Choosing the future

A few months ago, with what now appears to be an uncanny and uncomfortable prescience, we began a workshop in the Derbyshire village of Eyam. The village is one of those pretty places of old stone and cottage gardens… but it is best known for its response to the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665.

The plague arrived in the village from London in a bale of flea-infested cloth and swiftly infected the tailor who had ordered it and his assistant, killing them both. This was at the time of the Great Plague of London… the last time bubonic plague reached epidemic proportions in England and during what is now known as the Second Pandemic. The pandemic had begun in China in 1331, with devastating global effects in the days before modern medicine, killing hundreds of millions over the centuries of its periodic resurgences. The Great Plague of London killed at least a hundred thousand people in the city during the eighteen months between its onset in 1665 to its end around the time of the Great Fire of London in 1666.

The little village of Eyam, knowing the devastation that the disease would wreak should it spread throughout the north, chose to place itself in strict quarantine, cutting itself off from neighbouring villages completely and holding their socially distanced prayers in a field until the disease had run its course, killing a tragic proportion of the villagers.

Their sacrifice… a true sacrifice that was chosen, not imposed… saved uncountable lives at the cost of their own. Mothers buried their children, whole families were wiped out and plaques around the village today commemorate both their lives and their deaths.

We had called the workshop weekend ‘Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond Fear’ and our aim was to show that fear can be both destructive and positive… and can, when faced, lead us to places and experiences of which we may not have thought ourselves capable. The village of Eyam was a perfect place to start.

Today, the village derives much of its income from tourism based upon its role and sacrifice during that dark time. The tragedy has not been allowed to sink into the memory of the land, but is kept raw and alive in all its shocking detail. It is an unsettling place, especially with its chocolate-box appearance contrasting against its history. Almost all of our companions on that weekend felt the deep and long-held pain and darkness that hangs over the village like a sticky pall.

Helen Jones was with us and shared an account of the weekend on her blog. Of her experience at Eyam she wrote:

“As we neared the old church I was finding it difficult to breathe, a weight on my chest. Another member of the group felt the same way – there seemed to be no explanation for it. I was struggling against surging emotion, like being at the centre of a storm, despite the bright sunshine.”

I know from the numerous emails and phone calls that I have received over the past few weeks that many people are feeling much the same way about the current pandemic and its effects on our daily lives. Unlike the villagers of Eyam, we have few choices, save to obey the measures that have been put in place in an attempt to control the spread of a disease we do not yet fully understand, know how to cure or even prevent. Many feel helpless, the continued and profound uncertainty of ‘what next’ is affecting the majority of us. For many, there is fear for themselves, their loved ones, their incomes and security. For some, it is the sense of isolation and the lack of human contact that is hardest to bear, while for others loneliness weighs heavy on their hearts.

There are so many mixed emotions, from gratitude to those who work tirelessly to help those afflicted…and to those, like shop assistants and refuse collectors, whose jobs pass largely unnoticed. There is anger… both from those who disagree with policies and restrictions and from those whose fear makes them react badly to the proximity or actions of other human beings. As the situation changes daily, the messages we are being given can seem to contradict themselves and on the silent streets, the world seems to be holding its breath. Few things seem to be within our control at the moment…and even the experts in whom we repose our trust seem unsure and conflicted about the best way forward.

Last week, I shared a simple meditation that helps to find balance within the turmoil. Does the tragedy of Eyam have anything that might help? Helen wrote:

“Eyam is a place that makes its living from death, the sad history of the place drawing tourism from far and wide. But is it healthy to constantly relive such an episode? Places hold the energy of events that happen there – such as the warmth experienced in a happy home, or the sombre cold at sites of torture and death. Despite all the doubtless peaceful years that Eyam experienced, both before and after the plague, it has allowed itself to be defined by the events of that awful time and, while of course it’s important to remember and honour the deeds of the villagers who sacrificed everything for the sake of the larger community, the relentless focus on that time makes it difficult for the energy surrounding it to dissipate.“

For those families across the world who have lost those they love, grief is inevitable, especially in this heartbreaking time when many cannot even hold a hand, say goodbye or lay their loved ones to rest with dignity and love.

For the rest of us, though, one thing we can do is decide, right now, whether or not, or how, we choose to be defined by events. There will be no ‘quick fix’ to this pandemic, both families and economies will be affected for a long time to come. We can choose to spend the rest of our lives looking back, mourning better days and maintaining the dark aura of hurt and fear, or we can take a positive stance, seeing the possibilities inherent in any challenge that allows us to move forward.

Do we choose to come out on the other side of this tragic time to find a world that feels as oppressive and fearful as the plague village of Eyam, where old tragedy defines life in spite of beauty? Or do we seek the opportunities for hope, positive change and appreciation of all that is dear to us and beautiful in this world? The future is up to us.

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Helen Jones’ account of her weekend with the Silent Eye in Derbyshire can be found here:

Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine

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The Silent Eye’s account of the weekend, along with the history and stories of the places we visited and a little insight into the lessons they might share can be found here:

One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight,

Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen, Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen

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Mimir’s Bubbling Head…

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We seem to have finally lost the Hawks.

The day feels somehow empty.

But for Wen the day is still young and she is keen to introduce me to another chalk figure. This one is much later than the Uffington Dragon and, I have to say, a lot less impressive. The chalk does not even appear particularly white just a sort of dirty grey colour.  It now seems to depict an equal armed cross surmounting an upward pointing triangle but Wen thinks it may have been a phallus and keitis in its earlier days. One thing is for sure it is clearly visible from the road. When we get up onto the top of the hill the sky has darkened with cloud cover and the earlier highs on Hawk Hill are beginning to feel like a hallucinatory lapse in time. Happily there are a couple of burial mounds on the hill which reinforces Wen’s contention about the antiquity of the place if not the figure. It is a nice enough spot, if a tad exposed, and Wen finds a landscape feature which could well be a naval. It seems beyond doubt that the ancients did this type of thing. Seeing bodies in the earth or seeing the earth as a series of sleeping bodies needful of awakening to animation. Two ravens land simultaneously on the top of the barrow which reminds me of Castle Rigg when two ravens did something similar as we approached the entrance stones and that in turn reminds me that Wotan’s birds were ravens known has ‘Memory’ and ‘Mind’… Nine nights he hung there and he sacrificed an eye in order to comprehend occult wisdom… I wonder if it was pecked out by the ravens… or whether that is merely a clever blind for spiritual insight and make a mental note to re-read the story and meditate on it. I wander out to the edge of the hill just past the scouring poles and my heart leaps. On the plain below walking across a field two figures are discernable and just above them quite close to their heads a Red Kite circles, although the figures themselves appear to be totally oblivious of the bird above them.

“It’s not only us they follow,” I point out to Wen with some satisfaction.

“It probably thinks they are us” says Wen as the hawk keens, wheels, turns and heads directly for our position on the hill.  They do appear to have phenomenal hearing as well as their legendary eyesight.

“It cannot know we are here,” I say with total conviction as the hawk labours to climb towards our position.

“It cannot know we are here” I say with less conviction as the hawk showing no inclination to alter its course is now two thirds the way to our position and is still working terribly hard to reach us.

“It cannot know…”

“Wound round the hanging tree…I sacrifice… myself… to myself… and now seek wisdom’s word from the breach in Mimir’s bubbling head,” says Wen as the hawk flies directly above our standing position on the hill-top and then screeches, loudly.

The ravens cackle in unison fly up and off from the barrow and head into the tree cover, their wings moving in lazy unison.

“How do you do that?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

That’s a reference to Yggdrasil, who is an eight-legged horse but also a tree spanning the three worlds and I was just thinking about that very story how do you know all this stuff?”

“I didn’t know I knew it until a moment ago, it just sort of emerged,” Wen smiles apologetically.

“It’s only the same as you and the birds, how do you do that?”

“I don’t do anything, it happens naturally.”

“We must be chosen ones,” says Wen as an icy blast of wind gusts over the hilltop.

“… or frozen ones,” I reply, zipping up my jacket and heading back to the car.

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Quest for a Quest: The Initiate’s Story

Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

17-19 April 2020

A Living Lore Workshop.

Contact us at Rivingtide@gmail.com for more details. Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

In Hack-Pen Hedge…

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Animism
1. Doctrine that the soul is the vital principle of organic development.
2. Attribution of conscious life or spirits to nature or natural phenomena.
3. Belief in the existence of spirits separable from bodies.

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“There’s a large stone in that hedge…”
“Correction, there’s a large head in that hedge.”
“A pity then that hedge derives from edge and not from head.”

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It is a recurring question and one which crops up every time we visit ‘circles’ of stone.
Are the forms which we ‘see’ in them in us or in the stone?
Are they merely subjective projections or do they inhere in the stones themselves?

From experience we know that different people see different things.
From experience also we know that these forms change, constantly.
Among other things they are affected by;
1. Distance.
2. Angle of approach.
3. Atmospheric conditions.

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Would that the flickering blaze of flame
In the moonlight
again illuminate these forms…

The beat of a drum
A flare from the sun
When will they in unity thrum?

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They deal then with perception and perceptions.

If all one sees are silly things
Is one a silly person or merely being silly?

Is it likely that stones would be chosen for their similarity to animals or beings which have never shared their environment?

Do we know for certain which fauna shared their environment?

Context too is important.

If we have an idea of what these sites were for,
then we may be able to find a correlation in the images in the stones.

Or is that simply more projection
and hence an even greater error of interpretation?

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The ‘new circles’ can be instructive.
Apart from the obvious fact that for the most part they are not situated correctly, and thus do not feel ‘right’ or indeed feel ‘wrong’ and do not function at all on an energetic level, the choice of stones also leaves a lot to be desired.
These stones are ‘dead’.
Individually they appear too regular and too square to hold any forms,
not that a square or regular stone could not hold such a form, mind.
Collectively they do not ‘speak’ to each other, or as a whole.

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Whatever else the people responsible for ‘Our Stones Circles’ were or were not, they were certainly artists of an exceptionally high degree of accomplishment, as well as consummate surveyors and engineers.
And that is not to mention, supreme organisers and masters of matter in motion.
These skills were probably not compartmentalised or regarded as separate.

One possible function of this artistry and science could have been in order to facilitate ancestral contact.

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I just wish I’d moved the grasses away from the other side of the stone and taken a peek,

and then gone into the adjacent field and done likewise. Time…

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Hidden Avebury: Seeking the Unseen

Avebury, Wiltshire

12th – 14th June, 2020

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A Living Land Workshop

Almost everyone knows of Avebury, the great stone circle within which a village was built. A World Heritage site and one of the most incredible sacred complexes of prehistory, it is justly famous for its beauty and mystery. The site attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year but while most simply walk in awe amongst the majestic standing stones of the Circle and Avenue, there is far more to discover for those who will walk the paths less travelled.

Join us in June, 2020, as we explore some of the hidden corners of this amazing landscape, ranging beyond the boundaries of the Circle to seek a deeper understanding of what our ancestors hoped to touch by building this earthly temple to the stars.

Based in the landscape around Avebury and beyond, this weekend will entail some relatively easy walking. There will be time during the weekend to explore Avebury and its stones.

The weekend runs from Friday afternoon to early Sunday afternoon, and costs £75 per person. Meals and accommodation are not included in the price and should be booked separately by all attendees. Meals are often taken together at a local pub or café. For those arriving by public transport, we are able to offer a limited number of places in shared vehicles; please let us know if this would be required.

Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

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

Devil in the Detail…

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St Dunstan, so the story goes,

once pulled the devil by the nose,

with red-hot tongs,

which made him roar,

that he was heard three miles or more…

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Another story relates how Dunstan nailed a horseshoe to the Devil’s foot when he was asked to re-shoe the Devil’s cloven hoof.

This caused the Devil great pain, and Dunstan only agreed to remove the shoe and release the Devil after he promised never to enter a place where a horseshoe is over the door.

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Have you ever wondered about the nature of truth and its relation to story-telling,

or about the true nature of time and its ability to foreshadow eternity?

Join us in April as we embark upon the Quest of Quests…

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Quest for a Quest: The Initiate’s Story

Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

17-19 April 2020

A Living Lore Workshop.

Contact us at Rivingtide@gmail.com for more details. Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

Getting engaged…

Some places just seem to have a timeless quality. Almost exactly seven years after our first visit, ‘our blue chapel’ looked the same… still as beautiful and serene as ever. We sat on the rickety bench that is still there, basking in the sunlight of a perfect spring day, in a churchyard decked in flowers and with the obligatory hawks in abundant attendance.

It is not really the same, though… change is the one constant in life. The churchyard was not full of snowdrops on that first visit… there are more graves, more memorials and a different generation of birds watched over us, less elusive and less camera-shy than their forebears.

The biggest change, though, is in us. It is not just that we are seven years older, or that the then-nascent friendship has gone on to produce books and workshops inspired by what we have learned from our adventures in the landscape. There is a connection to the land here that was lacking before… an odd feeling of being welcomed when we revisit old haunts.

It is difficult to describe…and goes deeper than memory or familiarity. I had known this area well for many years and before we began to explore it together, it seemed to have nothing to offer except beauty and history. While I believe that both of those are to be cherished in their own right, the living presence of the land had never caught at my heart in the way that my northern hills have always done.

I had looked at and appreciated the green fields and chocolate-box landscape but I was closed to it; I never reached out to it or allowed it to touch me. I had taken a good many friends out in the area too, to show them how pretty it is here… so it had to be something more than the simple act of sharing the landscape that made the difference and finally made me feel, after twenty years or so, a sense of ‘home’.

The one thing that had really changed was that instead of looking at the landscape, I was engaged in learning from and working with it. Seeing beyond the surface prettiness to the thousands of years of human history and reverence that it has known, learning to see and recognise the regional quirks and differences of the human quest for the sacred that spans the millennia and defies the labels that separate belief systems… or the borders that humankind has imposed. Such engagement makes the relationship with the land, its creatures and its history both intimate and personal.

Perhaps it is simply that paying attention opens doors in the mind. I doubt we have ever been out on a foray in this familiar area without seeing, learning or realising something new… or finding a speculative theory backed by something we have seen any number of times, but never really seen.

On this sortie, we were reconnoitring the upcoming workshop. Places that we know like the backs of our hands. And the well-known sites changed what we had planned quite dramatically… while our little blue chapel managed to reveal a secret, hidden in plain sight, that we have studied and photographed… and yet, its full mystery was not unveiled until we were ready. It is moments like that which make ‘playing out’ in the landscape a constant delight.


Quest for a Quest: The Initiate’s Story

Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

17-19 April 2020

A Living Lore Workshop.

Contact us at Rivingtide@gmail.com for more details. Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

Our Blue Chapel…

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…Wen and I are discussing plans for the morrow over supper.

I for my part am keen to spend as much time in Our Blue Chapel as humanly possible and to that end have come up with a task that can be performed there. We were supposed to have a system of Oracle Cards in place for the launch but since we will not actually be utilising them in the lessons until the second year, work on them has been temporarily put to one side. However, since the weekend’s events I have been itching to try out the new energies for divination and since the year one glyph gives scope for the utilisation of twenty-two personality types all told it makes sense to try to map them onto the Major Arcana of the Tarot…

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…The door swings open.

It is like stepping into a warm bath.

We take another tour, slowly examining the new discoveries and soaking up the atmosphere of the place as we go… noticing yet more depth to the wall paintings, including a depiction of Catherine’s beheading and a couple of stray heads… which do not seem to belong to any personage in particular. Whatever the deeper meaning of the ‘head theme’, it does not seem to have fazed the local populace, they almost seem to be celebrating its existence… It is with some reluctance that we finally set too on our respective missions…

I had not really thought too much about mine beyond the actual idea itself and it suddenly strikes me that this could be a mammoth task and worse, that the two systems might not map onto each other at all…

Undaunted, I start at one of nine… Ego-Resentment or ‘The Queen in winter’ whose negative aspect is… The High Priestess and whose positive aspect is… Strength.

Two of nine…  Ego-Flattery or ‘The Proud Physician’ whose negative aspect is… The Hermit and whose positive aspect is… The Star.

Three of nine… Ego-Vanity or ‘The Famous Dancer’ whose negative aspect is… The Universe and whose positive aspect is… The Hanged-Man.

Four of nine… Ego-Melancholy or ‘The Tragic Actor’ whose negative aspect is… The Devil and whose positive aspect is… The Lovers.

Five of nine… Ego-Stinginess or ‘The Jewel Merchant’ whose negative aspect is… The Blasted Tower and whose positive aspect is… The Chariot.

Six of nine… Ego-Cowardice or ‘The Fugitive’ whose negative aspect is… Judgement and whose positive aspect is… The Sun.

Seven of nine… Ego-Planning or ‘The Chancellor’ whose negative aspect is… The Hierophant and whose positive aspect is… The Emperor.

Eight of nine… Ego-Revenge or ‘The Tyger-Lady’ whose negative aspect is… The Moon and whose positive aspect is… Temperance.

Nine of nine… Ego Indolence or ‘The Exiled King’ whose negative aspect is… The Wheel of Fortune and whose positive aspect is… Justice.

For a reading the above eighteen cards should be shuffled and the top four then placed as a cross around a circle starting at North for the Ascendant, East for the Upper Mid Heaven, South for the Descendant and West for the Lower Mid Heaven.

The indicator cards below should then be shuffled with one of them being placed in the middle of the circle.

The Indicator cards are as follows; The Fool for matters of the Soul, The Magician for matters of the Intellect, The Empress for matters of the heart and Death for worldly matters…

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… “That didn’t take long.”

“I know. It proved to be ridiculously easy.”

I hand Wen the eighteen personality cards to shuffle.

“So, what’s the question?”

“What heals here?”

Wen hands them back to me and I pass her the Indicators…

…And start to lay out the cards:

Ascendant: Negative Ego-Resentment or, ‘The High Priestess’.

Upper Mid-Heaven: Negative Ego-Melancholy or, ‘The Devil’.

Descendant: Positive Ego-Cowardice or, ‘The Sun’.

Lower Mid Heaven: Negative Ego-Stinginess or, ‘The Blasted Tower’.

Wen places a card in the centre of the cross:

Indicator: Matter of the Heart or, ‘The Empress’.

Reading: The Chapel in the Vale of the Sun emotionally heals personality types four, five, and six.

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Quest for a Quest: The Initiate’s Story

Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

17-19 April 2020

A Living Lore Workshop.

Contact us at Rivingtide@gmail.com for more details. Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

A contract with wonder

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The glamorous sky seems an incongruous backdrop for mundane chimneypots and washing lines. Veiled by the pallid grey of low cloud or with a symphony of shades, the sun rises over the fields, painting the morning with impossible colour, every single day. Sometimes I can watch…sometimes I am occupied elsewhere… sometimes there is nothing to see beyond a gradual lightening of the sky, yet every morning, the same miracle unfolds, whether I can see it or not.

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The young rabbit really doesn’t seem to mind our presence, but carries on with the serious business of lunch as we watch. There is no hurry in its movements, no panic…no fear. As if it knows we mean no harm, are no threat, but are simply delighting in the privilege of a shared moment. Rabbits are always around… a common enough resident of the countryside, though they usually scatter at the approach of man.

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It is a perfect spring day. From inside the five hundred year old pub, sheltered from the underlying chill, it looks like midsummer. People sit on the tiny village green enjoying the sun. It is Midsomer though, not midsummer… the Lions at Bledlow, once two adjoining pubs, the Red Lion and the Blue Lion, is well known to fans of Midsomer Murders as the fictional  ‘Queen’s Arms’, while the village church has played the part of ‘Badger’s Drift church’ in the series. I have frequently seen the crews filming around here; the area is beautiful and full of historic hamlets, perfect for creating a magical illusion for the small screen.

We know most of the hamlets… know their churches and village greens, their old crosses and the folklore that meanders through their hedgerows like wild honeysuckle. We have spent a lot of time exploring the region and learning about it, our sense of wonder open wide for the gifts we have found by the wayside. From the unfurling of spring petals to the continuous unfolding of human history that is written in the stones of follies, castles and churches or the burial mounds of the ancients that mark the horizon, we are surrounded by an everyday magic that delights.

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The world is a place of wonder to a child, seen up close and through eyes alight with the joy of discovery. They are aware of every leaf and feather…every experience is new and full of potential. As adults, we tend to lose that capacity for wonder for the most part. The cares that hang heavy on our responsible shoulders can drag our eyes away from the wider vista of possibility to focus so closely on the task in hand that the magic of the world around us escapes our attention.

It doesn’t take much, though, to reanimate the heart of wonder. Just a simple walk in the woods and fields, a moment lying on the grass watching the play of light on a beetle’s wing the iridescence of a starling’s plumage…  or to stand on a hilltop and see the counterpane of fields far below. Getting out into the natural world seems to recharge our ability to see, feel and marvel at the beauties and little miracles around us, but the charge is easily depleted again when we return to the everyday world of work and need. It doesn’t take much, though, to renew the contract with wonder that we are given as children and bring that feeling home with us, keeping the eyes awake to the everyday magic of the world in which we live.

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Quest for a Quest: The Initiate’s Story

Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

17-19 April 2020

There are mysteries just beyond the doorstep, sacred places and hidden stories in every landscape. From the five thousand-year-old track that once crossed the country to the enigma of the secret orders that have hidden their true purposes behind sanctity or debauchery, the landscape of rural Buckinghamshire abounds in unsolved riddles.

Join us as we ask why a medieval church was built upon the site of a prehistoric settlement… Why Sir Francis Dashwood and the Hellfire Club met beneath a sacred hill… and how the landscape beyond your threshold can open the door to adventure.

The weekend will be based around Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, and runs from Friday afternoon to early Sunday afternoon, and costs £75 per person. There will be a moderate amount of walking across field paths.

se2020

Meals and accommodation are not included in the price and should be booked separately by all attendees. Meals are often taken together at a local pub or café. For those arriving by public transport, we are able to offer a limited number of places in shared vehicles; please let us know if this would be required.

Contact us at Rivingtide@gmail.com for more details. Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

Whitby Weekend: Within the Abbey

We did not visit the Church of St Mary, perched on the edge of the cliffs. I have to wonder for how much longer it will stand and was glad to have spent some time there on our previous visit to Whitby… even if it is one of the strangest and most claustrophobic churches I expect to see. With that cliff edge coming ever nearer as the land erodes, it has been suggested that the Whitby headland, along with its archaeology, could fall into the sea by 2030 and there is a lot of history to explore before it disappears.

There was an Iron Age settlement at the site that seems to have been used for metalwork and glassmaking. Before that, archaeologists have found carved stones that may be either boundary markers or ritual stones, dating the human use of the headland back to a thousand years before the birth of Jesus.

However, neither the church nor the headland was on the itinerary for this visit. Instead, we entered the converted seventeenth-century manor house of the Cholmleys, passing through the unusual pebble garden graced by a replica of the Borghese Gladiator.

The manor now houses a small museum, tracing the Abbey’s history back to its founding and beyond. Oddly, there was a greater press of people packed into the shop selling gifts and replicas than we saw at any other time over the weekend and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

The Abbey itself is a beautiful but empty shell. We have visited so many ancient sites and churches over the past few years that I have lost count, but I have never felt a place as empty as this one, as if it had been scoured of all life and sanctity. I loved the place as a child and was especially drawn to the well… I do not remember it feeling so skeletal and lifeless, as if even its ghosts had gone, erased by the sea winds and the passage of many feet. But even as a child it was never the grand ship of stone that attracted me, so much as the older ghost of the first Abbey and beyond.

Although we were following ‘in the footsteps of St Cedd’ for the weekend, examining how to find unity from division, the Abbey is most associated with St Hilda, or Hild. Her name means ‘battle’ yet although she was a strong character, she was a woman of peace, called to be Abbess of the Celtic religious community founded here in AD 657. She was a princess of the Deiran royal line, but took the veil to become the Mother of her community of monks and nuns, sharing a life of faith together.

Nothing now remains of her Abbey, a wooden building, sacked and destroyed by Danish invaders in the ninth century. What stands there now is the ruin of a grand affair, built between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, which fell into disrepair after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the monasteries, and was further damaged when it was shelled by German battlecruisers in 1914.

St Hilda, from St Mary’s Church

We wandered through the Abbey ruins for a while, seeking a spot that would symbolise what we had learned from the sequence of words we had chosen at random the day before. Each of us found a place and explained it in terms of how it might relate to our own lives, both in a general and personal sense.

For all the Abbey had been the venue for the Synod of Whitby that chose to follow the Roman model of Christianity rather than the Celtic version, there are many Celtic-inspired symbols still clinging like apologies to the crumbling masonry. At the time of the Synod, Christianity itself was but a few hundred years old and they were already arguing over exoteric details. I wonder what was lost by focussing on the form, rather than the spirit, of their faith?

Whitby Weekend: Morning memories

Saturday morning dawned bright and clear. Allowing a wonderful view over the fields to the Abbey which would be our destination later that day. The plan was to meet on the top of the west cliff, walk down into, and through, the town, before ascending to the Abbey on the top of the east cliff.

But first, we had to get there and, walking through the town to climb the hill, both Gary and I were reminiscing about childhood visits to Whitby. Gary, who had come over for the weekend from the Czech Republic, recalled painting the Abbey and buying winkles from one of the harbour-side stalls, while I have fond memories of the beachside café that used to let you bring a tray of hot drinks onto the beach. My favourite was Horlicks. No plastic cups back then to litter the beach and add to the pollution of the seas, but proper teapots and crockery. That set Gary off with a craving for Horlicks… it is odd the things you suddenly miss as an ex-pat.

The weather was surprisingly mild for December as we walked beside the harbour. Gulls cried and an incredible number of green-eyed cormorants fished or roosted on the quayside stalls. I remember being taught, as a girl, about how cormorants are used for fishing in some countries, but had never considered the possibility that we might have them here until I saw one on our travels. Since then, I see them so frequently that I can only conclude I wasn’t looking for most of my life.

That is one of the gifts. both of carrying a camera and of turning to a spiritual path that develops awareness; you begin to notice what you are seeing, rather than the mind taking only a fuzzy and general snapshot of what the eye registers. Details that would once have been overlooked, even as they were filed in the archive of memory, begin to make their way into consciousness. The only sadness is that it makes you aware of how long you have walked the earth missing the marvels around you.

Had we not been so close to the meeting time, I would have suggested a wander on the little beach… as much for nostalgia’s sake as anything. I have fond memories of paddling there in hand-knitted sweaters, so full of sea water they reached the knees… but it was better than the summer chill. As it was, we headed instead for the steps up to the monument to Captain James Cook.

I remembered the climb as longer than it was, which it must have been for legs even shorter than they are now, but even so, I was struggling by the time I reached the top. Bits of me were not behaving and, without the painkillers that I can’t take if I’m driving, were to make some parts of the weekend unwise or impossible.

We were the first to arrive and had time to take in the splendid views of the town and harbour from the whalebone arch at the top of the road named Khyber Pass… both reminiscent of less than savoury moments in British history. However, we view the idea of hunting whales today, though, at one time it was seen as an essential industry in which Whitby played a major part. The huge jaw bones of the whales would once be fixed to the prow of a returning whaler to show the families anxiously waiting on shore that there had been no lives lost to the hunt. The arch has stood here since 1853, although this is its third incarnation, as deteriorating bones have been replaced over the years. These fifteen-foot bones came from a bowhead whale, hunted under licence by Alaskan Inuits and were unveiled in 2003.

Painting of the Earl of Pembroke, later HMS Endeavour, leaving Whitby Harbour in 1768

Beside the arch is the eight-pointed directional star with a statue of James Cook at its heart. Cook was a mapmaker and explorer, credited with the first European navigation of the eastern coast of Australia, amongst other ‘discoveries’. The Endeavour, arguably Cook’s most famous ship, was launched from Whitby in 1764. It is odd to think that ancestors of mine, one of whom came from Lythe to marry a Master Rope-maker in Whitby, might have helped make Endeavour’s rigging.

The rest of the party arrived and we once more descended into the town in search of morning coffee. After which, deciding that common sense should prevail, given how I was feeling, I took the car to the Abbey for our next stop, rather than the much-preferred route up the hundred and ninety-nine steps with the others. I felt bad enough about having to do so, without the disappointment, as climbing those steps had always been a treat when I was small. The cliffs you see from the steps have changed a good deal since then, with landslides carrying many of the graves… and their skeletal occupants… from the clifftop churchyard down into the town. But then, there are tales to tell of that churchyard…

It was, famously, an inspiration for Bram Stoker when writing Dracula after he visited the place in 1890. In one scene from the novel, a large, black dog is seen to run up the steps that lead to the churchyard. There is a legend of a Barguest haunting Whitby….and well as the Barguest Coach that can be seen. The tales tell that it appears on the third night after a sailor is buried there who has died on land. It dashes up Green Lane towards the church and Abbey, carrying skeletal passengers and pulled by headless horses, to collect the sailor’s soul, only to plunge over the cliff and drive out to sea.