North-easterly VII: A final grace

 

“…Manifest thy light for my regeneration, and let the breadth, height, fullness and crown
of the solar radiance appear, and may the light within shine forth!”

Abbe de Villars, ‘The Comte de Gabalis’

“We’ve just got to the top of the slope by the castle,” said the voice on the phone, in answer to my query. We had been a few minutes late arriving on Holy Island, and our companions had begun to stroll out towards the medieval castle that dominates the island landscape. Having failed to find them in any of the three cafés where we had looked, we had located them by phone and, putting on a bit of a spurt, finally caught up with them. From here we could look back at the beginning of our journey, over the water to Bamburgh Castle, just as the spiritual pilgrim looks back on his inner journey and sees with greater clarity than before, how short was the true distance he had to travel , no matter how difficult and tortuous the route he felt he had to take.

The plan was that we should spend an hour exploring in our own way before meeting for a light lunch and our departure, so while some visited the castle, the rest of us walked back into the village and met the sparrows. Time always makes its presence keenly felt on Holy Island, which is odd, because, in so many ways, it is a timeless place. As you cross the causeway from the mainland, that sense of stepping outside of time is one of the most striking feelings, and, if you remain when the tides come in, flooding the causeway and cutting off the island from the shore, there simply is no time, only the spirit of place. Yet the tides rule all and the clock ticks regardless, and for those who must leave before the waters rush in, time is always limited. The very consciousness of that knowledge makes every moment precious.

When we had gathered once more, we walked over to the ancient parish church, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. In spite of the fact that there have been people on the island since the very earliest of times, this is the oldest building to remain. It is built on the site of St Aidan’s original monastery, founded in 635, and parts of the building date back to that century.

A service had just finished, and we had no wish to intrude, so simply sat quietly for a while, in contemplation. Faith is unique to each of us, no matter by what name we know it or what path we walk. Each of us has our own relationship with something other and greater than ourselves and the simple silence of St Mary’s seems to welcome all those who turn their faces to the Light.

There are beautiful stained glass windows, touching tributes to those who have served in the church and those who have lived on the island and worked with the sea. There are windows that glow with colour and light, a statue carved from elm and called ‘The Journey,’ that shows the monks who carried St Cuthbert’s coffin on its long odyssey, a transcript of the Lindisfarne Gospel… the beautifully illuminated manuscript from the last years of the seventh century, made by a monk called Eadfrith in honour of St Cuthbert.

Fourteen hundred years is a long time for any place to be at the heart of a tiny community, and the church holds that community in its heart.

You ‘may sense the ‘thinness’ linking with the ancient saints who trod the same ground so many years before,’ says the church website. And you can. There is a very real sense of the sacred here, of something older and deeper than the exoteric Church that we know today. It is impossible not to be moved by the echoes of so many centuries of prayer.

In the churchyard, the lives of those who walked here are both remembered and forgotten. The oldest inhabitants have no grave-markers, their names and stories are, for the most part, lost. Only those whose stories were written in the annals of history are remembered by name and deed, and those who lived recently enough that their headstones survive.

Two nineteenth century headstones caught my eye. One was that of a Freemason and soldier who served in India. His affiliation to Freemasonry is not explicitly mentioned in the inscription, but the Masonic Square and Compasses tell their own story. Another local rejoiced in the name of Field Flowers. Time and weather have worn away much of the inscription, but he still rests in the shadow of the Saxon Abbey.

From the church, we walked down to the shore, passing the old well that shelters beneath the walls. I had long wanted to visit St Cuthbert’s Island but on our previous visits, either the tide or time had always been against us.

St Cuthbert’s Isle is a tiny islet just off the island’s shore. At low tide, it is just a short walk across the mussel-encrusted rocks, but to fully appreciate its isolation from the rest of the community,you have to see it when the tide comes in, completely sundering it from the island. We had done so one day, when we had stayed the length of a sea-tide on Holy Island, watching the sun gild a roseate path to the mainland as it sank beyond the hills.

It was to this tiny islet that St Cuthbert would retreat when he needed solitude. He had become a monk after a vision that came to him the night that St Aidan died. he felt called to a contemplative life, but his kindness, charm and generosity, as well as his gift of healing and deep faith, were to take him from his cell and make him Bishop of Lindisfarne and one of the best loved of the early saints.

The little island was his retreat, until in later years he sought the greater solitude of the Farne Islands. Today the foundations of his chapel remain on the islet, marked by a simple cross where pilgrims still leave tokens of respect, and earthworks that may be the foundations of his cell.

 

I once heard the monastic life described as being ‘in the world, but not of it’. In some respects this relates too to the journey of the spiritual seeker… pilgrims in the land of the living… who embrace the earthly life and its world fully, yet who know that the source of being is not of this world. It was the perfect place for us to end our weekend.

From here we could see the mainland and the dark outline of Bamburgh Castle. We could look back too at the Holy Isle and see the ancient church and the Abbey. Our journey together was drawing to its close, yet our journeys would continue. For a moment, we were once more outside of time and the spirit of place caught at the heart.

“I can hear mermaids singing,” said one of our companions. Sure enough, she was right. Turning our eyes to the sea, we scanned the waves and saw their faces in the waves. It was indeed magical to watch the seals watching us from the sea… playing and diving through the waters with what looked like joyful abandon.

But time touched us even here, and it was time for the weekend to end. Gary read the beautiful Invocation to the Flame from Abbe de Villars’, ‘The Comte de Gabalis’ and Barbara ended the weekend with a poem she had written. Then, with hugs and the knowledge that we would hopefully meet again soon, we parted.

For three of us, there was still a little time. Just enough to linger on the island for a moment or two… long enough to realise that the dark shadow on the sandbanks was not seaweed, but our ‘mermaids’.

The three of us, joined by silence and friendship, watched from afar, listening to their song. Such moments can justly be called a grace.

The sea-song continued, eerie and haunting on the wind as we left the islet and climbed to the Heugh. Sheltering in the lee of the ruined Anglo-Saxon chapel, we watched the seals from afar and saw a heron gliding over the waves.

But although, for once, we were in no hurry, Gary had a long drive ahead and had to leave. We walked the length of the Heugh, looking down into the ruined Priory that was already nearly a thousand years old when the castle was built. Time and distance were about to make themselves felt and it was with a certain amount of sadness that we descended from the outcrop, knowing that the world was about to take us once more by the hand. And that although at such moments we may wish the demands of the world elsewhere, it is right that it should do so. We are born into this world for a reason and to live in it fully is at least part of our purpose.

The weekend held one final and surprising gift though. As we walked across the fields towards the village, we came face to face with the past in the most surprising manner. Our timing could hardly have been more perfect and we watched archaeologists brush fourteen hundred years of earth from the faces of the early monks in the newly uncovered Priory burial ground.

“These men would have known Aidan or Cuthbert,” said the archaeologist, when I asked if it were permitted to take photographs. “Treat them with respect if you use the pictures.” I could not do anything else, for these were the men in whose footsteps we had walked the island, the men who had ‘trod the same ground so many years before,’ and whose faith has made this a place of pilgrimage, both religious and spiritual, for centuries. I may not share their particular form of religion, but we share the essence of faith and, in coming face to face with the past, I came face to face with myself. And surely, that is what any pilgrimage is supposed to achieve?

With thanks to Steve Tanham and Barbara Walsh for organising the Castles of the Mind weekend.

If you have enjoyed reading the story of our time in Northumberland and would like to join us for one of our informal weekends exploring the spiritual landscape of Britain, or at our annual April Workshop in Derbyshire, please visit the Silent Eye’s Events page.

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Of Ash and Seed – Pawns to castle…

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As we hurried through the castle grounds in Beaumaris, a lone seagull was dancing. He seems to be marching on the spot, marking a rhythmic time with his feet. Worm-charming, said my companion. I didn’t even stop to take a picture. We were late.

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With fond farewells, just in case, we had taken a temporary leave of our companions in the car park of Bryn Celli Ddu. They would go on to Penmon Priory with its tenth century stone crosses and wonderful views before heading to Beaumaris. We, however, were heading back across the island to the hotel to collect the forgotten bag. With luck, we would meet again in time for lunch.

Aerial view Beaumaris Castle (CD34) Anglesey North Castles Historic Sites
Aerial view Beaumaris Castle (CD34) Image: CADW

It was a shame, but could not be helped.  Off we went, sailing down the roads to retrieve the bag. By the time our mission was accomplished, we knew it was too late to head for Penmon… and too early for Beaumaris. And we had said we would have to go back to Bryn Celli Ddu…the road back there was also the only route we really knew. It was almost as if we had no choice… just pawns in the hand of the gods… but that is a whole other story, outside the scope of the Silent Eye weekend.

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Traffic delayed us on the road between Bryn Celli Ddu and Beaumaris and we were beginning to wonder if we would make lunch at all. We headed for the car-park Steve had recommended, feeling like guilty children… and parked between our companions’ cars. Even if we could not find them in the town and missed them completely, they would at least know we had tried to join them. But, as luck would have it, we bumped into them almost immediately. Sadly, they had already eaten and were about to leave. Even so, it gave us a chance for hugs and decent farewells. It had been a spectacular weekend, with amazing sites and wonderful weather, so we were glad of the chance to thank Steve and Barbara again for what they had organised.

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And suddenly, there was no rush. We were never going to make it home before dark, so we had what was left of the fading afternoon light to enjoy. I had not seen Beaumaris for the past forty years, but I remembered it well and had walked the castle ramparts, looking down to a moat that seemed alive with eels. Then, it had been high summer and the streets had been crowded with tourists. Now it was winter and the streets were almost empty, a perfect time to get a few decent shots of the castle.

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Beaumaris Castle is a concentric design castle and at one point the town itself sheltered behind walls that were connected to the castle. The curtain wall of the outer ward is moated and was once accessible by sea, making supplying the castle a simple matter. Within that is the inner ward designed to hold domestic buildings. It completely overlooks the outer ward all round, which must have made defensive sense. It was built as part of Edward I’s campaign to conquer North Wales in the 13thC. Building commenced in 1295, and by 1330, it has already cost £15,000 an astronomical sum in those days…and it was still not complete. This seems odd when today it is one of the best surviving examples of its kind in Europe and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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It was time to leave Anglesey though. The late afternoon light was becoming thin and misty as we headed back to the car. Our worm=charming friend was still doing his worm-dance, and this time the camera was in my hand. The mountains of Snowdonia beckoned, their foothills green and russet, their peaks crowned with snow…and the passes that run between them better driven in at least a modicum of daylight. Reluctantly, we turned the car towards the Menai Bridge and the mainland for the long drive home, with a final gift awaiting as we passed the distant beauty of Snowdon and Tryfan. It had been a wonderful weekend.

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Of Ash and Seed – The mound in the dark grove…

anglesey-bryn-holy-island-wales-087“We might have to go back to the hotel…”  I didn’t look around as I was busy following the car in front and anyway, the snowy mountains of the mainland filled the horizon. My companion had been distracted during the packing process and had not really registered how light the hold-all had felt as it was placed in the boot of the car. One leather bag had, possibly, been left behind. We could not turn back as we followed the others to the first stop of the day… nor could we stop to check until we reached the car park. Yes, we were a bag down. We would have to go back, but not until we had seen this particular site.

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I have wanted to see Bryn Celli Ddu, ‘the hill in the dark grove’, for a very long time. So has Stuart, so the fact that Steve had chosen to include it in the weekend was a real gift. It is, by far, the best known prehistoric monument on Anglesey and one well-known to many with an interest in the ancient places of our ancestors.

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The ‘hill’ refers, perhaps, to the burial mound… a passage tomb. The ‘dark grove’ is no more…though whether the grove was of living wood or of standing stones, we may never know. We do know a good deal about the history of this site, in archaeological terms at least, yet its secrets remain shrouded beyond the mists of memory or conscious knowledge.

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The tomb lies around half a mile from the little car park. The path takes you across a stream and between high hedges, with a sudden reveal at the end… by which time I was fair bouncing, even though I know full well that what remains is not what was. You are greeted by a green mound, pierced by a narrow ‘window’ guarded by a standing stone on one side. The passage that leads within the tomb lies on the other side. The mound is encircled by a ditch and flanked with stones. It looks perfect, but was, in fact, partially reconstructed in the 20th century. The mound would once have been much bigger and the site itself encompasses far more than is contained within this rural enclosure, with standing stones and carved stones in the nearby fields and on the ridge close by.

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The archaeologists have been thorough here, within the extent of knowledge. The earliest remains at the site are a series of post holes, dated back six thousand years through radiocarbon testing of the pine charcoal found in the holes. The next phase of construction was the building of the henge, a thousand years later. A henge is an inner ditch surrounded by an outer bank or earthwork. Here the henge is 69 feet across, though the bank is long gone and only the ditch survives. Within this space, a stone circle of 17, mainly paired, stones was raised. and at the same time, the spiral-carved Pattern Stone was installed.The current Pattern Stone is not the original, but a replica set into its original position, but whose carvings have already faded. The real stone is now in the National Museum of Wales.

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Original Pattern Stone. Image: Wolfgang Sauber (CCAS 3.0)

Beneath several of the standing stones, human cremations were buried whilst within the henge itself, a single, human ear bone was interred beneath a flat stone and you have to wonder at the significance of that. At the entrance to the tomb, an unusual burial of a young ox was found and within the tomb itself the remains of bones and cremations, as well as pieces of quartz, shells, a bead and arrow heads.

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It was yet another thousand years before the site was again drastically altered. The circle was dismantled. Several stones were deliberately damaged, others were smashed. They were used to build the current tomb, with its mound much larger than the reconstructed mound, completely enclosing the area within the ring of kerb-stones. The current, reduced mound allows you to see the standing stones of the circle that were re-used to form the entrance of the passage…and a spectacular and unusual central pillar graces the inner chamber.

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Information board at National Museum of Wales. Image: Wolfgang Sauber (CCAS 3.0)

They are curious stones in themselves, looking very like the petrified wood that Rupert Soskin and Michael Bott had suggested for the central, shaped pillar. Whether this is the case or whether they simply look like wood-in-stone, life-in-death, may not be as important as whether our ancestors too saw the similarity and had chosen them deliberately for that reason. There is no reason why they could not have done so and I have to wonder if it is these gnarled stones that are the trees of the ‘mound in the dark grove’.

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Perhaps the most striking aspect of the site, though, is invisible…at least in midwinter. The 28 ft long passageway is aligned, like Maes Howe and Newgrange, with the midsummer sunrise, when light would stream down the passageway to illuminate the inner chamber. There may also have been a similar ‘roofbox’ to the one at Newgrange, that frames the incoming light to focus it on a specific point at the solstice, as well as other possible astronomical alignments.

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These days, the reduced size of the mound leaves part of the internal structure naked and allows the ingress of light through the rear of the chamber that would once have been within the mound. At least for the living. In many places we have found features that suggest to us that the internal structure of these monuments may have been designed to be ‘seen’ by those who had passed beyond life into the otherworld.

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For the moment, at least, we stand on the side of the living and look with eyes of wonder on the past. In that moment, we joined together in sound within the mound, then we watched and listened as the final scroll, telling the story crafted for the weekend, was read and the final drama was played out.  Then, we were led away, crossing the stream back into the lands of the living, gifted with symbolic seeds of light to carry out into the world.

“We have to go back,” said my companion. “Oh yes, we have to go back,” I agreed. I don’t think either of us were thinking of the forgotten bag at the hotel… anglesey-bryn-holy-island-wales-100

Of Ash and Seed – Candy-floss dawn

 

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We woke to clear skies…and heavy frost. Our after-dinner walk the night before had seen us wandering the deep, unlit blackness of the shore, watching the colours of the stars in the cloudless night. The temperature had dropped dramatically, so the pre-dawn frost was no surprise. Nor was it any surprise at all that two of us were already up and out, long before our companions and the sun were due to rise, walking the coastal path as far as we dared in the time before breakfast.

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There is something magical in being abroad to greet the rising of the sun, something that speaks to the soul and feeds it silently as the light slowly floods the sky, painting it in pastels and gold. Behind the sacred mountain to the west, a soft rainbow of colour marked the fleeing edge of night as we walked through the ice-crisp grass. The curve of the receding tide left marks upon virgin sand as free of footprints as before the time of Man, a reminder of the fleeting nature of our presence within Nature.

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It was still early. No-one else seemed to be out, not even the gulls whose incessant, eldritch cries tug at the heartstrings all day. We had the world to ourselves, it seemed, witnesses to the daily miracle of dawn. It makes you wonder, every time. But we were not simply observers… we too were part of that moment, feeling the cold upon our fingers and cheeks, aware of the ever-changing light and the ceaseless motion of the sea.

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To dance to the rhythm of the sun, to rise with its light and see its passing every day, echoes a greater purpose than our preoccupation with the daily needs of survival. To feel part of such beauty is to remember ourselves within a greater context than that of roles and labels, as part of the earth’s own dance and infinite variation of form.

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The world around us teaches of the journey we all take, day to day and year on year. The gift of a quiet Sunday dawn is a perfect moment, undisturbed by noise and the demands of a busy world.  To watch the shadows soften as golden light bathes them and watch the movement of the waters is to reflect upon our own voyage of endless change and our inevitable movement from unknowing to understanding.

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We walked until the sun crested the rooftops, gilding the morning in a brief burst of glory before turning back. The rocks and the little pools they held were full of ice, yet the sky above the sleeping town was aflame. There is an intimacy in such moments that is a beautiful illusion, that makes you feel as if this is the first dawn the world has ever seen, and yours the first eyes to see it.

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Illusion it may be… but this dawn has never happened before and will never happen again…and you are there, part of that moment. I see the sun rise almost every morning through my window. We watch the dawn whenever we can… and it never loses its magic nor do we lose the breathless sense of awe that it inspires. Every time. We headed back to the hotel to meet our companions for breakfast… but we had already broken our fast on beauty.

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Of Ash and Seed- Offerings

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“The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak…. Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon…. Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons.”

Pliny the Elder, 1st century AD.

Crescentic bronze plaque with triskele decoration, from Llyn Cerrig Bach lake deposit (200 BC – 100 AD). Image: Wolfgang Sauber (CCASA3)

Although  we still bring the blessings of mistletoe into our homes at Christmas, there was no mistletoe at Bryn Celig Bach, only a sickle moon, with Venus, seen always as the light of a goddess, shining below. Copper has been seen as the Mirror of the Goddess for centuries. It may be that is one of the reasons why copper was found in the peaceful lake that is now surrounded by an airforce base. In 1943,  William Owen Roberts, a green-keeper at the local golf course, spotted a chain in the mud as the work began to dredge a pond on the airforce base. A lorry became stuck in the mud and, remembering the chain, he picked it up and attached it to the vehicle. The used it several times that day and it did not break. It was not until a drawing of it was sent to the museum in Cardiff that it was identified as a gang chain, used to chain five slaves together by the neck.

Over the next four years, locals found many other objects at the site and Roberts took responsibility for them wrapping them in sackcloth and keeping them safe through the war years. Eventually they brought a veritable treasure trove of 181 artefacts into the light. The objects, many of bronze and copper, dated from 300 BC to around AD 100. They seem to share a common and warlike thread in many cases and it has been suggested that offerings to the gods were made here in times of war. It has even been proposed that a mass offering was made here by the Druids when they knew that Suetonius Paulinus was coming to obliterate then in AD 60.

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Many of the items, that included items as diverse as swords, cauldrons and a bronze trumpet, had been deliberately broken and, as we approached the lake in the gathering twilight, we discussed the possible reasons behind this. Was it the act of placing the treasured item beyond reach and use that constituted the true sacrifice? Or perhaps, by ‘killing’ the item in an echo of a bloodier sacrifice, they released its spirit, offering it to the gods and allowing its power to work for them in the Otherworld.

We too were bent on ritual sacrifice. We do not share the detail of our rituals, even though we may describe them. The true magic of any ritual is the inner work and the intent of the participant. No ritual can have any effect or take root in one’s soul without that dedicated intent. It is not enough to gesture and declaim, not even in the grandest of temples, not even with the famed ‘barbarous names’ on our lips. It is the truth of what is in the heart that matters… the inner dedication… and that can make even the everyday tasks of life itself both a ritual and a joy.

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Nor do we pretend to resurrect, or possess any special knowledge of, the ancient forms. What we can do, though, is echo in our own way, the essence of what we understand. Such a rite, coming from the heart, does not need to claim to be anything other than it is. It was in this spirit that, on the banks of an ancient lake, we each ritually cast away those ‘artefacts’ of the ego that, though cherished, no longer serve us on our journey.

In simplicity, there was beauty. In symbols, there was a seed of light that we could each carry away into the darkening night.

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Of Ash and Seed – Spotlight on the past

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We walked the short distance from the car park by the beach to what appeared to be a beautifully preserved mound, right above the sea. Appearances can be deceptive though… this mound is not ancient, but a concrete dome covered with grass. It was built after the site was excavated in the 1950s, recreating, on the outside at least, what was thought to be the original form, to preserve and protect what lies within.

Aerial view Barclodiad y Gawres . Image: CADW ( Crown Copyright) C(CD35)
Aerial view Barclodiad y Gawres . Image: CADW ( Crown Copyright) C(CD35)

Barclodiad y Gawres, which means the ‘apronful of the giantess’, is what remains of a cruciform passage tomb, around five thousand years old,  of a type more common in the Boyne Valley in Ireland just over the sea. A legend, found in many places with similar names, tells that two giants, husband and wife, journeyed to Anglesey to build a new home. While the husband carried two huge boulders to flank the door,  his wife had her apron full of stones. When they met a cobbler on the road, they asked  how far it was to the Island. Not wanting giants in the area, he lied and told them it was still a long journey. The giantess, tired of carrying the stones, let them fall from her apron…and there they lie to this day.

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Huge and intriguing stones line the original passageway. Sadly, the site is locked in winter, though in summer you may request accompanied access from a nearby keyholder; ‘accompanied’, these days sadly because of vandalism. Even so, it is a place to see, in spite of the bars. As the torchlight illuminated small patches of the interior, I was bouncing. Fabulous chevron carvings could be seen one of the closest uprights, of a kind I am familiar with only through images. I had never seen them before with my own eyes.

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As the beam moved around the chamber, it was obvious that it would not cast sufficient light to show all the other carvings, the spirals and the diamonds that have been found there. In many ways, that seemed a fitting reminder that, no matter how many times we visit, or how professionally the archaeologists may dig, our picture of the past is forever incomplete, showing only snapshots of a way of life now lost in the spiralling memory of earth. In just the same way, we see such snapshots of our own past in memory, yet the rich story of life has seen us pass through every second since our birth.The snapshots we see of each other are even sparser. Yet still we can try to learn and understand.

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The archeological investigations have found a number of carvings, as well as the cremated remains of two youths in the western chamber. A hearth was found in the centre of the tomb, where a stew had been poured over the flames to quench them in antiquity. The stew had been composed of wrasse, eel, frog, toad, grass-snake, mouse, shrew and hare. It was then covered with limpet shells and pebbles which helped to preserve their bones.

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Was it an ancient spell, perhaps, or an offering to the ancestors or the gods of the place? Or was it a final meal, sustenance for the dead on their final journey? Were the ingredients simply what was available at the time, or did each of those creatures bring their own magical properties to the rite, so that their spirits and gifts might be offered through the flames? There are some things we will never know for certain. The fact that belief implies a choice is thrown into relief as we listen to the whispers of our own hearts.

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We listened too, at the entrance of the tomb, to readings from our friends and to the next chapter of the story woven to bind together the threads of history and spirit throughout the weekend. It was a perfect place to be as the sun began to sink towards the horizon and the end of our day. Or almost the end. There was one more place to visit before darkness erased the colours of the world and the sun entered the tomb of night…

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Of Ash and Seed – Beached

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We stopped for lunch in a surfer’s cafe in Rhosneigr very close to the sea. Once refreshed we were to go down to the beach to choose a stone for a simple but moving ritual at our final destination. Two of us left as soon as we had eaten. I live about as far from the sea as you can get in Britain and seldom get the chance to play on beaches, so take any opportunity I can get to be close to the waves.

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The sun was already low in the the sky, but still it felt like spring. My companion declined my offer to have a paddle whilst the others finished lunch, which was probably sensible, if disappointing. It was December after all and although the unusually mild weather was balmy, doubtless the sea would have proved to be a more wintry environment. Instead, we watched the sun sparkle on the water, reflecting the heavens on earth.

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We  started looking for our pebbles, drawn to the white ones as much for their symbolism as for the fact that they draw the eye. Working with the symbolism of the School, we had a fair idea of what would be required and why. We looked too at the curious formation of the blue-black rocks. Some of the rocks that emerge through the sand go back to the Pre-Cambrian era that began four and a half billion years ago and you can see the folds created by pressure as the earth, as we know it, began to shape itself.

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It is a curious feeling to consciously stand with such an unimaginable span of time beside the ceaseless motion of the sea. Beneath our feet, the  sand, each grain formed from what has gone before…and in it, our footprints. The marks of our presence are deep enough to raise ridges and cast shadows. Each foot that passes leaves its unique imprint, changing the surface utterly… for a little while. The marks are as transient as our little lives upon the earth and are soon erased by the movement of the waters that shift and shape the land.

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We were soon joined by our companions and spent a little while, each of us, searching for our stones. I would have happily pottered on the beach all afternoon at any other time, examining stones and exclaiming at the beauty of the shells… listening to the cry of the gulls. There is something about the seashore that awakens the inner child. Perhaps it is because where sky, land and sea meet and we become children again as our Mother looks on and feel secure in Her presence.

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It was, therefore, with a mixture of reluctance and excitement that we left the beach behind us. We had one more site to visit before our final destination of the day and it was a rather special one. We drove to a deserted bay as the shadows grew longer and the winter afternoon drew towards its close, bathing the world in golden light…

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Of Ash and Seed – Heart of stone

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It didn’t look right, even from a distance. There was a forlorn, forgotten feel to the place, even though it is readily accessible and, to judge by the wearing of the mud by the gate, frequently visited. There was something decidedly ‘odd’ about the Presaddfed Neolithic burial chamber, something you could not help but notice as soon as you got to the kissing gate. For a start, the stones looked too big, too closely packed compared to all the other dolmens we have seen. For another thing, many of the stones themselves seemed to be distinctly different from each other and that is unusual in itself. It is not as if they are short of stone around here.

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On closer inspection, we found that there are actually two chambered tombs, just a few feet apart. The northern chamber has fallen and is now little more than a jumble of stones. The tomb to the south consists of a really sturdy-looking horseshoe of stones supporting the capstone with the help of a delicate point of stone. The capstone is almost two feet thick and thirteen feet long and looks as if it has its front end missing… deliberately removed? Broken? Or just the shape in which it was found. That too looks odd. As if something is missing.

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A lot of things are missing really. When it was documented in the Archaeological Journal in the 19th century, the two chambers were recorded as being surrounded by ‘a great number of small stones’. These are no longer in evidence. Nor is any trace of the mound that would always cover such a chamber, though there is evidence of a flattened mound or earthwork a short distance away that is intriguing in itself.

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I have been unable to find any details of excavation reports at the site and little seems to be known about the tombs, other than that a family struck by poverty called them home for some time during the 18th century when, it is to be hoped, the second chamber was still standing too. The massive blocks fit close together. The capstone is levelled, quite precisely, with small slivers of stone. The tight construction of the chambers would render them weatherproof, apart from draughts, except at the open end. Not much of a shelter, but far better than nothing at all.

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The collapsed northern chamber now has only two of its uprights standing, but the capstone, leaning against them, has a thick layer of crystal running through it. It is possible that the north and south chambers were once enclosed in a single mound. It is a fairly unusual arrangement, although many such tombs have more than one chamber. A similar arrangement is found at the spectacular Trefignath tomb, just outside Trearddur, where archaeologists have been able to investigate and, through artefacts and dating techniques, establish the timeline for its construction. Trefignath was built in stages between 3750 and 3500 BC and it appears that Preseddfed dates to around the same era, although it may be as many as six thousand years old.

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Trefignath. Image by Porius1 (CCL)

We wandered around the stones. On the one hand you might think that a quick look is enough…there is not really much to see. But it is not so. You have to look beyond the obvious to even begin to get a glimpse of what may really be there. Quite apart from the precision of the construction, you look at the stones themselves. We had realised at Stanton Drew that the stones chosen by the Old Ones for their circles and monuments are often distinctive. It is very well known that the builders of Stonehenge, for example, chose to carry tons of massive stones a hundred and forty miles from Wales to Wiltshire to include them in the circle. We knew that and, like everyone else, had wondered why.

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At Stanton Drew, we had noted than many of the stones seemed to have been chosen because they reflected stone in another state. In some, you can see where the mud has been deposited as silt in riverbeds and almost see the water flow. Some look like gnarled wood. Others bear crystals and unexpected colours. It seemed as if the Old Ones had chosen some of the stones for their inclusions and others because they ‘remembered’ their origins in their textures, captured life in their forms and perhaps were somehow closer to the Otherworld.

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There are always faces, shapes hidden in the contours of the rock. It may be just imagination that finds their lines…though we are not altogether convinced that all of them are accidents of nature. Some may have been ‘assisted’ into their shapes, others may indeed have been carved by wind, rain and glacier, but that does not stop us recognising familiar forms… nor would it have stopped those who worked intimately with stone from doing so. I think we both over-simplify and over-complicate things when we look at our ancestors as simply being primitive. First and foremost they were human beings and, within the scope of their own technology of stone, surprisingly sophisticated.

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One of the things we have been experimenting with is sound. Sound has always been part of ritual, from conch shells to drums, cymbals and song. We use the human voice to bring sound and rhythm through the reading of poetry and prose. We had used sound to cense the ritual space for the very first Silent Eye weekend and felt for ourselves its effectiveness within a sacred context. We have used an ancient chant to greet the physical sun as a symbol of the Light and, more recently, we have begun to explore the effect of sound at the ancient sacred sites.

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Crouching within the chamber, Stuart began the deep, resonant chant that seems to resonate with the stone. Except, it didn’t. The sound dissipated, withered and fell flat, no matter how earnest the effort. “I was expecting the chant to have little vibratory effect because the tomb was clearly, in part, wrecked. What I wasn’t expecting was for both the sound and the breath to be sucked from my being, like something or someone was thirsty…” he wrote.anglesey-bryn-holy-island-wales-131

It was unlike anything we have experienced before and took us by surprise. Sound anomalies are being investigated at a number of ancient places and although the majority seem to resonate, some do diminish or distort sound. It could well be the destruction of the second dolmen that was having an effect. Perhaps the chamber needed its twin in order to function. Or perhaps the forlorn feel to the place was the reflection of a broken heart.

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Of Ash and Seed – A room with a view

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Holyhead Mountain rises beyond the cliffs of South Stack. At a mere 722 feet, it is only a small mountain, but then, Holy Island is a very small island of just over fifteen square miles. Yet there would be enough archaeology here to keep us occupied for far more than a single short weekend…without even considering the fabulous sites on the Isle of Anglesey itself.  Had there been time, I would have liked to climb the quartzite mountain to see the ancient hillfort that crowns it, now surmounted by a Roman watchtower. Or visit the ten-feet tall standing stones  of Penrhosfeilw. But time is limited and we had some wonderful sites to see, starting with an entire prehistoric village just yards away from the cliffs. I was hardly going to be complaining!

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Ty Mawr, also known as Cytiau’r Gwyddelod, ‘The Irishmen’s Huts’, is a settlement that dates back a very long time. The name probably only goes back to historical times, around fifteen hundred years ago, when Cadwallon Lawhir finally drove the Irish pirates from the island. But the history of the site is longer than that. There is evidence of farming at the site five and a half thousand years ago. Grains such as wheat, oats and barley have been found, along with food gathered from the sea and charcoal of heather and sedge. About two and a half thousand years ago, the farmers built the settlement we see today. There are around fifty hut circles and rectangular structures built in the local stone. Once they would have worn conical thatched roofs, far more sophisticated that you might at first think, as we had discovered at Castell Henllys in the summer.

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All that remains now are the lower walls, and twenty or so of the structures have been restored and consolidated. The rectangular structures may have been stores or pens for the animals; their purpose is not really known. The hut circles are around 22 feet across with thick walls, built to withstand the weather high on this mountainside above the sea. There are hearths for the fire which would always be burning. Stone recesses and benches are built into the walls and a curious stone basin in one of the huts. More than anything else, this small basin brought home that fact that, once upon a time, these were homes.

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When that thought settles in, you begin to see the place differently. There is an echo of laughter as children play hide and seek in the sunshine, creeping in between the shielding outer walls to hide amongst the dry wood and heather for the fire. There is the hiss of steam as hot stones are dropped in water to heat the steeping herbs. Goats wander, sure-footed on the slopes and grandmother grinds the grain for bread. A forgotten life comes to life in the imagination, casting shadowy ghosts on the sunlit grass.

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Once you see them as homes, the circles begin to make sense and you wander between them, yourself a ghost in another time. You can see how the morning sun would illuminate the huts, shining in through their doorways. Some have long passageways that would keep out the icy blast of winter, others are divided, creating rooms that perhaps offered the beginnings of privacy in a world too often shared.

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Even without knowing the details of their lives, you begin to feel a sense of community and kinship with the people who once lived here. It is a beautiful spot, right at the foot of the sacred hill and protected perhaps, by those who called the hillfort their home. The charcoal that was found with the axes and tools show that there was heather here all those years ago, for both beauty and practicality. If the climate was mild, perhaps they too saw the wildflowers bloom in winter and the brambles offer solstice buds to the sun, promising a future harvest of sweet berries.

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Although it is winter, many flowers are still in bloom. Others are recognisable by their leaves and the variety is remarkable. There is a whole pharmacopeia of herbal remedies growing right on their doorstep. You start to wonder how well they knew the properties of herbs and how they knew which ones were safe and what they were used for… and we have theories to debate as we wander.

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You wonder too about the stones themselves. Some homes have huge focal stones…were they simply convenient boulders or were they somehow significant? You would have to think so to a people surrounded by sacred stones. Was the white, crystalline quartzite special to them? We have seen quartz used in many ancient sites and never, it seems, without reason. There are so many questions to which we will never have a certain answer, but maybe the answers don’t matter as much as the fact that we do question, aligning our own humanity with that of those who lived before; a step, perhaps, towards a greater understanding and acceptance of those with which we share our world today.

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We don’t always get it right, even when we think we have an answer. A stash of Roman coins found in one of the huts led earlier archaeologists to believe this was a Romano-British settlement, especially with the Roman watchtower not far away. It is only with our own increase in knowledge that radiocarbon dating has pushed the date of the settlement further and further back into the past. Knowledge, like experience, alters our perspective, giving us an ever-widening view and the wider the vista of history…and humanity… the more threads we are able to pull together to form the picture in which we can live.

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We gathered to share readings and listen to the first part of the story written to illustrate a human aspect of the fall of the Druids, a story that tanscended the barriers of culture and race. Somehow the spot seemed right for such a thought… a settlement that, over thousands of years, saw peoples come and go, yet all of them shared the bounty and trials of this little patch of land.

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It was with some reluctance that we headed back to the car. I, for one, would have happily whiled the day away exploring. But, we can always go back…and hopefully I won’t have to wait forty years this time before another visit. We were heading towards lunch and a sunlit beach, but first, there were stones to visit…

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