A silver cord

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As soon as I was considered old enough to wander alone… a ridiculously young age by today’s standards… I would knock on the doors of the various elderly relatives that lived within a stone’s throw of home or school. Their doors opened onto another era that to my young eyes qualified as the ‘olden days’. There would inevitably be a cup of tea; none of your new-fangled tea bags or ‘gnats water’, but the rich mahogany brew that seethed in perpetuity beside the flames of the range. If I was lucky and timed it right, there would be a slab of fruit cake topped with a slice of tangy cheese or perhaps a curd tart, or we might toast a teacake in front of the fire on the toasting fork and I would sit and listen, fascinated as the old ones spoke of their lives.

Between my great-grandparents and their siblings, I was lucky to have a window on a bygone world, yet it was a window with a heart and a voice… and it told stories. I heard tales of the long hours in Victorian mills where they had worked as ‘bairns nobbut as big as thee, lass.’ Of how their schooling had to fit around their working day and of the dreadful accidents and conditions in which children had worked within living memory… this memory, the one that paused to take a sip of their tea before leaning back to continue. I heard too of first dances and maypoles and Christmas stockings that were rich if they held an orange. Of traditions and forgotten legends… and of wars and national rejoicing and mourning. I learned history in a way no book or museum could teach.

Sometimes we went over to Castleford to see my maternal grandmother’s family. Not so many mills there… but I would seek out Great Uncle John on his allotment filled with dahlias and he would tell me some of the lore of the coal mines and of the pit ponies who lived their lives in the darkness of the mines, even then. The last working colliery horse was brought out in 1999. I heard him tell how dangerous the job still was, for man and beast and saw with my own eyes the coal dust embedded in his pores that was never to leave him… it had filled his lungs too.

And when, as was inevitable, their ranks gradually thinned, I attended their funerals, paid my respects to them, one by one, laid out on the parlour table in their coffins. The families gathered. I was a child, but there was no thought back then of protecting children from the reality of birth and death. I was ten when I helped deliver my little brother. The women gathered…these were women’s mysteries, a domestic magic of sisterhood that took no thought for age or youth.

Contrary to the opinion of many today, I don’t think for a minute that it did me any harm to be part of that. Far from it. I not only learned history, I learned to value people and their individual stories. I learned that I was incredibly lucky to have been born into a time and place where I was allowed to go to school and learn for a few hours a day and then be free to play, to be well fed and warm and sleep in a bed on my own instead of with half a dozen others. So I learned gratitude too.

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It was only many years later that I realised I had learned something else; the old ones had enjoyed sharing their stories. They had enjoyed the company. Most of them were old, infirm and seldom left the house any more… in short, I realised that many of them were probably lonely and glad of a visit from the blonde urchin who usually had to remind them whose daughter or granddaughter she was. It didn’t matter… I drank in their words with the dark tea.

I was reminded of all this when I read an article on loneliness and its negative effects on both personal health and well-being and its greater impact on society, employability and even survival. Further research highlighted some of the links between loneliness and poverty. It makes interesting reading and raises a lot of questions.

Our society is so much richer than the world that our grandparents and great grandparents knew. To our children, even the era of our parents fits the term ‘olden days’… a far off memory of an almost unrecognisable civilisation. While technology and the sciences have advanced by leaps and bounds and our daily lives are full of gadgetry even the science fiction writers might have dismissed as far-fetched, some things have not changed for the better.

We are a mobile society and in search or upward mobility we have moved away from the towns and villages where our families have lived for generations. Families are spread across the globe in a more fragmented way than ever before in history… individual family units break down and separate with tragic regularity and relationships seem to bear the heading ‘disposable’ all too often.

I remember years ago a TV ad campaign encouraging people to check on elderly neighbours, offer to run errands, bring food or get the house ready for winter. It highlighted the isolation that can come with age and marked me enough to stay with me all these years. Back then I lived at the heart of a large and close-knit extended family… it was never something I thought could happen to me. But the world has changed and it could happen to any of us.

The support network that would once have honoured our old ones and cared for them has foundered in very many cases and, between that, the reduction in relative income and the very gadgetry we may fall back upon in solitude to fill the silence, we become an increasingly isolated society on a human level, while ironically being able to stay in instant touch with the virtual world and family members in the furthest reaches of the globe.

And we are losing the stories… the human thread that is woven through our lives from past to future. Our TVs and computers flicker in colour and capture our attention… We might even be watching programmes on history. But once our attention is captured, we don’t sit and listen to each other very often, even to those we might live with, let alone the elderly who ‘take so long and repeat themselves so much…’ Yet theirs are the only eye-witness accounts of our history that we will ever hear first-hand; theirs the silver thread in the tapestry.

There is the well-known concept of the silver cord that connects body to soul in life, remaining in place until death, just as the severing of the umbilical cord signals our entry into life. I have to wonder how much of the richness of life we are losing in our isolation from each other… how much our children… and we could learn… and how much nourishment the heart could draw from the silver thread of story woven by our ancestors… even those who still walk amongst us.

Ancient stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Walking through history

We were out before daylight again, the dog and I. In spite f the storms, wind and rain, there are daffodils in flower and everywhere there are signs of spring. While the human half of this pre-dawn duo cowered gratefully in an overlarge coat, the smaller, but more energetic half bounded along joyfully, breathing steam like a miniature dragon. A resilient creature, impervious to the rain in, I realised, a resilient landscape.

Instead of our usual walk through the fields, and because I needed to call at the village shop, we returned to old haunts and walked down the lane towards the hamlet of Wormstone, so tiny it gets a mere one-liner in Wikipedia. Parish records indicate the name is derived from the Old English for Wærmund’s farm, but I have always preferred to wonder if there was an older, more interesting story of dragons and sacred stones behind the name. And why not? Man has always dreamed and wondered.

Still, even the name Wærmund takes the history back well over a thousand years, and I crossed the path of the old Roman road as I walked, taking history back even further, catching a brief glimpse of the site of the Iron Age remains in the fields beyond. Prehistoric flint tools have been found here, and human occupation seems to have been a constant in the area. There is even archaeological evidence of a vineyard under the site of the school, which, on this cold and wintry morning, seems rather bizarre, though gardeners still tended their allotments alongside the site until work began on the new houses that are being constructed.

To the casual observer, there is no evidence of this history. Few of the villagers seem to be aware of the long story of their home and the changes wrought by man are overlooked unless they are obvious… and then we simply accept them as part of the landscape. It does not take very long for life to move history forward or for Nature to colonise and conceal the traces of human habitation, folding a green counterpane around our passing.

The dog does not ruminate on her place in history. Her attention is immediate, especially when the jewel colours of a pheasant stands bright against the green or the red kite calls from the air. I huddle in my fur-lined coat and watch instinct take over as she freezes into the classic setter stance and I  cannot help but smile at the simplicity of her joy in her futile pursuit of winged creatures.

We are, after all, such small creatures. Our individual lives insignificant when compared to the slow life of a stone or the majesty of a mighty oak. There are ancient trees in the landscape here, beneath whose boughs lovers have met for centuries. Streams whose waters have run through the chalk to the rivers and seas, rising to the heavens before falling again to give life to the ground.

Every life matters, every life has its place in the pattern of this rich tapestry. We matter to ourselves and to each other, to those we love and who care for us, to those affected by our actions or our work. We matter in the grand scheme, because without each and every life the design would be incomplete and different. Imperfect.

Insignificant as we seem, every single one of us changes the world every day by the choices we make and the actions we take. We can change it for the better or for the worse, but change it we do. No matter how small the arena in which we feel we live, the effect we have on those around us and our immediate environment is real.

As a race, a species, we have deliberately altered the face of the planet more visibly than any other species, adapting it to our needs. Our actions have wide-ranging consequences for the lives of the other creatures with whom we share this world. Even the least of us can reach out across the globe with the technologies at our fingertips.

As individuals, we are not responsible for humanity’s collective past, but we hold its future in our hands. We are responsible for the mark each of us leaves as a footnote in history, even if our individual stories are neither written nor remembered but fade like the morning mist wraiths in the sun. The mark we leave on the greater landscape of life, no matter how faint,  is indelible.

Whitby Weekend: Mysteries in stone

Illustration of how Lythe churchyard may have looked in the tenth century.Photo: information board at St Oswald’s, Lythe

It seems rather unfair to call the displayed Viking and medieval stones ‘the best bit’ of St Oswald’s church in Lythe, but in terms of excitement… and for me, at least… they were. I had seen them before…but once is never enough and photographs, of which I have many, are just not the same as being there.So, having done my duty by paying attention to the rest of the church… even if the Tobias window didn’t register… I wandered up to the west end and the display area, passing the medieval stone coffin on the way, complete with its rather practical drainage hole. ( I won’t say ‘for the juices’ because that never seems to go down very well…).

As I mentioned in a previous post, the church here is an old one and there are fragments of carved medieval masonry preserved within the church, the most interesting of which is a rather splendid Green Man. There are three main types of Green Man, or ‘foliate masks’ found in medieval architecture. Some, the ‘foliate heads’, are faces appearing through vegetation. The ‘bloodsucker head’ is the kind where leaves and vines grow from eyes, nose and mouth. Because the vegetation appears to be growing from his mouth, the Lythe mask is, I believe, of a type known as a ‘disgorging head’.

At first glance, it seems a pagan symbol, suggestion fertility and the natural cycles of growth, and yet they are found in even the most decorous of churches. Christianity explains the symbolism in terms of spiritual rebirth and renewal and therefore it becomes a symbol of the resurrection. I have wondered too whether it shows, even in Christian terms, the natural cycle of ‘earth to earth’, where death gives only our flesh back to be taken into the earth, ‘rendering unto Caesar’ what belongs to this realm while what belongs to other realms returns home.

Also medieval, from around the twelfth century, is a rather curious fragment of a tympanum that would once have graced the arch over the church door. Many of the tympanums we have seen seem to incorporate scenes from mythology or pre-Christian tales, though that might simply be that we have lost the keys to unlocking the symbolism they contain since literacy took away the need to understand these images.

This fragment is thought to show Adam in the Garden of Eden, but if so, you have to wonder what he is doing. Is it the weathered remnant of the serpent, a phallus or an umbilical cord that seems to attach him to the Tree? An information board gives a clear outline of the wind-blasted carving and where it would have sat within the door. Who, or what, is the hunched figure… as it does not seem to suggest Eve? And what has been lost from the scene?

Even further back in time we go with the tenth century Cross head. On the reverse there is interlacing and a central boss, on the front, the boss is a face, lacking the halo that would suggest the Christ.

There are other stones from the ninth and tenth centuries; one carved with wrestlers and a beast that looks like a horse with too many legs, suggestive, perhaps of Sleipnir, the horse of Odin…for these are Viking stones, recovered from the burial ground here. Many of them are hogbacks, carved with scales or roof tiles and details from both Norse and Christian stories. The two were not mutually exclusive and we have seen many stones where the symbolism seems to be deliberately merged to show that the Lightbringers of one faith are the same as the gods of another.

One detail on a fragment of a hogback shows a bird. It could be the Dove that represents the Holy Spirit…or one of Odin’s ravens, Huginn and Muninn, ‘mind’ and ‘memory’.  Another hogback is carved with a simplistic ‘gingerbread man’ and two wolf-like creatures. It has been suggested that this could be a portrayal of Ragnarök, the Norse ending of the world before its rebirth, or perhaps the god Tyr whose hand was taken by a wolf. But look a little closer and you notice that the arms of the ‘gingerbread man’ are not in the mouths of the wolves…they are the wolves’ mouths. The lines that form them are one and the same, in a similar fashion to the symbol of the three hares that have six visible ears, but only three are carved. Is this just economy of line on the part of the artist? Or are we looking at something more mysterious?

The stones go back even further, and two of the fragments have been dated to the eighth century, which has suggested that there may have been a stone-built church on the site at a similar time to the Synod of Whitby… and which might give credence to the idea that St Cuthbert really did dedicate the church in person to St Oswald.

But that, it seemed, was all we were going to see of the stones. We knew there was a crypt beneath the church where more were stored, but it was kept locked and only opened by arrangement. But Steve, it seemed, had a surprise up his sleeve… and down we went into the crypt… Down the spiral staircase and into a small room…

Between the grave markers carved with the cross pattée, medieval grave slabs and fragments of masonry, the tantalising fragments of hogbacks, some of which seemed to suggest ‘end-beasts’ like the one we had seen, so beautifully preserved, in Brechin, where we had also seen a definite Sleipnir…I felt like a child in a sweet shop! I could have stayed there for hours, poring over the stones and the catalogue…

One stone, in particular, stood out, carved very simply with a cross we have seen in so many places, including Bakewell church where so many new threads began to weave themselves into our adventures. It is called the ‘cross potent’ and is suggestive of four nails, their points meeting at the centre. It is far older than Christianity and was used as far back as Neolithic times. It is also called the Jerusalem Cross, as it formed part of the arms of the crusader state of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, established after the First Crusade by Godfroy de Bouillon… in whose army, it is believed, served one Hugues de Payens, co-founder and first Grand Master of the Knights Templar. But the light outside was fading and we still had another place to visit… so, reluctantly, lingering and last out, we climbed the stairs and locked the door behind us.

Whitby Weekend: Inside the church at Lythe…

Stuart and I had been to Lythe before, some years ago, early in our travels, sent to the little church by a friend. The church is dedicated to St Oswald, a figure we have come upon again and again in recent years. Born around 604, he was king of Northumbria from 634, a reign of a mere eight years… or nine, according to some chroniclers of the time, who assign the one year reign of the previous incumbent to Oswald because he was not a Christian king, whereas Oswald was accounted a saint, even during his lifetime.

It was his kindliness and concern for the poor, as well as his devotion to his faith and his association with St Aidan that had earned him such veneration. Curiously, Steve had begun his Northumbrian workshop at Oswald’s stronghold at Bamburgh, where Stuart and I had also visited the shrine of St Aidan in the church beside the castle. Later, we had all gone on to Lindisfarne, the Holy Island Oswald had given to Aidan who had come to Northumbria to bring his faith to the land. And after Steve’s last workshop in Scotland, Stuart and I had been sidetracked by the wonderful holy well dedicated to the saint in Kirkoswald.

There is something about this saint and his story that keeps drawing us back. Perhaps it has to do with the raven who stole the dead king’s severed arm and dropped it, causing a healing well to spring up from the ground. Perhaps it has to do with the unified land he ruled and served… or the notion of holiness and rulership combined, as in the priest-kings of old. Doubtless, an explanation will come in good time.

For now, though, it was enough to be back in the peaceful little church on the cliffs, with time to spare to explore the building and its treasures. The church itself is a simple one… you get the impression of a ‘no-nonsense’ place, very much in keeping with the character of the local folk. But there is beauty in the solid forms of the structure and in the delicate stained glass of the windows. There has been a place of Christian worship on the site for at least eleven hundred years, and who knows how much longer? The current church is Norman, but so much altered and remodelled in Victorian times that little remains to tell of its age except the ‘feel’ of the place… that quiet but unmistakable aura of sanctity that infuses the very stones of these ancient places of prayer.

A screen, carved in 1910 and upon which perches the organ, separates the aisle from the chancel. Above the altar, which is flanked by four carved angels, wings outstretched, the arched ceiling is painted in brilliant shades… though, as a Yorkshirewoman, I did rather feel like repainting the roses in their proper colour, as the white rose, not the red, is my county’s symbol.

The first panel of the east window shows scenes from the extremes of Jesus’ life… the nativity and the crucifixion. The second panel shows the risen Christ and the promised second coming. In esoteric terms, it could be argued that the Teacher did not become the Christ until the rebirth symbolised by those final moments… in which case, the window ‘bookends’ the human life of the Man at the point where He becomes Divine.

In the central panel of the window in the Lady Chapel, Mary the Mother holds her Child. To the right is Oswald, king and saint, who was killed in battle and dismembered. On the left is St Cuthbert, a holy man, reluctantly made a bishop of Lindisfarne, upon whose tiny island retreat we had ended our Northumbrian weekend, serenaded by seals. In his hands, he holds the severed head of St Oswald that he is thought to have carried back to the north; Oswald’s relics were once held in the ruined chapel within the castle walls of Bamburgh.

Cuthbert was one of those who attended the Synod at Whitby Abbey and would probably have passed through Lythe on his journey. It is thought that Cuthbert himself may have dedicated an earlier church on the site to Oswald. Somehow, because of how many times we have ‘fallen over’ Oswald, Aidan and Cuthbert, it all seems rather personal, as if we are missing something still…

Another window shows Richard I of England carrying the cross of St George to the Crusades and a red-gloved figure who is probably St Nicholas, because there are the three bags of money he secretly gave as dowries for the daughters of a  poor neighbour, to prevent them being unmarried and cast out. For a Christmas workshop, that would be appropriate. There was also a ‘Tobias and the Angel’ window, a rare subject for stained glass, which I duly photographed but which, somehow, completely failed to register… which is odd as his story plays a part in our latest book, which I had just been editing…

My favourite window, though, just for the colours alone, has to be the St Michael, with the blue dragon rearing at his feet, even though it looks as if the serene archangel has skewered the dragon, through the mouth to the throat.  It still doesn’t explain why an archangel should need beatification though… and the official line that all ‘good’ angels are saints, because ‘saint’ comes from sanctus, which means ‘holy’, does not explain why only Gabriel, Raphael and Michael commonly bear that title. But, much as there was to ponder in the church, it was the stones at the west end that had drawn us here…

Whitby weekend: First stop, Lythe

Several years ago, Stuart and I braved the bitter, biting winds of January to visit the Church of St Oswald at Lythe. There were, a friend had told us, stones…carved stones that we would want to see…and that trip had been all about the stones as we drove through England, did a Welsh border raid and up into Scotland discovering Albion.  We were frozen, tired and hungry and barely did the church justice, so it was wonderful to know that our first stop on the Whitby workshop would be St Oswald’s.

I knew the way and recognised the church and its parking spot with no problem. In spite of the same backdrop of winter skies, the church looked different; both Stuart and I remembered the tower as simply square…minus the squat little spire that was added a century ago. Which was odd, especially as, looking back at the photos we had taken at the time, they are almost identical to the ones I took that day.

It was, however, considerably warmer so this time we would be able to explore outside the church, as well as within. There has been a church here for at least eleven hundred years, with the original wooden building being replaced by stone eight hundred years ago. The churchyard was once an important burial ground for the invading Vikings, whose adoption of Christianity did not divorce them from their ancestral faith, but added a new layer to an already rich and ancient mythology.

The churchyard no longer holds signs of the Viking burials, but, perched upon its wind-blasted clifftop above the sea, it is still an interesting place to wander. Many of the headstones are carved with anchors and other maritime symbols, acknowledging the role of the sea in the lives and faith of the locals for so many generations. You can understand, when you know those cold and stormy waters, why those who sailed and fished there have always invoked the protection of higher powers, since long before Christianity came to the north.

Beside the porch is a memorial to the men of the parish who served and lost their lives in war. The stone is carved around with the symbols of the instruments of the crucifixion, which seems appropriate, for the suffering of these men and that of their families as they waited for news must have seemed like torture.

Behind the church, looking out across the bay towards the once-great Abbey of Whitby is the ornate Victorian monument to the Buchannan family, who were linked by marriage to the Cholmleys who had built the seventeenth-century house beside the Abbey that now houses a museum. Each face of the memorial bears a scene of the Christ in relief and it is a fabulous testament to the craft of the stonemason who carved it.

But what we had really come to revisit was inside the church and, although I was determined to take notice this time of the church itself, there were the old stones inside…

Facing Fear With The Silent Eye, Part 4 – Life and Death ~ Helen Jones

Helen Jones continues the tale of her weekend with The Silent Eye in Derbyshire…

I recently attended a workshop with The Silent Eye about Facing Our Fears, an extraordinary weekend spent among the hills and grey stone villages of the Peak District. It’s taken me a little while, as it usually does, to process everything that happened. Once again there was history and mystery, good company and tasty food, old friends greeted and new friends made. And, as always, revelations.This is part four of my account, parts one, two and three can be found here…

(Apologies for the slight delay between posts – I had a project that needed finishing and another that needed starting, so have been focusing on those for the past few days. However, let’s now head back to Derbyshire and the next stop on my journey…)

Continue reading at Helen Jones’ blog.

Facing Fear With The Silent Eye, Part 2 – Pestilence ~ Helen Jones

Helen Jones continues her account of the recent weekend in Derbyshire…

I recently attended a workshop, with The Silent Eye, about Facing Our Fears, an extraordinary weekend spent among the hills and grey stone villages of the Peak District. It’s taken me a little while, as it usually does, to process everything that happened. Once again there was history and mystery, good company and tasty food, old friends greeted and new friends made. And, as always, revelations.This is part two of my account, part one can be found here

‘Go and have a look around. We’ve got a bit of time yet before the others get here.’

I can’t move.

We were standing in a courtyard, once the stable yard of the nearby manor house. The buildings had been converted into shops and restaurants, jewellery, homewares, tea and scones all set out for visitors. It was a gorgeous place, sun shining on golden-grey stone, pretty tables, green trees.

I can’t move.

Waves were battering her from all sides, sorrow overwhelming. But they were toxic, polluted, like water disturbed in a stagnant pond. It was difficult to breathe.

I should have known when my body started to tingle as we crossed the boundary into the village. But this was… intense. I took a couple of photos but, even though Sue suggested once more that I have a look around, I still couldn’t move, feeling assailed on all sides. The air seemed filled with floating flecks of gold. It was a very, very strange place.

Continue reading at Journey to Ambeth

Rites of Passage: War and peace

We had left two of our companions to return to the hotel, as one of them, gallantly sharing the weekend in spite of upcoming surgery, had turned her ankle and needed to rest. We were, therefore, a reduced company who crossed the road to make our way across the field to another of those natural, wind-worn sentinel pillars. The Andle Stone does not just look back, though, towards Stanton Moor…it guards the passage to a secluded site we would shortly be visiting.

At first glance, it seems just a huge boulder, over sixteen feet high and surrounded by a small, green copse. Nineteenth-century climbers had once again carved hand and foot holds into the face of the rock…a bit of history I would rather not see. But there are older carvings too, as the stone reportedly has cup marks carved into its upper face, far older than the names of intrepid graffiti artists from the past two hundred years.

There is also another legend carved on the stone, and it is one that is easily missed. As our theme for the weekend was fear and how we can not only choose to face it but turn what is usually seen as a negative emotion to the service of a greater cause, it seemed uncannily appropriate.

Carved on the back of the boulder and almost hidden from sight is an inscription, commemorating Lieutenant Colonel William Thornhill of the 7th Hussars, a veteran of Waterloo, and Arthur Wellesley, better known as the Duke of Wellington, who commanded the decisive battle against Napoleon. We had not realised, when we planned the weekend, that Wellington had died a hundred and sixty-seven years ago on the same date that we would be visiting the Andle Stone, a date which is also, coincidentally, my birthday.

Thornhill’s regiment, the 7th Hussars, had seen some of the worst of a battle that left the army in tatters. Of the three hundred and eighty men who took up their position near Hougoumont, less than a third would end the day alive and without serious injury.

File:Castle of Hougoumont during the Battle of Waterloo.jpg

We paused to consider for a moment, what they might have felt as they waited for the battle to begin…and when it had begun. How can we imagine the filth, noise, stench and horror of such a battlefield, where men were hacking each other to pieces with sabres, shelling each other with cannon and musket, and fearing the erratic flight of the new rockets designed to rip the squares to shreds?

It must be remembered, that, in spite of guns and cannon, much of the fighting was hand to hand.  You saw the eyes of the men you killed or maimed… or those who would do the same to you. The acrid odour of gunpowder, burnt flesh and spilled blood… the all-pervasive mud made slick with blood… the screams of horses and the whimpering of the dying… There was no pressing of buttons, no ‘surgical strike’…  battle was personal and there was nowhere to hide from horror.

It was the bloodiest of campaigns, with almost a quarter of the French and Allied armies being killed or wounded. Wellington, a hard leader, known to have called his ‘infamous army’ the ‘scum of the earth’, wrote of the battle, “ My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”

Regardless of our personal stance on the evils, rightness or necessity of war, we can empathise with the men who stood and waited for what might come. However brave their faces, whether they waited with forced laughter, thought longingly of home, loved ones or safety, or whether they held back tears, wondering why the hell they had ever taken the King’s shilling, none of them can have been unafraid. And yet, they stood.

Many tales of heroism reach us from humankind’s battlefields, tales of self-sacrifice that surpass the call of duty or personal fear, of small kindnesses and of the breaking of barriers. It is often only when we are in the grip of fear, carried along by events over which we can have no control, that we learn what we are capable of, both as individuals and as a species.

Even the smallest light shines bright against the darkness. There are so many stories of bravery, selflessness and humanity to emerge from these bloody chapters of human history. We tend to think of those who shine in such circumstances as fearless, yet, there can be no courage where there is no fear… the hero is the one who refuses to be ruled by fear and chooses, instead, to act.

“All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I call ‘guessing what was at the other side of the hill’.” Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.

We sat with the stone for a while, listening to a reading and watching as a fearless young father scaled the rock in seconds, standing proudly upon his perch and surveying the land. As we stood to leave, heading towards our final official site of the day, we heard his voice on the wind, unconsciously illustrating the heart of Wellington’s words…

“Er… how do I get down?”