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 For such a small, withdrawn circle, set apart from the main settlement, sites and cairns of Stanton Moor, it was obviously a place of some importance to contain so many burials… almost as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…

North-easterly V: Layers

A short walk along the coast from Craster is another of the most iconic sights on the Northumbrian shore…Dunstanburgh. The castle has inspired artists and poets over the centuries; Turner and Girtin both painted the ruins, and so did I, long ago, when I was teaching myself to paint. I had only ever seen the castle from a distance, though… this was the first time I would step within what remains of its walls.

Like the castle at Bamburgh, just nine miles up the coast, Dunstanburgh was built on a much earlier site. Our earliest ancestors had used the rocky outcrop and had built a promontory fort there, ringed with earthworks that were, almost two thousand years later, incorporated into the defences of the thirteenth century castle. It is a curious feeling to see those same ancient earthworks still intact, topped by the ruins of a grandeur a mere seven hundred years old.

The earth itself provides the foundations of the castle that is built on black basalt that juts up from the green earth and a gilded shore. Around the castle are the remains of the meres, the artificial lakes that would have provided fresh water for livestock and additional defences, whilst making the mirrored castle seem twice as impressive. There are fish ponds too, for the raising of freshwater fish, with the water being fed into the meres through a stone channel from a nearby spring. Within the castle is a well, and even besieged there would have been a water supply.

There are legends of tunnels connecting the castle to local farms and towers… stories of unknown men passing to and from the castle in secret through concealed trap doors. While it is possible that these legends are no more than a garbled memory of the water channels, it is no secret that Dunstanburgh was a place of intrigue and plots.

The castle was built between 1313 and 1322 by Thomas, the Earl of Lancaster. Thomas and his cousin, King Edward II had a very poor relationship and, by the time the castle was built, in full view of the royal castle at Bamburgh, Thomas saw himself as a rival for power. Having been involved in the capture and murder of Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall and the king’s favourite in 1312, Thomas was severely out of favour at court, so the castle may have been a safe retreat, away from the king’s armies in the south.

He may also have built the castle as a direct challenge, a taunt or a political statement. It was one of the largest castles in the country and cannot have met with anything but the king’s displeasure. Whatever the reason, the castle never served Thomas’ purpose. He rode to war, but was himself captured and executed after the Battle of Boroughbridge. The stories tell that the executioner was unfit for his job and that battle-seasoned soldiers who witnessed the execution fainted as the headsman struck eleven times before finally ending Thomas’ life. It is, they say, for this reason that his ghost walks the castle, carrying the severed head which bears an expression of utter horror…

 

The castle changed hands many times over the centuries, and even in its ruinous state still played a part on the defence of the north-eastern coastline during World War II. Dunstanburgh is a place of many layers, and as we walked towards it, we began to consider some of our own layers. The analogy of the castle as the ego, built layer upon layer by our own experience and that of those who went before still held true.

We build the shell of the ego from our reactions to all the situations and stimuli we encounter, including those passed down to us from our parents and to them from their parents… the layers go deep. This can be a good thing, as we learn from their experience… and just as we are taught early not to touch what may burn, or eat what will make us ill, we can also learn how to live within the society into which we are born and how best to treat each other. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work in a positive fashion. The accumulated wisdom of generations may also be contaminated by the acquired prejudices and misconceptions of an earlier era… and if we too acquire them, then the problems continue until we stop, look and challenge them for ourselves, stripping back the layers to see a kernel of truth from which we can form our own beliefs and make our own choices.

Steve also introduced the second thread of the weekend’s theme, that of pilgrimage… a sacred journey, deliberately undertaken. Although Dunstanburgh is a castle, not a sacred destination, we do not know for what purpose our earliest ancestors may have used the place. We had seen in Cornwall that the promontory forts may have ritual, rather than defensive roles. But for our purpose, it was symbolically perfect.

The ego is a necessary part of the human experience. It is our haven and shield, the face we present to the world, yet it is not who we are. Beneath the acquired layers, we are something more than our reactions, and the quest of the seeker is to take down the walls we have created around the shining core of being. Not completely… for the ego has its uses. Like this castle, where the natural erosion of time and weathering has reduced the impenetrable structure to beauty and bare bones, the ego dissipates as we grown and learn to know the inner beauty of the light within.

Curiously, another legend associated with Dunstanburgh is that of Sir Guy the Seeker. As night fell and a storm raged, an errant knight sought shelter beneath the ruined towers of the deserted castle. From out of the shadows, a wizard came forward to greet the knight… some say it was Merlin himself… and promised that, if Sir Guy would accompany him, he would be granted a vision of great beauty. The knight followed the wizard, who led him to a secret room. There, sleeping on a single radiant crystal, was the most beautiful woman Sir Guy had ever seen. She was surrounded by an army of sleeping knights, and on either side of her were a sword and a horn.

Sir Guy had, said the wizard, only to make the right choice and the maiden would be wake and be free of her crystal prison. The knight, dazzled by beauty, stretched out his hand and took the horn. Raising it to his lips, he blew a single note… and was plunged into darkness. As he lost consciousness, he heard a voice chastising him, crying shame on him for a coward for choosing the horn when a true knight would have drawn the sword.

Waking next morning, Sir Guy searched the castle for some trace of the maiden or the secret room, but none was to be found. So ardent was his determination to find and free her beauty that he spent his life wandering the castle in search of her, losing his mind and all thought of home. He wanders there still, and on stormy nights, they say you can still hear his desperate cries…

The castle is populated by ghosts. As well as Sir Guy and Earl Thomas, Margaret D’Anjou walks the castles grounds, weeping for those lost in battle. There is another story too, that seemed to fit our theme…that of a child imprisoned in the castle. The quest of the spiritual seeker…the pilgrim… is to release the inner Child from its prison. The story tells that she used the key to the dungeon, where many were tortured and killed, in order to escape. Once beyond the walls, she tossed the key into a field… and to this day that land remains infertile.

And so we wandered the empty space within the castle, passing the ruined chapel and exploring the gatehouse towers. In one, the breeze whipped through the empty windows, creating a vortex that whirled a mass of feathers around me like a snowstorm beneath the blue roof of late summer. From the other we looked out over the landscape and the castle’s tiny harbour to Bamburgh and beyond to the Holy Isle. Where next would our footsteps take us?

Clueless…

The past few days have seen us up to our eyeballs in research, planning and speculation. With the December Living Land workshop less than two weeks away, this was our last chance to get out in the field and check the details… so out into the fields and hills we went.

We were lucky with the weather, in spite of the frost that whitened the world. The chill of mid-November was mitigated by clear skies and a hint of sun on the coppery carpets of beech leaves. The emerald leaves of bluebells, reminding us that spring is just on the other side of winter, cluster thickly around stone and tree.  Wherever we went, a robin seemed to be watching and busy squirrels worked frantically at secreting their winter hoard. And, wherever we ventured, odd and intriguing clues seemed to laugh at our blindness.

Places we have visited many times before suddenly seemed to be revealing secrets. Not that they had ever been hidden. Most of them had been seen, even photographed, before… but we had not seen them to any purpose. The familiar was made new in our eyes and, as we finally considered what we thought we already knew, intriguing lines of exploration wandered across time and history, opening our eyes and minds to possibilities we had never noticed.

There is a curious ‘blindness’, as if some things may not be known until the time is right…or until you are equipped with sufficient knowledge or experience to begin to appreciate the insights they are offering. Their presence is registered, you can call them up on memory, yet their significance is veiled and does not impinge upon conscious thought. What goes on in the subconscious mind, though, is another matter.

All that which has apparently passed unnoticed is filed in a dark corner that might as well be labelled ‘classified’ for all the good it appears to serve. Yet, beneath the surface, everything we see, hear, read or experience is busy ferreting out the connections needed to give it enough relevance to be useful. It may eventually resurface with the flourish of a pantomime fairy, throwing off its dark cloak to reveal the magic it has kept hidden…and leaving you wondering at your own lack of vision.

Whether it is a clue in the landscape that elucidates a mystery, or something that was within you all along that illuminates your vision of yourself, we are all blinkered from time to time. The conscious mind and its hidden counterpart seem to work at different speeds and have a differing view of the world. Then sometimes they work in tandem, needing only a single clue cast into the cup to create an elixir that clears the mist to leave you speechless at what was right there in front of your eyes all along. Knowledge becomes understanding and your world takes on a new depth and dimension. How could you possibly have missed that for so long..? But you did, and you undoubtedly will again… until the moment is right.