Rites of Passage: The weight of history

It was a beautiful day, and our first port of call on the weekend workshop was the picturesque Derbyshire village of Eyam which nestles within the shelter or moorland hills. With its mellow stone, quaint cottages spanning centuries of architecture, a medieval church and the riotous colour of its cottage gardens, it should be the perfect place to spend a pleasant afternoon… but we had other ideas and Eyam is a village with a long history and a story to tell.

On the moors above Eyam are a number of barrows and ruined stone circles, almost lost beneath the heather and bracken, attesting to a living presence in this area since before recorded history. With views across to Higger Tor and Carl Wark, which we had visted on a previous workshop, there is little doubt that these sites were linked to the wider landscape, both mundane and sacred.

The Romans mined lead beneath the spot that grew into a village and many caverns and mines are still being explored by cavers… with names like Merlin Mine and Carlwark Cavern adding to the sense of mystery.

The village of Eyam, though, was founded by the Anglo-Saxons, who called it Aium, which comes from the Old English word for ‘island’. It was to become a prophetic name, as Eyam is best known for its role and reaction to the outbreak of bubonic plague that struck the village in 1665.

Bales of flea-infested cloth are thought to have brought the disease to the village; the tailor, Alexander Hadfield, had ordered materials from plague-ridden London, where, by August of that year, ten thousand people a week were dying of the plague, according to the St Paul’s Broadsheet…which also contained adverts for astrologers, coffins and dubious remedies.

A previous outbreak of bubonic plague during the fourteenth century, known as the Black Death, is estimated to have killed around a hundred million people worldwide. The disease, untreatable in the days before antibiotics, was justly feared and almost all who caught it died a swift and painful death.

Extract from St Paul’s Broadsheet, August 1665

The bale of cloth from London was opened by Hadfield’s assistant, George Viccars, who took ill and quickly died, followed by his stepsons and Hadfield himself. The disease spread rapidly, claiming seventy-eight lives in one month alone. Figures vary widely, but it is certain that between a third and three quarters of the villagers died. To a village of just a few hundred souls, this was a shocking loss.

Not all who came into close contact with the disease contracted it. This may be due to a genetic anomaly, still present in villagers today, that renders them immune to the plague. Helen Jones, who was with us on the weekend, pointed us in the direction of new research that suggests the mutant gene, known as Delta 32, increases the body’s immune system and may yet prove to be effective against AIDS and other virulent diseases.

But back in 1665, such glimmers of hope were few and far between. Measures were taken to try and limit the spread of the plague and it is these measures that have earned the village a place in history. Villagers buried their own dead. All church services and gatherings were moved to a field, Cucklett Delph, so that no-one needed to come into close contact with each other, yet the life of the community could continue, at some level at least.

The village, at the urging of Rev. William Mompesson and his predecessor, the Rev. Thomas Stanley, then placed itself under strict quarantine to contain the infection. The Earl of Devonshire, lord of Chatsworth, along with other local notables, ensured the village was supplied with the necessities of survival. Goods were left at the boundary stones and wells, some of which still survive, and still have the depressions that were filled with vinegar to sterilise coins left in payment.

In the early days of the infection, before the quarantine was self-imposed, many who had the means to do so had left the village. Rev. Mompesson and his wife, Catherine, chose to stay, offering what comfort, succour and guidance they could. Catherine was amongst the last to die during the outbreak and is buried outside the church.

The decisions taken by the villagers saved many neighbouring villages from the horror of the plague but we wanted to explore how they must have felt as they cut themselves off from the outside world and watched their loved ones sicken and die, one after the other, never knowing who would be next.

Even today, with the tourist focus on Eyam’s history, a heavy pall of darkness seems to cling to the village. As is so often the case with human tragedy, the outer appearance masks a deeper pain. Walking the pretty street towards the church, we all felt the weight of sorrow… a kind of psychic uncleanliness that modern interest is helping to perpetuate as so many hearts and minds relive the horror felt by parents who watched their children die a horrible death, couples who imagine the death of a partner and children the loss of their parents.

It does no good to bury your head in the sand when disaster strikes, nor does it help to deny or ignore tragedies of the past… such things are part of who we are and will become. But to dwell upon them, constantly reliving them and reanimating the associated emotions, keeps the past all too present.

Such grief, fear and hopelessness … and yet, somehow, when the plague had struck, the villagers of Eyam had found a way to turn from their own despair and had chosen to serve a greater good, protecting the people of their land from the horror that was to decimate their own village. Perhaps this tragic episode in history had something to teach about how we could transmute our own fears?

 

Rites of Passage: Changes…

On the morning of the workshop, long before our companions were due to arrive, two small figures faced a mass of stone and a fair degree of uncertainty. Having scaled the rocky heights, we were agreed… we would have to change the plan. We could not impose that climb on anyone else; we needed to find another way.

It was not that we didn’t know the landscape; we know it well, but fear can cloud judgement and blur lines that should be clear. So, in our usual fashion, unsuitably shod and… in my case at least… with flowing skirts tucked childlike into waistbands, we had gone out early to check over the ground… and, having done so, descended to seek another site. As always, the land provided.

There are some things you just cannot leave to chance… and double or triple checking the lay of the land is an important part of any workshop.

Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond Fear was never going to be an easy workshop, even without any miscalculations on our part; ‘fear’ is not something many people would want to spend a weekend exploring, at least, not beyond the safe confines of a staged murder mystery or a popcorn-fuelled marathon of horror movies. We prefer more intimate groups, though, where we can spend time with those who attend, sharing ideas. These weekend workshops attract people from many paths and there is always something to learn from each other and discover together.

For this particular workshop, we were going to take the group through a number of landscapes, each with their own story, from one of collective horror to a light-hearted custom whose origins date back beyond living memory.

Our first visit would plunge the group into the shadow of a nightmare scenario, from which threads of light would have to be teased.  Over the next two days, we would walk through prehistoric burial grounds, visit stone circles and approach the core of many human fears.

In the Tarot, the one card guaranteed to get a reaction when it appears is Death. Most packs show a skeleton, often wielding sickle or scythe, reaping life and limb from crowned head to common folk. While it can represent a physical death, in most readings it signifies no more than change… another common fear, especially when that change is unlooked-for and unwelcome.

In an esoteric reading, though, there is another interpretation of the Death card… that of spiritual transformation and increased awareness. From time immemorial, initiation rituals have contained a symbolic ‘death’, bringing the candidate face to face with their own mortality, that they might learn to value the finite nature of physical existence and see beyond it to a greater reality.

There is a case to be made that the apparent death of Lazarus in the biblical tale was an initiatory rite. Even today, the investiture of a knight is made with the touch of a sword and the rites of baptism and initiation alike signify a rebirth into a new life.

But the journey through our darkest fears need not be walked alone. There may be companions on the way with whom we can share experience, or those who have passed that way before to guide us and sometimes, the gift of seeing a wider landscape than our own fears… and a way to make them serve a greater purpose.

As the church bells of Tideswell chimed, we made our way to our first rendezvous….

Preparations…

Derbyshire is beautiful as summer comes to the moors. Every road is bordered with wildflowers… swathes of lacy cow parsley and meadowsweet and drifts of yellow loosestrife make the blue of cranesbill almost luminous. Here and there, deep purple thistles and lavender pools of wild thyme add yet another colour to a palette that begins to light the brown sea of heather that will soon paint the hills.

It was just a shame about the weather. Torrential rain waited until we stopped the car and seemed determined to prevent us getting to work on the September workshop, but somehow, we managed to dodge the deluge. In the clear spaces between showers, we were able to visit several of the sites we will be including in the weekend and decide how best to use them.

The process is a curious one, as we let the land itself suggest how to proceed, learning its stories, history and legends, before fitting them to the ideas we wish to share. This time, we will be looking at how an emotion such as fear, which is usually seen as a negative feeling, can give birth to some of the most selfless and beautiful human actions… and how, in our own lives, we might find a key to turn such darkness into light.

With the stories of the land, both historical and legendary, the ancient places we visited over the weekend opened a window into the human heart and soul, allowing us a small glimpse of the grandeur that waits within the shadows that can touch us all throughout our lives. Join us in Derbyshire this September to learn more…

The Silent Eye hosts a number of events each year, from our annual Weekend Workshop in Derbyshire to our informal ‘Living Land’ and ‘Walk and Talk’ gatherings. All events are open to non-members and Companions of the School and they are a great way to meet like-minded people, explore the ideas we share and spend time with fellow travellers.

The weekends are informal, no previous knowledge or experience is required. We ask only that you bring your own presence and thoughts to the moment…

Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond Fear
Tideswell, Derbyshire,

Friday 13th – Sunday 15th September 2019

We are all afraid of something.

There are the fears of the everyday world, from arachnophobia to a fear of the dark, and the deeper fears of the personality, that play upon the mind and heart. What purpose might such fears serve, beyond protecting us from potentially harmful situations? How have our ancestors addressed such fears across the centuries? Can we learn from the past a way to see beyond our fears to a future lit by serenity and hope?

Join us on Friday the thirteenth of September, 2019, in the ancient landscape of Derbyshire as we explore how to lay our personal gremlins to rest. Based in the landscape around Tideswell, Bakewell and beyond, this weekend will entail some relatively easy walking on moorland paths.

The weekend runs from Friday afternoon to early Sunday afternoon, and costs £50 per person. Meals and accomodation are not included and should be booked separately by all attendees. Meals are often taken together at a convenient pub or cafe.

Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

For further details or to reserve your place: rivingtide@gmail.com


The Keys of Heaven

Whitby, North Yorkshire,

December 6th- 8th, 2019

It is the year AD 664. The coastal town of Whitby and its Abbey, under the control of the abbess who became St Hilda, are the setting for a Christian Synod – a court of doctrine established, on the face of it, to unify how priests cut their religious tonsure and what should be the correct basis of the calculation of Easter.

Trivial things? Perhaps to our distant eyes; but the Synod of 664 had a brutal undertone: its decision would determine a single Christianity for Britain – and would condemn the alternative to a slow but inevitable death.

An outstanding scholar, Bishop Cedd, later St Cedd, had been raised and trained on Lindisfarne, yet his role as ‘facilitator’ could not afford to display bias. Torn in mind, faith and kin, the man who became St Cedd walked a treacherous path within the Synod that was to change everyone’s lives.

It is a story reminiscent of one of Shakespeare’s play, full of character, mystery and treachery; one in which the cleverness of argument came to supplant the lore of the land and the local history of the interwoven Christ.

The weekend runs from Friday afternoon to early Sunday afternoon, and costs £50 per person. Meals and accomodation are not included and should be booked separately by all attendees. meals are often taken together at a convenient pub or cafe.

Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

For further details or to reserve your place: rivingtide@gmail.com


Where Beauty Sleeps

Great Hucklow, Derbyshire, 17-19 April, 2020

The Silent Eye Annual Workshop…

There is a lot more to fairytales than the wide eyed child understands, especially in the older versions. The archetypes we meet in these old stories echo many aspects of the human condition and the journey of the soul.

We are born into a magical world, where our childhood is peopled with wonders. We are given gifts and talents yet our soul is held within the body, like the princess in the castle. As we grow to adulthood the magic fades…or more precisely, our awareness of it fades. Like the princess, we fall asleep, lost to the song of the soul as the ‘curse’ takes hold. Alive but slumbering, waiting…

Join us next April to explore the hidden beauty of fairytales… and awaken the beauty that sleeps within.

Fully catered, residential weekend.

Click below to view inclusive prices and
Download a Booking Form – pdf

For further details or to reserve your place: rivingtide@gmail.com

Shaping the world

fox 001

Back in the earliest days when mankind had his beginnings, it was the land and our response to it that had shaped us. It has been suggested that it was the long grass that caused us first to stand on two legs… a need to spot potential predators at a distance. As animals our physical defences are minimal. It is our intellect, adaptability and ability to use what comes to hand to serve our needs that allowed us to thrive. It was the land, the environment and climate that offered the raw materials to the responsive hunter, moving with the game and the seasons and which later planted the first seeds of agriculture from which our modern societies have sprung.

We are not very old as a species. It is thought that the earliest homo sapiens dates back a mere 200,000 years. On a planet that is 4.6 billion years old and where cellular life has existed for most of that time, that is a drop in the ocean. Yet from the beginning we have shaped the world to suit our needs, carving our presence on the landscape, altering the ecology with our predation and finally building upon it on a massive scale. No other species has impacted upon the life of the planet as drastically and visibly as we.

Yet on the whole we are still children, building sandcastles on the shore of time; things we see as permanent and solid that will, inevitably, be washed away when the tides change. Civilisations have sprung up, flourished and faded, leaving arcane structures, mysterious traces we can only strive to interpret and never fully understand for we have, inevitably, lost the context of their creation. Even within our own short history we have seen this happen time and again and no doubt it will continue. Yet these mysterious histories have influenced our own; the foundations of an ancient realm may be all we think remains, yet much of what they knew will have been carried outward, casting ripples on the pool of human understanding and knowledge. Our present is built upon their past.

There is a similar process in our own lives where the fragile castles we build around ourselves as a personality, reacting to the landscape of family, society and events is shaped by and shapes the way we see ourselves and the way we project our image into the world. Events experienced through the eyes and mind of the child may leave an arcane trace, a mysterious ruin in the tangled undergrowth of being that we stumble across in wonder, trepidation or confusion. It is upon these very places that we have built the person we see in the mirror and their influence contributes to the shaping of who we become.

Yet beneath the ruined castle or lost pyramid there is a constant. The foundations of all are rooted firmly in the earth. They are shaped from the land and to the land they will eventually return, gently gathered by the creeping tendrils of plants and washed away by rain, becoming once more a part of the landscape rather than apart from it.

There is an analogy there too for those who believe in the soul, that essence of self that is beyond the realm of the of the outer world and it is from this we spring, our foundations rooted within its light and it is to this we return when the edifice of the incarnate personality is washed away.

Does it shape us as the land shaped our forefathers, or do we shape it? Both I think… within it we touch the source of being, and draw its essence into our lives; yet our living teaches and enriches and the sum of experience shapes the next ripple we cast upon the waters of existence.

Looking out across the winter fields of my home today, watching the cloud shadows race across a gilded landscape I wondered how many of our ancestors had sat thus, watching the land and pondering the nature of the soul, seeing in the earth they held sacred an echo of their own inner light.

Full Circle: Giants in the churchyard

The last of the winter light was beginning to fade as we left St Andrew’s and wandered out into the churchyard. In many respects, what awaited us outside was far more impressive and interesting than the Georgian interior. There were stones.

It is fair to say that most churchyards have stones of some description, and this one was no exception. Set within the old precinct and ringed with buildings from another era, the green space is a place of peace peopled by memories. A memorial pays tribute to those who served and fell in the great wars, and close by, one grave marks the last resting place of Mary Noble, an old lady who lived to the grand age of a hundred and seven. She was born around the time that Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, finally gave up the ghost. She lived through the years of the French revolution, the reign of Napoleon and his final defeat at Waterloo, seeing the French monarchy temporarily restored under Louis XVIII. Not that she would have cared or known much about such great events, even though they would undoubtedly have played a part in shaping her world. She was a spinner, and continued to spin her threads until three months before her death.

The Late Mary Noble of Penrith, Cumberland by James Ward; Photo: Lakeland Arts Trust

Near Mary’s grave is another that is often passed unseen, marking the resting place of the parents-in-law of the poet, William Wordsworth who, with his sister Dorothy and his future wife, Mary Hutchinson, attended Dame Birkett’s School overlooking the churchyard. Home meant different things for Mary Noble and the poet. One would immortalise the beauty of the area with his words,  the other, born decades before the poet and living a long life after his death, spun the threads that clothed the ordinary people who lived and worked the land. Yet, ultimately, for both of them, home would be cold earth and the hope of heaven.

These, however, were not the stones we had come to see. What we were after were stones that had already been around for over eight hundred years when Mary was born. One, known as the Giant’s Thumb, is a tenth century carved ‘wheelhead’ cross, dated to around 920. Tradition suggests that it may have been erected by Owen, King of Cumbria, as a memorial to his father. At some point it was used as a pillory to punish wrongdoers and the lower holes may have been enlarged for this purpose.

The scheduled monument listing designates the cross as Anglian, and says of the now-weathered decoration that a drawing was made in 1921 that showed, “…the east and west faces to have displayed a decoration of scroll and interlacing with a crucifixion scene on one side depicting Christ flanked by two figures interpreted as Longinus the spearman and Stephaton the sponge bearer. Above Christ there is a serpent. On the opposite side of the stone there was another human figure too weathered to interpret.”

It is always with a sense of privilege that we stand in the presence of a stone that has seen so much history and one which, moreover, still carries the carved mark of an artist. For over eleven hundred years this cross has been part of the life of its community… and yet, it is a mere babe compared to some we would see over the course of the weekend.

Just a few yards away is a much more unusual collection of stones, known as the Giant’s Grave. On face value, the group of six stones is no more than a pair of Anglian Crosses with four Viking hogbacks, the carved stones used to mark Norse burials, and yet, uniquely, it is said to be a single grave.

The earliest hogbacks date back to around 920, like the cross of the Giant’s Thumb. They are usually carved with a pattern that looks like roof tiles and are thought to be a stylised representation of a house for the dead. Many are covered with patterns alone, often flowing and sinuous in a style wrongly named ‘Celtic’. Others are also carved with legendary and religious figures…not all of them Christian. Many such stones are beasts in themselves, others are carved with people, boars…and dragons.

The two cross shafts, of a similar date, are also carved, though they are badly weathered.  The interlacing is different on every stone and we have wondered if there is meaning to each pattern… a meaning  to which we have lost the keys. Curiously, given that we had not yet finalised the details of the weekend at that time, and never announced them, writer Mary Smith sent me, as well as the photo of Merlin’s cave, a newspaper cutting that discussed the lost language of symbolism and a booklet on the old carved crosses. ‘Coincidences’ like that tend to reassure you that you are on the right track…

Legends say that the Giant’s Grave is the resting place of Owen Caesarius, king of Cumbria between 920 and 937 AD:

“The common vulgar report is that one Ewen or Owen Cæsarius, a very extraordinary person, famous in these parts for hunting and fighting, about fourteen hundred years ago, whom no hand but that off death could overcome, lies buried in this place. His stature, as the story says, was prodigious beyond that of the Patagonians, in South America, seventeen feet high, that the pillars at his head and feet denote it, and the four rough unpolished stones, betwixt, represent so many wild boars, which had the honour to be killed by this wonderful giant”. Todd.

Some say the Grave is the burial place of the mythical giant Sir Ewan, who lived in the Giant’s Caves on the banks of the river Eamont near Penrith. One old record says that the Grave, ““was opened when I was a Scollar there, by William Turner, and there found the great long shank bones and other bones of a man, and a broad Sword besides.”

Yet others link the grave with Owain, also known as Ywain, or Yvain who was the son of Urien, King of Rheged… and thus to the legends of King Arthur. Owain was, in the later Arthurian Romances, known as the Knight of the Lion and a Knight of the Round Table, and tales were penned about his exploits of knight-errantry. The most famous episode tells of how he rescues a lion who becomes his companion… and helps him defeat both a giant and…a dragon.

Yvain-dragon.jpg

Without realising all these details when we had planned the weekend, they were beginning to make themselves felt as gifts, joining the dots of what we had planned. Another gift awaited us too,  beyond the sundial where the ley line passes through the churchyard. A peace garden was to be our final official visit of the day. Created in1971 by the local Rotary Club, its wheel-like motif and their motto, ‘Service above Self’, were perfect for a shared dedication to the work of the weekend, which would continue the next morning with a visit to King Arthur’s Round Table…

Why Myth? IV…

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‘Gilgamesh is among the greatest things that can ever happen to a person.’
– Rainer Maria Rilke.

Those of you with an eagle eye will have realised that next year’s Silent Eye, Spring Workshop has a mythological theme.

It is based upon The Epic of Gilgamesh which is a story worked up into its present form over four thousand years ago.

Prior to its re-incarnation as an epic poem it existed as five independant mythological episodes, which, as we traditionally split our April Workshops into five ritual dramas tends to suit our purposes rather well.

But why do we insist on revisiting the past in this way?

It is our contention that drama as we now have it derives from sacred drama as practised in the mystery temples of old where it was used to develop the psyche of the neophyte and initiate them into the sacred and secret realms of higher living and life.

A contention spectacularly borne out whilst working on Leaf and Flame in 2016, when the Arthurian Mythos which we used as the basis for the weekend revealed itself to be one strand of the Hibernian initiation sequence.

This year we will concern ourselves with the nature of the Planetary Being and how the processes worked out in the here and now relate to and body forth the wider workings of the Cosmic Undertaking.

We will be retaining the Sumerian setting of Gilgamesh’s epic tale but drawing on all currently available sources of the story and feeding this through the matrix of the Enneagram in order to bring you five dramatic rituals of high magic, no little mayhem, and the customary dose of madcap mysticism which we hope will ultimately culminate in something of a spiritual transformation for all those involved.

But that is also down to the participants.

With an interactive agenda of talks, meditations and practical presentations we think that the Nightingale Centre, nestled deep in the Derbyshire hills, is the place to be on the weekend of 26th – 28th April 2019.

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A Dramatic adaptation of The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Oldest written story known to man…
What spiritual treasures lie hidden in this, five thousand-year old, Epic?
What can this ancient civilisation teach us about the questions of existence?
Join us on this quest of a life-time, next April, to find out…

Fully catered weekend package, including room, meals and workshop: £235 – £260

Click here to download the Booking Form

For further details or to reserve your place: rivingtide@gmail.com

Lord of the Deep: The Quest for Immortality

26-28 April, 2019 – Great Hucklow, Derbyshire

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Why Myth?…

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‘…history became legend, legend became myth…’

What a pleasant conceit, to suppose that this process produces myth. Whilst undoubtedly true for many legends the process can also work the other way. Many legends for example have produced history. Pre-eminently in this respect, at least for Britain, is ‘King Arthur’ whose story the scholars do indeed now refer to as a mythos.

But what is really going on here?

It is probably more accurate to regard all these forms as stories. We are not supposed to regard History as a story but as ‘recorded fact’ and also ‘true’, but well, really, the clue is in the name. So why do we set such store by stories? The clue is in the question.
The truth of stories lies in a realm other than the literal. And what is ‘the literal’ anyway’?

‘The literal is something that actually happened.’

‘And what do we mean by something?’

‘We mean an ‘act’.’

‘Do we mean an act in a play?’

‘No, we mean a physical act; we mean the physical actions of a person.’

‘What, any act, and any person?’

‘Usually a significant act and a significant person’…

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…A woman set off in the west, coming this way.
She was carrying her baskets for plant foods, her digging stick and a fire-stick.
She was coming, travelling along, camping and then setting off again.
As she went along she was looking about her and where she saw plenty of small creatures and plant food she would stop and eat and then camp.
At sunset she would settle down and sleep and early in the morning she would set off again.
Going on she saw that salt-water tide had come up at a place she hoped to go across.
So she camped there.
She made a sleeping platform in a tree because so many mosquitoes were biting her.
When at last early morning came she made a paper-bark canoe, paddling with her hands to cross to the other side.
Then she started off again and eventually came to a cave house…

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…A Dust-Devil was living in the cave house.
Tall, thin and hairy he was with a crooked body and bat-like wings.
‘My woman has come,’ he said, ‘my body’s no good but today we two will sleep together.’
When they met the woman offered him vegetable food and the Dust-Devil reciprocated with fish.
They slept together but the woman did not like the look of him so she cast about the cave house, found a stone axe and began sharpening it whilst he slept.
The Dust-Devil woke up.
He stretched himself and was preparing to eat the woman. She slashed his neck.
Then she looked around made a fire and cooked his body.
Perhaps he just tossed away the flames that Dust-Devil?
He came out the fire, ‘you woman, why did you kill me? I will cover you with my wings.’
The woman tried to hide but he found her.
He sealed her up in the cave where she was lying.
That cave remained for her then a dark cave.
She kept on talking in there, abusing the Dust-Devil.
At last she became like a rock.
She stands there a rock, forever.

A Young Woman meets a Dust-Devil

(Adapted from ‘Speaking Land’ by R.M. Berndt and C.H. Berndt)

North-easterly VI: Ringing a pele

There is something about a map, a proper, paper map, that makes a journey personal. We don’t tend to use sat-nav, resorting to such technologies only when cities force us to do so… and we had invested in a brand new map too, the other one having been worn to shreds over the past couple of years. So, instead of following the directions given by the leader of the expedition, we took the winding backroads to get to the last site of the day and arrived there a little while before the others. We killed a little time by snacking on the remains of lunch, then had a wander up the path to wait outside the tower.

Time, though, was getting on. Knowing Steve had been really impressed by this place and worried that it might close before the others arrived and we had chance to see it properly, we decided to go inside. They couldn’t close the place while we were in it, and we would have hated to miss it, so it seemed the best thing to do.

Preston Tower is a pele tower, built between 1392 and 1399 to give the alarm and protect its people when Scotland and England were in an almost constant state of war. It looks like a miniature fortress and that is exactly what it is. Built with walls seven feet thick to withstand attack, a small postern door through which the animals could be brought inside in case of danger, and with tiny windows that could be blocked in case marauders attempted to smoke out those within, it seems almost impregnable.

In later years, the most common problem was caused by the depredations of Border Reivers, the cattle rustlers from across the Border between England and Scotland, whose lands were seldom enough to support their clans as all estates were split on the death of their owner between all the surviving sons. The Reivers had a code of honour, nonetheless, and it was required that they help each other regain their own cattle or answer insult… and any man who refused to do so could be put to death, thus perpetuating the feuds and bloodshed.

Within the tiny entrance to the tower we found another map, this time showing where the Border clans were based, including my companion’s clan on the West March. It may well be that he was the first of his clan to actually get inside the Pele Tower.

The ground floor was reserved for bringing the animals in to safety. But also housed a tiny guard room and a prison cell. We had not, at this point, found the light switch, and the atmosphere in both was that of a condemned cell. The darkness, alleviated only by the merest slit of a window, was oppressive, heavier than darkness should be. The guard room is only slightly larger than the prison cell, and the floor-space is little bigger than a coffin. It feels like one too, even when the lights are on.

We went up to the next floor, climbing a precarious wooden staircase, taking in the two tiny chambers, furnished as a sleeping chamber and living room, after the fashion of six hundred years ago. Above that are other rooms, marked with curious geometric symbols which have been highlighted in yellow and are probably masons’ marks.  Here too is the mechanism for the Victorian clock that was added to the tower, and above it on the roof is the eleven-hundred-pound bell which, when it struck five, was loud enough to wake the dead.

The tower is incomplete, being only half of the original building, but it gives a very complete picture of what life must have been like for those required to retreat within its walls. The conditions are incredibly cramped, daylight almost non-existent and the thickness of the walls effectively cuts off all sound from the outside world. It must, we agreed, have been hellish, but as nothing compared to the absolute hell suffered by those in similar towers when the attack came.

You can imagine the stone cracking as flames that could not breach the walls were kindled to smoke out those trapped inside. You could hear the panic of the animals on the ground floor, adding to the fear and chaos, the crying of children and the sound of battle from the roof. A safe haven? Perhaps… but it could also be a deathly trap.

More than either of the grand castles we had seen, both restored and ruined, this was the perfect illustration of the ego and we could see why Steve had wanted to make it part of the weekend. Our lives are varied… we have roles in many arenas… but at the core of the ego is a strongly fortified haven within which we can survive and into which we retreat when we feel threatened in any way. Like the tower, the very thickness of our own personal walls can protect us from harm, real or perceived, but like the tower, it can be a trap. Any refusal to come out into the world for fear of its dangers will lead to our becoming increasingly isolated from our fellow beings, and if we linger too long within those walls, cut off from the beyond, the light and life within us will surely perish.

We looked out from the rooftop across the trees to the sea. There is a place in our lives for looking inwards, a time to withdraw and contemplate what is real, who we are and what truly matters to us. But freedom lies in stepping beyond the barriers we beset ourselves with and in embracing life in its entirety… even, and perhaps especially, when we fear it.

Far below us, we saw cars drawing up and the faces of our friends laughing up at us. Leaving reverie behind, we rejoined the human race. An evening would follow where the ‘walls’ stayed down and, fuelled by excellent food, a little wine and much talking, peals of laughter followed our visit to the the pele tower. We would share stories, discover coincidences, chat with a complete stranger about the magical community, find the fact that two of our number shared a birthday… and oddest of all, that the gentleman we had met in such strange circumstances in a Cornish fougou five hundred miles away, was a member of a group run by one of our companions for the weekend. Later, three of us holed up with a glass of mead and talked until we were falling asleep… None of which would have happened had we immured ourselves behind our inner walls…

 

Getting personal

This weekend saw the monthly meeting of the Silent Eye in the north of England… a time when we reconnect, share and explore ideas and discuss plans for the four workshops we run every year. Work is already well under way for Lord of the Deep, the April workshop, which will explore the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest stories known to man, but our next workshop is a far less formal affair.

These informal workshops are held at various places across the country, making them as accessible as we can to anyone who would like to come along and meet us, see what we do, and visit a variety of historic or ancient sites in the process.

Readers who have followed our adventures at previous workshops, such as the recent Giant and the Sun weekend in Dorset, will know that we manage to see and experience a goodly number of places while exploring the mysteries of the human heart and mind, the spiritual quest …and a few odd theories for good measure.

For our next workshop, Castles of the Mind, organised by Steve, we will be exploring some beautiful parts of the north- eastern coast and its history. It is an area I love, one of which I have many fond memories and in which I have some personal roots; my grandmother and great-grandmother were from the area and my father’s ashes were scattered on the beaches he loved, many years ago.

We will be visiting some of the great castles of the area, and on the Sunday, will spend time on Lindisfarne, the Holy Island, a place of stark beauty, and one which has more history in its thousand acres than many cities.

There are the graceful arches of the old priory, a church that has been a serene presence since Saxon times… although it has also seen the incursions made by the Vikings and other marauders… and, when the sun pours the gold of its setting across the waters, lighting up the ancient stones with a rosy glow, there can be few more beautiful places to be…

…especially as the first day of the workshop coincides with my sixtieth birthday. I have no problems with attaining that age. I count it a privilege, even though I distinctly remember turning thirty and thinking that sixty was positively ancient. The fact that I still feel thirty… inside, at least… is sufficient compensation for attaining the threshold of venerability. And I will be celebrating with friends in a landscape I love. Why not come and join us?

Castles of the Mind

Seahouses, Northumberland

Friday 14th – Sunday 16th September 2018

Bamburgh Castle smaller

Do we have ‘castles of the mind’?

Traditionally, ancient castles were built where there was trouble… Do we have the equivalent in our minds and emotions? Have we, over the course of our lives, built up strong fortifications with which to repel those intrusions which, as children, we considered frightening?

Our ‘walk and talk’ events are friendly and informal. We ask those attending to bring one or two readings from their favourite books, poems, or other sources of inspiration. We listen and talk… and share. If someone is ready to enter their personal borderlands, we hold their hand and walk with them.

The cost per attendee is £50.00. This is an administrative cost, only. All personal costs and bookings, such as hotels, meals and admission charges are the responsibility of those attending. Meals are generally shared in a local pub.

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Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

Enquiries: rivingtide@gmail.com.