Marking the Horizon

Our garden is south-facing, which is lovely when the sun shines, as we benefit from its rays through most of the day.

I’ve begun to write about the history of our ‘gunpowder’ village of Sedgwick in other posts. The old (drained) canal bed that runs through our garden has been a challenge to incorporate into a coherent design, but, a decade on, we seem to have achieved it.

One benefit of the garden’s orientation is that the evening sun sets along a ridge about a mile away. In winter and early spring we have a clear view of this progression, as each day gives it a little more clockwise distance along the horizon line. As the foliage on the far side of the canal grows with the maturing summer, the ridge becomes more difficult to see, but is always there to our right – given that the sun is visible at all…

The approach to midsummer is, for me, the most emotionally powerful time of the year. As a mystically inclined person, I marvel each year at the level of sheer ‘aliveness’ that permeates the summer air, particularly as the sun is setting over that far ridge and filling the Cumbrian world with a last blaze of gold as it sinks between the distant trees.

I take a lot of photographs, as you may know from previous posts. One of the delights of the summer is to poke a long lens towards that sunset and let the blends and reflections create Their own work of art. It doesn’t matter if the photo is not technically good. What matters is to bathe in the beauty of the blazing reds and oranges as they project through the wooden branches of the near and far trees and shrubs.

Beginning in late March, if the day is clear, I will often be found nurturing a final cup of tea on our patio (occasionally, something stronger) and snapping dozens of shots of the moments just before, and just after, the sunset. I throw away most of these, but the odd few are worth keeping… and on a correspondingly dark day in winter, provide some fuel for the soul and a sense of ‘hang on in there’. Cumbria has long, dark and wet winters, which makes the spring and summer all that more precious. Summer, itself, is not guaranteed, though we always have the intense green and the knowledge of summer.

I’ve often tried to express that glorious feeling of the gentle months. It’s not just the obvious warmth, though that is pleasant. There is also a softness to the air, and the sense that it is filled with a kind of creative energy. There is the sense that you are being pulled out of the body and into a state of merged being… I suspect that we all, as children, do this naturally, and that is why kids go crazy with energy and fun when the sun shines.

Really, it’s a state of just being. As a verb it doesn’t need an object: In that golden state, I don’t need to be anything… It’s bigger than that and I will dilute it if I restrict it to a something. That golden feeling of summer captures this. Just to be is the most powerful thing possible. Throughout mystical history, people have sought to express and symbolise this in different ways. The Christian world, for example, names the longest day the Feast of St John. John is viewed as the most mysterious and the most mystical of the Christian fathers, and, for me, the attribution fits well.

This year, Bernie and I have decided to create a permanent marker in the garden to show the alignment with the solstice and the Sun’s final point of zenith on the horizon. One of my sons and his wife bought me, for my birthday last year, an armillary sphere, otherwise known as a spherical astrolabe. This is a model of objects in the sky, based on the the celestial sphere above us, rather than the celestial globe, which is a smooth sphere that maps the constellations.

The armillary sphere consists of a spherical framework of rings, centred on the theoretical Earth or the Sun. It shows lines of longitude and latitude and other important features such as the ecliptic. Our intention is to design a setting for it whereby the arrow can point to the point of farthest progress of the Sun as it crosses the far ridge in its final moment of setting.

This marking of the horizon of the longest day is, of course, an ancient practice. The solstice has been associated with festivals of ‘full-nesss’ for as long as mankind has gazed at the heavens and given thanks for the energy than enables us to have food for our bodies. The harvest comes later. The energy of the Sun is, by then, embedded in what keeps our bodies alive.

We hope our marking of the horizon in this way will provide us a little ‘food for the soul’ as we inch towards the third week in June. This simple act of marking the horizon, will become very special in the weeks to follow.

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism 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.

Full Circle: The final curtain…

On most of our workshop weekends, we offer a ‘greeting of the dawn’ at one of the ancient sites. The winter workshops are perfect for this as the sun rises so much later, but as we are at the mercy of the season, the weather and the time local hotels serve breakfast, these are always optional. Usually we choose a place we would not otherwise get to visit, but this time, really, there was only one place to choose… Castlerigg. The stone circle nestles within a circle of hills and there can be few more spectacular settings for an ancient and sacred site.

Not everyone relishes such an early start, and we had made it clear that this would be a brief visit, just for the dawn… we would be gathering there later to end the official part of the weekend. Nevertheless, almost everyone chose to come and greet the birth of morning.

It was still almost dark when the first of us arrived, getting the circle briefly to ourselves. Others arrived shortly afterwards, both from our own party and fellow travellers. It soon became obvious that although we would be there for the dawn, we would not be able to stay for the sunrise. The mountains of the Lake District that ring the circle would not reveal the sun’s face for some time, as it climbed behind the bulk of Helvellyn.

As we gathered to sing a chant to the sun, marking its still-invisible rising, Steve invited three gentlemen who were obviously of our own mind in these matters to join us. We frequently share these sites with others, but we have yet to meet anyone unsympathetic or disrespectful of what we do… and you can usually tell those who will join with us for a moment. Seeds of possibility are planted when you follow such promptings… and these seeds we would see come to fruition later that day.

After we had greeted the sun, we all headed back to our hotels for breakfast and for most to check out. It was typical that our road led us to a gap in the hills where we did see the sun rise in splendour. It would take another hour in the circle, but at least we were able to stop and experience a moment’s glory.

Later, we gathered once more at Castlerigg. This time, we explored the stones, speaking a little of the five thousand year history of the site, its solar alignments and the curious effect where the shapes of the stones shadow the contours of the hills.

We spoke too of resonance… that curious phenomenon where the vibrations in one object will set off a similar vibration in another. We attempted to demonstrate with tuning forks, but the wind…and our lightweight tuning forks… made it almost impossible to hear the sympathetic vibrations. We had used sound at the sacred sites over the weekend in a very simple form. We have used it at other locations in various forms too and each time felt we were brushing the edges of something. How important was sound  and resonance in these circles where the greater reality was recreated in microcosmic form? It was something to ponder.

The theme of our weekend had been ‘finding the way home’. Could the world of our ancestors be considered ‘home’… that staring point of any journey? What did they see as ‘home’? Were these circles designed, at least in part, to allow our ancestors to access the Otherworld… the realm of the stars or the hollow hills…and were these seen as aspects of the same state of being? These are questions to which each must find their own answers, perhaps, but it may be that in asking such questions, we find something we did not know we had lost.

In the shelter of the tallest stone, there was a final meditation, placing ourselves as points of light within the Web of Light, where the heavens and the earth meet, shaped by the energies of star realm and our physical home, one with Creation. There was a simple sharing of the symbolic elements of life… and then it was time to leave. The wind was bitter now that the sun had risen, and a coach full of tourists had just arrived.

We drove to Keswick in search of warmth and coffee, after which life began to call the party back from wherever we had been, somewhere outside of time for a little while. Some took their leave and went off to explore, others shared lunch and wandered down to the lake.

Steve lives in the area and knows Keswick well. We walked along the edge of the park to where he could show us his favourite view. The rise of the land hid the town as he stood with the hills at his back, while before us, the afternoon sun sparkled on Derwentwater, reminding us how short the winter day would be. Walking back to the cars, we took our leave of each other. Most were returning home, but we still had a place or two left to visit… but that is another story.

(Click the highlighted links in the text for more on Castlerigg and its history and a demonstration of sympathetic resonance on Youtube)

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The Silent Eye runs three informal workshops in the landscape each year as well as a residential workshop every April. If you are interested in coming along, further details can be found on our Events page.

Rivington – The Gardens of Midwinter

rivington pennines 095We had never attempted a Silent Eye pre-solstice workshop before. December in Britain is a challenging time of year to ask a group of spiritually-inclined folks to brave the elements in a pre-solstice ramble in the freezing rain. mud, and, possibly, snow.

But this year we did… We put the idea forward, long in advance, and group of hardy souls turned up for a weekend of companionship to mark the approaching feast of Stephen, the ancient time of the shortest day and longest night, the mirror to the summer solstice–the day of St John, when the poles are reversed.

Our theme was the magic and mystery of what appears to be a very ‘dead’ time of year. From the day of St John, around June 21st each year, the days get shorter. Although still summer, this period, till the winter solstice in December, marks the decline of the light and a ‘victory’ of the growing dark.

What lessons does the darkest point of the year hold?

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The answers can be described by a figure we might relate to the Yin-Yang symbol, where the elements of polarity (in this case black and white) contain within them the seed of the coming cycle. Each part of the symbol, whose shape implies motion or change, is a perfect, if asymmetric, half of the whole. Each seed is both the offspring of what came before and the beginning of the next cycle. Thus, white contains its seeming opposite – black and black contains white. We can imagine an animated Ying-Yang where the seed of (in this case) ‘black within white’ grows to fill the whole of that half figure until it seems to take over the whole. At that very second, when there appears to be no polarity left, the seed of white is born – bringing the half-year of growing light and life into its next cycle, even though the winter is in full force.

In the case of December, the ‘seeds’ of what is to follow are hidden in the wet and cold depths of the earth, saturated and passive; as the only active force – the rotation of the planet – spins the whole into the next half of the dual cycle.

These were the core thoughts for the weekend workshop. We overlaid these with an invitation to our companions to consider the elements of a traditional Christmas – the tree, the child born in a manger, the three wise, men, the shepherds, the mother of Jesus, and the child – born of divinity; and to bring a reading to be used whenever it felt appropriate during the walk.

The landscape of the walk is described later. Our Friday night was spent gaining some cheer from a dinner in a busy pub in Horwich – the closest point to the beautiful moorland village of Rivington, from where we would begin the winter walk the morning after. We finished the Friday evening in good spirits, with a ‘reading in the dark’ in one of our rooms in the nearby hotel, providing a prelude to our re-evaluation of the darkness of winter.

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Saturday dawned, and the weather didn’t look too bad. We left the hotel, dressed in waterproofs and boots, of course, and left one of the cars high on moorland road not too far from where we would finish the morning on the upper level of Rivington’s Terraced Gardens. The gardens are a sweeping set of landscaped levels created by the man who became Viscount Leverhulme, the founder of the Unilever empire. The nearby town of Bolton is my family home. When I was a child, it was a special treat to come and visit this place, which has always held a special magic. We were all very much looking forward to the day, despite the weather forecast.

As a young man and local soap merchant, Leverhulme had courted his future wife on this hillside, and it was to be an area of special interest to him for most of his life. In those days, the only man-made feature of the hill was the stone structure known as the ‘Pike’, perched on the highest point. The Pike looks like a small stone fortress and marks the site of a warning beacon (bonfire signal) used during the English Civil War, when the area around was a stronghold of royalist support. A network of such signal points ranged throughout the high places in the north of England. The Pike is still the scene of much local activity, particularly on Good Friday, when thousands of locals and visitors stream up the hillside in the traditional hill walk.

Leverhulme was an innovative salesman, and soon inherited the original had-cart based business from his father. He is credited with the first ever widespread advertising campaign – something which launched his new company – Lever Brothers, and its brand – ‘Sunlight Soap’ and quickly secured his place in history. As his success and wealth grew, he looked for ways to decrease the costs of soap production and established a ‘model village’ for his workers at the new production facility in what became Port Sunlight on the Wirral. This meant that his shipping costs were not governed by the rates imposed on him by the owners of the Manchester Ship Canal company and he was finally able to have direct access to international waters from the regenerated Port Sunlight docks.

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Despite this, he continued to develop what had now become his country home at Rivington, and, during the economically-critical time of the 1920s, employed most of the stonemasons in nearby Horwich to convert the entire hillside into the series of terraced gardens we seen today. Leverhulme died in 1935. Despite decades of neglect, following the compulsory purchase of the land by Liverpool Corporation for its water rights, the gardens were so well constructed that they retained their basic structure, becoming an overgrown and other-worldly place of mystery for children and adults alike.

Within this mysterious and haunting landscape we were to enact a winter’s journey to mark the Silent Eye’s pre-solstice gathering. Saturday was to be the main day of activity and, since we were not all able to stay at the hotel, the day began with such delights as bacon butties at the Lower Barn, a restored part of the original Leverhulme estate.

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More to follow.