Full Circle: Fragments of home

 

Penrith is a lovely old market town with narrow alleys and some wonderful old buildings. Sadly, we would not have time to do the place justice over the weekend, but at least we had a glimpse as we walked to our next site, the Parish Church of St Andrew.

The church itself is an interesting one. It appears to be a Georgian edifice, having been largely rebuilt and remodelled in 1720, by Nicholas Hawksmoor, inspired by St Andrew’s in Holborn, London. The elegant interior seems almost out of place in a northern market town, and lacks the homely feel of churches that have retained their character and appearance of antiquity. But the church has stood on this spot since 1133 and, taking a moment to ‘feel beyond form’, you can indeed feel its age and the centuries of prayer its walls have held.

The building is perfectly cross shaped, but, unusually, the ‘crossing’  is at the far end from the altar. You may enter from any of the three short ‘arms’ of the cross, with the nave and altar forming the longest axis. Coming in from the cold between the incongruous pillars that flank the west door, we found two medieval grave slabs and a carved font… one of three in the church of various ages. The font is used in the rite of baptism, which could be seen as one of the keys to the ‘way home’ for those choosing to follow the path of Christianity. This particular font is carved with symbols and we asked Steve to explain the one representing the nature of the Trinity.

On either side of the entrance, stairs lead up into the tower whose height was extended in the fifteenth century. The stairs are flanked by the weathered effigies of a husband and wife in Tudor dress.

On our visit a few weeks earlier, we had found the nave decked with banners bearing the names of the Celtic saints… it seems that the Ionian form of worship still has a place in the heart of the northern church. This time, though, it was discretely decked for Christmas, with each window embrasure holding a small tree, dedicated to various sectors of the community… including a poignantly bare tree for those who cannot celebrate this Christmas.

Leaving everyone to explore, we asked them to think about what the idea of ‘home’ might mean to the congregation here, knowing that the embrasure of the East Window behind the altar holds a heavenly mural, painted in 1844 by local artist Jacob Thompson.

There is plenty to see inside the body of the church, including some beautiful stained glass by such renowned makers as Burlison and Grylls, Clayton and Bell and Hardman and Powell. These are all ‘modern’ windows, with the newest being installed to celebrate the Millennium.

The oldest windows, though, consist of mere fragments of medieval glass, salvaged from the depredations of time, storm and war. Most of the fragments are unidentifiable… just whispers on the wind of time. A few can be recognised… the hand of St Peter holding the Keys of Heaven… the angels of Revelation swinging their censers… a crowned and sceptred king who may well be Richard III.

Set into another modern window embellished with the white roses of the House of York are two fragments once thought to represent Richard and his queen, but they are now thought to be his grandparents. It is curious that Richard, the last Plantagenet king, should feature so much in Penrith, when the theme of the weekend was ‘finding the way home’. Richard was killed in battle at Bosworth Field in 1485 and his body, tied naked to a horse, was taken to Leicester and, eventually, buried at Greyfriars Church. That church was lost after the Dissolution, and Richard’s remains were thought lost too…until a team from Leicester University managed to locate them in 2013. There followed a long, and ultimately unavailing campaign that sought to bring the last monarch of the House of York back ‘home’ to Yorkshire.

There were monuments too to those who had fallen in more recent battles, that their names and deeds might, at least, be carried home, even though their remains are scattered across the battlefields of the world. And a tree in a window for those who have no home at all.

So many concepts of ‘home’ in one small church, so many layers of history; a story two thousand years old had seen nine hundred years of worship in this place. Did the story of this site, though, go back even further? Many old churches are built on far more ancient sites, where once a wooden chapel may have stood unrecorded, chapels which may have been built upon pre-Christian sites. Although there seemed to be no definitive mention of an earlier church here, there were certainly clues in the churchyard… and as the light began to fade, we headed outside to have a look…

Full Circle: Finding the way home?

In spite of the rainbow that had greeted our arrival in Cumbria, the skies looked none too promising as we gathered beneath the shelter of the park gate in Penrith. The chill winds of December had brought showers, but at least, for the first afternoon, there would be a little cover. We could only hope that the following day would bring better weather.  Not that rain would stop us. Since the downpour we had encountered in Scotland, we had accepted that rain was a natural benediction… a blessing and a cleansing beyond the gift of Man and, therefore, a perfect way to start a weekend of spiritual exploration.

We had chosen to begin at Penrith Castle, built between 1399 and 1470, probably on the site of a much earlier Roman encampment, as part of the defences against raiders from Scotland. Once thought to have been first built by William Strickland, who later become Bishop of Carlisle, it is now thought that the most likely builder was Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury. The castle’s main claim to fame, though, is that in 1471, it became a home for Richard, Duke of Gloucester who would go down in history as King Richard III of England, and it was this concept of ‘home’ that was to play such a large part in our weekend.

First off, we would need to think about what the concept of ‘home’ might mean. The obvious answer might be a brick-and mortar-structure, or the people within it. Could a castle be a home? Even in this dilapidated state, we found enough reminders of our own homes; kitchens, hearths and wide windows designed, not for defence, but for comfort.

Like everything that we take for granted, though, there are layers of meaning and, even such a simple idea as ‘home’ might mean a multitude of things, from the land upon which we walk to a more abstract concept of the source of being.  We gathered, in part, to seek our own answers to such questions.

We had chosen the castle not just for its history or its almost alien homeliness, but for another reason too. It is one of those places that ‘jumps out’ at you when you see it for the first time. We were to visit several sites that had that surprising ‘wow’ factor that goes beyond physical appearance alone, a phenomenon we have variously referred to as a ‘psychic shock’, a ‘kick’, and, as one of our Companions put it, a ‘gut-punch’. Almost impossible to describe, it is equally impossible to mistake or ignore when it happens.

The cause? Who knows. Perhaps it has something to do with the placement of these sites on energy lines…and that was something else we would be looking at over the weekend. Telluric currents… earth energies… are real, not speculative energies. Leys and alignments may be argued, as may the purpose and positioning on these lines of so many ancient structures worldwide, but the existence of earth energies is well established. We do not fully understand their nature or potential use, any more than we understand our own ability to shape, direct, augment or sense their presence, but there is sufficient scientific evidence for their existence to leave many questions open to be answered.

Are we sensitive to unseen energies? Why not? Birds navigate across the globe when they migrate… other animals use methods of navigation and communication that seem alien and almost incomprehensible to a species that has long since divorced itself from its animal nature, deeming it too primitive to be explored. We are constantly reading and reacting to unseen signals, from the chemical signatures of moods sensed as smells, to changes in barometric pressure. That we might have a sensitivity to the earth upon which we walk seems feasible. ‘Feeling beyond form’ was another aspect of what we wanted to explore.

We allowed our companions time to explore the castle before gathering beneath the arch of the Red Tower. There are the remains of a White Tower too… and red and white are the colours of the Dragons of Albion, who, in legend, fought beneath Vortigern’s Tower until Merlin stilled their battle…and the dragons have been used to symbolise earth energies since time out of mind.

And then there was the Arthurian connection, for the castle at Penrith, according to some of the old tales, was one of his seats. His ‘round table’  was on our list of sites to visit too, and not far away, at Arthuret, the Merlin had killed his nephew during one of the Three Futile Battles of Britain, sending the mage mad with grief and guilt… In a curious ‘coincidence’, I had just been sent a photograph of the place to which he had supposedly withdrawn during his madness.

We gathered beneath the Red Tower to share and begin to explore the ideas everyone brought to the proverbial table, affirming our intent for the weekend with a simple meditation. It had, we felt, been a good beginning…and our next site was just a short walk away…