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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The Stone and the Pilgrim (6) final part

“It is what it is…”

I remember the evening Morgana said that to me, many years ago. We were in Glastonbury, doing the first of our year of bi-monthly talks.

The truth of it is profound. The sentiment behind the simple wisdom is how we resist what is…instead of embracing the new ‘world’ that has just revolved into view. The problem is like and dislike, of course, but that reaction is within us and nothing to do with the objective world that constantly reveals itself to the eye that watches from a different place…

It was the end of our weekend; Sunday morning – the last visit, and I wanted it to go well for all the Companions of the trip. Then the phone beeped. The text from Stuart said that half our party, travelling in the same car, were stuck on one of the roads leading to Lindisfarne, unable to overtake a large pack of cyclists who seemed unwilling to let traffic past.

“It is what it is…” I thought. Now what possibilities have just opened up?

We had a coffee, at a cafe that the others couldn’t miss on their way into the village, but, when it was going cold, gave up on Plan B and did some real-time adjustment. The issue with Lindisfarne is the tides… You only have so many hours to complete what you want to do before the sea returns and covers the causeway. There was a lot we wanted to do and only half a party. So, we did what anyone would do on a weekend named ‘Castles of the Mind’ – we went in search of our final one – castle, that is… We left a message with the others to meet up at the castle and set off…

From one perspective, I was dreading the first view of it. The last time I was here, and the time before, it was covered in scaffolding – the result of a complete refurbishment programme to weatherproof the exterior and restore the interior. As a result, once again, I had only been able to look at the workings, criss-crossed in its steel lattice.

But now, in the first of many wonderful surprises that the day was to contain, the castle that came into view as we emerged from the main street was wonderfully renewed…

And I started to smile, then laugh, as we made our way up the winding pathway to the high entrance… ‘Renewed’ – there it was: the key to the day, the gift to the symbolic Pilgrim, renewal at the end of a personal quest. What greater gift could there be?

The restoration work was a £3M project carried out by contractors on behalf of the National Trust. The castle has always been the main focus for visitors, though there are other very good reasons to visit this farthest part of the island. These include the headland itself – with an older and smaller mound nearer to the often wild sea; the lime kilns and the famous but often overlooked garden…

Visitors often assume that the whole history of the island is based on its religious past; but Lindisfarne’s intermediate history went far beyond its ancient holy status – though that religious link to a possibly more ‘vibrant’ and nature-facing Celtic Christianity is what attracts the thousand of pilgrims of all flavours who make their way to its shores. Monks don’t usually build castles – they build churches or monasteries. There was a monastery on Lindisfarne, too, and its ruins survive, today.

The history of Lindisfarne is written into the fabric of the castle, but we were not here to study history; but our own natures… It was therefore important to begin with what was there, now, before peeling back the layers of how it came to be so. In that, too, there was something symbolic to accompany our final footsteps.

The castle, with its restoration work complete, is a rather luxurious place – most unlike the typical castle. Thoughts of the previous day’s closing visit to the spartan Preston Pele Tower were fresh in our minds. There’s a good reason for this feeling of well-being: it was a luxury holiday home for a rich American publisher, Edward Hudson, from 1901 until the mid-1920s, and the restoration project has reinstated this look and feel. To accomplish this dramatic re-design of the building, Hudson used the services of a young architect and designer Edwin Lutyens, whose patron was the famous landscape gardener, Gertrude Jekyll. The latter contributed the planting scheme for the crags and added a small walled garden just North of the castle. Lutyens went on to become one of the most famous architects in British history.

The scheme for the work was to follow Lutyens’ plan to simplify the castle’s older structure by converting its interior into a great ’L’ shape. Rooms, doorways, fires and furniture were added, and a stream of well-heeled Edwardian visitors followed.

Sadly, the furniture is yet to be replaced and we were faced with a curious art installation, filling just about every room with wooden cubed frames, open on one side and – most of them – draped with coloured cloths. A poster explained that, as the furniture was still to be reinstated, the art ‘installation’ was deemed timely.

After much neglect, the castle was given to the National Trust by its third owner in 1944.

None of this is religious… To find the intersection between politics, power and religion, we need to go back to the time of Henry VIII, father of the future Queen Elizabeth I. Henry ‘dissolved’ the monastery of Lindisfarne in 1537. But such locations made useful coastal forts, particularly one so close to the troublesome Scots, and the last bastion of England – Berwick on Tweed. The result was that the island – and particularly the castle – became part of the Tudor military machine.

In 1543, France allied itself with Scotland. In response, King Henry mounted a military response designed to crush all such resistance to his rule. The military expedition was led by Edward Seymour, brother of Jane Seymour, one of Henry’s many wives. Seymour landed on Lindisfarne with ten ships and over 2,000 troops. This army set off from their temporary island base to punish the Scots… The campaign was brutal and achieved its goals. It was the last time that Lindisfarne was to play an important role in English military history, though Elizabeth I did order improvements and fortifications to the building. Coastal guns were deployed up to the 1880s, after which the castle was left to its decay until Edward Hudson found it and decided it would enhance his ‘English’ status…

But what about St Aidan, the man most associated with Lindisfarne – and the famous Lindisfarne illuminated Gospels. They belong to a much earlier time, a time when Celtic Christianity was spreading from Ireland via the Scottish Hebrides.

The man who would be St Aidan was born, on an unknown date, in Ireland. He is known as the apostle of Northumbria – the old name for the Kingdom of what is now Northumberland. Aidan was a monk on the island of Iona, in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland. King Oswald of Northumbria requested that a bishop be appointed to lead the conversion of his kingdom to Christianity (Celtic Christianity at that point) and Aidan was selected.

Aidan chose the island of Lindisfarne because of its proximity to the sea; the only way to travel, speedily, in an age where roads were tracks of rutted mud. Aidan was consecrated as Bishop of Lindisfarne in AD 635.

Aidan established his church and monastery within sight of our first location of the weekend – the royal castle of Bamburgh. Under Aidan’s direction, and that of his successors, particularly St Cuthbert, Lindisfarne flourished as a leading religious centre.

St Aidan died on 31st August 651, after a remarkable lifetime. It is ironic that Celtic (Ionan) Christianity travelled south and met Roman Christianity coming north. The latter was to win out at the Synod of Whitby, in AD 665, fourteen years after Aidan’s death.

Being next to the ocean had its downside, too, and in AD 793, the Vikings sacked the island, and the religious settlement was moved to Durham.

The story of St Aidan is well illustrated in the church of St Margaret, near the centre of Lindisfarne village.

We gathered here after a brief lunch, conscious that the tides were soon to encroach…

There is never enough time to see what Lindisfarne has to offer. Each time I go, I find new aspects to explore. We had to bring the Castles of the Mind weekend to a close. We were already running late and those attending had long journeys home.

Stuart knew of a small island, accessible at low to mid tide, which lay beyond the church. The simple wooden cross at its highest point marked the place of one of the original hermits. We picked our way across the wet beach and clambered up the rocks to see both cross and the view across to Bamburgh, our starting point.

It was perfect…

We conducted our last readings then held a silent meditation to mark the end of the weekend. Then we hugged and said our goodbyes.

Our journey as pilgrims was complete…


Interested in the next Silent Eye weekend?

Full Circle?  – Finding the way home…
Penrith, Cumbria
Friday 7th – Sunday 9th December, 2018


End of Castle of the Mind

©️Stephen Tanham

Other parts of this series:

Part One, Part Two,  Part Three, Part Four, Part Five.


Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

You’ll find friends, poetry, literature and photography there…and some great guest posts on related topics.

The Stone and the Pilgrim (5)

We stumbled upon the Preston Pele Tower, fifteen miles south-west of Bamburgh, back in February, 2018. My wife and I had seen a reference to it on a noticeboard in a cafe some distance to the north. It’s quite hard to find; tucked away down a tiny country lane not far from the A1 – the main road through Northumberland to Edinburgh. We’d never heard of a Pele Tower, either… We got out of the car and stared at it, never having seen anything quite like it. Was it a castle – or the remains of one? The location suggested not. It looked purpose-built, yet somehow incomplete….

Right up to the time the Castles of the Mind group approached the building, I didn’t know what part of the ‘self’ we could use it to describe. I entered the (to me) familiar building and trusted that the answer would reveal itself. Either way, and even at the end of a long day of adventure, the Companions of the trip were not disappointed, and seemed to be having the same ‘look at that!’ experience that we had enjoyed in early February.

The famous architectural historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, described Preston Pele Tower as ‘amongst the most spectacular pieces of medieval masonry in England’. Its stone walls are seven feet thick and carry the same mason’s marks as those of the evocative Warkworth Castle twenty miles south. Sadly, we did not have enough time in our short weekend to visit the latter… another trip methinks!

It was never a castle, but it is incomplete; what you see in the top photo is only a half of what was built, originally. So, imagine that the two vertical towers are reflected back on themselves and you have it as it was created in 1392 (pic above): a four section Pele Tower.

How to pronounce Pele Tower? Probably because of the famous Brazilian footballer, it’s natural to call it a ‘Pel ay’ tower – and some of the locals we spoke to did just that. But Sue, who’s a fluent French speaker, says it’s probably derived from a French word and should be ‘Peel’ – that the final ‘e’ is there to turn the ‘eh’ in the middle to an ‘ee’.

It matters little; but there were a lot of them – nearly eighty, in fact. So they were rather important in this part of the world… The hand drawing from the Tower’s museum shows the location of the fortified dwellings in Northumberland, most of which were towers. The original of this chart was drawn up by Henry V, just prior to his departure for France and the victorious battle of Agincourt.

Many of the fortified towers were constructed during the frequent wars between England and Scotland, which ended with the Act of Union in 1603 – after James I came to the English throne.  In the sixteenth century, while the rest of England enjoyed relative peace, Northumberland – the eastern border county with Scotland – remained on a state of alert due to a scourge called the Border Reivers, and the towers saw a second lifetime as an essential way for the landed gentry to protect their people, servants and livestock.

Reivers were lawless gangs, both sides of the border, who would steal, murder and rape their way across whole swathes of an undefended Northumberland and its disputed border with Southern Scotland.

One of the Preston Tower’s celebrated features is a combined great bell and clock. The bell is approximately four feet in diameter and weighs 500 kg. The mechanism for the bell, which strikes on the hour, is linked to the twin clocks on both sides of the Tower faces. The power is provided by a set of two giant stone weights whose ropes run most of the height of the building.

The clock mechanism on the second floor drives the twin clock faces on the north and south faces of the tower, and is based on the same mechanical design that powers Big Ben in London. The clock was added in the nineteenth century, which shows that the Preston Tower continued to be a place of historical interest for a long time.

AAPele Clock Mech

As part of its function as a museum, Preston Pele Tower contains rooms which are furnished as they would have been at the time of its construction in the 14th century. The recreated interior spaces are sparse, and, to us, feel very basic. Being safe during a time of great insecurity was their central function.

AAPeleBedroom

The basic cooking facilities are shown in the second of the two rooms.

AAPelePot Room on Fire

The staircase is a simple wooden structure that runs all the way to the roof on the east side of the internal wall.

AApeleStaircase alone

Once on the roof, the view of the countryside around is commanding.

AAPele rooftop 1 to sea

Standing on the roof, in the last few minutes of our visit, the key I was looking for came to mind: Hope

The Pele Tower was not a basis for aggression; its purpose was to defend the home and hearth, the family and those who worked for them, including the animals.

An image came to mind: that of the householder standing watch under the stars, scanning the horizon for reivers. The dawn is beginning in the east, but the sky is still filled with the strange darkness of the pre-dawn. He nods his head towards the coming light, then opens the door to descend to the chambers in which his family are sleeping, safe within the thick stone walls.

He pauses by the thin window, a defensive structure so narrow that a man could not pass through it. The shutters have not been drawn on this single light and he stops to consider the pale light, one final time. In that moment, I catch his thoughts in a line of poetry, a gift from the now that places such as these are so good at bestowing…

Through these thin lights, now so forlorn

Will one day stream a different dawn

It will take another hundred years – a time during which the rest of Tudor England will undergo transformation to modernity. But in this liminal zone of Northumberland, the change will be slower, as borders and reivers are set to rights.

But that day will come… and that fervent hope in my ghostly host’s eyes will empower it… And there is something very spiritual about that…

We left the Pele Tower quietly. Others had felt its unique personality. We were all tired, and the dinner booked at a nearby pub was very welcome.

Our mental and emotional preparation was complete. We had been witness to the internal architecture of the self as seen in these vast and very different structures of stone.

The sun would rise on a day dedicated to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne… and its ancient mysteries; the Companion Pilgrims were coming home…

The Preston Pele Tower is a privately-owned museum. It charges a very reasonable £2.00 admission and has car parking and toilets on site.

To be continued.

©️Stephen Tanham

Other parts of this series:

Part One, Part Two,  Part Three, Part Four,


Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

You’ll find friends, poetry, literature and photography there…and some great guest posts on related topics.

Castles of the Mind

Bamburgh Castle smaller

Do we have ‘castles of the mind’?

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

The foundations for such things can begin very early, and be formed of some very primitive fears and, even, strong dislikes. That dark green colour of the man in the long raincoat who collected money and caused mother great distress. The child would see the pain of a caring parent whose finances were stretched to the limit; the deeper truth that it was a door-to-door insurance man, making his Friday call in time to tap into the new pay packet would not be seen until later in life… but the coloured raincoat would be remembered…

We smile at such memories, now, but their effects can linger, unseen, becoming the bedrock of fear and prejudice.

Fear is a topical subject. We live in a world where some of the artificial ‘bogeymen’ have taken flesh, become leaders of what we assumed were states governed by some sort of ‘reasonableness’. When that is blown away, we are left staring at the ragged ruin of the personal safety blanket behind which we have lived most of our lives.

We’d be living a life at the edge if what we did, individually, could repel the kind of boarders that strut their aggression and lack of compassion on the world stage, today. But confronting those fears in our own lives, and holding them up to the light of adult reason and mature feelings is an essential practice for anyone treading a ‘non-fluffy’ mystical path.

Bamburgh beach

To do this alone is very difficult. To do it in a group of trusted friends, new and old, is an empowering thing. In the Silent Eye, we offer this when we can construct an environment that is conducive to trust and empathy, and in which we can share examples of these powerful structures in our personal histories. We are modern mystics, not psychotherapists. Our method is for each of us to work with their own individuality to increase stability and confidence – enough to invite the deeper parts of ourselves to extend their loving reach into our everyday ‘selves’.

The ‘borderlands’ between our carefully-controlled ‘normality’ and the effects of those early experiences are the places where we can widen the paths of light which drive mature and reflective energy into the murky places of unresolved immaturity.

So, we thought, why not run one of our ‘walk and talk’ weekends in a part of the UK associated with borderland of its own?

Northumberland is one of Britain’s most wild and beautiful counties. It shares the Scottish border with Cumbria in the West and extends, on the map, far into what appears to be Scotland. Until Anglo-Saxon times it was an independent kingdom, and later, was the seat of important families whose role was to ‘police’ the borderlands from such castles as Alnwick (home of the Percy family) and Bambrugh.

Northumbria coast smaller

Northumberland’s landscapes vary from rolling hills and river valleys, to wild coastlines and castles – castles which have been used to enforce a borderland between the Scots and the English for hundreds of years. Thankfully, things are more peaceful, now, but the history remains written in the land…

Not everything in this ancient landscape was devoted to warfare. The island of Lindisfarne, which will form an important part of the weekend, is famous as one of the original homes of British Celtic Christianity.

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

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

Come and join us for our September event. Weekend of 14-16 September, 2018, based in the beautiful town of Seahouses on the Northumbrian Coast.

Bamburgh Castle+Text smallerAA

To register your interest, send us an email at rivingtide@gmail.com.


Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find the reality and essence of their existence via low-cost supervised correspondence courses.

His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com

©Stephen Tanham, Silent Eye School of Consciousness.