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.

North-easterly VI: Ringing a pele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.