Rites of Passage: Lurchers, Stags and a mummified cat

Just over the road from the entrance to Cressbrook Dale is a pub. It is a most unusual pub and we could not pass up the opportunity to take our companions there to end the weekend.

The Three Stags Heads is a seventeenth century longhouse, that seems barely changed since it was first built. From outside, you could drive past and never realise it was there, unless you noticed the sign, three stag skull mounted on the wall. We had driven past for years, until an American friend who knew the area took us there. The door was shut, the place seemed closed… it needed a certain amount of courage to lift the latch and enter what appeared to be someone’s home. We did not expect what we found…

The Three Stags Heads in Wardlow Mires is owned by Geoff Fuller and his wife, Pat. They are artists and Geoff’s beautiful and usable pottery filled the bar, with regulars drinking from his handmade flagons.  The main bar was a tiny room with a couple of rickety tables, a number of benches and three-legged stools and a vast old cast-iron fireplace. There were lurchers on the tables, dogs on the stone-flagged floor, and a mummified cat in a case in the corner… found in the chimney where it had  been placed to ward off evil.

The menu was simple, and seemed to vary depending upon what came in, wrapped in sackcloth. The beer was mostly bottled and the Black Lurcher, the house beer, quite lethal. Mobile phones and modern gadgetry were not allowed. It was a place where time held no meaning and it was easy to step beyond it. Folk musicians were gathering for the regular impromptu session in the other, slightly bigger room…and we felt as if we had stepped into Geoff’s kitchen… or the inn from the Saragossa Manuscript.

Geoff seemed to take a bit of a shine to me and spent most of the time we were there showing me his collection of animal skulls and fossils. The young barman looked on, obviously taking note of the new customers, for when we went back a couple of years later, he greeted us in a way we would come to know and had remembered what we had ordered.

Sadly, Geoff’s health has taken a turn for the worse and old friends have stepped in to run the place and preserve this unique window onto another and timeless world. The changes being made are minor and practical, designed only to help draw customers to keep the old place going and we were glad to take our small party in and share one of our favourite pubs with them.

We settled down one of the small tables and I found myself, oddly, sitting in Geoff’s usual chair, with my carved-headed staff propped up on the wall beside me. The young barman, seated with his friends, noticed the staff and came over to have a look.

“You could have ruled a tribe with that three thousand years ago,” said he. “Or started one…” It was an odd thing to say, given how far back in time we had drifted over the weekend… but then, the Three Stags is that kind of place.

There is a magic in ordinary things… and ordinary places… that is often overlooked in the quest for the wand-waving enchantments made popular by Hollywood. You notice it sometimes, when things don’t quite ‘fit’ the usual framework of ideas… whether it is in a hare bounding across the landscape of a handmade plate or stepping into a room that remembers its history as a living and continuing tradition.

Real magic, though, for want of a better word, begins within and the true work of the seeker, be they beginner or adept, centres on the inner world of the higher self and its place within the pattern of existence. The weekend workshops we organise are designed to lead our companions to a door to those inner worlds, but, like the Three Stags, stepping through that door is a choice…and you never know what you will find once you have crossed the threshold.

Pottery by Geoff Fuller. Image: © The Three Stags’ Heads 2016

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Rites of Passage: Last rites III

We walked on, the mood had changed with the meditation; all of us quietly aware that there was to be something more. The broad, well-trodden path continued to wind its way through the valley, but we took instead the narrow track that climbs towards Peter’s Rock. It is odd, but we have observed so many times that few people look up at the rock as they pass beneath it. The great dome of stone is a looming presence and yet eyes seem to slide off it as if it is not there at all in their reality.

There is a place on the path, marked by a fallen stone, where the atmosphere seems to deepen. Whatever you carry there with you, or whatever you feel from the site, it is at this point that most feel the change.

At the top of the path is a bowl in the land, almost a natural amphitheatre filled with the rubble of crumbling stone. It is here that we paused and, in meditation, placed ourselves within the Web of Light.

Leaving the companions in the care of the Guide to make their personal dedications, the ‘Hermit’ and the ‘Star’ take up their positions on small, rocky ledges overhanging the drop below. Each companion will walk that path alone with the Guide, to face their fears and answer what is asked.

The Hermit stands alone on the peak, one part of his journey accomplished. In his right hand he holds a star-lit Lamp that illuminates his next few steps and shines a light for others to follow. In his left hand he holds a Staff, symbol of both pilgrim and master and of the inner voice that guides. When hearts and hands are raised to the Light, the Light descends to meet them.

Beyond him, on the farthest ledge, is the Star. Poised between two worlds, she is polarity in equilibrium and offers her blessing for the next steps of the journey. To those who ask, wisdom is given.

What passes in such moments as these is not for us to share; only those who were there can choose whether they wish to share their story…or to keep it in their hearts.

As we gathered again at the entrance to the bowl, the mood had changed once again. Each of us had faced something and each overcome something personal. Aware that some fear heights and others have physical problems that would make it unsafe, we had not asked our companions to climb Peter’s Rock, but now we offered them the opportunity, and all who could took it. For some, that was another and very real triumph over fear.

And with that, the official part of the weekend was done. It remained only to descend and to close down the sphere of Light, sending Light and healing out along the lines of the Web.

But we did have one last place that we wanted to share…a very earthy place, perfect for grounding, and, incidentally, one of the strangest places in Derbyshire…

Rites of Passage: Last rites II

We began our walk by once again drawing a sphere of Light around our party. As we walked along Cressbrook Dale, we were careful not to colour any impressions our companions might pick up about the place. We shared a little history and geology, but it was not until we stopped by the mouth of a small cave that we began to speak of its ‘alternative’ history. Even so, it seemed that they were already tasting the atmosphere for themselves and their reactions could be read on their faces, from what looked like disgust through to delight.

The cave is a low, two-pronged shaft at the base of a cliff. It is an uncomfortable crawl to get inside, as years of fallen stones line the passageways that disappear into the darkness; we would not ask them to enter.

Instead, we gathered at the mouth of the cave for a guided journey, a type of meditative visualisation, similar to those we use as part of the Silent Eye’s correspondence course. This one, part of a longer story, was not so much written as glimpsed as we had worked with the landscape here over the years.

Our companions closed their eyes and, as a low chant echoed softly through the cavern, began their journey, following the words in imagination, entering into a time and a place beyond time… what they saw is theirs to keep or to share as they choose. Join us in that journey…

‘…The walls of the tiny cave close about you.

The drums reverberate through the rock.

The fire of sacred herbs is kindled before the narrow opening and smoke fills your lungs.

The flickering shadows dance on the walls and you are lost once more in vision.

The drums slow to a steady beat; your breathing is slower too… your heartbeat echoes the drums, slower… slower… Yet it beats faster than the heart of the land. Feel its rhythm in your bones as life ebbs and flesh melts into the earth.

‘As your body disintegrates… dust to dust, water to water, flame to flame… your soul soars, higher than life, deeper than death, faster than time.

All things are yours for the knowing, nothing is yours for the taking…nor would you if you could.

There is freedom in this.

The wandering mind rests, light as a mayfly, on the world you have known, seeing with new eyes, as parents watch children as they squabble in the dirt.

You sigh; the last breath leaves, and you are still…’

‘The pale gold of dawn touches your face.

You can feel the dew damp grass beneath your nakedness and hear the chanting, soft in the morning, entwined with the song of birds.

They chafe your hands and feet, washing the pale, cold skin. You watch, detached, apart… distant, yet present.

You are aware of curiosity, watching the body whose spark of life has fled, yet which lives still.

They sit you on the hide, one behind, two besides, chanting softly and marking your face with their fingertips, stroking your skin with the black feathers, passing the smoke before your face.

A cup is lifted to your lips the bitter liquid forced into your mouth… you choke…

… as you meet the eyes of the Old One, you swallow, and the world explodes…’

 ‘Smoke hangs in the hollow before the rock, the Place of the Dreaming.

The air is heavy, the fires not for warmth.

All day they have drummed.

All day they have chanted.

All day you have sat, rigid in the smoke that swirls and roils in your vision; great beasts and creatures populate your sight.

Death in life and life in death.

Yet now, once more, they bring you back.

This is the third night.

The last…or the first.

Your eyes are clear, looking up through the pall to the faces of man and beast, god and spirit carved by the Goddess herself in the rock.

Their eyes stare unseeing, seeing all.

As darkness falls the dance of flame gives them life, leering or smiling… the rectus of fear or the faces of desire.

You know not.

You know only what must be done.

A circle of torches spirals around the Place of Dreaming.

They have come.

For a birth…or a death.

There is only that. It is all you have left to give. You will not pass that ring of flame unchanged. You can only climb the pathway. You cannot run from yourself. Not now. Not anymore. You have seen too much. Your mind is clear, your body weak but renewed as you walk the spiral to the base of the rock; naked and nameless still.’

‘They stand away and you are alone. One step… two….

You approach the channel that leads up to the mound atop the pinnacle of rock.

You can see the smoke rising through the chimney… the sacred fire is kindled; smoke white against the dusk.

Fear grips your gut, a hand clenching in your entrails. Each step an aeon, each footfall touches terror.

In silence you battle the warding. You have earned the right to pass.

You climb, naked still, all that you are has been stripped from you… all thought… you simply are…

Up through the narrow crevice, up and right onto the rock… only silent swirling below, ringed with flame.

And then up once more, feet touching the grass of the mound, pushing through terror, wanting to flee. you sit, cross legged to wait. Knowing what is to come…

…Knowing… nothing…

…Fear remains, your only companion, whispering in the night. You see it… know it… taste it on your lips.

The torches are extinguished; the flames cold.

There is only the silence and the fear and the smell of smoke.

Smoke from a sacred flame… herbs and woods known to the few… to the old ones… gate of vision or funeral pyre.

If you fail, they will burn your body, scattering your ashes to the winds.

You will be lost forever.

Nameless.

You will not fail.’

Rites of Passage: Last rites?

On the Sunday morning, the last day of our weekend workshop, we had arranged to meet close to the entrance of Cressbrook Dale, a deep, green cleft in the hills that has a strange and often dark history. Our destination was an orphaned island of rock that stands isolated in the valley that is thought to have slid away from the adjoining hillside. It is called Peter’s Rock and was supposedly so named for its resemblance to the dome of St Peter’s in Rome… though perhaps a Christian overlay was given to an older and forgotten name. Locally, though, it is also known as Gibbet Hill.

In 1815, the same year as the battle of Waterloo, the vicar of Tideswell found his church empty and the congregation missing. They had found something more exciting to do with their morning and had departed, en masse, to witness the gruesome end of Antony Lingard, a convicted murderer, who had killed tollkeeper, Hannah Oliver.

It is said that he had stolen her property to give to a young woman who was carrying his child as some kind of bribe. Hearing what was suspected, she gave him back the goods and eventually testified against him.

The local cobbler, a man named Marsden, had provided the key evidence though, averring that shoes found at Lingard’s home had belonged to the victim. Lingard was hanged following his trial in Derby and his body gibbeted near the scene of his crime. Many accounts say the gibbet was erected on Peter’s Rock, also known as Gibbet Hill, others that it was in Gibbet Field. Lingard’s was not the only gibbeting there… the highwayman, Black Harry had also met the same fate and was hanged in Gibbet Field.

Nick Birds SE Ilkley 2015 uffington avebury cropton Helmsley 112

Lingard was the last man to suffer this final public punishment in Derbyshire, but his bones hung there, rattling in their cage, for eleven years, until the locals complained of the noise they made, rattling in their iron cage.

A few years later, his younger brother, William, was deported for highway robbery committed close to his brother’s remains, and a young girl poisoned her rival in love and was sentenced to death. Shadows seem to gather around this place, even on a sunny day.

Close by, when the turnpike was being built in the mid eighteenth century, two stone coffins were found when a cairn was excavated. Around the coffins were the remains of seventeen other people, buried like the spokes of a wheel. The place has a dark and mysterious history. Even the local pub close by, the Three Stags Heads, still displays the remains of the mummified cat found in the chimneypiece, placed there to ward off evil spirits…

Just beyond Peter’s Rock, the valley changes its name, eventually becoming Ravensdale and leading to Monsal Head and Fin Cop, where an ancient massacre occurred. It was a place of women, set apart and walled from the world. The women whose bodies were found showed no sins of manual labour and it is thought they were priestesses; no men were found to have lived there, though at least one of the murdered women was with child.

The attack was sudden, their bodies thrown unceremoniously into the ditch and the walls toppled upon them. On the slopes below is a ‘fairy castle’ of natural stone and, deep within it, caverns descend into the earth. It is the perfect spot for a sacred college and local legends and folktales appear to confirm the idea.

It is almost inconceivable that, linked as they are by a valley made largely of fluorspar, a stone said to enhance connection to Spirit, and a rise named locally Star Gate, that the two sites should not be connected.

The first time we had climbed up to Peter’s Rock, I had been infected with a quite unreasonable fear. I have little fear of heights and none at all of the rocky high places… yet this place got to me for some strange reason. My own panic infected my companion and, to my shame, while he scaled the rock, I beat a retreat. The second time was worse… and when we took Steve there, I was a wreck.

Quite what I had ‘picked up’ at the site we do not know, though we have our theories based on later visits and research. Whatever it was, it seemed the Rock was warded in some way. Even our recent visit to check the lay of the land had resurrected a ghost of that fear and it was only when we actually began to work with the place that it had dissipated.

There are many fears connected with this site. The gruesome fear of the murderous living… and the fear of the wakeful dead, the superstitions against which locals mummified cats, the historical massacre and strange, radial burial… and not least, the fear engendered by the possibility of a fall from rocky heights. They are all fears of transition, all ask us to look at where we are and where the journey we share might take us.

If a college of ancient priestesses used the Rock, it may have been for an initiatory rite. Every initiation contains a symbolic facing of death… a moment when the initiand must transcend fear so that the fear of annihilation is no longer the baseline against which life is measured.

Fear itself is not the enemy… it is a survival mechanism, designed to keep us safe. It had its place in making us flee the sabre-toothed tiger, but in our more sophisticated world, we have replaced that physical threat to life with more subtle terrors.

How we choose to face our fears and how we choose to transcend them is up to us… and can serve a purpose greater than our own.

Rites of Passage: Off Duty…

We left Tideswell with one eye on the clock and the other on the horizon. The drive to Castleton would take no more than twenty minutes and we had plenty of time before we were due to meet for dinner, but Castleton and its surrounding countryside deserve to be seen and the light was fading fast.

The limestone country of the Peak District in Derbyshire is spectacular. Dry stone walls follow medieval field boundaries, enclosing green meadows, while above them tower the hills, scarred white with old stone that was once a seabed. I took the long way round, driving westwards into the setting sun, because I wanted to drive our companions down Wynatt’s Pass, the narrow, steep sided gorge guarded by pinnacles of rock. We were gifted with a sunset that spilled liquid gold across the horizon before setting the sky on fire.  There are times I wish I had a roof-mounted camera on the car…

As we approached the top of the pass, we pointed out Mam Tor, the Shivering Mountain, so called for its habit of shedding its friable stones. Mam Tor, the Mother Hill, is a hillfort, with traces of the ancient settlement still clinging precariously to its sides.

Below it, Wynatt’s Pass snakes between the hills and there was still light enough to see the valley unfold before us. The Pass is said to be haunted by the ghosts of Alan and Clara, lovers whose family disapproved of their union and who eloped, planning to marry and begin a new life together.  Thieves, seeing their wedding finery, ambushed them in the Pass, stealing their savings and murdering the couple. Their bodies were thrown down a mine shaft and only found a decade later. The thieves, though, did not enjoy their ill-gotten gains for long, as each one of them died in strange and horrible circumstances…

Beneath the Pass are many caverns and mines, from the old lead workings of the Odin Mine to the caverns where the rare Blue John stone is found. Appropriately enough, I had been given a beautiful pendant set with Blue John and peridot as a birthday gift that morning. Wearing it seemed to deepen the connection to this landscape that I love.

On the horizon was Lose Hill, one of a pair of conical hills in the area, steeped in legends of giants and battles. And, on the hillside above the town, the skeletal remains of the Norman Peveril Castle, once one of the most important strongholds in the area, now just a shell of its former glory.

Castleton is one of those place that seems to have everything, from the industrial history of rope-making in the caverns, to prehistoric sites, a medieval church, a ruined castle and a wealth of legends and folklore, from ghostly apparitions to treasure, highwaymen and thieves. It was just a shame there was not enough time to share it properly. We may have to base a future workshop there…

With the church closed, the light fading and the temperatures rapidly dropping, we decided against exploring the town further and headed, instead, for the warmth of Ye Olde Nag’s Head, the seventeenth century coaching inn where we were to meet the others. It was a lovely evening, and a perfect end to my birthday. All that remained was to drive back to Sheffield and fall into bed…  we were going to have a busy morning ahead of us next day….

Rites of Passage: Brief encounter…

The Silent Eye weekends are not just about what is built into the schedule, they are also a chance to spend time with people we have come to know through the events and who have become friends. We are always glad when there is time to spare, as that allows us to take a more leisurely approach, whether that is a long talk over dinner or, if we are lucky, time to visit and share an extra site or two.

On Saturday afternoon, we found ourselves with a couple of hours to spare and a rather curious site not five minutes away from where we were. Rowtor Rocks is a favourite haunt, one we have visited many times, both on our own, with friends and as part of a previous workshop. It is a curious, natural landscape that has been altered by man, from the prehistoric rock carvings to its reshaping by a local clergyman.

Many of the rocks have faces, there are strange ‘blinds’ and false paths leading to sheer drops, caves and a staircase that seems to lead through a narrow cleft to rebirth. It could be a dangerous place for the unwary, with steep cliffs and misleading pathways, but with a little knowledge and care, it is a fascinating place to explore.

We have theories… a good many of them… but the most pertinent to the journey we had been taking that weekend was that, whether seen through the Christian symbolism of the Stations of the cross, or from a more esoteric perspective, the Rocks had been re-designed to provide a perfect initiatory landscape, where the need to face the deepest of human fears is part of the journey. We had looked into the history and possible functions of the site in some depth during our Riddles of the Night workshop and, although we would not have time to share it all with our companions, there would be time enough to give an overview. It was as I was pointing out a skull-like rock with a ‘font’ cut into its crown, that a vacant-eyes woman appeared and approached, wafting a stick ineffectually at the undergrowth. My impression was that she was wearing a floral tea dress, reminiscent of the forties, such as my grandmothers would have worn… and that whoever was supposed to be watching her needed to take far greater care with the steep drops from the rocks. She neither spoke nor acknowledged us, just wafted dolefully and retreated after a few moments.

On the next level up, a man with both the moustache and dress of Clark Gable in Mogambo was also watching us. He looked vaguely angry… and his expression never changed throughout the encounter. I did not hear him speak either and that was odd, as everyone else we passed exchanged smiles or greetings. There was just something odd about them… apart from their dress from half a century ago…

The two gave the impression of being together but did not communicate with each other, at least, not verbally. Taking one of the company into a cave, I missed most of what happened next and will have to leave it for one of the others to fill in the gaps. I came out of the cave in a hurry, having the distinct impression that our other companion was somehow under threat. It made no sense, but that was what I felt. There had been a brief encounter, but the situation had been diffused.

It is difficult to convey the sense of unease, as if something was ‘not quite right’ with the two oddly garbed figures. It was even odder when, after they had disappeared, we compared notes and found that while we could all describe the man, we all recalled the woman as being dressed differently, though the colours we remembered were the same. Even odder when we realised that they had left the area via the steps at the far end of the platform… steps I had warned our companions against climbing as they are slippery and broken… and lead to nowhere beyond what can be seen except a sheer and unclimbable drop…

For no reason we could put into words at that point, the whole encounter had been rather unnerving. Even so, we put it to one side as we showed our friends the series of caverns and played with the acoustics. One of the caves is incredibly dark. I had borrowed a torch to check the safety of the floor before inviting everyone in… it would not do to have broken glass underfoot in the pitch blackness. That too is unnerving…until you turn to look back at the light from whence you came and realise that it is not really dark at all. The shadows are all perception.

Above the caverns, we showed how easily a great boulder can be moved; so perfectly balanced is the rocking stone that it moves with the lightest touch. Further up, we looked at the isolated pillar that is impossible to reach… and the three ‘judgement seats’ carved into the stone, before looking down once more to a prehistoric symbol of light.

It was just a shame there was no more time. We saw only a part of what there is to see… but it was enough. Rowtor is a place of contrasts. Dark and light, man-made and natural, ancient and modern, Christian and pagan, winding paths and sheer drops. In many ways, it was the perfect precursor to what we had planned for the next day. But first, we had planned dinner in Castleton, and if we were lucky, there would be just enough light to show our companions the Shivering Mountain and a little of the spectacular limestone countryside…

Rites of Passage: Going deeper…

We had only a field to cross before we reached or final planned destination of the day. Doll Tor is a secluded little circle, now set within a wooded grove, a little off the beaten track. Following the unofficial addition of stones to the circle in the 90s, by well-meaning but misguided visitors, archaeologists carefully restored the site to its original layout, removing extraneous stones and it now looks much as it would have done when it was first built in the Bronze Age.

Thankfully, the site had been well documented. The circle is around twenty feet in diameter and consists of six standing stones which were once connected by drystone walling, traces of which still remain. The design reminded us of Barbrook II, though here the connecting walls take a back seat and may be missed by those concentrating on the standing stones. As we had seen at Nine Maidens, and on previous trips to Barbrook I, there is a cairn close to the circle, this time, though, instead of being at a small distance away, it is right beside it. Almost connected to it. Given the nature of the finds unearthed here, it could be seen perhaps as a mortuary temple… or perhaps its purpose was to forge a strong connection with the ancestors.

Bateman’s excavations in 1852 uncovered burial urns and cups within the circle. Eighty years later, Heathcote found five more cremations and a number of urns within the stones. In the cairn, he found a central stone cist containing the cremated remains of a woman. Around the edges, four more cremations had been buried, along with a faience bead. For such a small, withdrawn circle, set apart from the main settlement, sites and cairns of Stanton Moor, it was obviously a place of some importance to contain so many burials… almost as if it had been ‘supercharged’ with ancestral presences. It gives the impression of a place set apart for a reason.

Because of its seclusion, Doll Tor is a place still used by those for whom there is still magic in the land. It is one of those places where saying that the ‘veil is thin’ is more an accurate description of the atmosphere than a cliché. Our own experiences at the site had convinced us that the link between the land and its people was still functioning and we hoped our companions would join us in an experiment to reconnect with the ancestral presence.

We feel that this was once a place of seers. It has a distinctly feminine feel and even its form echoes that of a gravid goddess. The trees that shield the circle from view offer their own presence and the grove of wood and stone feels very much alive.

While two of us held the space, we would journey back, following the paths that open on the screen of imagination, and see what might come into the mind. Opening ourselves to the unknown is another threshold of fear, whether in everyday life or in any form of psychic or magical work. The pathways of the mind can lead us to some strange places, not all of them comfortable.

Motionless, with arms outstretched, we stood as our companions walked the inner paths that lead beyond time, space and realities. What they found there is not our story to share, but it is safe to say that for them, too, the circle was still alive and functional.

Such experiences may be dismissed by the sceptical as pure imagination…which is, after all, one of the most powerful forces in our world and the root of all innovation and creativity. For others, it is psychism or vision. When images surface from the deeper levels of the mind, such labels matter little. To those who experience such a moment, what matters is what is felt and learned. And none of us were left unmoved.

Before we left, we shared bread and wine, a symbolic communion of Earth and Spirit, that has its roots in a tradition far older than its current religious association. There is shared purpose at such moments, and a trust that knows no barriers. Then, having performed the closing visualisation, we made our way back towards the road.

A glance at the clock told us that the scheduled day had finished earlier than anticipated. With our table for dinner not booked till eight, we had time to spare…and a very intriguing site just five minutes down the road. The chance for a whistle-stop tour of the site seemed too good an opportunity to miss. It is a strange place, but one we know well. We knew our companions would find it interesting. But we were not expecting the weirdness that would find us there…

Merlin, Beast-Master…

*

… It was night, the horns of the bright moon shone,

the vault of heaven’s lights gleamed…

*

From the top of a lofty mountain,

Merlin regarded the course of the stars…

*

‘Guendoloena has left me in my absence,

and now clings to another man.

When tomorrow’s sun shines, I will go

and take with me the gift I promised her when I left.’

*

So, Merlin went about the woods and groves

and collected a herd of stags and deer,

and he himself sat astride the largest stag…

*

When day dawned he had arrived at the gates

of the place where Guendoloena was to be married.

*

‘Guendoloena! Guendolena! Come!

Your presents are waiting for you!’

*

Guendolena came to the gates and marvelled

at the man riding on a stag at the head of a herd of wild beasts.

Her bridegroom who was watching from a lofty window

looked down, in wonder, and laughed.

*

When Merlin saw the bridgeroom

he wrenched the horns from the stag

 and hurled them at him smashing in his head

and driving the life of him out into the air.

*

With a quick turn of his heels,

Merlin set the stag a flying,

and went on his way back to the wood…

– Adapted from, ‘The Mystic Life’ by R J Stewart

 

 

 

Rites of Passage: War and peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Er… how do I get down?”