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.

Whitby Weekend: Night Lights

We had, finally, booked into our hotels and headed back into Whitby to join the rest of the party for dinner. Arriving early, there was time to wander the darkened streets for a while and, eventually, call for a swift half at one of the sixteenth-century inns in the old part of town.

First, though, we had to walk across the swing bridge that divides the Georgian spa town, served by its three chalybeate springs, from the old town, watching as we went, the reflections in the tidal River Esk, looking one way, out to sea and the other towards the upper harbour where the Penny Hedge is planted every year, as penance in perpetuity for the murder of a hermit.

Three hunters chased a wild boar, but it took shelter in a chapel. When the hermit who lived there tried to protect the animal, the hunters killed him. He forgave them before he died, but the penance imposed was that they and their descendants should plant a hedge near the spot that could withstand three tides, cutting the stakes with a penny knife. The ceremony has been carried out every year bar one, when the tide was too high, since 1159.

We crossed the bridge into the old town. I love this corner of Whitby. Almost all my memories see it crowded with the hordes of sunlit holidaymakers that throng the narrow streets all summer long. There are tiny shops selling jet, souvenirs and fossils, the famous ‘Lucky Ducks’ that were always made before your eyes… all housed in a ramshackle jumble of buildings that span the centuries. The goods in the windows may have changed, but the old quarter of Whitby has a timeless air.

I have often wondered how many people stop to look up, above the storefronts and plate glass, at the real history of what was once a tiny village? How many who climb the one hundred and ninety-nine steps up to St Mary’s church realise that the ‘landings’ where they take a break and look out over the bay were made to let pall-bearers rest when carrying coffins up to the cliff-top churchyard, now crumbling into the sea?

We were lucky enough to have much of the old town to ourselves; the chill and early darkness of a December evening had sent many already into the warmth of the pubs. I admit, I loved having the town so empty for once and would have loved to explore, but food and good company awaited… followed by a very long evening, talking and catching up, in the bar of the pub where we were staying. That is one of the joys of these weekend workshops; Whitby, after all, will be there long after I am no more than a memory… but time with friends that you see all too rarely, once lost, does not come again.

Keys to Heaven: Design…

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*

… By Fox!

That is ‘Mister…’ to you.

‘C.J.’ – Charles James…

*

Sue saw the Banner Torches, unlit.

I heard the drums.

We both said in unison, “That’s Fox!”

“What’s Fox?” said Gary.

“You’ll see.”

*

One second earlier and we would have missed them.

Any later and we would not have caught the full half-hour show.

‘Standing Stones’ – ‘Three Magicians’ – ‘The Pentagram’

‘Mrs Widge’ – ‘Stella’ – ‘Ducks’…

to name but a few of the dances.

And observing all, at the head of the Dancing Ground, the Krampus!

So strange, how things turn out…

*

The next morning we found ourselves at the highest point of the area.

The Lion Inn, is the sort of hostelry one could frequent all day, every day,

and would not mind in the slightest getting snowed in to.

*

Coffee’s all round before taking in a trio of standing stones,

one of which, the third may just be a stoop…

And at the second we perform the third round of our ‘ritual’.

Just before the rain sets in.

*

Last of all is the church at Lastingham

and the reputed Crypt of St Cedd.

The possibility of his presence here, too, is ambivalent.

There is something, and we all feel it,

 though precisely what… is difficult to say.

*

In the pulsing crypt we perform our final ‘ritual’.

Wordless…

For we have each been working with

our ‘own’ words all weekend.

*

And the weighty matters at Whitby Abbey all those centuries ago

turned on a ruse involving keepers of the Keys to Heaven.

St Peter or St John, but then,

St John is the keeper, not of heaven,

but of a New Jerusalem.

*

Thought and Memory, can be wordless too,

so, it might be pertinent to ponder

just how those wide ranging ravens

communicate their wisdom to the High One?

He who, never eats and, for nourishment partakes only of wine.

‘By leaving space for Spirit’…

*

As we wave our goodbyes at the wood well.

I cannot help thinking the Wide Wanderer would have approved…

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With thanks to organiser, Steve Tanham.

Keys to Heaven: Sobriety…

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With our third term, ‘sobriety’, we start to rise…

By accepting the control we attempted to impose on the

world in our ‘planning’ and singularly failed to exert upon ourself in ‘gluttony’.

*

Roads of excess can lead to places of wisdom insists the Blake-Man,

and in our countless excesses may we hope that this is so…

*

Sobriety is not abstinence but it does wield discrimination,

when applied not to others, in judgement,

but to ourself, in understanding.

*

Our search for food left little time to shop,

and a small sandwich instead of the better value large

proved an elegant sufficiency.

*

Meeting at the same Cafe as our morning break

proved only that lightning does not strike a place twice.

*

Any lingering excess from the previous night would soon

be burned off by the looming coastal walk:

away, blown, cobwebs, the terms,

introduced by a little mud sliding…

*

From here on in things necessarily become

incredibly precise though, heaven knows,

we had no idea. Does the hand that guides, also design?

*

Our forty minute cliff-top sojourn

somehow became one-hour-and-a-half.

Do not ask for these are mysteries.

We stopped to talk for no more than fifteen minutes en route…

In a gale.

It could not have been longer.

*

Our ‘early tea’ became just a coffee,

and an early night beckoned, then,

we were accosted…

*

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Let go… G. Michael Vasey

Gary continues to share his experiences on the recent weekend workshop in North Yorkshire:

The last time I visited Whitby Abbey I was a boy. I recall little of it. Just that I was bored. Of course, I have been to Whitby many times since, often with my father who had business there. He would leave me for an hour or so to wander and once I recall taking my oil paints to paint the harbor. I was last there just a few years ago with my parents, ex-partner and daughter. I do like Whitby!

I must say that the abbey ruins are fairly impressive but I felt no atmosphere or energies. It seemed a dead ruin to me. A stark reminder of other times. As we pondered aspects of the Abbey in the context of the spiritual prompts of the weekend, my sense was of the skeletal remains of something erected to the glory of man rather than the glory of God. What was left reminded me of what Asteroth has called the ‘horny matter of experience’ – essentially, the structure that we build through life to protect ourselves, shut out the inner and act out our public outer selves. The spiritual activities that took place in the Abbey are no more and, for me anyway, have left no energy ripple in time that I could pick up. In considering this analogy, I was reminded of how we act out roles, how we have our sensitivities dulled by our experience of life, and how we often lose sight of the true spiritual nature of self.

Continue reading at The Magical World of G. Michael Vasey

Chaperone…

*

“The second stone points to Silbury Hill along the line of the midsummer sunrise.”

“Can that be accidental?”

“It seems unlikely.”

*

… “Would there be a symbolic significance for that?”

“One would expect so.”

“Could we offer an explanation?”

“We would be happy to hazard one.”

“Hazard away…”

*

If Silbury is a ‘Harvest Hill’ and many people believe it to be just that,

then, like as not, the ‘harvest’ was ‘seeded’ from here.

*

Avebury, as much as anything else, is a ‘Temple of Agricultural Man’.

*

Agriculture, like stone, was, and still is, a technology.

*

The former, holds its salient points in tact,

the latter has lost its to mystery.

*

Hidden Avebury: Seeking the Unseen

Avebury, Wiltshire

12th – 14th June, 2020

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

Merlin, Beast-Master…

*

… It was night, the horns of the bright moon shone,

the vault of heaven’s lights gleamed…

*

From the top of a lofty mountain,

Merlin regarded the course of the stars…

*

‘Guendoloena has left me in my absence,

and now clings to another man.

When tomorrow’s sun shines, I will go

and take with me the gift I promised her when I left.’

*

So, Merlin went about the woods and groves

and collected a herd of stags and deer,

and he himself sat astride the largest stag…

*

When day dawned he had arrived at the gates

of the place where Guendoloena was to be married.

*

‘Guendoloena! Guendolena! Come!

Your presents are waiting for you!’

*

Guendolena came to the gates and marvelled

at the man riding on a stag at the head of a herd of wild beasts.

Her bridegroom who was watching from a lofty window

looked down, in wonder, and laughed.

*

When Merlin saw the bridgeroom

he wrenched the horns from the stag

 and hurled them at him smashing in his head

and driving the life of him out into the air.

*

With a quick turn of his heels,

Merlin set the stag a flying,

and went on his way back to the wood…

– Adapted from, ‘The Mystic Life’ by R J Stewart

 

 

 

Madding Merlin…

*

*

… After many years had passed under many kings,

Merlin the Briton was held famous in the world…

*

Peredur, King of North Wales

made war on Gwenddoleu of Scotland…

*

The troops were fighting, falling on

both sides in miserable slaughter…

*

Merlin had come to war with Peredur and

so too had Rhydderch, king of the Cumbrians.

*

Three brothers of the prince who had followed him

through all his exploits broke the battle lines.

*

They rushed fiercely through the crowded ranks

and soon fell, killed. Then, did Merlin grieve…

*

‘Could injurious fate be so harmful as to take from me

so many and such great companions, whom recently many

kings and remote kingdoms feared?

O dubious lot of mankind!

O death ever near, which has them in its power

and strikes with its hidden goad

driving out the life from the wretched body!

O glorious youths, who will now stand by my side

in arms, and repel the chieftains who rush to harm me?

Bold young men your audacity has taken your pleasant years from you.

Your broken bodies now roll on the blood strewn ground…’

*

Merlin called his companions from the battle

and bade them bury the brothers in a richly coloured chapel.

There he bewailed the dead men, rubbing dust in his hair,

 tearing and rending his garments…

*

For three days Merlin lamented,

before a new fury seized him,

and he fled, in secret, to the woods.

– adapted from, The Mystic Life by R J Stewart