving enchantments made popular by Hollywood. You notice it sometimes, when things don’t quite ‘fit’ the usual framework of ideas… whether it is in a hare bounding across the landscape of a handmade plate or stepping into a room that remembers its history as a living and continuing tradition.

Real magic, though, for want of a better word, begins within and the true work of the seeker, be they beginner or adept, centres on the inner world of the higher self and its place within the pattern of existence. The weekend workshops we organise are designed to lead our companions to a door to those inner worlds, but, like the Three Stags, stepping through that door is a choice…and you never know what you will find once you have crossed the threshold.

Pottery by Geoff Fuller. Image: © The Three Stags’ Heads 2016

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Rites of Passage: Last rites III

We walked on, the mood had changed with the meditation; all of us quietly aware that there was to be something more. The broad, well-trodden path continued to wind its way through the valley, but we took instead the narrow track that climbs towards Peter’s Rock. It is odd, but we have observed so many times that few people look up at the rock as they pass beneath it. The great dome of stone is a looming presence and yet eyes seem to slide off it as if it is not there at all in their reality.

There is a place on the path, marked by a fallen stone, where the atmosphere seems to deepen. Whatever you carry there with you, or whatever you feel from the site, it is at this point that most feel the change.

At the top of the path is a bowl in the land, almost a natural amphitheatre filled with the rubble of crumbling stone. It is here that we paused and, in meditation, placed ourselves within the Web of Light.

Leaving the companions in the care of the Guide to make their personal dedications, the ‘Hermit’ and the ‘Star’ take up their positions on small, rocky ledges overhanging the drop below. Each companion will walk that path alone with the Guide, to face their fears and answer what is asked.

The Hermit stands alone on the peak, one part of his journey accomplished. In his right hand he holds a star-lit Lamp that illuminates his next few steps and shines a light for others to follow. In his left hand he holds a Staff, symbol of both pilgrim and master and of the inner voice that guides. When hearts and hands are raised to the Light, the Light descends to meet them.

Beyond him, on the farthest ledge, is the Star. Poised between two worlds, she is polarity in equilibrium and offers her blessing for the next steps of the journey. To those who ask, wisdom is given.

What passes in such moments as these is not for us to share; only those who were there can choose whether they wish to share their story…or to keep it in their hearts.

As we gathered again at the entrance to the bowl, the mood had changed once again. Each of us had faced something and each overcome something personal. Aware that some fear heights and others have physical problems that would make it unsafe, we had not asked our companions to climb Peter’s Rock, but now we offered them the opportunity, and all who could took it. For some, that was another and very real triumph over fear.

And with that, the official part of the weekend was done. It remained only to descend and to close down the sphere of Light, sending Light and healing out along the lines of the Web.

But we did have one last place that we wanted to share…a very earthy place, perfect for grounding, and, incidentally, one of the strangest places in Derbyshire…

Rites of Passage: Last rites II

We began our walk by once again drawing a sphere of Light around our party. As we walked along Cressbrook Dale, we were careful not to colour any impressions our companions might pick up about the place. We shared a little history and geology, but it was not until we stopped by the mouth of a small cave that we began to speak of its ‘alternative’ history. Even so, it seemed that they were already tasting the atmosphere for themselves and their reactions could be read on their faces, from what looked like disgust through to delight.

The cave is a low, two-pronged shaft at the base of a cliff. It is an uncomfortable crawl to get inside, as years of fallen stones line the passageways that disappear into the darkness; we would not ask them to enter.

Instead, we gathered at the mouth of the cave for a guided journey, a type of meditative visualisation, similar to those we use as part of the Silent Eye’s correspondence course. This one, part of a longer story, was not so much written as glimpsed as we had worked with the landscape here over the years.

Our companions closed their eyes and, as a low chant echoed softly through the cavern, began their journey, following the words in imagination, entering into a time and a place beyond time… what they saw is theirs to keep or to share as they choose. Join us in that journey…

‘…The walls of the tiny cave close about you.

The drums reverberate through the rock.

The fire of sacred herbs is kindled before the narrow opening and smoke fills your lungs.

The flickering shadows dance on the walls and you are lost once more in vision.

The drums slow to a steady beat; your breathing is slower too… your heartbeat echoes the drums, slower… slower… Yet it beats faster than the heart of the land. Feel its rhythm in your bones as life ebbs and flesh melts into the earth.

‘As your body disintegrates… dust to dust, water to water, flame to flame… your soul soars, higher than life, deeper than death, faster than time.

All things are yours for the knowing, nothing is yours for the taking…nor would you if you could.

There is freedom in this.

The wandering mind rests, light as a mayfly, on the world you have known, seeing with new eyes, as parents watch children as they squabble in the dirt.

You sigh; the last breath leaves, and you are still…’

‘The pale gold of dawn touches your face.

You can feel the dew damp grass beneath your nakedness and hear the chanting, soft in the morning, entwined with the song of birds.

They chafe your hands and feet, washing the pale, cold skin. You watch, detached, apart… distant, yet present.

You are aware of curiosity, watching the body whose spark of life has fled, yet which lives still.

They sit you on the hide, one behind, two besides, chanting softly and marking your face with their fingertips, stroking your skin with the black feathers, passing the smoke before your face.

A cup is lifted to your lips the bitter liquid forced into your mouth… you choke…

… as you meet the eyes of the Old One, you swallow, and the world explodes…’

 ‘Smoke hangs in the hollow before the rock, the Place of the Dreaming.

The air is heavy, the fires not for warmth.

All day they have drummed.

All day they have chanted.

All day you have sat, rigid in the smoke that swirls and roils in your vision; great beasts and creatures populate your sight.

Death in life and life in death.

Yet now, once more, they bring you back.

This is the third night.

The last…or the first.

Your eyes are clear, looking up through the pall to the faces of man and beast, god and spirit carved by the Goddess herself in the rock.

Their eyes stare unseeing, seeing all.

As darkness falls the dance of flame gives them life, leering or smiling… the rectus of fear or the faces of desire.

You know not.

You know only what must be done.

A circle of torches spirals around the Place of Dreaming.

They have come.

For a birth…or a death.

There is only that. It is all you have left to give. You will not pass that ring of flame unchanged. You can only climb the pathway. You cannot run from yourself. Not now. Not anymore. You have seen too much. Your mind is clear, your body weak but renewed as you walk the spiral to the base of the rock; naked and nameless still.’

‘They stand away and you are alone. One step… two….

You approach the channel that leads up to the mound atop the pinnacle of rock.

You can see the smoke rising through the chimney… the sacred fire is kindled; smoke white against the dusk.

Fear grips your gut, a hand clenching in your entrails. Each step an aeon, each footfall touches terror.

In silence you battle the warding. You have earned the right to pass.

You climb, naked still, all that you are has been stripped from you… all thought… you simply are…

Up through the narrow crevice, up and right onto the rock… only silent swirling below, ringed with flame.

And then up once more, feet touching the grass of the mound, pushing through terror, wanting to flee. you sit, cross legged to wait. Knowing what is to come…

…Knowing… nothing…

…Fear remains, your only companion, whispering in the night. You see it… know it… taste it on your lips.

The torches are extinguished; the flames cold.

There is only the silence and the fear and the smell of smoke.

Smoke from a sacred flame… herbs and woods known to the few… to the old ones… gate of vision or funeral pyre.

If you fail, they will burn your body, scattering your ashes to the winds.

You will be lost forever.

Nameless.

You will not fail.’

Rites of Passage: Last rites?

On the Sunday morning, the last day of our weekend workshop, we had arranged to meet close to the entrance of Cressbrook Dale, a deep, green cleft in the hills that has a strange and often dark history. Our destination was an orphaned island of rock that stands isolated in the valley that is thought to have slid away from the adjoining hillside. It is called Peter’s Rock and was supposedly so named for its resemblance to the dome of St Peter’s in Rome… though perhaps a Christian overlay was given to an older and forgotten name. Locally, though, it is also known as Gibbet Hill.

In 1815, the same year as the battle of Waterloo, the vicar of Tideswell found his church empty and the congregation missing. They had found something more exciting to do with their morning and had departed, en masse, to witness the gruesome end of Antony Lingard, a convicted murderer, who had killed tollkeeper, Hannah Oliver.

It is said that he had stolen her property to give to a young woman who was carrying his child as some kind of bribe. Hearing what was suspected, she gave him back the goods and eventually testified against him.

The local cobbler, a man named Marsden, had provided the key evidence though, averring that shoes found at Lingard’s home had belonged to the victim. Lingard was hanged following his trial in Derby and his body gibbeted near the scene of his crime. Many accounts say the gibbet was erected on Peter’s Rock, also known as Gibbet Hill, others that it was in Gibbet Field. Lingard’s was not the only gibbeting there… the highwayman, Black Harry had also met the same fate and was hanged in Gibbet Field.

Nick Birds SE Ilkley 2015 uffington avebury cropton Helmsley 112

Lingard was the last man to suffer this final public punishment in Derbyshire, but his bones hung there, rattling in their cage, for eleven years, until the locals complained of the noise they made, rattling in their iron cage.

A few years later, his younger brother, William, was deported for highway robbery committed close to his brother’s remains, and a young girl poisoned her rival in love and was sentenced to death. Shadows seem to gather around this place, even on a sunny day.

Close by, when the turnpike was being built in the mid eighteenth century, two stone coffins were found when a cairn was excavated. Around the coffins were the remains of seventeen other people, buried like the spokes of a wheel. The place has a dark and mysterious history. Even the local pub close by, the Three Stags Heads, still displays the remains of the mummified cat found in the chimneypiece, placed there to ward off evil spirits…

Just beyond Peter’s Rock, the valley changes its name, eventually becoming Ravensdale and leading to Monsal Head and Fin Cop, where an ancient massacre occurred. It was a place of women, set apart and walled from the world. The women whose bodies were found showed no sins of manual labour and it is thought they were priestesses; no men were found to have lived there, though at least one of the murdered women was with child.

The attack was sudden, their bodies thrown unceremoniously into the ditch and the walls toppled upon them. On the slopes below is a ‘fairy castle’ of natural stone and, deep within it, caverns descend into the earth. It is the perfect spot for a sacred college and local legends and folktales appear to confirm the idea.

It is almost inconceivable that, linked as they are by a valley made largely of fluorspar, a stone said to enhance connection to Spirit, and a rise named locally Star Gate, that the two sites should not be connected.

The first time we had climbed up to Peter’s Rock, I had been infected with a quite unreasonable fear. I have little fear of heights and none at all of the rocky high places… yet this place got to me for some strange reason. My own panic infected my companion and, to my shame, while he scaled the rock, I beat a retreat. The second time was worse… and when we took Steve there, I was a wreck.

Quite what I had ‘picked up’ at the site we do not know, though we have our theories based on later visits and research. Whatever it was, it seemed the Rock was warded in some way. Even our recent visit to check the lay of the land had resurrected a ghost of that fear and it was only when we actually began to work with the place that it had dissipated.

There are many fears connected with this site. The gruesome fear of the murderous living… and the fear of the wakeful dead, the superstitions against which locals mummified cats, the historical massacre and strange, radial burial… and not least, the fear engendered by the possibility of a fall from rocky heights. They are all fears of transition, all ask us to look at where we are and where the journey we share might take us.

If a college of ancient priestesses used the Rock, it may have been for an initiatory rite. Every initiation contains a symbolic facing of death… a moment when the initiand must transcend fear so that the fear of annihilation is no longer the baseline against which life is measured.

Fear itself is not the enemy… it is a survival mechanism, designed to keep us safe. It had its place in making us flee the sabre-toothed tiger, but in our more sophisticated world, we have replaced that physical threat to life with more subtle terrors.

How we choose to face our fears and how we choose to transcend them is up to us… and can serve a purpose greater than our own.