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?”

Rites of Passage: Worlds apart

Our next stop was not only a site extraordinarily rich in archaeological remains, but also a local beauty spot with plenty of parking nearby and well-defined paths… always a difficult combination. We would always wish to have these places to ourselves, but as they are freely accessible, the better known sites are seldom deserted on a sunny afternoon. It is a balancing act… while it is undoubtedly a good thing that people visit these sites, taking even a cursory interest in their history and thus helping to preserve them for future generations, not everyone treats them with respect. Much damage has been done over the years, and you never know what you are going to find.

One of the first things you see as you enter the area known as Stanton Moor is a pillar of wind-worn gritstone known as the Cork Stone. The face of a watcher guards the entrance to the moor, a place where, for over four thousand years, a continuous human story has shaped the land.

The past few hundred years have seen damage and changes wrought by quarrying, plantations and medieval field systems, but it is the Bronze Age that renders this area one of national importance and spiritual significance. By the time you reach the Cork Stone, one of four such guardian pillars on the edges of this small patch of moor, you have already passed between two of the seventy or more burial cairns veiled in heather and bracken.

Many of these cairns were excavated in the mid twentieth century. Interred cremations and skeletal remains were found, along with grave goods, food vessels and personal possessions, all of which show care and attention to the dead, both as individuals and collectively, rather than our more modern attitude of fear and hasty disposal.

The grave goods imply a belief in a life beyond this one and a place for the ancestors within the lives of the living. Why leave offerings unless the departed with know about or need them in the space beyond death? Why worry about their remains, save for love and respect, unless you expect them to still be around in one form or another?

The cairnfields cluster around four stone circles. Most are almost impossible to find except in winter when the vegetation is sparse, but the best know, Nine Ladies, draws many visitors. The legend, a common one for stone circles, says that the stones are nine maidens, turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath and the outlying stone was the fiddler who played for them.

There are, in fact, ten stones at Nine Ladies… in addition to the outlying King Stone, a flat stone was found to the east in 1976. The small stature of the stones is typical of Derbyshire circles and, although the circle is over thirty feet across, none of the stones are more than three feet high. To those used to the tall stones in other parts of the country, it would be easy to dismiss these small circles as somehow ‘lesser’ than their grander counterparts, but when you are lucky enough to stand alone in their presence, you are very aware that here, size really does not matter.

There is a possible embankment around the circle and there may once have been a cairn or burial at its centre. A solitary stone now stands in the path a few yards away. This is the King Stone; long thought to be an outlier, it has now been found to be the central pillar of a ring cairn, now lost. It has sadly lost much of its height thanks to a collision with a car… vandalism has long been a problem at this site.

Most, but sadly, not all of the time, the damage is not deliberately caused. The stone circles draw innumerable visitors and simple erosion by the passage of thousands of feet will eventually create problems. When we arrived at Nine Ladies, we were treated to the terror of a young lamb, separated from its mother, fleeing for its life from an uncontrolled dog… its owner nowhere to be seen. There were families, campers with hammocks strung from the trees and walkers… and, with the poor lamb having just run through, the atmosphere was not good.

It strikes me as sad that these old places, once sacred centres for their builders, should be given less respect than more familiar places of worship. Those sprawled across the stones or partying in their midst would not dream of repeating their behaviour in a church, even if they do not subscribe to its faith. We may not wholly understand the beliefs of those who built the stone circles, but we know they were seen as sacred places… and I believe that their beliefs deserve respect.

We stopped at the threshold formed by the King Stone, the central pillar of the now-invisible cairn, unwilling, for the moment, to go closer. The juxtaposition of cairn and circle is seen at many of the sites in Derbyshire. Barbrook, Doll Tor and even Arbor Low seem to make this deliberate connection between the rites of the living and the presence of the dead.

Quite how significant this may have been we have no way of proving, except by working with the sites and seeing what comes. What is known though, is that the cairns and circles on this stretch of moor and beyond were arranged in quite specific alignments.  Author John Barnatt, senior survey archaeologist for the Peak District, has used modern methods to confirm these alignments… though their purpose may elude us.

The archaeological evidence, however, does indicate that life and death were seen as intimately linked and suggests a belief that there was a line of communication between the two. Perhaps the ancestors were thought to care for the living, even from beyond the veil, perhaps they were believed to be able to influence or advise on events. It also suggests that while the innate, life-preserving fear of dying would have been at least as strong in our ancestors as it is in ourselves, the fear of the dead, and of death itself, was less prevalent than it is today.

In a society where the ethos of winners, losers and ‘every man for himself’ has become the desired and necessary approach for those seeking material success, we seem to have lost that sense of community and continuity that places the wellbeing of the many before the desire of the one. Ego is in the driving seat…and ego fears nothing as much as its own obliteration.

With a certain reluctance, we led the way into the circle, allowing our small company time to become acquainted with the stones. The circumstances were not ideal, but when we gathered to share the visualisation of the Web of Light, we might as well have been invisible.

We began the long walk back, passing through the huge but hollowed cairns, as well as those yet to be excavated, that line the pathway. Two by two, caught in our own part of the story, we headed back towards the Cork Stone. With more time and fewer people around, we could have spent a day exploring here. As it was, there was a quieter place that we wanted to share before the afternoon ended…

Rites of Passage: Familiarity…

It isn’t always what you know that counts… it matters more what you understand well enough to bring it into consciousness. Some of us were to get a graphic example of that as we took a break for lunch in the Derbyshire town of Bakewell.

It is a lovely town, in spite of the inevitable hordes of visitors that flock there ever summer, with one of the best churches, replete with stories, history and mysteries. From the Saxon crosses and Masonic gravestone in the churchyard, to the dragons and the white stag in the stained glass, it has something to discover on every new visit.

We have run a workshop based in Bakewell, explored pretty much every nook and cranny, as well as having spent many a lunch-break on the banks of the river Wye, watching the huge brown trout and the innumerable birds enjoying the swift, shallow waters.

Although we would not have time for a proper visit on this trip, it was the perfect place, midway between sites, for an extended lunch-break that would allow our companions to explore. Arranging to meet at the river, we went our separate ways.

We returned early to the meeting place and, finding all the benches full, Stuart took up a perch on a tree as we waited. As we did so, a tiny old lady, as fragile as a whisper, whipped into a newly vacated spot with surprising alacrity. She must have been in her nineties… frail and almost transparent, yet in spite of the  trolley upon which she leaned, her movements were bird-quick.

And the birds were quick to notice her as she reached into her trolley to take out their lunch. It was obviously a ritual of long standing, as dozens of birds recognised her movements and arrived at her feet, showing no fear at all of either their benefactor or those, like us, who were seated close by.

Wild birds are supposed to be wary of humans, but that fear is a learned behaviour. Birds were around, in one form or another, for millions of years before humans came along and decided that their meat, bones  and their feathers were a useful addition to their hunted supplies. Birds learned to fear us and that fear has been passed down through the generations.

I thought of the Dodo, living safely on its island throughout its evolution. With no predator to teach it to know fear, it was only curious when Man arrived and that was its undoing. In just decades, the Dodo was extinct. Not only does the Dodo provide a graphic illustration of how fear, in its rightful place, can be of service,  it also shows something we all know, but seldom think about… fear has to be learned.

It may be learned through personal experience, or through the cumulative experience of our ancestors, but whether it is a finger burned in a forbidden flame or the genetic memories that preserve us, fear is an acquired and instinctive reaction. Yet these particular birds, used to the constant stream of munching tourists  as a food source, as well as their regular suppliers, like the little old lady, had  learned something other than fear…they have learned to trust.

It cannot have come easily to begin with. You can even spot the newcomers who find safety in the crowd but who are still wary when separated from the flock.  But, with personal experience… getting to know the environment, its gifts and its people, the inborn and instinctive distrust built up over the course of millions of years has been set aside in favour of a newly-learned trust. And, if the birds can do it, so can we.

Our own behaviours and reactions are learned, whether from early experience, those who raised us, or from the generations of ancestors who went before. But the world is a rapidly changing place.

Countries we could only dream of seeing, even a generation ago, are now easily accessible as holiday destinations, places to work or are instantly accessible via the internet. Behaviours that served to keep  our distant ancestors safe may no longer serve us, only keep is separate and fearful, creating division and prejudice. Perhaps we too can learn to see beyond fear to trust… and find that, in doing so, we are richer for the change of heart.

It had taken so little to bring this point home. Our little old lady had been there only a few moments, yet she had the joy of feeding the birds and seeing them flock to greet her…and they, through their trust, had been nourished. Their interaction, fleeting though it was, had been beautiful to watch.

As our companions gathered once more by the bridge, I reflected on how simply Nature can teach us…and how easily we can miss her lessons, forgetting, in the hustle and bustle of urban life, that we too are her creatures and part of the vast and intricate dance of life on this planet we call home.

Rites of Passage: On the Edge…

On Saturday morning, we gathered on the Edge above Baslow. The rocky landscape here is one we know well, capturing and melding the wild essence of the land with the lives of its people, through history, necessity and modern Man’s pursuit of beauty.

You have to wonder if the stark beauty of the high crags with their panoramic views over the valleys played a part in why our ancestors chose this spot to build a settlement. It is logical to assume that the dictates of practicality and safety made them seek a place with water and a defensive position. We know that many of these sites were considered sacred too, given the purposes for which they were used. To a culture already crafting beautiful things and colourful garments, perhaps the land itself spoke to them and asked them to call it home.

It would not have mattered which way we had chosen to walk… there is history beneath every step here, from the cairnfields and stone circles of the Barbrook complex, to the enclosure, rock art and standing stones of Gardom’s Edge, the ancient settlements of Big Moor…or the cairnfields around our destination, the Eagle Stone.

We opened our day with a visualisation, then the party separated. Some chose to walk along the path that runs along the Edge, where the view over Derbyshire is spectacular. Others followed the more direct path, keeping our eyes open for the ‘scrying bowls’ we wanted to share on our return.

First though, we wanted to explore other aspects of fear, both physical and the more tenuous fear of failure and its consequences… or perceived consequences…within a community. As we gathered around the Eagle Stone, we asked if anyone could see a way to climb to the top.

The Eagle Stone is a naturally occurring gritstone boulder, some twenty feet high. Wind and rain have carved the huge boulder into fantastical shapes that give the stone a different face from every angle. While it is possible to see an eagle poised for flight from one position, there are laughing faces from others.

Some stories say that it got its name simply because eagles would perch upon the rock, other tales tell that it was cast there by a pre-Christian god, who could throw stones no mortal man could lift, and that its name should be Aigle’s Stone. It is also said to turn around three times when the cock crows… but we were a little late to verify that.

The Eagle Stone stands close to a Neolithic cairnfield on the Edge above Baslow. Given its proximity to the many prehistoric sites of the area, it is safe to assume that it would have been seen as significant by our ancestors and that what has come down to us in folklore may have its roots in the distant past.

Local tradition states that, before a man may marry, he must scale the Eagle Stone. As there is no easy way to climb the overhanging rock, this test of manhood has, since time beyond memory, been used to determine a youth’s fitness to mate and provide. The custom persists, with groups of young men, adorned with bridal veils, gathering to help their friends to the top. Perhaps ‘manhood’ is not only defined by the ability to face fears and overcome hurdles, but by the ability to cooperate and help each other.

Going back through the mists of time, we might consider that this surviving folk custom had its roots in a deeper mystery. Was it seen as a rite of passage into manhood? Watched over by the ancestors in their cairnfield, was this test of physical courage, strength and ingenuity the test that carried boys into adulthood and gave them a place within the clan? If so, then failure would have had dire consequences, whether from a fall or by the loss of place and face within the community. Is it too much to imagine that those who succeeded became the warriors or hunters, the ‘eagles’ of their tribe?

We still face similar ‘tests’ today and our position within the community is too often ranked by our success or failure at climbing the social, academic or business ladders. We are frequently judged by what we can ‘bring to the table’, instead of who we are as human beings and the higher qualities of humankind that we can teach our children. Individuals value such qualities, societies, it seems, do not. Many who should be honoured for their kindness, compassion and self-sacrifice are simply swept under the societal table because their focus was not on the ephemeral glitter ball of its approval.

As we returned, we stopped to look at the ‘scrying bowls’ that dot the moors and a huge boulder perched upon smaller ones that looks for all the world like a collapsed dolmen. The scrying bowls are usually filled with water, but for once, they were empty. While they may be no more than natural features… and I have found no record of a dolmen here… it is entirely possible that they would have been recognised and used by our ancestors.

Our visit was more light-hearted than serious. There had been merriment as some of our company made an attempt on the Eagle Stone. There were dogs and their owners to greet, people whose barriers came down for a moment to share the laughter and the sunshine… a stark contrast to the sad faces we had seen in Eyam the day before.

To the ancients, the Eagle Stone and the cairnfield where their forefathers were buried may have been a gateway through which they could touch the Unseen. Such ideas are often dismissed as superstition, but we deal with the unseen all the time. We feel the peace in an old village church and the tension in the atmosphere of a room without any obvious cues. The atmosphere of Eyam had been as darkly infectious as the mood was light on this walk across the moors. As we left Baslow Edge behind and headed for lunch in Bakewell, we couldn’t help wondering what our companions would make of what we had planned for later…