Stone and sea

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“Stone and sea are deep in life

Two unalterable symbols of the world

Permanence at rest

And permanence in motion

Participants in the power that remains”

Stephen R. Donaldson

P1110297I thought about those lines a lot over the past few days. It is the chant of the giants in Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. As we wandered through a landscape of gigantic structures in stone and earth, saw giant figures carved into the hillsides and sat by the ever-moving waves of the shore, it kept coming to mind.

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He’s right, of course, we see them as permanent, yet they too change and shift with time. Those who wrought in stone millennia ago left a mark on the landscape we can still see and touch today, yet how much has been lost? What was there that we no longer see? How much have we pillaged from their constructions to build our own? The stone may remain, but altered, shaped, reduced, perhaps, to dust. And even that, even the stone they used was once other than it became when it was hewn from the earth. Before that it was not even stone, but the possibility of stone, grown in the crucible of a new-born earth and formed into stone, perhaps, by the weight of the sea.

moors 023It is the same with the sea. It appears a constant, moving mass, yet, of course, it isn’t. Water evaporates and condenses, becoming clouds and rain, ice and snow. It falls on the land and runs through the stone, filtered by the living rock, until it again reaches the sea. The cycle never stops, and the permanence itself is but an illusion.

weymouth 032Yet their essence remains whole, throughout the changes wrought by millions of years. What they are does not change, only how they are seen, only how we see them, form them, harness and mould them. Water is water, whatever form it takes. Stone, whether shaped or crushed, does not change its essential nature with its form. So maybe we, too, though we are born, live and die, are also permanent in our essence. Maybe we too are ‘participants in the power that remains’.

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Something there is in beauty

which grows in the soul of the beholder

like a flower:

fragile –

for many are the blights which may waste

the beauty

for the beholder –

and imperishable –

for the beauty may die,

or the world may die,

but the soul in which the flower grows

survives.

– Stephen R. Donaldson

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July 2013

Whitby weekend: First stop, Lythe

Several years ago, Stuart and I braved the bitter, biting winds of January to visit the Church of St Oswald at Lythe. There were, a friend had told us, stones…carved stones that we would want to see…and that trip had been all about the stones as we drove through England, did a Welsh border raid and up into Scotland discovering Albion.  We were frozen, tired and hungry and barely did the church justice, so it was wonderful to know that our first stop on the Whitby workshop would be St Oswald’s.

I knew the way and recognised the church and its parking spot with no problem. In spite of the same backdrop of winter skies, the church looked different; both Stuart and I remembered the tower as simply square…minus the squat little spire that was added a century ago. Which was odd, especially as, looking back at the photos we had taken at the time, they are almost identical to the ones I took that day.

It was, however, considerably warmer so this time we would be able to explore outside the church, as well as within. There has been a church here for at least eleven hundred years, with the original wooden building being replaced by stone eight hundred years ago. The churchyard was once an important burial ground for the invading Vikings, whose adoption of Christianity did not divorce them from their ancestral faith, but added a new layer to an already rich and ancient mythology.

The churchyard no longer holds signs of the Viking burials, but, perched upon its wind-blasted clifftop above the sea, it is still an interesting place to wander. Many of the headstones are carved with anchors and other maritime symbols, acknowledging the role of the sea in the lives and faith of the locals for so many generations. You can understand, when you know those cold and stormy waters, why those who sailed and fished there have always invoked the protection of higher powers, since long before Christianity came to the north.

Beside the porch is a memorial to the men of the parish who served and lost their lives in war. The stone is carved around with the symbols of the instruments of the crucifixion, which seems appropriate, for the suffering of these men and that of their families as they waited for news must have seemed like torture.

Behind the church, looking out across the bay towards the once-great Abbey of Whitby is the ornate Victorian monument to the Buchannan family, who were linked by marriage to the Cholmleys who had built the seventeenth-century house beside the Abbey that now houses a museum. Each face of the memorial bears a scene of the Christ in relief and it is a fabulous testament to the craft of the stonemason who carved it.

But what we had really come to revisit was inside the church and, although I was determined to take notice this time of the church itself, there were the old stones inside…