The Giant and the Sun – Going off at a tangent

Every workshop needs a place to start, and with companions arriving from as far apart as Cumbria, London and America, you need to meet somewhere that is easily found. We knew full well that if we converged on the village pub and started talking we would never have time to visit the place we had come to see, but instead of meeting at one of the most intriguing places, where mystery, history and legend come together, we decided to meet at the church.

Old churches are interesting places. They provide not only a window on the social history of an area, but a snapshot of the growth of their community. You can get a real feel for a place by visiting these little churches that have grown with their congregation over the centuries, and often they reveal glimpses of a far distant past, much more ancient than Christianity.

The setting we have chosen for our meeting is rather idyllic, especially when the flowers and trees are in bloom. There are birds everywhere… a good many corvids…  and a magnificent yew tree that casts shadows over the churchyard… a perfect place to meet old friends and new.

The church of St Thomas à Becket serves the little village of South Cadbury in Somerset and it is built on the slopes of the ancient hillfort. There is no way of knowing when the first church was built here, but it was probably Saxon, as by the time the village was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, there was already a priest and a church of some importance.

The first recorded vicar was Peter de Burg in 1265. Curiously, this means Peter ‘of the hill’ or ‘of the castle’… a wholly appropriate name, given the situation of his benefice. The church is dedicated to St Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in 1170 and canonised two years later. Inside the church there is a medieval wall painting, showing a red-headed bishop, tucked away in one of the old window embrasures, which may be a depiction of the saint.

The current building dates largely from the 13th and 15th centuries, with the arcade and tower arch being built around 1280 and with all the inevitable Victorian renovations and additions. The Tower was added in the 14th century and is protected by some rather curious creatures.

The air is cool inside and has that faint aroma of damp stone, beeswax, fading flowers and forgotten incense that seems to typify these village churches. Overhead the ceiling arches white, supported by blue-painted beams and gilded figures holding heraldic shields. The freshness of the gold and blue are doubtless modern, but the vaulted ceiling has sheltered the congregation for five hundred years.

The font, sadly, is more modern… no more than a hundred and fifty years old. There is no trace of an older font in or around the church. Many of these little places have fonts that go back to the original buildings, where generation upon generation have been baptised and I find it a little sad to see that link broken.

The pulpit too is Victorian, but here you begin to see traces of the older layout of the church. Beside the pulpit is an odd little alcove. Looking closer, we could see the curve of an old staircase, long since gone. This was the stairway that led to the rood loft, the gallery above the rood screen that once separated the chancel and altar from the congregation. After the Reformation, these screens, surmounted by the Rood, a depiction of the Crucifixion, were removed, demolished, whitewashed or cut down, both to remove the ‘abused images’… images and carvings that were thought to smack of superstition and idolatry… and to remove the separation between the altar and the people. In many old churches, though, the staircase to the rood loft still survives, appearing to lead to a doorway to nowhere.

Older features also include the remnants of a medieval piscina, the basin in the wall into which holy water was poured after the service, that its sacred properties should not leave the church walls or fall into the hands of unscrupulous practitioners of ‘witchcraft’.

The squint,  or hagioscope, still remains too. These odd-looking ‘tunnels’ are always angled through the internal walls that separate side chapels from the chancel and were made to allow worshippers in the side chapels to see the rasing of the Host during Mass. It should be remembered that all of our oldest churches were Catholic until the Reformation, when Henry VIII broke with Rome. The Anglican Church is simpler in the forms of its worship…but not so very different in essence.

I have to wonder if, in fact, the essence of religious belief or personal faith has ever been very different. The vision we weave of the creation of all things may differ and shift over the ages, as do the names, faces and stories of our gods, teachers and saviours, but we have always sought a point of origin, an ultimate destination and a pathway between.

Because the quest and its questions are universal, quite often the symbols and iconography of one paradigm can illuminate those of another. Symbols are not literal depictions, even though they may at first appear to be so. In spiritual terms, a symbol speaks to the heart rather than to the mind, pointing us towards ideas that cannot be transmitted as knowledge, but which must be intuited and understood rather than known.

Over the course of the weekend we would be working with a symbol and looking at the patterns in the landscape from ancient to historical times. Setting the known aside, we would attempt to feel our way forward… sometimes picking out anomalies and seeing what they suggested, sometimes finding the parallels between ancient and modern thought and seeing whether we could apply that to harmonise our own lives.

Symbolism is a natural means of communication. Before the majority could read or write, images bypassed the need for literacy and enabled abstract ideas to be shared. We have lost the habit of working with symbols… or we think we have. We all recognise road signs and trademarks. We look at a word and know the sound, the meaning, and all its emotional connections and implications… yet a written word consists of letters… each letter a symbol in its own right. It takes very little to start reading more from an image than it appears to show… we just need to look beyond logic and ask the question.

Why, for example, are there only men in the depiction of the Ascension behind the altar, while only women are present at the Crucifixion on the carved reredos below it? Traditionally, it was the disciples who witnessed the Ascension… although there is a biblical reference that suggests that Mary may also have been present. On the other hand, the bible mentions a number of men attending the Crucifixion.

Is this no more than coincidence or artistic licence? Quite probably… but treat it as a symbol and ask the question and it sparks a chain of intuitive ideas and possibilities. Legends, folklore, myths and stories can be approached in the same way… and will yield more than they seem to hold on the surface. It is not a question of right or wrong answers… sometimes there are no answers, only more questions. And sometimes the answers we find cannot be framed in words. It doesn’t matter. What matters is allowing yourself to step off the treadmill of habit to see and feel your world from a new angle… and we were going to be doing a fair bit of that over the course of the weekend…


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.

‘Updating your system…’

“Would you like to restart your PC now?” I growled at the pop-up on the screen. No, I would not… I was busy. I clicked a box that consigned the message to Hades, while asking it to remind me later. For three days, it did just that, each time picking the most inconvenient moment it could manage, and each time being banished to the Nether Regions with the click of a mouse.

The fourth time it reminded me, I knew I was going to have to give in… but not right then. I was deep in research, in thrall to words… and there was no way I was going to stop while a whole batch of probably unnecessary updates installed themselves, like it or not. I dismissed the thing and carried on writing until that queasy feeling made me glance at the clock. One a.m… Given that I rise pretty early and had to be at work by eight, I thought I should go to bed. Cleverly, or so I thought, I clicked on the option that said ‘update and shut down. The PC could install its nonsense while I slept.  Perfect.

So engrossed was I by the work I had been doing the night before, that I woke even earlier than usual next morning, bright-eyed and raring to get back to the screen. I could see to the dog and still have a couple of hours to catch up with the blogosphere and write some more. I flicked on the PC then wandered through to the kitchen to make coffee and give the dog her morning cuddles and breakfast.

It was on my return that I realised the error in my perfect plans. Had I not been so sleepy, I might have realised sooner and asked the thing to ‘update and restart’ while I slept. Instead, I was faced with that dire blue screen and the cheerful message that ‘updates are 1% installed!’ This was going to take a while…

So much for my plans.

My initial reaction was one of annoyance. I have my habits on a morning and was not happy about being forced to change my plans. I could have stayed in bed! Except, I was wide awake anyway. I could use the laptop… but the files I needed were on the PC. Annoyance gave way to frustration…neither reaction a productive use of my time.  I cuddled up with the dog, which is never a waste of time, and reviewed the situation.

While it is true that I work best early in the morning and late at night, those are not my only options. The weather was looking less than promising. How about, instead of writing, I did all the housework, such as it is, and took longer-than-usual walk with the dog instead? My furry friend agreed that this was a good plan…and one to be implemented without delay.

It was a ‘seaside morning’… one of those sunny days where clouds scud across the sky, borne by a fresh breeze that remind me of childhood holidays by the sea. The fields, in spite of the dog’s best efforts to scare the farmer away, were freshly mown. Hints of perfume rose from every garden and the fields were golden and sparkling with dew. We watched the birds go about their morning busy-ness, startled a portly and offended pheasant and watched the rabbits forage for breakfast. For an hour, we hadn’t a care in the world… which is not a bad way to start any day.

When I eventually came home from work, it would be to the knowledge that ll my time was my own, to do with as I chose… nothing that had to be done because it had already been taken care of. I could write to my heart’s content! Nice.

And there it was. There is always a lesson to be learned… or of which we can be reminded. Most of them, we already know and may be quite happy to point out to others, even when we fail to apply them to our own lives. We just get used to living one way and forget to take notice, in exactly the same way as I have grown used to my morning routine, failing to notice that it no longer the best use of my time.

I always used to make sure the housework was done before bed, staying up after the rest of the household had retired, so that it would be tidy for morning. But that was when the house held a family, all of whom needed to be able to get organised for school or work. Those days have long since gone. I would also tidy round before I left for work, so it wouldn’t have chance to get too bad before I started to cook in the evenings. Those days too are departed. Early mornings and late evenings were my only time to write. These days, I have more freedom. So why do the habits remain? Simply because I am so used to them that I had not realised they were there.

This morning’s enforced interruption of the pattern made me stop and take stock. A moment imposed and beyond my control and yet which allowed me to break the hold of a habit and see a new path. Life occasionally offers us these opportunities… and we call them disasters, because we are seeing them through the lens of the status quo, instead of a chance to take a new direction.

As far as life-lessons go, an updating computer doesn’t sound like much at all. But, habits need updating too, and  sometimes it doesn’t need much to open a window on your world.

Twitching the curtains…

I stood at the window, doing the dishes and watching the sun set behind the houses. The old lady who lives at the end of the street walked by and smiled at me through the glass; there is no sense of privacy when the footpath runs right outside your kitchen window. Another window looks through the kitchen of my little flat to the bathroom and I panicked a few times, just after I moved in, realising that I was in the bath with a clear view to the street… The bedroom and living room look out onto fields, but they are also visible to the cows, the birds and anyone who happens to be in the gardens either side. When I notice, I still find this odd.

I was raised in Yorkshire, at a time and in a place where everyone had lace curtains. They were important. You could hide a good deal behind net curtains, from the poverty that neither asked nor expected to be helped, to the tragedies and comedies that are played out in every family home. As long as the ‘nets’ were white and the doorstep scrubbed, all was right with the world…at least as far as your public image was concerned. The curtains, often discoloured by coal fires, would be washed with ‘dolly blue’ to counteract the natural fading of the white fabric, or with lemon juice, borax or soda… it didn’t matter, as long as they ended up white.

My own generation grew up and the nets became more of a style feature than a social necessity. Heavy cotton lace gave way to light, synthetic fabrics that allowed more light in, but still preserved privacy…and still needed laundering once a month on principle. I never grew out of that.

As modern housing incorporated more efficient heating and glazing, the windows, and therefore the nets, got bigger and so did the washing of them. Status… according to some unwritten, underlying hangover from an older era, came with having matching nets throughout the house…and although you could suddenly buy coloured nets, if they were white, they had to be properly white.

But for all our new-fangled fabrics and fancy designs, the net curtains still hid the tragedies from public view and kept the sordid secrets of many a family and gave but a hazy view of the outside world.  There was a time when the heavy lace curtains served a very real purpose, giving dignity by protecting the poverty they so often hid. When they became a fashion accessory for the home, I wonder if we missed the point somewhere and, instead of preserving dignity, they served only to help us isolate ourselves.

These days, modern decor trends state that, unless you are going for a romantic, country or shabby chic look, net curtains are passé. When I moved in to the new flat, my own net curtains were never going to fit…and they were already passed their best. I didn’t fancy clambering over the sink once a month to launder them and the ‘look’ I was going for was sparse and practical, largely due to the new limitations on space. From what had been a fair-sized family home, I was downsizing to a place just for me, the dog and an aquarium full of inherited fish. Lace curtains were the least of my problems.

Even so, for a good while I felt exposed… vulnerable. That veil between me and the world, I thought, had served me well over the years. Without the nets, not only did I have an unobstructed view of the world, but people could see in. I found this strange and disconcerting, until I got so used to it that I no longer notice until something reminds me.

It has changed a few things though, this living in full view. I now make conscious choices about where I stand in the bathroom, if I should close a door, where I dress or whether to pull the big curtains closed. I choose what I allow the world to see, rather than automatically being hidden behind the nets. It is a subtle but important distinction.

It has made me conscious too of how much, over a lifetime, I have hidden behind my own ‘lace curtains’, presenting a socially acceptable picture to the world regardless of inner turmoil, tragedy or personal distress. That may sometimes be a matter of dignity, but it can also hide a deeper significance.

It is easy to retreat behind a polite facade and hide from the world, as long as the ‘nets’ look  white. It is even easier to use them to hide from ourselves, pretending that the ‘unwashed dishes’ and ‘unmade beds’ that cannot be seen through the veil, are not really there. It is not until the curtains come down and the light floods in, illuminating the dark and dingy corners of either a room or a life that we see what is really there…and it is only when we do so that we can begin to act to put it right.

Fewer windows, these days, seem to be veiled by lace curtains. I wonder how many others have noticed the difference it makes to their personal outlook on life as much as to their homes. Are we beginning to hide less, in this climate where so many things that were once swept under the proverbial carpet can be spoken of with an ever-lessening stigma? Spousal and childhood abuse, once so well concealed by those net curtains and never spoken of except, all too often, with blame for the victim, are no longer quite so easy to hide and are  little better understood by the general public. Are we ditching the nets because we are moving towards a more open society or the other way round?

When I first moved in here, I could not help noticing just how much is blocked by those net curtains, looking from both the outside in and, more importantly, from the inside out. I no longer need to leave my home to be intimate with a dawn or a sunset. I can see the stars from my bed… or step outside; it is no longer a necessity, it is simply a choice. By allowing the light to stream in unfiltered, I look out at an undiminished world… knowing all the while that it could gaze back at me, yet most of the time, it has better things to do. That seems to bring an unexpected freedom, a new honesty to the relationship with land and sky as well as a new level of choice and responsibility. Unadulterated light shows me the dust ball under the bed as clearly as the ones in my own being… and once seen, both can be addressed. Living in the laight also makes the colours sing and the crystal sparkle and shed rainbows… and perhaps it could do that for me too.