Rites of Passage: A mother’s grief

High above the village of Eyam, overlooking the hills, valleys and rock edges of Derbyshire, is a walled enclosure. It is a beautiful spot and well worth the walk along the leafy lane for the magnificent views of the landscape. But this is Eyam and these are the Riley Graves… and their weathered stones tell the saddest of stories.

It was the summer of 1666 and exceptionally warm. The bubonic plague was at its height in Eyam, the village that had chosen to quarantine itself rather than risk the spread of disease to the neighbouring town and villages. There were no public gatherings, except in Cucklett Delph on the outskirts of the settlement; people stayed away from each other as much as possible in the hope of escaping infection and the churchyard was no longer used for burials, with each family burying their own dead.

The Hancock family had a small farmstead on the edge of the village at Riley Top, close to the home of the Talbot family. Talbot was a blacksmith and had a smithy close to the road, as well as working the land. Having already survived a year of the plague in the village, perhaps the two families had hope that their isolated position and the fruits of their land might keep them and their children safe.

On the fifth of July, 1666, Briget and Mary, daughters of Richard and Catherine Talbot, fell victim to the plague and their father buried them beside their home. In the days that followed, Richard buried two more of his children, Ann and Robert, and his wife, Catherine, before he too succumbed to infection. Only one child remained, and when he too died, on the thirtieth of July, there were none but the Hancock family to bury him.

That final act of charity was to prove fatal. Just days later, on the third of August, two of the Hancock children, John and Elisabeth, sickened and died.  With her husband already ailing, the grieving  mother buried her children, digging shallow graves with her own hands and dragging their bodies to a spot close to their home, with a towel wrapped around their feet to avoid, as much as possible, the risk of carrying infection back to the rest of her family.

I cannot begin to imagine how that felt for the grieving mother. When someone we love passes over, regardless of our spiritual beliefs, we want to see their bodies treated with care and respect… it is a final act of love. In my mind, I see a woman not only grieving for her lost child, but the horror and despair she must have felt, seeing and feeling the small body bounce and scrape over the earth. Necessity may give us the strength to act in a manner far beyond that of which we would normally be capable, but it does not take away the horror or the pain.

Elizabeth’s son, Oner, died during the night of the sixth of August, followed a few minutes later by his father, John, and, before dawn, young William also died. Once more, Elizabeth faced the appalling task of digging their graves and dragging the bodies of her loved ones across the rough field to bury them.

Only two daughters now remained with Elizabeth. Alice died on the ninth of August and Ann on the tenth. For the last time, Elizabeth dug graves for her children, laying them beneath the earth of home with her own hands, watched, from a neighbouring hilltop by the villages of Stoney Middleton.

It is almost impossible to imagine what she must have felt. The grief for the loss of her husband and, almost certainly, the loss of her home and livelihood on land she could not farm alone. The searing grief that any mother feels when a life begun within her own body, nurtured beneath and within her heart, is extinguished, must have been multiplied not by six, but a thousand times.

When a child is ill or in pain, all a parent wants to do take that pain away. To watch one child suffer, knowing there is nothing you can do to ease that suffering, and no way to prevent them dying a horrible and painful death… to watch their fear and pain as the disease progresses… will  feel like a knife twisting in a parent’s heart. To have to watch as first your friends, then all of your children, and your partner too, fall victim to such a dreadful predator as the plague, is unimaginable.

With no-one to whom she could turn to for comfort, no shoulder upon which she could weep…and the inevitable guilt and dreadful questions that must have plagued her about why she alone had survived, Elizabeth had to find a way to live. Eventually, she left her home to spend the rest of her days with her surviving son, who had been away from the village serving an apprenticeship. It was this son who later erected the memorial stones to his father, brothers and sisters. Around his father’s tomb are carved the words Orate Vigilate Nescitis Horam, which roughly means, ‘watch and pray, you know not the hour’. Upon the top of the tomb, is inscribed:

Remember man

As thou goest by,

As thou art now,

Even once was I;

As I doe now

So must thou lie,

Remember man

That thou must die.

It is a good reminder that the stories we tell and see played out upon the pages of history are our own. It is all too easy to look at events from which we are separated by time, culture or distance as if we were looking at a television screen. We can look and yet maintain our personal space, deflect the emotional impact, almost pretend that those involved are not ‘real’ people. We do not do so deliberately, it is probably a defence mechanism, especially in today’s world, where we are constantly bombarded by so many images of violence and tragedy that, were we to take each one to heart as if it were our own, we would founder beneath the weight of grief and despair.

Sometimes, our protective barriers are torn down and we are as one with the victims of tragedy. How many, for example, who watched the Twin Towers fall, will ever forget or be unmoved?  Even those of us who were half a world away. Sometimes a story touches us and we open ourselves to it. It becomes personal. The separations wrought by time and distance mean nothing as we share, for a moment, the life of another human soul.

Not one of us would wish to face such a nightmare scenario and none can know how we would cope or how we would act in such circumstances. But we can recognise a parent’s love for their children and hope that even while fear might drive us to reaction, love would call up a deeper strength that would allow us to act from the heart.

As we outlined the story of the Riley Graves for our companions, both empathy and sympathy blossomed as Elizabeth’s story touched our hearts. We could stand in her shoes, just for a moment, protected by the passage of time, and feel an echo of her fear, loss and grief. Her home is now gone, its stones long-since removed and absorbed into the walls that criss-cross the landscape. But, although the graves of her family, within their enclosure, still seem an open wound upon the green of the field, for most of us, the overwhelming impression with which we were left was one of love.

Rites of Passage: Light and shade

We walked through the village, watching the changing expressions of visitors as the full horror of the plague story hit home. From the mildly curious to the stark shock of those who aligned themselves with the  story for a moment, it was interesting to observe those who merely skimmed the history from an emotional distance and those for whom empathy made it personal. It is difficult to keep the story at bay if you open yourself to what people experienced, rather than seeing them just as characters on the page of history.

Central to the story of the villagers’ response to the plague in 1665 was the church, even though all services were soon moved to a nearby field to try and prevent the spread of the disease, and it was there that we were heading.

There has been a church in Eyam since before the records of its incumbents began. Its first recorded rector served here in 1250, though its story goes back much further.  In the churchyard stands an intricately carved ‘Celtic’ cross of Mercian design, dating back to the eighth century, preserving that mix of Pagan and Christian symbolism that typifies the style. The top part of the shaft is missing, broken long ago for use in domestic building, and we cannot help wondering what artwork and symbolism was lost.

Within the churchyard is the tomb of Catherine Mompesson, the Rector’s wife, who had stayed in the village when others left, to support her husband and his congregation. Her husband had wanted her to leave when they sent their children to Yorkshire for safety during the early days of the plague, but she had refused to go. Catherine was amongst the last to die during the outbreak, having contracted the disease whilst nursing those infected. You can only imagine how she and her husband must have felt as they faced these decisions. Catherine is buried close to her husband’s church. She was just twenty seven years old.

The current church of St Lawrence is a mainly fourteenth century building, yet traces of its earlier history are easy to find.

In this small church there is a feeling of living history, the continuity is caught and held here somewhere between the ancient burial urn, interred on the moor three and a half thousand years ago and the Saxon font that has seen the baptism of villagers for over a thousand years.

The font stands in St Helen’s chapel and close by a medieval grave slab bearing St Helen’s Cross is set into the wall.

All in all, it is one of those old churches that seems, on the face of it, to have everything we get excited about. It is obviously loved by its parishioners, is well cared-for and, from the children’s corner to the village notices around the church, still very much part of the community today. And yet, there is an oppressive atmosphere, felt by most of us, as if the ghost of sickness still clings to the place, not helped by the story of the plague displayed in the side chapel and the book listing the names of those who died; a place designed for spiritual inspiration given over to the memory of old death.

Wall paintings show the twelve tribes of Israel and a Memento Mori of grinning skeletons. But there are a number of beautiful stained glass windows, one of which commemorates Mompesson and his congregation, with vignettes telling their story, from the outbreak of the plague to the tragedy of Emmot Sydall and Rowland Torre, lovers who lived either side of the quarantine boundary.

Emmot, a young woman in her early twenties, lived in Eyam. Rowland lived in Stoney Middleton, a neighbouring village just a short walk away. They would meet every day, as young lovers do, and when the quarantine was imposed, their meetings continued, though they could only shout to each other from a distance.

John Sydall, Emmot’s father, lived with his family opposite the cottage where the plague had broken out. He and four of his children were amongst the first to die. In the spring of 1666, Emmot failed to come to the rendezvous with Rowland. He returned every day to the appointed spot, until the quarantine ended some months later. At the first opportunity, he walked into Eyam to seek for his love, only to be told that she had fallen ill and died in April. One sad story amongst so many…

The Mompesson window also contains a ring of roses, in reference to the nursery rhyme, long thought to be associated with the story of the plague. In some ways, it is ironic that the beauty and fragrance of roses should be forever joined in the folk record with such a horrific episode in human history. In others, regardless of the historicity of the attribution, it is a good reminder that apparent beauty may hide its thorns and its petals strew a path to despair, and yet, when we face the horror of our darkest fears, our choices may lift us to the Light.

In spite of its beauty, no-one felt like lingering in the church. There were still two more places we wanted to take our companions that afternoon… and, as we walked out into the sunshine, we were acutely aware that the next story we had to share could be harrowing…

Rites of Passage: The weight of history

It was a beautiful day, and our first port of call on the weekend workshop was the picturesque Derbyshire village of Eyam which nestles within the shelter or moorland hills. With its mellow stone, quaint cottages spanning centuries of architecture, a medieval church and the riotous colour of its cottage gardens, it should be the perfect place to spend a pleasant afternoon… but we had other ideas and Eyam is a village with a long history and a story to tell.

On the moors above Eyam are a number of barrows and ruined stone circles, almost lost beneath the heather and bracken, attesting to a living presence in this area since before recorded history. With views across to Higger Tor and Carl Wark, which we had visted on a previous workshop, there is little doubt that these sites were linked to the wider landscape, both mundane and sacred.

The Romans mined lead beneath the spot that grew into a village and many caverns and mines are still being explored by cavers… with names like Merlin Mine and Carlwark Cavern adding to the sense of mystery.

The village of Eyam, though, was founded by the Anglo-Saxons, who called it Aium, which comes from the Old English word for ‘island’. It was to become a prophetic name, as Eyam is best known for its role and reaction to the outbreak of bubonic plague that struck the village in 1665.

Bales of flea-infested cloth are thought to have brought the disease to the village; the tailor, Alexander Hadfield, had ordered materials from plague-ridden London, where, by August of that year, ten thousand people a week were dying of the plague, according to the St Paul’s Broadsheet…which also contained adverts for astrologers, coffins and dubious remedies.

A previous outbreak of bubonic plague during the fourteenth century, known as the Black Death, is estimated to have killed around a hundred million people worldwide. The disease, untreatable in the days before antibiotics, was justly feared and almost all who caught it died a swift and painful death.

Extract from St Paul’s Broadsheet, August 1665

The bale of cloth from London was opened by Hadfield’s assistant, George Viccars, who took ill and quickly died, followed by his stepsons and Hadfield himself. The disease spread rapidly, claiming seventy-eight lives in one month alone. Figures vary widely, but it is certain that between a third and three quarters of the villagers died. To a village of just a few hundred souls, this was a shocking loss.

Not all who came into close contact with the disease contracted it. This may be due to a genetic anomaly, still present in villagers today, that renders them immune to the plague. Helen Jones, who was with us on the weekend, pointed us in the direction of new research that suggests the mutant gene, known as Delta 32, increases the body’s immune system and may yet prove to be effective against AIDS and other virulent diseases.

But back in 1665, such glimmers of hope were few and far between. Measures were taken to try and limit the spread of the plague and it is these measures that have earned the village a place in history. Villagers buried their own dead. All church services and gatherings were moved to a field, Cucklett Delph, so that no-one needed to come into close contact with each other, yet the life of the community could continue, at some level at least.

The village, at the urging of Rev. William Mompesson and his predecessor, the Rev. Thomas Stanley, then placed itself under strict quarantine to contain the infection. The Earl of Devonshire, lord of Chatsworth, along with other local notables, ensured the village was supplied with the necessities of survival. Goods were left at the boundary stones and wells, some of which still survive, and still have the depressions that were filled with vinegar to sterilise coins left in payment.

In the early days of the infection, before the quarantine was self-imposed, many who had the means to do so had left the village. Rev. Mompesson and his wife, Catherine, chose to stay, offering what comfort, succour and guidance they could. Catherine was amongst the last to die during the outbreak and is buried outside the church.

The decisions taken by the villagers saved many neighbouring villages from the horror of the plague but we wanted to explore how they must have felt as they cut themselves off from the outside world and watched their loved ones sicken and die, one after the other, never knowing who would be next.

Even today, with the tourist focus on Eyam’s history, a heavy pall of darkness seems to cling to the village. As is so often the case with human tragedy, the outer appearance masks a deeper pain. Walking the pretty street towards the church, we all felt the weight of sorrow… a kind of psychic uncleanliness that modern interest is helping to perpetuate as so many hearts and minds relive the horror felt by parents who watched their children die a horrible death, couples who imagine the death of a partner and children the loss of their parents.

It does no good to bury your head in the sand when disaster strikes, nor does it help to deny or ignore tragedies of the past… such things are part of who we are and will become. But to dwell upon them, constantly reliving them and reanimating the associated emotions, keeps the past all too present.

Such grief, fear and hopelessness … and yet, somehow, when the plague had struck, the villagers of Eyam had found a way to turn from their own despair and had chosen to serve a greater good, protecting the people of their land from the horror that was to decimate their own village. Perhaps this tragic episode in history had something to teach about how we could transmute our own fears?

 

Rites of Passage: Changes…

On the morning of the workshop, long before our companions were due to arrive, two small figures faced a mass of stone and a fair degree of uncertainty. Having scaled the rocky heights, we were agreed… we would have to change the plan. We could not impose that climb on anyone else; we needed to find another way.

It was not that we didn’t know the landscape; we know it well, but fear can cloud judgement and blur lines that should be clear. So, in our usual fashion, unsuitably shod and… in my case at least… with flowing skirts tucked childlike into waistbands, we had gone out early to check over the ground… and, having done so, descended to seek another site. As always, the land provided.

There are some things you just cannot leave to chance… and double or triple checking the lay of the land is an important part of any workshop.

Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond Fear was never going to be an easy workshop, even without any miscalculations on our part; ‘fear’ is not something many people would want to spend a weekend exploring, at least, not beyond the safe confines of a staged murder mystery or a popcorn-fuelled marathon of horror movies. We prefer more intimate groups, though, where we can spend time with those who attend, sharing ideas. These weekend workshops attract people from many paths and there is always something to learn from each other and discover together.

For this particular workshop, we were going to take the group through a number of landscapes, each with their own story, from one of collective horror to a light-hearted custom whose origins date back beyond living memory.

Our first visit would plunge the group into the shadow of a nightmare scenario, from which threads of light would have to be teased.  Over the next two days, we would walk through prehistoric burial grounds, visit stone circles and approach the core of many human fears.

In the Tarot, the one card guaranteed to get a reaction when it appears is Death. Most packs show a skeleton, often wielding sickle or scythe, reaping life and limb from crowned head to common folk. While it can represent a physical death, in most readings it signifies no more than change… another common fear, especially when that change is unlooked-for and unwelcome.

In an esoteric reading, though, there is another interpretation of the Death card… that of spiritual transformation and increased awareness. From time immemorial, initiation rituals have contained a symbolic ‘death’, bringing the candidate face to face with their own mortality, that they might learn to value the finite nature of physical existence and see beyond it to a greater reality.

There is a case to be made that the apparent death of Lazarus in the biblical tale was an initiatory rite. Even today, the investiture of a knight is made with the touch of a sword and the rites of baptism and initiation alike signify a rebirth into a new life.

But the journey through our darkest fears need not be walked alone. There may be companions on the way with whom we can share experience, or those who have passed that way before to guide us and sometimes, the gift of seeing a wider landscape than our own fears… and a way to make them serve a greater purpose.

As the church bells of Tideswell chimed, we made our way to our first rendezvous….

Preparations…

Derbyshire is beautiful as summer comes to the moors. Every road is bordered with wildflowers… swathes of lacy cow parsley and meadowsweet and drifts of yellow loosestrife make the blue of cranesbill almost luminous. Here and there, deep purple thistles and lavender pools of wild thyme add yet another colour to a palette that begins to light the brown sea of heather that will soon paint the hills.

It was just a shame about the weather. Torrential rain waited until we stopped the car and seemed determined to prevent us getting to work on the September workshop, but somehow, we managed to dodge the deluge. In the clear spaces between showers, we were able to visit several of the sites we will be including in the weekend and decide how best to use them.

The process is a curious one, as we let the land itself suggest how to proceed, learning its stories, history and legends, before fitting them to the ideas we wish to share. This time, we will be looking at how an emotion such as fear, which is usually seen as a negative feeling, can give birth to some of the most selfless and beautiful human actions… and how, in our own lives, we might find a key to turn such darkness into light.

With the stories of the land, both historical and legendary, the ancient places we visited over the weekend opened a window into the human heart and soul, allowing us a small glimpse of the grandeur that waits within the shadows that can touch us all throughout our lives. Join us in Derbyshire this September to learn more…

The Silent Eye hosts a number of events each year, from our annual Weekend Workshop in Derbyshire to our informal ‘Living Land’ and ‘Walk and Talk’ gatherings. All events are open to non-members and Companions of the School and they are a great way to meet like-minded people, explore the ideas we share and spend time with fellow travellers.

The weekends are informal, no previous knowledge or experience is required. We ask only that you bring your own presence and thoughts to the moment…

Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond Fear
Tideswell, Derbyshire,

Friday 13th – Sunday 15th September 2019

We are all afraid of something.

There are the fears of the everyday world, from arachnophobia to a fear of the dark, and the deeper fears of the personality, that play upon the mind and heart. What purpose might such fears serve, beyond protecting us from potentially harmful situations? How have our ancestors addressed such fears across the centuries? Can we learn from the past a way to see beyond our fears to a future lit by serenity and hope?

Join us on Friday the thirteenth of September, 2019, in the ancient landscape of Derbyshire as we explore how to lay our personal gremlins to rest. Based in the landscape around Tideswell, Bakewell and beyond, this weekend will entail some relatively easy walking on moorland paths.

The weekend runs from Friday afternoon to early Sunday afternoon, and costs £50 per person. Meals and accomodation are not included and should be booked separately by all attendees. Meals are often taken together at a convenient pub or cafe.

Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

For further details or to reserve your place: rivingtide@gmail.com


The Keys of Heaven

Whitby, North Yorkshire,

December 6th- 8th, 2019

It is the year AD 664. The coastal town of Whitby and its Abbey, under the control of the abbess who became St Hilda, are the setting for a Christian Synod – a court of doctrine established, on the face of it, to unify how priests cut their religious tonsure and what should be the correct basis of the calculation of Easter.

Trivial things? Perhaps to our distant eyes; but the Synod of 664 had a brutal undertone: its decision would determine a single Christianity for Britain – and would condemn the alternative to a slow but inevitable death.

An outstanding scholar, Bishop Cedd, later St Cedd, had been raised and trained on Lindisfarne, yet his role as ‘facilitator’ could not afford to display bias. Torn in mind, faith and kin, the man who became St Cedd walked a treacherous path within the Synod that was to change everyone’s lives.

It is a story reminiscent of one of Shakespeare’s play, full of character, mystery and treachery; one in which the cleverness of argument came to supplant the lore of the land and the local history of the interwoven Christ.

The weekend runs from Friday afternoon to early Sunday afternoon, and costs £50 per person. Meals and accomodation are not included and should be booked separately by all attendees. meals are often taken together at a convenient pub or cafe.

Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

For further details or to reserve your place: rivingtide@gmail.com


Where Beauty Sleeps

Great Hucklow, Derbyshire, 17-19 April, 2020

The Silent Eye Annual Workshop…

There is a lot more to fairytales than the wide eyed child understands, especially in the older versions. The archetypes we meet in these old stories echo many aspects of the human condition and the journey of the soul.

We are born into a magical world, where our childhood is peopled with wonders. We are given gifts and talents yet our soul is held within the body, like the princess in the castle. As we grow to adulthood the magic fades…or more precisely, our awareness of it fades. Like the princess, we fall asleep, lost to the song of the soul as the ‘curse’ takes hold. Alive but slumbering, waiting…

Join us next April to explore the hidden beauty of fairytales… and awaken the beauty that sleeps within.

Fully catered, residential weekend.

Click below to view inclusive prices and
Download a Booking Form – pdf

For further details or to reserve your place: rivingtide@gmail.com

Weekend workshops – The Silent Eye 2017

The Silent Eye hosts a number of events each year, from our annual Weekend Workshop in Derbyshire to our informal Living Land and Walk and Talk gatherings. This year we will be holding events in England, Scotland and Wales. All events are open to non-members and Companions of the School and they are a great way to meet us, explore the teachings we share and spend time with fellow travellers.

You do not need any previous knowledge or experience. There is no need to be following a particular spiritual path…you are just as likely to be sitting next to a minister as you are to a shaman or a  mystic. There is just an opportunity to share a journey together. You can read what it is like to attend your first workshop here.

Why not come along and join in?

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The Feathered Seerindex1

Weekend of 21-23 April 2017

Great Hucklow, Derbyshire Dales. England.

The annual residential workshop is based around a single story played out over the weekend in the manner of the ancient Mystery Plays. The story illustrates a particular aspect of spirituality in a setting that allows the abstract idea to be played out in a symbolic manner that relates it to everyday life. This year we will share the story of a young Seer of the Old Ones, the ancient people of Albion, following her journey through the troubled times of invasion to a place of peace.


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The Prisoner of Portmeirion?

Weekend of 16-18 June 2017

Close to Portmeirion Village. Wales

Set in and around the very real village of Portmeirion, the place where the Prisoner was filmed,  with the backdrop of wonderful Snowdonia on our doorstep, our pre-solstice adventure in the landscape will take the form of a psychological exploration of what it means to ‘fit in’ with the world–and the price of not doing so. We do not intend this to be deadly serious, but many a powerful revelation can come from a dash of humour.


4-copyMaiden, Mother, Crone: Solstice of the Moon

Inverurie, Scotland

15th-17th September 2017

Guided by Running Elk, we will spend a weekend in the beautiful Don valley, exploring some of the ancient and sacred sites that have woven their mysteries for thousands of years. Unique to the area, with the exception of a few examples in Ireland, the circles of the region are of the “recumbent” type; intended for monitoring the “solstices” of the moon, known as the lunar standstill.


Riddles of the nightrs-193

Bakewell, Derbyshire

1st-3rd December 2017

Discover for yourselves the hidden jewels of the night. As the darkness of the winter solstice enfolds the land, join us for a magical weekend pursuing the treasure of understanding .Will you find the jewel at the heart of the mystery? Will you find the way to go?


Full details of each workshop can be found on our Events Page

Click below to

Download our Informal Events Booking Form – pdf

or to book for The Feathered Seer click here:

The Feathered Seer

For further details or to reserve your place: rivingtide@gmail.com

Of Ash and Seed – Pawns to castle…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Ash and Seed – Candy-floss dawn

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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