In January, 2015, when most people were sensibly huddled around a nice, warm hearth, we set off on our first extended holiday together, intending to head north into unknown weather and territory. A least, I headed north… collecting Stuart so we could attend a school meeting. Then, being us, we headed south, and west into Wales, in search of carved stones, a hillfort, a Roman town and a cathedral… all before hitting anything remotely approaching a northbound road…
A perfect spring morning; the sky a clear and sunny blue above the vibrant green of the fields. Catkins dance on the hazel trees and snowdrops blaze purity at their roots. The south of England basks in sunlight as I drive its winding roads. I could have taken the quicker route up the motorway, but I have time and I prefer these gentler ways. The aggression of time-constrained travel does not apply here. Time, for once, is my own to spend as I choose… and I choose to meander.
A distant tree seems in early leaf… until the leaves rise as a huge plume of feathered smoke. Hawks greet me, perched overhead or swooping down as if to peer into the car to gaze at the lunatic within who is leaving this pleasant morning behind and heading for the north, where reports of snow, rain and ice remind me that it is, after all, only January.
The counties go by beneath the wheels; Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire… each with their own distinctive character, it seems. Buzzards replace the kites in the air; Osiris looks down; a hawk perched on a wire looking exactly like the Egyptian painting on the card I had been sent. I am skirting borders… dipping my toes in Warwickshire, Staffordshire… then finally the one that welcomes me to a place that feels like home; Derbyshire.
I was asked, “Where does south become north?” There is no true answer to that of course, as all is relative to where you are in space. In time too, perhaps, where memory and the heart’s longing shapes the world according to the yearning. For me, on this road, the north begins in the market town of Ashbourne which marks the beginning of the hills of home; the first slopes that soon become the moorlands I love. It is here I see the first trace of snow, clinging to the shadows of a cliff face. The only trace of snow I will see too, although the grass wears that dark, watered green that tells of its recent presence.
With every mile the shoulders and forehead relax. I can feel it, as if the miles turn back the clock towards a younger day. It is strange how accustomed we become to everyday stress. We don’t even notice it is there until it is not. I seldom ‘get stressed’ in any visible way… or so I fondly like to tell myself… but as I drive north I am leaving the daily cares behind. They do not go away; they do, however, recede.
Here, I cannot change a thing, whatever happens will happen without me. I let them go. Their insistent voice is silenced, the power that they have is diminished by a distance counted in more than miles… a power that I know, after all, I alone give to these things when I let them close in around me. I recall the words attributed to Shantideva, “Why worry if you can do something about it; and why worry if you cannot do anything about it.”
I don’t think I worry a great deal any more. The acceptance that ‘this too shall pass’ sank in a long time ago and trust in the rightness of the journey took the place of anxiety. What cannot be changed can be lived through and learned from, and for that the responsibility and choice lies squarely within ourselves. Even so, I can feel my muscles soften and relax, proving just how physical stress can be, even when we cease to be aware of its habitual presence.
The silence of the car, a moving shell around me casting a window on a changing world, lends itself to musing and my thoughts continue to chase through the dark, cobwebby corners of realisation. Undiscovered gems hide in the darkness along with those sticky globs of things unidentifiable upon which the probing fingers of the mind alight. Driving is good for the soul.
I turn into a lane signed for ‘Biggin’. There is a church there, I recall, that may be worth a visit if it is open. Parking beneath a tree I throw a shawl around my shoulders… which proves totally inadequate for the icy blast that greets me. Yet at my feet the first daffodils raise their spears defiantly to the winter chill. On the horizon an oddly shaped hill catches my eye and I smile as I raise the camera. The bricks and mortar are a hundred miles and more behind me. It doesn’t matter. I am where I will be for the next ten days… beneath a northern sky… I am home.
Back to the car for the final stretch of the drive to Yorkshire. We were not meeting till five, so I had plenty of time left to explore. It is amazing how elastic time can be. When the days are full of must-do timescales they rush by; we dance to the manic cadence of a necessity that devours our lifespans unnoticed, bracketed between the trilling of the alarm clock and lights out. When we step back and breathe, when we open our eyes and look around in full awareness, the hours seem to open and possibility pours in, expanding time itself.
I, however, was driving through a timeless landscape, passing the ancient stone circle of Arbor Low that has marked a sacred space for my people for over four and a half thousand years. My people… I feel that, somehow. There is a kinship that passes beyond time and which recognises no border. The people who walk this land are my people, no matter where… or when.
On impulse, I turned towards Youlgreave, a village close to Bakewell in the Derbyshire Dales. It had a church yet to be explored. Even from the outside, it seemed of opulent proportions for such a small place. Evidently Youlgreave had been a settlement of some standing in its heyday. It had been listed in the Domesday Book of 1086AD as belonging to Henry de Ferrers, a Norman soldier who had fought with William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Now it is one of those sturdy, comfortable places built of old stone and resilience.
Outside the church, worn stones showed the placement of an ancient cross. I wondered what had happened to this one… their fates have been varied and fragments come to light in strange places. Now the plinth held only an obscure chunk of architecture. Inside the building, however, I was to find treasures carved in alabaster and unlooked-for jewels in glass as I read a history carved in stone. This is one of the reasons I love these old churches… they tell the story of a community and of the lives of its people, great and small.
The church itself dates back to around 1150 AD, though it is thought there was an earlier, Saxon church on the site. The present building was restored with the usual Victorian zeal, but the Norman pillars, Tudor windows and the carved ceiling were preserved. Some of the bosses, hidden deep in the shadows of the ancient wood of trees felled five hundred years ago and more, represent strange beasts and ruff-wearing devils with cloven hooves. Set into the walls are carvings eight hundred years old… and one that looks several centuries older may even have watched the worshippers in that older, Saxon building.
I seldom start at the altar end of a church, so I found the Norman font straight away… a lovely old thing, simply carved from a single block of pink sandstone. It is unusual as it has a stoup for holy water carved from the same block of stone. But it wasn’t until I looked closer that I saw the salamander, a symbol of rebirth and baptism, curling around the base of the font and holding the stoup in its jaws. Eight hundred years ago it had stood in Elton church, now it rests in Youlgreave and still children are baptised with water from the salamander’s teeth.
A twelfth century pilgrim watches from the wall of the nave. A thirteenth century knight holds a heart to his breast, his feet crossed in what was once believed to be a symbol of the crusader or Knight Templar. There are many Templar connections in the area, so here at least it is possible. Opposite the main door, at the end of the north aisle, is a dedication to Charles I ‘King and Martyr’. I wonder how this survived as Charles was beheaded in 1649 with the weight of politics behind the execution. He had been born in Dunfermline Palace… we were going to be heading that way with a little luck and good weather.
Tudor tombs elaborately decorated, grace the walls, but perhaps the two most striking are the alabaster memorials; one in the centre of the chancel and one that forms the reredos of the Lady Chapel.
The first thing that strikes you about the tomb of Thomas Cokayne is the size… a lifelike effigy that is far too small for life-size. Apparently, the gentleman died in 1488, in a fight with Thomas Burdett over a marriage settlement. The small stature of the effigy is because although he was a man with children of his own, he had died before his father. It seems strange to look at such a lifelike face and know his story after so many years. Around his neck is a collar with the symbols of the Sun and the Rose which mark his Yorkist sympathies. On his crest a cockerel, a pun on his family name.
In the Lady Chapel the reredos is a memorial to Robert Gylbert and his wife, Joan. Robert died in 1492, the year Columbus landed in the New World. Robert had evidently led a productive life; the Virgin and Child stand at the centre of the stone, Robert stands on one side with seven sons, Joan on the other with ten daughters.
The windows glowed with the afternoon sun striking through them. Mosaic panels made from fragments of medieval glass, salvaged perhaps from the destruction of Cromwell’s parliamentarian troops, rest between simple geometries that speak of love and glorious Pre-Raphaelite designs from Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris’ workshop.
A village mine disaster is remembered; many were killed by carbon monoxide after an explosion in the Mawstone lead mine in 1932. The roll of honour lists the men and women of the village who lost their lives in the Great Wars. Many of the families represented in the church still live in the area today; some names are known to history through their discoveries and inventions, others are the quiet folk who work the land and serve their community.
There are many great cathedrals in Britain… some of which we were to visit over the next few days. Within them are wondrous works of art and craft and the tombs of those whose names are remembered in the annals of history. But for me, it is here, in the parish churches, where the thread of life can be traced back, far back, to lives not so very different from our own, that I find what speaks to me of my kin. My people.
Deer and Stone
How long does a two and a half hour journey actually take? Well, three and a half if you go the back way and get a clear run. Four if you stop somewhere… Five if you find a good church or two… Yet I still seemed to have an hour or so left before our rendezvous… Granted, I had left in good time, but I had been to work first too. Even so, I dawdled along towards the crossroads above Baslow thinking I had plenty of time to wander over the top there and drink in the hills…
It had been a good run. There had been hawks, kestrels, kites and buzzards… I’d lost count somewhere back in Leicestershire… mostly perched watching, apart from the kites which like to swoop low over the road.
I nearly lost the car as I came round the bend, astonished at what I saw. I had seen deer close to this spot once before… a magical encounter at dawn last August, where I had been blessed to watch a small family in the bracken. But not a whole herd… not mid-afternoon on a January Thursday just outside Sheffield! I couldn’t believe my eyes. And I couldn’t stop either. They probably weren’t deer anyway. More likely a dark coloured flock of sheep. Far more likely.
Up the road… find a place to turn… come back. Yep. Definitely deer! Still nowhere to stop and watch. Find a side road… too narrow to turn or park… gnaw fingernails and turn anyway… bear in mind these are tiny country lanes…
I finally find a farm gate about half a field away, where I can hide behind a wall and just watch. I must have stood there for half an hour watching them play in the stream and graze. I lost count of how many and gave up trying… ‘lots’ of them… somewhere between thirty and fifty… They were just too far for really good pics… and just too many to get them all in!
Time was beginning to get on and the light on the western horizon was already showing the first gold of sunset. Reluctantly, I bade the deer goodbye, grateful to have watched them and met the eyes of their watchers. As happens so often with these gifts it seemed as if they were invisible to everyone else on the road. Cars drove past without a pause… no-one stopped or slowed in all the time I was there, and the main road is a busy one. Perhaps it is a question of attention… maybe people are too busy concentrating on what is in front of them… or perhaps not everyone feels that sense of wonder when the natural world opens and invites you in. I don’t know.
We have seen red kites with sharp talons and wingspans wider than I am high, swooping down right beside an oblivious mother with a toddler small enough to be prey… we have stood gawping at huge birds too big to miss that were, it seems, invisible to everyone around us. I don’t understand it but I won’t question the gift of their presence. I am simply grateful. Such moments carry with them a sense of reverence for the life around us of which we are a part.
It was with that lingering awe that I rejoined the road. I had no desire to face the city roads quite yet, and there was still time before our meeting to take the long road over the moor behind Barbrook. Unable to park where I had intended, I found myself close to a hillfort we have yet to climb. Carl Wark waits for slightly warmer weather; looming over the moorland, an enigma yet to be unravelled. It is an intriguing spot and has begun to call lately… its age and purpose are unclear to archaeologists, though it seems to have been in use by the Iron Age, so it has at least three thousand years of human history to share.
I parked across the valley and watched as the sun began to sink… seeing strange, unearthly rocks against the skyline carved by ice and erosion, we are told, in ages even deeper in the past; listening to the beck chatter in the valley… or perhaps I was hearing whispers of stories yet untold. Finally, I turned the car towards Sheffield and dinner with my friend.
Merry Meetings and Manchester Airport
Friday was a good day. We had a late and leisurely start after a fair amount of talking and a little wine… note the restrained understatement on both those counts… The car was packed and ready to go… we would not be back for some time… but first there was School business to attend to; the directors of the Silent Eye converged on the little village of Great Hucklow and the Queen Anne for a meeting. The seventeenth century pub is a place we know well, as it is here we often meet and here many spend convivial evenings during our residential workshops.
While plans for the workshop were undoubtedly the first priority, two of our number had a belated Christmas gift to offer to the third. Do not think for a minute that those who work within a spiritual school are dry in any sense… certainly not… Four bottles of well-labelled ale spelled out a well-crafted message to their recipient…and thus the meeting began with laughter.
It also began to snow. Quite heavily.
Over lunch we discussed the unfolding story of the workshop … set in the Temple of Isis in ancient Egypt the tale that will unfold is both exciting and deeply symbolic of the journey of the human soul. We talked and listened, laying plans. These months in the run-up to the workshop are intense. Everything has to be written from scratch, thought of, planned and made so that the experience runs seamlessly and effortlessly for all those who attend, leaving plenty of time for relaxing, friendship and laughter. And the odd pint of Stowford’s at the Queen Anne.
Five ritual dramas tell the story, a handful of knowledge sessions that are both informative and fun explain the spiritual principles behind them, two further rituals add a unique touch to the weekend… and no matter how much work we put into it, the weekend only works because of the people who attend. Once again we have companions flying in from the States and from Europe to join us, as well as from across the UK… old friends and new faces… it is going to be fun.
Deciding discretion was the better part of valour we departed sooner than we would have liked. Great Hucklow nestles high in the Derbyshire hills. The landscape is beautiful, but when the snow falls, it can fall thick and fast. The evening would need to see us all in Stockport for the monthly gathering. We descended upon the Ram’s Head in Disley for tea, another seventeenth century inn, but rather grander than the homely warmth of the Queen Anne … Disley being rather closer to our destination and with a better chance of clear roads.
The gathering was as warm and full of friendship as always and the evening went well, though ended in good time as Steve had the long drive back to Cumbria ahead, whilst Stuart and I needed to find a hotel for the night. Between the uncertain health of the car and the even more uncertain weather, we had not booked in advance, so we set off in the general direction of Chester in the snow, with temperatures plummeting. We felt Chester, at least, was attainable, even if Scotland became an impossibility. Steve’s report of the northern roads was not good. It didn’t look promising and we were half expecting to have to return to Sheffield and abandon the trip. If, that is, we could get back across the hills.
The roads were getting dodgy so we checked into the first place we found… right under the landing path for Manchester airport. What little snow had fallen there had frozen and the paths were treacherous… all we could do was wait and see what the morning would bring…
Day 3: Breakfast in Chester
What with the late night snow and ice it was with a sense of relief that I drew the curtains on a dark and dingy morning. Not too bad, I thought, all things considered. The ice on the car would need a serious scraping, but on the other hand the roads were clear for the first real day of our adventure.
We were heading for Chester, an old haunt of my companion and a place I hadn’t visited in decades. In fact, I had only ever really seen the Roman amphitheatre, so I was looking forward to visiting the town and the main reason we were going there… the medieval Cathedral.
Although we don’t really ‘do’ the cathedrals as a rule, they are so closely woven with the stories we write and the history of our land that we do have to visit them occasionally… and there are so many legends and tales about Chester and its founders that we would have had no excuse. Then too, my companion knew it well and it was a pleasure to start our journey in a place of which he had fond memories.
We arrived in Chester before the place had woken. The streets were almost empty as we followed the river to a gate in the city walls. A sliver of moon still hung in the sky as we climbed up onto the ancient walkway. The walls of Chester have encircled the city, in some form or another for almost two thousand years. The defences were first built by the Roman invaders to protect their legionary fortress and town of Deva Victrix as they called the place, then maintained and improved throughout history.
It is always an odd feeling to step back so tangibly in time. Outside the walls you feel the ordinary life of a waking town. There are still Georgian and Tudor buildings rubbing shoulders with the glass and steel of modernism on both sides of the curtain of stone, but inside it is different.
The sense of being within an enclosure seems to resonate with some primal understanding of security, perhaps; time seems to slow, centuries blend into one another and the ghosts of Roman soldiers and medieval monks make way for the ethereal forms of Regency dandies and Victorian ladies. History animates the images imprinted in the stone.
We walked the walls for a while, looking out across the chimneypots towards the snow covered mountains of Wales, before heading through the narrow, cobbled streets towards the town centre and breakfast. Every period of architecture seems represented here. Many buildings carry a date… 1571, 1508… and while their shop windows may speak to the modern consumer, their very fabric breathes the quiet passing of centuries.
The four main streets are lined with the medieval Rows… covered walkways above street level now house shops with several floors above and crypts and undercrofts below. The Rows are truly unique, nothing else exists quite like them anywhere in the world. They date back to the thirteenth century, though the original buildings are now broken by more recent constructions. Today they are preserved and protected.
We walked down to the old market cross in the centre of the town. From here many of the buildings are Victorian restorations in the Jacobean half-timbered style that harmonises well with the original character of the place. You can tell the older places though; the weathered stone and higgledy-piggledy warping of the wood mark them out from the crisper lines of the later works.
High on a wall a carved crest carries an ancient motto associated with the royal houses of Britain as well as with the legends of Albion… the Green Knight and the Round Table. Above one of the gates in the walls an ornate clock commemorates the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. Roman pillars stand in the town centre opposite a bronze baby elephant… Everywhere you look are traces of the distant past, hand in hand with the evolving life of a modern city.
The camera was working overtime… far too many pictures to post! I would regret that later in the day, after the cathedral and the hillfort… I can’t recall the last time the battery didn’t make it through the day! But the day had brightened, the skies had cleared to blue and it promised to be a glorious day. And it was still early… the cathedral wasn’t even open yet… and we still needed breakfast.
We should have known, of course, right from the first. It was there, written in flowers and earth… but although we saw, we didn’t see. How could we? Such signs and portents seldom become clear until after the fact and it is easy to read much into little. Even so… we really should have known, given what we were writing about.
The sun was cresting the constructed horizon of the town as we walked to the Roman wall to take a first look at the Cathedral, its rays gilding the warmth of the red sandstone and setting a fire in the damp blackness of the trees. From here we could see into the grounds where a Celtic Cross… a solar cross… was laid out in the garden.
The cathedral was still closed, so we had gone in search of breakfast though I could, undoubtedly, have simply stayed there documenting the menagerie of strange creatures carved in the stonework. Even then I didn’t realise what was to come… or just how many photographs I would have to take… and not even scratch the surface of the artistry and history within.
Legends say that the site has always been sacred. Long ago, so the tales tell, a Druid Grove stood upon this site. Then a Roman Temple to Apollo, followed by a Roman Basilica dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, possibly when Christianity became the official religion of Rome in the fourth century.
Our interest, however, really begins in the seventh century with the church that was founded in 660AD by King Wilfhere, about the time when King Penda, the last pagan king ruled the kingdom of Mercia. We have written of this era throughout the Doomsday series and the legends associated with the place have been entwined with our research and stories.
In its time the Cathedral has been ecclesiastical college and Abbey. It was once was part of a Benedictine monastery dedicated to St Werburgh, granddaughter of our King Penda, and her remains were brought to Chester in 875AD to protect them from the Viking attacks. A church was established by King Alfred’s daughter, Queen Ethelfelda, ‘The Lady of The Mercians’, and the relics enshrined in 907AD. The church was restored by Lady Godiva, she who is said to have ridden naked through the streets of Coventry, and her husband Earl Leofric of Mercia, but in 1090 this church was razed to the ground.
In 1092AD a new monastery was founded by Hugh Lupus, ‘The Wolf’, a nephew of William the Conqueror. Work continued for centuries, building and remodelling, right up until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1540. Unlike many such buildings, however, Chester escaped destruction and King Henry established the Anglican Cathedral of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary in the abbey in 1541; the last abbot became the first Dean and the senior monks were made Canons.
The building is incredible. Traceries of lace carved in stone, sculpted wood, stained glass and mosaics, geometric floors and painted ceilings, and a very loud and modern alarm system that can … apparently… be tripped by errant photographers trying to get a shot of a particular ceiling boss. They were very nice about that, I have to say, under the circumstances…
In fact, the whole place has a friendly feel, very warm and welcoming unlike many of the cathedrals where secular power has vied for supremacy with spiritual strength. Schoolchildren in monastic habits were being shown around the building, learning about the lives of their forefathers, the very stone seems to exude peace in the intricately vaulted cloisters. There was just so much, there is no way I can show it to you all at once…
Climbing the Tower
We decided to climb the tower of Chester Cathedral. The two hundred and sixteen steps to the top allow you through narrow passageways that have been closed to the public for a thousand years. We climbed the spiral staircase where hanks of black horsehair still sprout from the walls; a material used to strengthen the medieval plaster.
Emerging from the first part of the winding stair there is a magnificent view into the body of the church. I could have wished for longer to photograph the bosses on the ceiling, but our guide moved on, ready to show us the Roman pillars supporting the Norman arches… a bit of early architectural recycling.
Higher still and we entered the bell tower. In the lower room, there is a collection of machinery used to ring, toll and chime the bells… a small museum in itself. In the centre of the room a small aperture opens like a well through which you look down to the Crossing far below. For me, however, the graffiti was the most fascinating discovery… centuries of names, dates, doodles and designs carved into the stone of the walls. Arcane symbols and practical ones… even the points of the compass onto which someone had carved a bird.
Most of the bells have been removed from the church tower and rehoused in a purpose-built modern structure close by. The weight and movement of the great bells were causing structural damage to the fabric of the tower. Now only two remain, dating from 1606 and 1626. One is the Curfew Bell.
The name comes from the French ‘couvre feu’… cover fire… It marks the daily curfew, when folks would head to bed and has been rung between 8.45pm and 9pm each night since the fourteenth century. Originally it signalled the closing of the city gates… and, according to local tradition warned any Welshmen to leave the city, the story going on to say it was acceptable to shoot any stray Welshmen after 9pm with a bow and arrow.
From the top of the tower, Wales can be seen, along with five counties on a clear day… and the day was perfect. It is the highest point in the city and from here the landscape itself tells a story. The defensive position of the Roman Garrison is easy to see as the plain spreads out below, bounded by hills. Even today the cathedral dominates Chester… how impressive must it have been amid the low buildings of yesteryear?
It is said that King Charles I followed these narrow ways to the top of the tower and watched the defeat of his forces at Rowton Moor from this spot, bringing him another step closer to the headsman’s blade. I imagine he would have been accompanied by his entourage. We, however, were lucky enough to be alone as the cold of January is not a time for crowds of tourists.
I have often looked up at the hidden passageways that run through the walls of such buildings and wished I could walk them. There was a real sense of privilege in being able to do so… to look down on the green square bordered by the cloisters with the Waters of Life statue at its heart… to see the Roman wall encircling the heart of the city and then within once more, to see the glory of the stained glass so close.
The Art of Faith
We were still in the cathedral, marvelling at both the tangible history and the artistry… far too much to show or to even take in. Everywhere you look, every surface from floor to ceiling bears the evidence of care and craft. In splendour is written the simplicity of the faith of the heart.
We stood at the Crossing, yet another Celtic cross, this time in marble. From the centre you can look up, up to the tiny hole in the floor of the bell tower from which we had looked down and through which a bell rope once hung. A giant St Christopher watches, carrying the knobbed club and the Child, himself carried upon the back of a grotesque figure.
Before you is the quire… pinnacles and spires of wood, static beauty that tells stories… little glimpses of humour and emotion, stories carved in wood captured in the screens, pews and misericords, the mercy seats, upon which the officers of the church could rest.
Geometries are laid out in marble upon the floor, pictures of biblical scenes, evangelists and strange faces. And then you look up at the painted glory of the ceiling, the delicate vaulting that supports the weight of the Church looking like wings that could take flight and carry the worshipper lightly to heaven.
There is a distinct difference in the feel of the various areas of the cathedral precincts. The cloisters whisper of prayers repeated in the contemplation of movement. The nave focuses the eye on the quire and altar, the chapels lend themselves to private moments between the heart and the divine and the courtroom seems to provide a link between the inner and outer worlds.
It is a curious place, the courtroom; a unique example of an ecclesiastical consistory court and the oldest in the country, dating back to 1636 AD. Within the enclosing walls there is yet another enclosure of time blackened wood with raised seats for witness and accused as well as the seat of judgement. Everyone had their appointed seat, their proper place beneath the legal authority of the law. The last case judged here was the attempted suicide of a priest in the 1930s.
The small room with its rigid structure seems to echo the confinement of the soul within the outer world, bound and constricted as it is with rules and regulations, social mores and the requirements of necessity. Yet beyond the door lies a lofty beauty accessible to all, regardless of some perception of social status, both affirming and inspiring faith in a way that seems common to all times, all places and all religions.
Why do we feel the need, I wondered, to construct such magnificence? Partly, I am sure, to assert the political and spiritual power of our religious bodies… a visible symbol that cannot be ignored. But there is more to it than that, for the need seems deep-seated within us. There was no political kudos to be gained when we painted the walls of caves with scenes of nature’s treasures, nor any when we decorate trees and wells with ribbons and flowers.
Within the churches the paint and glass tell stories for the unlettered, teaching the lessons of the Bible and the legends of the church… a moral guide book for the faithful. Symbols, some of which would have been readily understood at the time of their creation, wait side by side in silence with more arcane depictions, understood perhaps only by those who brought a deeper knowledge to bear upon them. It is a language to which we may have lost the keys, yet which speaks to mind and understanding through contemplation in ways for which we may never have had words.
It seems simplistic to say that we have raised such grand edifices to the glory of our gods, or even that we attempt to portray the wonder of our idea of heaven in the wood and stone of earth. I wonder if there is, in the artistry and vision we bring to the task, some attempt to capture that elusive quality of faith… the awareness of a sheer immensity of Love of which our human loves are themselves but a pale echo… a need to communicate, to find an answering recognition… or perhaps the art itself is a wordless expression of love.
There is something in that which seems to speak to us all, regardless of the path or faith we ourselves follow. We can appreciate the wonder of the created works, even if they tell of a path not our own. The temples of Egypt, the caverns of Lascaux and the Dreamtime paintings of Australia, the golden Buddhas and the temples of India… even when they are not to our taste artistically we can appreciate their art and craftsmanship and recognise the kinship of a shared, if differently expressed , vision of the divine.
Mud and Earthworks
We left Chester in search of lunch… oh yes, that had only been the morning, but what a morning! A wonderful start to our
holiday research trip and in perfect weather too, which was a bit of a relief. I should probably clarify a bit. I had gone north originally on School business, of course, though the trip itself counts as a holiday for me. We were planning to get up to Scotland to research some sites for our books… it doesn’t matter if either of us visit them alone, we need to do it together in order for a place to make the books, even if one of us already knows a site well.
We were, weather permitting, heading, via one friend close to Edinburgh, for a little place north of Aberdeen to see another. His home is on the north east coast of Scotland… and we, having left the east behind, were now on the western seaboard of England, right next to the Welsh border. Makes perfect sense.
Research trip or not, playing out in the landscape always counts as a holiday, even when it is only for a few hours, so the prospect of whole days of it ahead was just wonderful. It was, I realised, over thirty years since I had been able to take this length of time out, with no-one who needed me to do anything except look, learn and enjoy the landscape and the adventure. And drive, of course… though that, in itself, is a pleasure for me.
Other than Chester as a starting point and our friends as a goal we had made few plans. There were a few places we thought we might like to visit, but there was no set route or itinerary to follow and we had booked no rooms… we were taking the time on trust and seeing where it… and the weather…led us. Research for previous books had already taught us a lot and snippets of reference and information lurk in the dark corners of the mind, waiting for their chance to peek out and wave. We would simply see what happened and where the adventure unfolded.
We both had places to share and The Greyhound in Saughall was one of those… and a pub where we could potentially have lunch. We were going to start with merely a little liquid refreshment, though, before a gentle stroll through the quagmire of the fields. “We haven’t seen any hawks yet…” said my companion as we waited for the pub to open. We are sort of used to their presence and miss them when they are not around. We needn’t have worried, though; as we looked up to see what would be the first of many fly over, right on cue, harried by a crow and a seagull.
Donning our boots we tramped across the fields through a mixture of mud and ice. Most of the ground was frozen still. Sunshine or not, it was January after all. The path led down then uphill, through woodlands where the hazel catkins and the newborn leaves of celandines herald spring, beyond a bend in the river where we met a very curious robin until we reached a stream where the trees seems to be cuddling up for warmth.
Crossing the water we emerged into sunlit fields where my companion turned and grinned… that look that tells me he has something to show me. Sure enough the unmistakeable signs of earthwork mounds undulated before me. It is almost impossible to tell with the eye alone what age these places may be. The Neolithic mounds and the Norman motte and baileys look very similar, and the problem is further compounded by the fact that many older mounds were later adopted and adapted to strategic use, due to their position in the landscape or their importance to its people.
This one is known as Shotwick Castle and was once a Norman garrison, built by none other than Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester, known as the Wolf. It was he who had in 1093AD built both this castle, to control the crossing of the River Dee, and begun the construction of St Werburgh’s Abbey… now Chester Cathedral where we had spent the morning. We didn’t know it then, but he had also endowed the Abbey at Whitby, where we would find ourselves some time later on the trip.
Nothing now remains of the castle save the mounds and the moat and vague echoes in the landscape. The place has not been formally excavated to date, though a private dig in 1876 uncovered a spur, some pottery and fragments of antlers. Looking at the landscape we had to wonder what had stood here before. It has the feel of a more ancient site, even in the bright winter sunlight. The echoes of childish laughter still haunt the stream and I feel there is more to know about this place.
It was here that the camera battery gave up the ghost, exhausted, no doubt, from the morning in Chester. Thinking I could always borrow the battery from the other camera I was not too disappointed… though that too had died. We headed back to the Greyhound for lunch, frantically trying to charge the thing in a handy socket, to little avail. Which was a pity, as we had decided that our next stop would be in Wales…
Welsh Border Raid
It was, when I think about it, one of our ‘raids’; one of those rapid incursions which usually happen we visit somewhere an event is about to start. Like the wedding we almost gatecrashed, although we were to be fair, invited in to look round as the guests assembled and the vicar, rehearsing the nervous groom, very kindly interrupted the proceedings to tell us about some carvings in the chancel…That was the day we began to understand the significance of the Jester in the medieval wall paintings… and we left the church looking like a pair of startled rabbits, leaving congratulations floating on the air behind us.
We had lunched at the Greyhound before pointing the car in the general direction of the snowy hills of Wales. It was mid-afternoon and we had some vague idea of finding a place for the night in Holywell where we were heading in search of the town’s namesake.
The legends of the well tie in with so many of the areas we have looked at in the books. The well sprang up, according to the tales, at the site of the near martyrdom of St Winefride. Her Welsh name was Gwenffrewi , which means ‘white/fair’ ‘peace/reconciliation’, a curious coincidence when looked at a little deeper. ‘White’ was often used to denote a sacred place… and there was certainly a divine reconciliation in her story.
Winefride was born in the 7th century, daughter of Tyfid ap Eiludd, a Welsh nobleman and his wife, Wenlo, herself a sister of St Bueno. Winefride caught the eye of Caradoc, but refused his advances, choosing instead to devote her life to the service of her God. In a fit of rage Caradoc drew his sword and beheaded her. The severed head rolled down the hill and where it stopped a spring began to flow.
There are many versions of the story, but all agree that it was through the intervention of St Bueno that Winefride was restored to life. Some say Caradoc was swallowed by the earth for his heinous crime, others say he was slain by Winefride’s brother, Owain. The spring was found to be miraculous and have healing powers. St Bueno, we are told, rested upon the stone that now stands in the bathing pool and promised in the name of God, “that whosoever on that spot should thrice ask for a benefit from God in the name of St. Winefride would obtain the grace he asked if it was for the good of his soul.” (Catholic Encyclopedia)
Winefride retired to a convent at Gwytherin where she later became abbess. She was buried there after her second death some 22 years later in 660AD. Further miracles attended the progress of her remains when her body was moved and healing springs rose from the ground where it rested.
The symbolic and spiritual interpretation of her story, however is a little different depending upon the perspective from which it is examined. Whatever the version or truth of the story it would appear that Winefride herself was a historical figure and early accounts of her mention the scar on her neck. Today the waters of her spring still flow in Holywell, a place of continuous public pilgrimage for thirteen centuries making it unique in Britain.
We arrived to find the bathing pool and shrine in use by a family of pilgrims, passing a full clothed, dripping and gelid teenager making her way back to their van. Although one might think it would be more pleasant to have had the spot to ourselves, it was really heartwarming to see the family use the sacred place, with laughter and genuine devotion, as it should be used. We spent a little time there in the peaceful spot, drinking the waters of the spring and paying our respects in the shrine of the Virgin and Laughing Child. It seemed right somehow.
No Room at the Inn
For some strange reason we had thought it would be a good idea to leave Wales and head for our next destination. Wales is a very beautiful place and one I love, but technically, we weren’t really supposed to be there till the next big trip. There was still a little daylight left but the weather was looking unpromising and Wales is not somewhere you want to get stuck if it snows, at least not unless you are ensconced in a nice warm bar with somewhere to stay.
I knew of a hotel in Sandbach… knew exactly where it was, in fact, having delivered there regularly in my white van days. Nice and handy for both the town and the motorway, which we guessed would be okay even if it did snow. Our plan was still to head north, but if the weather took a dramatic turn for the worse we would just head south to mine and work on the books from there. Either way, the motorway would be useful.
Counting hawks as we drove… nine in all on that stretch, mostly just sitting in the trees and watching our progress… we would head for ‘my’ hotel.
“Unless they’ve demolished it,” laughed my companion.
Which, apparently… they had.
Which was a bit of a sod, really, as the inn where we finally asked about it had no rooms left either and the only other place we had seen looked both beautiful and way too expensive. The phone battery had died too… technology really wasn’t playing nicely… By this time it was dark and we were tired. I had packed the car with blankets and duvet… just to be on the safe side… and that was beginning to look like an option. We finally managed to get a brief connection on the laptop and located an old place further out of town… and we couldn’t have found better had we trawled the net and booked.
The welcoming bulk of the Bear’s Head loomed into view and we were soon happily ensconced in the cottages. The seventeenth-century coaching inn was gorgeous… all low, beamed ceilings, pewter and big fireplaces. We really should have gone down for dinner and a drink, but by this time we were flagging. My companion retired early while I pottered on the computer and charged every battery I could find. I don’t even remember finally going to bed.
The pre-dawn light found a frozen world shrouded in mist. As usual, we were both up and about way too early for breakfast, so we grabbed a coffee and, scraping the thin layer of frozen snow from the car we headed into town to see the object of our visit and make a decision on the roads. Early as it was the main roads seemed reasonable, though the smaller ones would be trickier.
Later, thawing out back at the Bear’s Head as the dawn officially rose through the mist, we disposed of a breakfast that would, one way or another, see us through the day. We were still heading north. The birds seemed to approve.
There is a saying that ‘mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun’. It was barely daylight, there was no sun, only a thin, white blanket over the world. But our sanity with this trip had already been called into question by a number of our friends, so it came as no surprise that we were out before dawn, all excited, to search the snow-dusted town for a couple of bits of carved stone. Not just any bits, mind you; the Sandbach Crosses are justifiably renowned.
We found them in the silent market square, long before there was anyone about. To be fair, you couldn’t really miss them, towering as they were, darkly into the sky. It is only as you approach that you begin to see the carvings… and it was for these we had come. We had seen pictures, but even so, my first thought at the size of these things ran to a whole, unprintable four letters.
You see, the Bakewell Crosses we know well. One is shorter than I, the other a fair bit taller. No more than that. The Eyam and Ilkley Crosses a little taller still. These two, standing proud on the stone steps, are huge. And even then they are incomplete… truncated from their original height… and may, in fact, be three, not two.
There is some debate about their age. Until recently it was accepted that they were originally erected to commemorate the conversion to Christianity of Paeda, son our old friend the pagan King Penda of Mercia, in 643 AD. You can see why they had attracted our interest. Scholars, however, now suggest a much later date… ninth instead of seventh century. Even so, they would still fall within our period of interest and may still commemorate the event. We may never know. But we do have the odd theory or two about the Crosses in general…
The crosses have had a chequered past. The original site of the crosses is not known and it has been suggested that they were brought to Sandbach in the Middle Ages. In 1585 their presence was documented by William Smith, who held the wonderfully-named office of Rouge-Dragon Pursuivant at Arms of Queen Elizabeth I. They were thrown down and scattered either during the Civil War or earlier, during the Reformation, because they bear ‘graven images’. The pieces were preserved in odd ways… one piece even serving as a cottage doorstep… until they were gathered and re-erected in 1816.
Around the base are a number of information plaques… from which my companion laboriously scraped the frozen snow. One of the crosses is said to be full of early Christian imagery. I am not entirely sure I agree with the interpretation of some of the panels… mind you, I am neither a scholar nor am I trying to make them fit a particular belief system. I would rather like to know what the figure described as ‘Christ transfigured’ is supposed to be carrying though… The second, slightly smaller cross is covered in scenes ‘difficult to interpret’. Certainly, they do not appear to be predominantly Biblical, and we have seen other crosses that carry representations of pagan mythology.
Anglo-Saxon 871-899 AD
Image by Tina Negus, Flickr
One very useful piece of information was given, though, along with an artist’s impression of what the crosses would have looked like when they were first erected. We forget that they would have been painted and gilded and would thus have looked very like the exquisite metalwork their makers would have known, examples of which have survived to this day. The style is easily recognised in such things as the Sutton Hoo treasures that date from the sixth and seventh centuries. And we call these the Dark Ages… I think, perhaps, we have a tendency to underestimate the sophistication of our forebears sometimes.
The church around the corner had to be worth a visit, but being Sunday, we arrived as the service was beginning so decided to come back after breakfast. This, it turns out, was a mistake. Discussing the next leg of the journey I turned automatically onto the motorway and so we did not return. However, all things have a reason and later research tells me we missed more Saxon stones and even another Cross in the churchyard… and ever so much archaeology in the area… So we will just have to go back next time we are in that part of the country. Such a hardship that…
Off the Motorway…
We’d done well so far. We deserve some credit for that. For once we hadn’t deviated from our original, if somewhat vague plans. It was never going to last. Like all good stories, we’d decided on a beginning a middle and an end that was pretty much inevitable. The rest was open to inspiration.
By the first Lancaster exit, we’d had about enough of motorways and decided to leave them behind. There was a place on the coast I had explored one day a year or two ago and as we were, by this point, beginning to get the message that it was all about the stones this trip, we turned off towards the sea.
We’d been to Lancaster before, though both times had been pretty much accidental really and on both occasions we had ignored a perfectly good, thousand-year-old castle and impressive cathedral. We hadn’t had the call to go there this time, and the first time was right at the very start of our adventures, before we even realised we were about to embark upon them. We didn’t stop, just followed the signposts that led towards Heysham.
We wandered through the Barrows, an interesting landscape that was once a garden, yet which has known the touch of human hands very much further to judge by the archaeology and the things found there, with traces of habitation going back some twelve thousand years. Everywhere there were birds… robins, blackbirds and thrushes among the spears of daffodils and the first snowdrops were a promise of spring.
The sheltered enclosure seems a different world when you step through the gate in the wall onto the only sea-cliffs in Lancashire, looking out across the bay to where the snowy hills of the Lake District became visible as the mist receded… which was where we were heading next. Pretty as it looked, snow was not what we were hoping for on the roads.
We didn’t know about the pre-Roman labyrinth cut into the rocks of the cliffs. We seldom research our trips in detail before we go, preferring to see what unfolds for ourselves. We can always go back if we find we have missed something exciting. You never get the full story of a place in a single visit and doggedly chasing facts takes something away from the natural relationship with a place. We go where something catches our attention and the feeling ‘we need to go there’ sets in.
The dog got a look in here too. The Black Beast may have remained at home with her friends, but it seems she had sent her messengers to keep an eye on us as everywhere we went, from church to clifftop through our whole trip there were Ani-kin.. black dogs keeping an eye on us, wherever we went. Between them and the birds, we were royally accompanied, it seemed, by creatures that wander through the myths and legends of our land.
An Irish Saint in Lancashire
We climbed up the ruins of St Patrick’s Chapel, built in the eighth or ninth century. Legend has it that it commemorates the landing of St Patrick of Ireland and although it was constructed many years after his death, it is possible the place was already marked and remembered. A large cemetery going back over a thousand years was excavated long ago here, but the most striking feature is the line of rock-cut tombs.
Given the nature of decomposition we had to wonder about those. We thought they may have once held bones instead and later research confirms this has been considered. I wondered too about the use to which they may have been put considering the veneration of the bones of the ancestors that had been prevalent in earlier centuries.
The shaft of a standing cross remains near the chapel, as well as record of the eagle shaped stone once found there that may have been part of a seat or throne. The chapel was once highly decorated… painted plaster fragments with inscriptions were found during an excavation. Yet little is known of its history…it remains an enigma.
A dyke was cut between the chapel and the place where a new church was built, quite deliberately, it seems, dividing the old from the new when St Peter’s was built. An older, Saxon church had once stood upon the site of the present church, dating back, it is thought to the 7th or 8th century, similar to St Patrick’s just a few yards away.
St Peter’s was constructed in the early fourteenth century. Part of the older church remains in the fabric of the building. Saxon stones remain in the churchyard and we photographed what we could, dangling the camera within the builder’s wooden cocoons. It was odd to realise that the last time I was here I had not realised their significance and now we were chasing stones across the landscape.
It was a pity we could not see the Viking hogback stone inside the church, though. I have a whole set of pictures from my last visit, documenting the carvings, but Stuart had not seen it and there is a world of difference between looking at an image and standing in the presence of stone. There is debate about the purpose of this stone, though consensus calls it a grave marker. If it were so then it must have marked the burial of someone of importance given the richness and complexity of the carvings and the stories they tell of the Norse myths. If it too had been painted, like the Saxon crosses… a fragment of which remains in the churchyard… then it must have been magnificent.
This little church is a jewel, perched right beside the sea. Within I know there are windows of beautiful stained glass, including a Simeon window… which continues to hold significance for us after the revelations of our previous jaunt to North Yorkshire. It is evident that, once the renovations are complete, we will have to return.
Snow in Them There Hills…
We decided that it would be sensible to take the coast road north… it is both unusual and rather nice when ‘sensible’ walks hand in hand with preference. We had seen the snow capping the distant hills of the Lake District across Morecombe Bay and thought that the salt air would be beneficial on that score. And anyway, who doesn’t like the seaside? Particularly in winter when there are no crowds and we had many of the roads pretty much to ourselves.
Had we not seen the third of our triad two days before we would have called him to come for coffee in Don Pedro’s café. As it was, we simply speculated on which one Steve was referring to in his stories as we sailed through Grange-over-Sands and onwards towards our next destination, skirting the snow covered hills.
It was beautiful… perfect in fact. To our left we had the sea, around us the green of the foothills. Close enough to see, but not to pose a problem, we had the high, white peaks of the Lakes in all their pristine beauty. It was just a shame that the engine warning light chose to come on… Given the panic a few days before to get her fixed and the mechanic’s expensively pursed lips with his ‘can’t guarantee I’ve fixed it…’ I was a tad apprehensive. We would see.
What we didn’t seem to have were many places where we were able to stop. The camera rested mournfully on the back seat as I drove the narrow, serpentine road, occasionally breathing my delight at the landscape. We were heading for Gosforth and, just for once, we had done at least some homework the night before, checking that there were several pubs there that offered accommodation. Mid-January we thought we would have little problem finding rooms for the night.
Ha. The best-laid plans and all that… At least two of the three hostelries in the village centre looked as if they had closed at least for the day, if not for the winter and the third looked unpromising of anything other than a drink, in spite of an appropriate sign on the wall. Our plans for a nice, quiet Sunday dinner before retiring to a cosy inglenook appeared to be becoming a bit precarious. Especially with the car dashboard lighting up. Still, it was only mid-afternoon. Gosforth looked like it might know of a mechanic on Monday morning. We had plenty of time. We knew there were other hotels in the village. We could try one of those.
And try we did. Only to be informed the chef was unavailable for food. They did, however, recommend a couple of places just two miles down the road towards Wastwater. They gave us directions and there was a definite preference in the tone, which we duly noted for later.
A wander through Gosforth showed it to be a place of old stone and quirky cottages. We knew there was Viking heritage, a Roman fort not far away and an old cross at the church. We knew little about it other than its existence, but it was this we had come to see. What we didn’t know was what else we would find at there … and one of the things was enough to justify the entire trip and have us grinning like a pair of
lunatics Cheshire cats.
Gobsmacked in Gosforth
Ye gods and little fishes, where do you start with the stones of Gosforth? Well, not with the gods and fish… I’ll save those till last. That was the best bit. First, we had the crosses. One, sadly, a mere stump, cut down to make a sundial long ago. The second… a slender pillar… fourteen and a half feet of sculpted, magical red sandstone. The same type of stone as Chester Cathedral… a stone we were going to see a lot of on our travels north of the border, we knew… if we made it that far.
The Gosforth Cross dates back to between 920 and 950AD and is in remarkably good condition in spite of the harsh, Cumbrian weather and a coat of emerald green moss. Scenes from Norse mythology populate the entire surface. The base is round and carved to represent Yggdrasil, the World Tree… then there is Víðarr tearing the jaws of Fenrir, Loki bound with his wife Sigyn protecting him, Heimdallr holding his horn… A whole host of gods, of strange and wonderful creatures with symbolism enough to keep us occupied for ages! This alone would have been worth the trip. But there was more to come.
There has been a place of Christian worship on the site since around the eighth century, though the present building ‘only’ dates back to the twelfth. It has been subject to the inevitable evolution and renovation but as always it carries the history of the community it serves within its walls. Carved medieval grave slabs and stones heads wait inside the porch, though I think we both expected little more than a pretty, country church. How wrong can you be?
The afternoon sun was low and streamed through the windows, casting reflected images on the aged stone. The Norman chancel arch is poised still on its carved capitals, the windows hold stained glass that would have caught our attention at any other time, but as I have mentioned, this trip seemed to be all about the stone… and there was stone aplenty, quite apart from the building itself.
Fragments of early crosses are set into the walls, carvings and sculpted stones rest on the windowsills… and two great hogback stones… such as we had been unable to see at Heysham… occupy a fair part of the north aisle.
The hogbacks date back to the early 900s like the Cross. Richly carved in the shape of houses, they are covered with Viking gods, men and serpents. The ends of one have a strange figure, which may have been carved a little later.
It is usually interpreted as Christ but could equally be one of the Norse gods beneath the rainbow bridge. The imagery is stunning… it would take days just to see all the details hidden in the carving, and who knows how long to understand all it was telling.
We paused to look at yet another carving on the windowsill… a handwritten notice pointed towards the east saying simply ‘Fishing Stone’. We pretty much ignored it, overwhelmed by what we were seeing. My companion wandered off down the north aisle while I was still taking photographs of the hogbacks in a vain attempt to give some sense of the sheer scale and detail.
Looking up I saw that look on his face. He’d found something and was waiting… and something pretty spectacular to judge by the expression. Had I seen the Fishing Stone yet? The tone was far too innocent to be anything other than suspicious. I followed his gesture and stood amazed.
The Fishing Stone was the Fishing Stone… an image we have seen so often in books… and there it was… just there, set into the wall. Not even covered… not behind glass… we could have even touched it… The top half of the panel shows an animal with a serpent, itself tied in knots, tangled around its legs. But it is the bottom panel that we know so well. It hadn’t even occurred to us that this was what the Fishing Stone might be! It is thought to depict Thor with his hammer, fishing with the giant Hymir for Jörmungandr, the great World Serpent. By this point I had driven five hundred miles… and it was worth it just for this alone. And we still had a thousand more to go… what else would we find?
Hovering somewhere between delight and disbelief we wandered around the churchyard of St Mary’s. We knew there had been too much to take in. That is where the camera comes into its own, allowing us to go back and see what we have ‘missed’. Including, apparently, another Simeon window. The sun was low in the sky, casting a golden glow over the landscape. A cork tree, planted in 1833 and the most northerly in Europe, raised her arms to the sky; a dryad yearning for the embrace of light, or so it seemed.
We needed to eat… something, anything, to bring us back to earth, so we headed back to the car in search of the pubs the hoteliers had recommended earlier. ‘It’s only two miles’ they had said. Well, they must have been country miles… and the twisting, single-track seemed even longer as the light began to fade.
There was a choice of two places, opposite each other. Both lovely old buildings, but one looked like a proper pub… and had giant bagpipes outside. Considering this was supposed to be a Scottish adventure… even if we hadn’t got there yet… we chose the welcoming glow of the Strands. The inn, built around 1800, is close to Wastwater, England’s deepest lake and nestles beneath the bulk of the snow-covered Scafell Pike, England’s highest peak.
It is beautiful countryside and somewhere we would have liked to have stayed. The weather forecast, however, was for extreme cold and ice… there was already snow… and we did need to find a mechanic the next day and make a decision on whether to continue. The only road out of the village leads up a very steep hill… snow and ice could keep us here for days, and while that would really be no hardship under any other circumstances, it wasn’t what we had in mind.
The bar, festooned with hops, was warm and welcoming. Grabbing a menu we sat by the fire to decide on dinner. The proprietors of the hotel who had recommended the pub walked in a few minutes later. They too were dining here in the absence of the chef. We had obviously chosen the right pub of the two. We plumped for the roast pork and decided to order dessert at the same time but the young lady behind the bar just laughed. “I’d wait, if I were you…” When dinner arrived, we saw why.
“It’s as big as you,” laughed my companion, nodding at my plate. He had a point. The proper Yorkshire pudding was as big as a small plate. At least the whole daily requirement of vegetables flanked it, roast potatoes and a small mountain of mashed ones too, along with the best part of half a pig. As well as stuffing and apple sauce… Manfully… and hobbitfully… we waded through enough calories to last me a week. And skipped dessert. Then hauled our overstuffed bodies back to the car to get up the hill before it froze.
We drove back the way we had come, having seen a hotel on the main road. Bigger than we usually like, but by this time it was dark and although we didn’t know it at the time, the Lutwidge Arms in Holmbrook, with its Lewis Carroll theme, has the best beds ever. And I’ve lived in smaller places than the rooms. The nice lady informed us there was a mechanic in the village, just next door… so we settled in for the night. I found a river in the dark and we walked out to look at the sky. Overhead the vault of heaven arced; the stars were the brightest and clearest we have seen them in a very long time; points of crystal spiralling against an inky blackness undimmed by the lights of man. We had truly seen wonders that day, but none that matched the sky that night.
Decisions at Dawn
The trouble with bodies is that by the time they realise you are on holiday and don’t have to get up… you are not, and you do. So I was up long before dawn, as usual, scraping the ice from the windscreen and wandering down to the River Irt to watch the first light write a book of shadows on the water. The river is famous for its ‘gin-clear’ waters and as an Atlantic Salmon run. It flows into the Esk nearby… and the Esk was a name we would come across more than once at special places.
By eight I was sitting outside the mechanic’s workshop… our hostess had assured us that he would be there then. By half past I gave up and went back for breakfast in the sun room. We waited a little longer and wandered down to watch the mist wraiths dance on the river. It was a beautiful morning. but there was no sign of activity at the mechanic’s shop… so we had a decision to make; hang around and hope or press on and see if we could find a mechanic in one of the towns further north.
We decided on the latter and headed off towards Whitehaven, a small coastal town with some pretention to fame. It had been settled around the tenth century by the Irish-Norse Vikings. The area has many legends and stories that connect the land across the Irish sea to this. The town is the most complete example of a Georgian planned building project and the neat right-angled streets have been credited as being the inspiration behind the planning of New York City, as well as having links with George Washington’s family. We were to visit another place at the end of the trip with American ties… but we didn’t know that yet.
My companion’s family had roots in the area too and it would have been nice to explore the town a little. The trouble was, we weren’t exploring… just looking for a mechanic. Necessity had reared its intrusive head. Driving down by the harbour, we found a nice old gentleman with a fault reader.
The mechanic hummed and hahed a bit but, cancelling the warning light, gave us to understand we would probably be okay to head north, telling us that the Scottish roads were clear. He had driven them at three o’clock that morning. The car was running okay, even though the throttle pedal sensor had shown up faulty. Maybe it was just old… it might just be sticking… we could only wait and see.
So, north it was, sticking to the coast road which is the only way around the Western Lakes and heading in the general direction of Carlisle, where we wanted to stop for munchables. In spite of the mechanic’s reassurances, we were not planning on taking the motorways, so stocking the car with something to eat seemed a good idea… and breakfast had stuffed us to a point where we probably wouldn’t be stopping for lunch!
It seemed odd to think that the Windscale nuclear plant was situated at nearby Sellafield. I wondered at the politics of its location… minimal population? Yet we seemed far from the world of care and politics as we drove through the green landscape, heading northwards with a white horizon to the east and the Irish Sea to the west, through a landscape dreaming in winter peace where even the sheep were gilded by the morning sun.
Where do ladybirds go for winter? I can tell you that… they go to Aspatria. The carvings on the gateposts were full of them. I had recognised the name immediately because it is so unusual. I couldn’t quite remember why I recognised it particularly… but the fact that I had probably meant the church would be worth a quick visit. I was pretty certain I should know why I remembered it too… I knew it was something to do with St Patrick, who keeps cropping up lately and vague ghosts of memory flitted around my mind, half-seen shadows desperate to be noticed.
The church is dedicated to St Kentigern… also known as St Mungo. It is told that he passed through Apspatria and preached by the Holy Well on his way into exile in Wales. Kentigern’s mother was a princess, raped by Owain mab Urien. Her father, furious, had the pregnant princess thrown from a cliff. She survived and was then put to sea in a coracle. She drifted to land at Culross where her son was born.
Many old folk tales are bound up with Kentigern’s story, including the one about the fish that is found elsewhere. King Riderch accused his wife, Queen Languoreth, of being unfaithful. He threw her ring into the river secretly and demanded that she show it to him, accusing her of having given it to her paramour. Distraught the queen sought Kentigern’s help; he commanded that a fish be pulled from the river… and when it was gutted the ring was found in its belly.In spite of the tales about the saint, at first glance it didn’t look at all promising… more Victorian repro than ancient stone, but if there is one thing we have learned it is that, regardless of what we are taught in the writing community, you really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. We parked the car and headed for the gate… a particularly nice one too, all carved with leaves. With the sun so strong behind us our shadows traced ghosts of their own upon the walls…I couldn’t get a shot without them, though in some ways it is rather nice to have them there. One, tall and stylish… so he informs me… the other, much shorter and holding up a camera. Pretty much a typical stance.
Aspatria means the Ash of St Patrick. It is said that when the Irish saint came here he thrust his staff of ash-wood into the ground where it took root. It is also said that a sacred spring welled from the earth… the same that now stands in the churchyard. We missed that. There are benefits to doing research first…
An avenue of yew trees led up to the church, though we, of course, wandered around the back… we usually do, never knowing what might be hiding in plain sight. We couldn’t have missed this, though… another Gosforth Cross! Standing there, it looked identical to the one we had seen the day before… Largely because it was. Rev. William Slater Calverley, who lived in the last half of the nineteenth century, was an antiquarian and incumbent of St Kentigern’s church. Working closely with a master mason he had the replica made, reproducing all the details. Although the Aspatria cross is only a youngster therefore, it does allow a very clear view of the carvings of the weatherbeaten cross in Gosforth.
Calverley’s grave lies just a few feet away, itself topped by a Celtic cross, intricately carved and modelled on the cross at another St Mungo’s not far away at Dearham. I can’t believe how much we missed… still, we can’t see everything… but by now we were wondering just what did wait inside the church…
By the time we had watched the flock of crows and wandered around the churchyard we were about ready to try the door. Would it be open? There is always that question… Many of the churches in villages and small towns stand open to visitors, but not all, and not always in winter when tourists are thin on the ground. But we were in luck.
“You’re not going to believe this…” No. It did seem a bit much of a coincidence… another hogback stone. You have to remember these things are rare… and we weren’t looking for them. In fact, the only one I had ever seen was the one in the little church at Heysham that had been closed for renovations the day before… was it only the day before?…. when we had tried to see it. This was the third since then. Though badly damaged, it was still something of a gift.
There has been a church on the site here since the sixth or seventh century. The earliest church would have been Saxon and probably a wooden structure, replaced a thousand years ago by a stone-built Norman church. The present building is Victorian. Curiously, the history says that foundation stone was laid in 1846 with full Masonic ritual. The builders did, however, retain the dog-tooth chancel arch, now at the base of the tower and a Norman doorway with its distinctive chevron of stone. Once again, we were looking at red sandstone.
The piscina and sedilia in the sanctuary have been painted and gilded in the manner of the elder days, giving a feel of the light and colour that once reigned in our churches. A side chapel preserved, holding the memorials to the great and good of the area. The stained glass is lovely, and includes a set of windows showing the Canticles… the great songs of the Bible. Which means there was the Nunc Dimitis… which means another Simeon window… remind me to tell you about the Simeon affair one of these days…
Then there was the font… Old, but of unknown age it was badly damaged at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, but later restored with stained plaster to camouflage the damage and placed on pillars. It is a curious thing, wreathed in foliage… yet look closer and there are serpents entwined with the vines, sprouting leaves from their mouths.
Then there was the standing cross… under the Norman arch… and the fragments of carved stones in the vestry… and the cross head and interlaced designs set into the reconstructed arch… and the ancient cross shaft… and, well you get the picture. If I’d had flowers they would have gone on the Revered Calverley’s grave.
Like I said, you can’t judge a book by its cover… or a church just because it looks Victorian. Rev. Calverley had done us proud with his collection of ancient stones. There is just so much to see in this little church!
We missed things… but as always we had the camera. One thing, however that we did not see and did not photograph… and I have pretty much every inch of the place… was the Swastika Stone. Now, ‘my’ moors have a swastika stone, so I would have noticed. It has nothing to do with the later corruption of the symbol. This particular example dates back to around 450AD and the symbol is thought to be a representation of eternity or the solar wheel… and this I would have liked to have seen. Maybe if we are back in the area one day..?
‘Don and Wen do Gretna…’
We should probably have stopped at Carlisle. Well, for more than just a supermarket to stock the car with biscuits and suchlike. It has another of those thousand year old castles… and another cathedral that used to be the priory… and Roman remains… We would, to be fair, have needed more than the time we had to do it justice. Long before the Romans came it was a settlement of the Carvetii tribe of Brythonic Celts. The Romans occupied the site as part of their fortifications along Hadrian’s Wall and named it Luguvalium… which is thought to be based on the older native name of Luguwaljon… the strength of Lugus. Had we known that, we might have stopped… for the god known as Lugus figures largely in the mythologies we explore under many names.
Having said that, it was already lunchtime and the days are short in January in the north. We were hoping to make it to our friend’s home north of the Firth of Forth by evening… and there had been snow warnings…and the engine warning light had come back on in the car… and there was Ruthwell to consider. We had to see Ruthwell. This would mean that even without side trips to sites we just had to see, we had a drive of 200 miles that day. And, of course, we weren’t planning on taking the motorway either, but taking the road through the Borders, cross country to Edinburgh. Carlisle would have to wait.
Did I mention that we were in Scotland by now? We passed through Gretna Green… famous worldwide for the runaway marriages that took place there from the 17th Century, legal under Scottish law, when the blacksmith became known as the ‘anvil priest’. We were obliged to stop there on our way back from Ruthwell for a comfort break. I knew there would be facilities there. Frankly, were I ever to marry again, which I shan’t, Gretna Green is the last place on earth I would choose these days. Even in January the place is heaving with coach parties and visitors, shopping in the many gift shops. They have all come to see the home of Romance… and it has become big business, thus killing any romance that might have remained. I was there once decades ago… the place was just a quiet backwater with little more than the historic blacksmith’s shop to see. Now, the only good thing was the music of the pipes. We couldn’t wait to leave.
Ruthwell, now, that was a different matter altogether. The tiny village where the first commercial savings bank in the world was founded… though the church stands at a distance from the small collection of houses. We were back on a River Esk … not the same one as earlier that morning, but the Scottish one…where it joins the sea at the Solway Firth. The roads became progressively narrower, the weather bleaker and colder. It wouldn’t be long before we were seeing odd flurries of snow. Even the gravestones seemed to huddle together for warmth. This had better be good… we were miles from where we needed to be. And, as usual, we didn’t really know what to expect. We just knew there was a famous carved cross. I pottered in the freezing churchyard photographing blackbirds and yet another robin while my companion went in search of the key at the Manse. We opened the door… and gawped…
… and, More Importantly, Ruthwell…
“Bloody Hell!” The blasphemous words were out before I could stop them… and in a church too! I think, under the circumstances, I might be forgiven. My companion, though less verbal, was equally astounded.
The history of the little kirk at Ruthwell is a hard one to trace… I can find out very little about its origins except that it is the oldest serving church this far south in Scotland and that is has a medieval church at its heart that goes back to 1200AD, if not further. The current interior of the building is simple and clean, painted in pastel colours… and dominated by the Ruthwell Cross.
There is no shortage of information about that. Even standing just inside the doorway of the little church we were utterly amazed at the sheer scale of the thing; a great, carved pillar of stone standing behind the altar and serving as a focus for worship. The carvings looked so crisp too… as if it had been sheltered much of its life from the attrition of the elements.Of course, as we got closer we saw the whole story… we had only seen half of it. The apse in which it stands has a crypt … and the base of the cross sits within its well. The massive blocks dwarf the Gosforth Cross… it is, quite simply, incredible.
The cross stands eighteen feet high and dates back around one thousand, four hundred years. Latin inscriptions line the narrow bands at the edges of the cross, birds and strange creatures sit amongst the vine-like scrollwork of the sides while the two main faces are deeply incised with images. Its early history is unknown, though local legend suggests it may have been part of a priory at nearby Priestside. Certainly the cross is so imposing that if it was intended to be placed indoors, the building would have had to be large.
It is thought that the cross once stood within the ancient church here but was dismantled in 1642 and its pieces buried in the clay of the floor after the Reformation, when such imagery was seen as idolatrous. When the church was remodelled the fragmented cross was taken into the churchyard and left there. In 1823 they pieces were gathered together, restored and reassembled in the grounds of the Manse by Henry Duncan, the minister. In 1887 they were moved into the church, a special apse being built to accommodate the height of the cross.
The stained glass…including another St Hilda of Whitby, where we would be going, the carved beasts and winged horses on the chairs… all paled into insignificance. Especially when we saw the panel titled in Latin, “Jesus Christ: the judge of righteousness: the beasts and dragons recognised in the desert the saviour of the world.” A phrase we have come across and written about in the books.
There have been the inevitable disputes over whether it was originally cross or pillar and how accurate the reconstruction might have been and the jury will doubtless remain out on the interpretation of some of the scenes depicted. Nor will we know why, at some time over a thousand years ago part of the ancient poem The Dream of the Rood was carved onto its borders in Anglo Saxon runes.
The poem is classed as one of the earliest Christian poems in English literature, penned by an unknown hand, though usually attributed to Caedmon in the seventh century. The earliest known copy preserved it in the 10th century Vercelli Book. It tells of a dream, where the narrator converses with the Rood… the Cross itself. While I was examining the font, brought from a local church, my companion was reading the translation of the text. He let out a small triumphal noise and brandished a finger…
“Christ was on the rood-tree
But fast from afar
His friends hurried
To aid their Ætheling…”
We looked at each other… we had drawn that comparison in the first of the Doomsday books…The Ætheling Thing… this was going to take some processing! We left quietly, returning the key to the Manse and setting off on the long drive through the Scottish Borders towards Edinburgh.
The Kirk on the Bay
We took the road across the hills, drinking in the green and white beauty agains the backdrop of blue. It was a perfect day. The trip could have taken all day, with me slowing the car every few minutes to gabze in wonder or stopping for a photograph, even if we had not been led down lost roads.
We even had raptors landing for us, almost demanding to be photogrphed, much to our delight. But we had places to be… a friend waiting with dinner and a warm Scottish welcome… so we headed for Edinburgh and the Forth Bridge.
We were right royally fed and watered that night… though the water tasted more like Edinburgh spiced orange gin to begin with before turning to good red wine… which might explain why I proceeded to fall asleep as soon as we sat down on the sofa after dinner. I always do at Sheila’s, it seems…I only vaguely remember being sent to bed.
Our friend is an excellent cook, it has to be said. Next morning brought a magical dawn in the ancient kingdom of Fife; the sky all luminous pastel shades and petal soft… so the obvious thing to do was to go for a walk by the shore. First things first though… we needed to speak to a mechanic. Messages were left and, after breakfast, while our hostess drove into town we wandered down to the estuary.
I had been here before, of course, in spring when the bluebells were in flower. Now I walked with my companion… attended by the inevitable plethora of black dogs that seem to appear from nowhere… and a robin, as well as oystercatchers and gulls. Living as I do about as far inland as you can get, you don’t realise until you hear their cry just how much you miss the gulls.
We walked along the shore of Dalgety Bay, looking across the Firth of Forth to Inchcolm Island and beyond to the crouching lion of Arthur’s Seat. Inchcolm was only about a quarter of a mile away, but in winter it might as well have been a hundred miles. We weren’t going to get there. This was a great shame as we would have liked to visit the ancient priory… and later research mentions 9th century hermit’s cells and yet another hogback stone.
The morning light made silk of the waves and the ruined kirk of St Bridget, sheltered by the trees held a magic all of its own. The little church dates back to the 12th century and remained in service till it became unsafe. In 1830 it was unroofed. The population had shifted, the building had become unsafe. All that remains is the quiet ruin and the graves of those who went before.
A spiral staircase still leads to the loft where the nobility took part in the service from above. A small withdrawing room with a fireplace and windows looking out over the bay completed their comfort. Beneath the loft is the locked crypt where the Earls of Dunfermline are buried.
The grave markers show a consistent theme of skulls and life-timers, gruesome, perhaps to modern eyes, but a fair reminder of the impermanence of life. More gruesome is the tale associated with the little keep set into the wall where the Beadles could watch for bodysnatchers. At a time when the supply of legal cadavers for dissection in the medical schools was failing to meet the demand, bodysnatchers, or ‘ressurectionists’, found a lucrative niche, so to speak. Legend has it that far from watching for bodysnatchers the Beadles of St Bridget’s would signal across the water to Edinburgh with lights when a new burial occurred.
Now, however, the place is a haven of peace. We sat on a grave slab and watched the pale sun on the water before my companion wandered off to explore. I stayed there a while, camera in hand… and so caught a fleeting image of our first hawk of the day as it flew over the water towards the wood.
By now it was almost lunchtime, so we returned to base. The mechanic had phoned back… they couldn’t look at the car but a description of the fault elicited reassurance… it was probably just age. We would just have to see how it went. That afternoon, though, the car was having a well-earned rest and we were going to Dunfermline with our friend.
“Where did you spend your holiday?”
“In a graveyard.”
Well, a whole selection of graveyards really, the length and breadth of the country. And we were on our way to another one… the second of the day. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Even in the centre of a city there is usually that green space to provide an oasis of peace and tranquillity and a haven for birds. The contemplation of the inevitability of death and the finite nature of our little human lives is no bad thing either. It is an affirmation of life.
We had headed for the centre of Dunfermline, a city three miles north of the Forth of Firth and, until the seventeenth century, the royal capital of Scotland. Man has lived here since Neolithic times, but it is the connection to the Scottish Kings for which it is best known. Malcolm III, King of Scotland, married Margaret here, who would later be canonised as Saint Margaret. She was a Saxon princess, sister of Edgar the Ætheling and mother of three Scottish Kings. The cave where she would go to pray still remains by the river. She established the church of the Holy Trinity, which later became an abbey in AD1128. Dunfermline remained the royal seat until the Union of the Crowns in 1603.
Much of the city was destroyed in a great fire in 1624. A few of the ancient buildings survived, but a good deal of the city is more modern. Many buildings bear the name of Andrew Carnegie, a poor Dunfermline lad whose rags-to-riches story made history on both sides of the Atlantic. The handloom weaver’s cottage where he was born still remains, as does the first public library he founded.
The late 19th century clock tower of the City Chambers dominates the centre of the city, but we were heading for the Abbey, passing first by Abbot House, the oldest surviving building within Dunfermline. Set into the original Abbey wall, its core dates back beyond the fire. Above the door is a phrase which, when translated reads “Since word is enthrallment and thought is freedom: keep well thy tongue I counsel thee,” which was set there for Robert Pitcairn, Commendator of Dunfermline, who died in 1584.
Excavations of the gardens have produced finds dating back to the 1300s. Outside a pretty terrace promises a lovely place to sit in summer. But the weather was bitingly cold and rather grey as we explored, looking at the gilded symbols on the modern gate and the bronze plaque commemorating the mother of William Wallace, better known to many these days, perhaps, through Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart and to whom one of my companions bears a family connection. Margaret Crawford, Wallace’s mother, lies interred beneath a thorn tree in the Abbey grounds.
In the physic garden, medicinal herbs have been planted in the old way, commemorating a former resident of Abbot House, Lady Anne Halkett. Born in London in 1622, she was known as a herbalist, surgeon and midwife, as well as a Jacobite adventuress and writer. There is a modern memorial carved with symbols… including some that look Egyptian rather than the more likely Pictish. I didn’t mention Ani…
Being January we were unable to look around the first floor, so did not see the fresco dating back to 1571 depicting Virgil’s Aeneid. There was art enough downstairs though, both in the architecture itself and the stained glass and modern wall paintings that climbed yet another spiral staircase. We climbed it too… but were told the upper floors were not open.
We did, however, sit in the vaulted room with the lovely old fireplace to take tea later… a proper afternoon tea… with clotted cream and calories. We lingered, thawing from the bitter cold of the old abbey and after having disposed of tea, unable to do much else for a while… But the Abbey had been worth the frozen fingers!
They were locking the door on half of the Abbey Church as we arrived. The new bit, built on the site of the old choir, was opened in 1821 and houses the tombs of Queen Margaret (later canonised as St Margaret), King David I and King Robert the Bruce who fought to re-establish Scotland as an independent nation and defeated the English army at the battle of Bannockburn. Around the top of the tower he is remembered in stone.
Robert the Bruce died in 1329 and, following his wishes, was interred in Dunfermline Abbey beside his queen, in front of the high altar. His heart was removed and placed in a silver casket by Sir James Douglas, who is said to have worn it round his neck and took it to the Crusades. In battle he threw the casket into the fray, crying, “Now pass thou onward before us, as thou wert wont, and I will follow thee or die.” Die he did, but the casket was recovered and the heart taken home to be buried at Melrose Abbey as the King had wished.
Both body and heart were lost over time, but both were found during building works. The body, still covered in cloth of gold, was eventually reinterred in the Abbey Church in 1819, and the heart in 1998, two years after its rediscovery at Melrose. Dunfermline holds a special place in the heart of Scotland
However, it wasn’t the new bit, but the old we had really come to see. The original priory had been founded in the eleventh century, during the reign of King Malcom III and his wife, who later became St Margaret, the Pearl of Scotland. Their son, King David, endowed the church as an Abbey and in 1128 he built the church. In the floor, the outlines of St Margaret’s original early priory and the Culdee church are marked.
The great carved pillars, unequal in diameter and each different, are said to be very similar to those at Durham cathedral… which we were to see for ourselves few days later. They are, we found, not dissimilar to those at Selby either. The old and the new are built as one now, past and future meeting to signal a continuity of faith on this site that stretches back a thousand years.
The nave still stands, supported from the outside by massive buttresses, from the inside by the gigantic columns, two carved with the distinctive chevrons of Norman architecture that are echoed in window and door and two with a spiral pattern. Later stained glass sits high in the walls, framed by ornate Norman arches.
Perhaps the most surprising discovery was a painted ceiling in the aisle of the nave. Dating back to around 1500 it shows the four Apostles. It is thought the painting would once have covered the entire ceiling. It is an odd, imposing place. No windows at ground level, only set high in the walls where the light streams in… but no warmth. We were frozen and escaped into a cold and icy January afternoon to warm up.
We wandered over to the ruins, looking out over the refectory and up the guard tower, accompanied by yet another robin. There was too much to see for a brief visit… we would have to think about coming back. Preferably in warmer weather. Though of course, the bitter chill had meant we had the place to ourselves.
The whole trip was beginning to have a familiar feel. Our usual modus operandi frequently involves the concept of the ‘raid’… falling over something, doing a recce, letting it sink in and the dots join up in historical and symbolic terms… then deciding we’d have to go back. Not that a trip to Scotland is ever a hardship, of course. And we had no idea what we might fall over next…
Dawn on the Sea</strong
We’d been well fed again and liberally doused with Edinburgh spiced orange gin… so I fell asleep on the sofa and was sent to bed yet again. I’m useless. Next morning we were on our way, taking an early leave of our friend, glad to have seen her and grateful for her care. We were heading north, deeper into Fife. With our fingers crossed for the car, we once again took the coast road.
The distinctive shape of Bass Rock was dark against the horizon. The island often looks to be snow covered, yet the whiteness is caused by more than 150,000 gannets that call it home. We were rewarded with a sunrise over the sea, the light changing with every mile.
We stopped… well, we stopped again, having stopped several times for the sunrise… at the village of St Monan’s, once a thriving fishing and boat building community. The village is named after St Monance who died in a raid by the Danes in AD875, along with St Aidan on the Isle of May and six thousand Christians in Fife. Now it is a peaceful place of small streets and alleys. The kind of place that seems to move at its own timeless pace.
We wandered along the harbour where small boats were moored or pulled from the winter sea. We had seen a church at the far end of the village. It is thought that St Monance, or possibly his relics, was buried here and a shrine raised to the saint. King David II had been wounded at the battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346. One of the barbed arrows was removed, the other remained deep in his flesh. It is said that the arrow miraculously removed itself after the king had made a pilgrimage to the shrine. In gratitude, David built the church. It later became part of a Dominican priory.
The church was never finished and consists of the chancel and transepts; the nave, it seems, was never built. The church was damaged by fire in 1544 during an English naval attack, when the village suffered badly and its entire fishing fleet was destroyed, burned or sunk.
It was locked. The church stands open through summer for visitors, but its doors were closed to us. We wandered the graveyard, looking at this ancient church that is thought to be the closest to the Scottish shore, being a mere few feet from the sea. It stands on a rock, separated from the village by a burn that sparkled in the early light.
The stones of the churchyard still link the land to the sea. On the horizon you could just see the ruins of the thirteenth century Newark Castle, gradually disappearing as wind and wave crumble the cliff upon which it stands. In such a place you get a fleeting glimpse of the harsh life of those who work with the sea. Doorways shelter in alleys, protecting themselves from the gales. And yet, there is something irrepressibly hopeful about the place too, with its warm stone, painted houses and January flowers tucked away in corners.
There was nothing open; only the hardy (and the odd couple of lunatics) go to the Scottish coast in the middle of winter, but in spite of the chill in the air there is a beauty in these places that is hidden when the tourists flock in. Signs go up, wares are displayed and the multi-coloured garment of summer hides the mellow tones of old stone and faded paint.
No-one… not even we… knew we would be there. No effort had been made to accommodate visitors… not even a coffee in a plastic cup. So we saw the place in its own simple beauty, like a face fresh from sleep before the cosmetics and wild-haired from the wind… I think I prefer it that way.
The Elasticity of Time.
According to the map we covered another two hundred miles that day. More, if you take into account that we did it all on the back roads , being very gentle with the ailing car and sticking to the coast where we could. Which is patently ridiculous considering all the things we saw… and taking into account a comfortable lunch and a leisurely dinner too.
We were heading for St Andrews; the saint has cropped up a fair bit in our research for the books so it only seemed polite while we were in the area. And anyway, quite apart from the university and the golf course for which it is probably best known these days, it has some very special places I had only ever driven past and never really seen.
I might as well warn you now… St Andrews won’t all fit into one post. There was way too much… and yet, we were only there a couple of hours or so. How does it do that? Time, I mean. Honestly, we must have spent the best part of an hour just exploring the little museum and the cemetery and watching the birds… and we didn’t rush anywhere… and we climbed a tower! It is odd, while you are doing these things time just seems to be behaving in a perfectly normal fashion… but when I look back at what we actually did that day I just can’t see how it is possible without diving around like mad things. Which we didn’t, not at all.
I have to wonder if the hawks have something to do with the whole affair. Their eyesight is keen and their attention absolute… maybe it is the attention that does it, extending time… because you are not lost in the fog of habit but really awake and aware of what is going on around you and, critically, of which you are a part. You are not looking out from the inside, simply observing at such times… you really are living in the moment… and as time itself has no divisions that moment is eternity.
I had only ever approached St Andrews from the north before, so coming over the crest of the hill to see it spread below was novel. I stopped to get a picture from there, seeing the towers of the abbey rise high above the houses. Ancient ruins and modern rooftops all bordered by the waves that have caressed these shores in endless motion since before Man counted time. You can’t see eternity, nor can the conscious mind encompass it, yet here where earth, sea and sky hold the fragile structures of man against the centuries, you get an intimation of eternity… a smaller view that illustrates something too vast to comprehend.
St Andrews… the Abbey
We didn’t go to the Roman Catholic Cathedral where the relics of St Andrew are now housed. We were here to see the ancient places where they had once been… lost now to time, buried perhaps somewhere in the vast graveyard of the precinct by a devout monk determined to save them from those who would despoil them… or perhaps taken secretly to Rome for safe keeping.
A memorial cross of Celtic design was framed between the points of the tower as we walked up to the Abbey. We were pleased by this… the crosses had turned out to be a major part of what we were doing and had been so, if we thought about it, since a foray with the camera before Christmas. Back then, we didn’t really realise… now, we were beginning to. This trip had proved itself to be all about the stones and we were about to find stones enough to keep us occupied for quite some time…
“It’s a ruin.” The disappointment in my Companion’s voice was patent. We’re not all that much into ruins… unless there is something inherently special about them. Although, technically, many of the sites we love are ruins; the old stones of the circles thrown down or removed, the landscapes reshaped by the plough. But somehow where the land itself still makes its presence felt, it doesn’t matter.
The monumental skeletons of Abbey and Castle do not attract us as much as the continuous history we find in the little churches and the flower-decked circles that we find where the touch of the sacred is still warm in the stones. There is a sanctity in the earth itself that makes itself known to those who come with open heart and mind.
We entered the precinct, still the most imposing and complete monastic enclosure in Scotland, recognising at once the Romanesque arches of the twelfth century. The tall tower still remaining and looking like some medieval space ship, shows how magnificent this place must have been… and how visible it would have been from land and sea.
The Abbey was begun around AD1160 and work continued over the next hundred and fifty years. The dedication was held 1318, in the presence of King Robert I… Robert the Bruce… who was buried at Dunfermline where we had been the day before. It was by far the largest church in Scotland at that time. You could see that even today… the place was huge.
The ruins themselves are beautiful and much remains, including the eastern gable of the presbytery where the relics of St Andrew were once kept in reverence. The relics had probably been brought to Britain by St Augustine in AD597, though legend says that it was St Rule who brought them from Patras in Greece to the little town of Kirrymont, later named St Andrews in honour of the first-called of the Apostles.
The shrine became a major place of pilgrimage, second only to Compostella, thus assuring its place in both spiritual and political history. Yet the Abbey buildings we now explored had not existed at that time, and we were, all unbeknownst to us, about to walk back through even further centuries of faith and history.
Into the Crypt
We wandered into the cloisters, following the signs for the ticket office. The ruins are free… but there is a small museum and a tower. The museum we were not too fussed about seeing, but it just shows you… never miss an opportunity! The place, though small, was amazing…
We descended the stairs into the vaulted crypt expecting very little… only to be met with a fabulous collection of cross marked gravestones from medieval times and fragments of Celtic and Pictish design from even earlier. There are symbols, strange to our eyes, perhaps, but which still have a resonance that we can understand today. Swords and shears are incised on many of them, signifying perhaps the cutting of the cords of life.
Many of the crosses look more like keys and really I suppose this is what they are… the keys to the afterlife… the key to the Kingdom. Carved in faith and hope… and sometimes perhaps in desperation and apology! Not all whose lips mouth prayers live either a good or pious life. One stone showed the geometries used by the mason to construct his pillars… hidden for centuries within the fabric of the building.
On the walls of the restored crypt, there are mason’s marks modern and freshly carved in an echo of an ancient tradition, side by side with older graffiti… consecration crosses, geometric symbols and odd designs that seem like the hieroglyphs of some arcane language. Yet although the idea is good, somehow the fresh, sharp lines seem crude beside the flowing, sinuous curves of the ancient stonemasons.
The first room contained simple cross grave markers. The second, a lovely vaulted crypt, held architectural fragments and the seals of the Abbots and Bishops of St Andrews. It was odd seeing how the central symbol of the crucified saint had evolved over the centuries, from an earlier and graphic depiction of martyrdom to a more sedate and sanitised depiction of the saint with the distinctive cross. Yet all preserve the distinctive vesica shape. Legend has it that St Andrew refused to be crucified upon the same kind of cross as Jesus, deeming himself unworthy, yet the St Andrew’s Cross, the Saltire, is now the emblem of Scotland in his honour.
Deeper into the crypt and there were the ornate tombs of the later centuries, carved with skulls and representations of a personified Death and the triumph of the soul. Many inscriptions are still clear, including one from 1676, “If simple straightforwardness of soul strews our way to the stars… no-one more than thou, brother…”
The symbols are strange to our eyes and understanding as the shift from a very simple faith was coloured by social as much as spiritual standing. We seemed to be being immersed deeper and deeper in the past, seeking to see and understand the minds of those who had gone before. I turned and glimpsed a spectral monk watching from above the stairs… for a moment he looked real and though he would not have been the first thing I had seen on this trip, the shadows of the past are not normally so vivid!
There was still one room of the little museum left to see across the corridor apparently. They had managed to pack as much into these small rooms as we do into a day somehow. There was even a stone that for some reason seemed to have the Egyptian solar disc carved upon it! We were already buzzing with what we had seen so far and expected pretty much more of the same… we certainly weren’t expecting what we found…
Sarcophagus and Standing Crosses
I think both our jaws must have hit the floor as we hit the jackpot. The third room of the little museum seemed to bring together all the threads of the skein that we had been following on our travels. A house-shaped stone… thought to be a grave marker; carved with tiles and looking very like our hogback stones… carved crosses, standing cross shafts… an assortment of heads… and a huge sarcophagus… all just assembled together and waiting for us, while strange beasts and the birds, frozen in stone by the mason’s skill, watched our wonder.
I didn’t know where to begin… My companion headed for the Pictish cross slabs, but the sarcophagus drew me. All I could see of it at this stage was its shape and the end panel, intricately carved with an equilateral cross. In two opposing corners, twin serpents curl around an orb, in the other two twin figures that look like children at play. From here it seemed as if the two end panels might be intact, one side and some of the corner supports.
I wandered round to the left towards the more obvious damage, saving what appeared to be the intact side panel for last… like a child eating the cabbage first, as grandma had taught me so long ago, and saving the best bits till last. The boards gave a little history. The sarcophagus had been discovered in 1833 in the abbey precinct, its pieces separated. It dates back to around AD750… the Dark Ages. Yeah right… very ‘dark’ judging by the sophistication of the design and the artistry…
It is believed to have been made for the Pictish King Óengus (729 -761) though it may have been used to inter his predecessor Nechtan. It was made to be displayed and would have stood in the church… it is thought that the cross would have faced the congregation The slab roof is completely missing, which is a great pity as it must have been magnificent if the rest of the sarcophagus was anything to judge by…
The other end panel proved to be mere fragments… intriguing though, as once again the ‘twin’ theme was carried through, only this time it seemed to be dragons and what looked to be rather like dogs. Dredging my memory I am sure there was a mythological connection between dogs and the sun… which would have tied in with the orbs at the other end. The corner supports were heavy pillars of stone, carved in the deepest relief with entwined serpents. I might have been able to make more sense of them if I hadn’t been felled by the remaining side panel.
A large imperial figure, dressed like a Roman Emperor serenely holds the jaws of a lion, very reminiscent of the Tarot card of Strength and symbolically signifying perhaps the same thing, at least on one level; the strength of the King to protect his people. In the centre is a hunting scene full of exotic animals… we don’t have monkeys in Britain for a start! A horseman rides amongst the animals and a hunter with a spear. It is an incredible piece of art; the sculpture and still crisp and fresh even after twelve hundred and fifty years.
You know, from this country, as from many others, we travel the world in search of art, antiquities and history. Yet here, on a January day that looked like spring, in a small coastal town, we had found treasures we could not have imagined. I always wanted to travel the globe and see so many places… all for their beauty or archaeology… and no doubt, were I to get the chance I would still take it. But the burning desire has gone; there is too much to see in this little cluster of isles we call Albion… more than I could see in a lifetime. If I spend the rest of my days looking at weathered stone circles and fragmentary ghosts of the past it will be more than enough for me.
There was so much to see… in three little rooms alone we had enough to keep us thinking and pondering the meanings of geometries, symbols and myths almost indefinitely… and that was without everything else we had seen or were yet to discover. I think we both needed air by this time, so we wandered out into the vast expanse of the cloisters, through the Norman arch and into the sunlit precinct where centuries of our ancestors seemed to smile fondly at these children who know so little and who can merely gaze in wonder at the traces they have left behind.
Wings and a Prayer
It was eleven o’clock by the time we emerged, a little dazed, out into the sunshine. The ground was still frozen and shaded patches of frost lingered. Otherwise, you would have thought it was spring. We strolled through the burial grounds of the precinct, pausing to look at the remains of St Rule’s little church with its incongruous tower that still rises high above the town. The Abbey is built on what seems to be a small promontory of rock that rises above the twin beaches.
There were birds everywhere. Mainly seagulls of course, but robins, oystercatchers and thrushes too… We had seen an incredible variety of birds on the trip so far… and so many hawks of all kinds and none seemed to be in a hurry to fly away. A few of the seagulls evidently wanted to be immortalised on film… some of them appeared intent on showing me their best side and I had a veritable photoshoot going on with them at one point as we meandered through the graves, ancient and modern.
It felt as if we were slipping between the wings of time, as age upon age drew us deeper into the past. St Rule’s predates the Abbey; the church with its tower was built around AD1130, probably for the new Augustinian canons. Beyond the precinct walls, a small plateau holds the remains of an even earlier religious settlement, where the Culdees lived in devout community.
The Culdees lived the ascetic and eremitical life of monks, though it appears they took no monastic vows. Their communities were at the heart of the Ionian Christianity of the Celtic Church that was to be subsumed by Rome in the twelfth century. Wherever we have found traces of the Culdees, we have also found a spirit of deep peace and reverence for the land.
The Culdee communities seem, in some intangible way, even now to celebrate the beauty and majesty of Creation. Looking out over the remnants of their home to the sea I was reminded of a few lines from the Lorica of St Patrick and wondered if this reflected something deep within the nature-based Christianity that we had lost with the shift in power towards Rome.
I arise today, through the strength of Heaven:
light of Sun, brilliance of Moon, splendour of Fire,
speed of Lightning, swiftness of Wind, depth of Sea,
stability of Earth, firmness of Rock.
The Lorica of St Patrick (5th-8thC)
Further back still we went as we walked, passing innumerable monuments in the shape of the solar cross, and what looked to be an ancient well in the burial ground, though it could just as easily have been the entrance to a crypt made to seem like a cavern. There appeared to be a cyst or pool at the end of it, filled now with earth and the sad neglect of plastic. I can find no mention of it.
The Culdee church is known as St Mary on the Rock, or St Mary of Kilrymont. St Andrews had been settled as far back as 4,500 BC. The earliest recorded name for the place was Mucrois, which means ‘boar’s head’. The name evolved, eventually becoming Cennrigmonaid, (Anglicised to Kilrymont) around AD370, Gaelic for ‘the head of the King’s mount’. When the relics of St Andrew were brought here and their veneration began, the town was renamed for the saint. We followed yet another robin who led us back towards the remnants of St Rule’s and the tower. We were, of course, going to have to climb it…
High as the Sun…
The parking ticket was heading towards its last hour as we headed for the remains of St Rule’s church within the Abbey precinct. The little church was built in AD1130 and although only a shell now remains, its tower still rises a hundred feet high above the frozen earth. And we were going to climb it. Of course we were. All a hundred and fifty-six steps.
The entrance is narrow and awkward through a rotating turnstile. It was tight even with a handbag and camera. Let’s just say that you wouldn’t want to get much broader in the beam before trying to get through. Which is really just as well because after a few modern steps, a short spiral of metal and a little half landing, you are climbing up a very narrow, winding staircase, with a long drop to the bottom.
You do, however, get to glimpse the ghost of the church… a bricked up doorway, and intriguing alcove, an armorial device surmounted by a cross… Then a little higher are the niches that would have held a statue… of St Andrew, perhaps, whose relics were once housed here until the religious upheavals of 1559 led to the destruction the shrine. The relics were lost… destroyed, removed or hidden. It is not known what happened to them, though the Roman Catholic Cathedral in the town now houses relics of the saint in the national shrine, gifted to St Andrews by the Archbishop of Amalfi and the Pope.
Higher still and the staircase narrows even further, making passing anyone on the stairs an interesting proposition. And of course, we had to, as there were workmen consolidating the mortar… several of them… we got to know them almost intimately as we squeezed precariously past, the workmen either flattened against the outer wall or dangling perilously from the centre of the spiral.
It was worth it though. To stand up on the top of the tower, looking across to the hills, some white with snow that seemed out of place on this beautiful day. Below the whole of the Abbey precinct could be seen clearly. You could see, too, that this tower had been built as a beacon of faith to guide pilgrims to the shrine, towering above the surrounding buildings and landscape even today.
In front of us the town, behind us the sea. It would, if lit, have been a beacon from the sea too, standing high on its rock. To our left the road leading through the hills that we had travelled that morning. And to our right the castle, its curtain wall enclosing it’s space as it has for centuries.
The castle had been the principal seat of the bishops of St Andrews for whom it was built at the beginning of the twelfth century. We had been advised to visit the place to see the mines and countermines and the infamous bottle dungeon, hewn from solid rock, for the castle had played a major part in the events of the Scottish Reformation, until its last occupant, Archbishop John Hamilton was hanged in 1571 for his support of Mary Queen of Scots. The castle fell into disrepair and in 1801 the great hall fell into the sea and was lost.
The sea wall was built to prevent further erosion in 1886, but standing on the tower, watching the endless wash of the waves, it is evident that without our continued intervention nature would take back even the stone of the wall that keeps her at bay. Nature has one thing we do not… she has time. A thousand years… to us a history, to her a single heartbeat. The light shifts and changes, the sea reflects the ever-changing colours of the sunlit sky. So many changes in our beliefs and viewpoints, in our expression of faith and the communities we form, just on this one single spot. Yet beneath the hewn stone and the tarmac, the earth has not changed, but remains constant, even in her seeming changes of climate and season.
Far away my eyes find a pathway on the surface of the sea. On the horizon, the shadow of a phantom isle plays with the clouds. Beneath the waves was once a country, populated by man and beast… a whole continent that we now call Doggerland. The hunters then could have walked from here to Denmark in the east, Ireland in the west. Just a mere eight thousand years ago. Not so very long against the lifetime of the earth.
Looking down on the tiny figures and great edifices from this height, we can see the fragile life of man set against the immensity of the earth. Birds fly through the air, lichens grow on the stones we have shaped, a black dog plays on the sand… fish swim still in the sea. And man walks or drives his machines and thinks himself immortal. Such moments in such places shift the perspective indelibly.
Just when you thought we must surely be moving into the next day’s adventure now… we went for lunch. It seemed a reasonable thing to do at quarter to twelve. I, at least, was in serious need of the grounding effects of food before getting back behind the wheel of the car. Soup and a sandwich later, we were once again pointing hopefully north. I attempted to point out another of those delightful old hotels to which I had been used to deliver on my weekly run around the country, back in the white van days. Apparently, they had demolished that one too, which seemed to be becoming a bit of a feature. I was therefore glad we weren’t planning on staying in St Andrews for the night… We were hoping for Aberdeen and I knew a hotel there… well, it had been there, once upon a time!
We took the backroads again, passing close to the RAF station where my son had spent some time with the ATC in his teens and therefore approaching the bridge over the Firth of Tay from the east, which gives you chance to stop and look at the structure. At 1.4 miles long, it is one of the longest is Europe. The colours and the coastal light were amazing. We crossed, skirting the edge of Dundee and heading north. We had, very sensibly for once, taken the main road. We’d had the snow warnings and the warning lights were back on the dashboard. I was getting a little paranoid with every little cough, hesitation or splutter the engine made, recalling the recent debacle when she had died on me. Still, it is a nice stretch of road to drive. Then there was snow. Not much, in the grand scheme of things, but it was getting progressively worse the further north we went and the light was changing dramatically.
We saw a sign or something… I honestly can’t remember why we decided to cut across country again. Even looking at the map I can’t work out why we would have done so otherwise, but somehow or other we turned off the main road and headed for Brechin and parked up. No… that was it, we wanted a pub. We didn’t get one. What we got was a surprise. There was a sign for Brechin Cathedral… which, of course, we followed.
We knew nothing at all about the building and once upon a time would have dismissed it as ‘Victorian’. We have learned by now that the majority of church exteriors cannot be so easily dated or dismissed. The Cathedral, technically, isn’t, belonging to the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian. Even so, it dates back before the Scottish Reformation and the formal break with Rome. There are records of a Culdee community here going back at least as far as the 10th century, though the present church was begun around 1225. It is built of the warm, red stone so typical of the area… and very similar in colour to that of Chester. It has a solid, rooted feel to it. It also has a Round Tower… and that is rare.
Many were built in Ireland, but only two survive in Scotland. And we had fallen over one of them, quite by chance. It is a thousand years old at least and may be much older, dating back to the original church. The tower was built to be freestanding but was absorbed into the corner of the new church when it was built in the thirteenth century. Originally it appears to have had six floors; the ancient raised doorway still survives on the first floor, still bearing its carved crucifix.
It stands around eighty-five feet high, so I was quite glad that this was the one of the two you couldn’t climb! There were medieval stone coffins sheltering by the wall, carved faces and fantastic beasts… even one that looked rather like a certain canine of our acquaintance… The remnants of carvings over the doors… and doors that looked, after all, very shut. We did not expect the church to stand open. But it did. My companion entered while I took a picture of the doorway. There was an odd note in his voice…
“You’re not going to believe this….”
He was right, I couldn’t believe it. A whopping great Pictish Cross slab right opposite the door… and looking so fresh you wouldn’t believe it. Four letter words chased through my mind in lieu of superlatives, along with wondering why they had wasted my schooling with a year studying the history of tarmac when I could have been studying stuff like this.
The thing stands man-height, is carved of old red sandstone and is said to date to around the tenth century. The front shows a cross… not just any cross, mind you… the symbolism of square and circle will need some thinking about in that context. Again there are twin birds and twin figures, robed and holding what appear to be books. And that, with the interlaced carving, would have been enough.
But the back is carved too with what the information available calls ‘indeterminate figures’… though I have to say that there seem to be an awful lot of legs on that bottom creature… as many, say, as Sleipnir, the eight-legged steed of Odin. Which begs the question of who the other figures might be and will no doubt send us delving into the myths once more. And you then have to wonder about the two birds on the front of the cross… the doves of the Holy Spirit… or Hugin and Munin, the Ravens of Odin?
The official line is that we have King David battling the lion… which is how the St Andrews sarcophagus is interpreted… The mounted figure they posit to be Goliath and the eight-legged creature is supposed to be two creatures, ‘one half hidden’… which doesn’t seem to sit right with the way these things are usually carved. Or it could be an eight-legged steed after all, and ‘King David’ perhaps Odin battling Fenrir… but then, I’m no archaeologist … just intrigued.
It certainly wouldn’t be the first stone we have seen ancient crosses where symbols and stories of the old gods and the new were shown together. We have explored this in the Doomsday books. Perhaps such stones drew a parallel between the sacred stories of both traditions? Maybe they were used to teach or to show that the new came not to oust the old gods to but illuminate them? It is a possibility. And one with some basis in the historical record.
The Venerable Bede recorded in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, a copy of the letter written in AD601 which Pope Gregory sent to Abbot Mellitus, who was part of the papal mission to Britain. The instructions were clear… not to overthrow but to gently replace the indigenous faith:
“…that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let water be consecrated and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed there. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more freely resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they are used to slaughter many oxen in sacrifice to devils, some solemnity must be given them in exchange for this, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they should build themselves huts of the boughs of trees about those churches which have been turned to that use from being temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer animals to the Devil, but kill cattle and glorify God in their feast, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their abundance; to the end that, whilst some outward gratifications are retained, they may the more easily consent to the inward joys. For there is no doubt that it is impossible to cut off every thing at once from their rude natures…”
You just never know what you are going to stumble over if you keep your eyes open… and there was still enough in this quiet church to keep us occupied for a while. We hadn’t even started on the rest of the stones… and the windows were just glorious…
It Just Kept Coming…
The trouble with Brechin is that no sooner had you marvelled at the Aldbar Cross than you were confronted by the hogback… and all the rest of the stones safely stored in the corner. Now, we had, as you may recall, been foiled in our attempt to deliberately see the first hogback at Heysham in Lancashire, only to fall over them at every turn from that point onwards. So we had seen a few by this point… one just that morning. But none, I have to say, quite like this…
I studiously ignored it for a moment. I barely dare look, so went off to examine the collection of stones stored higgledy-piggledy in the corner. There was a consecration cross such as we had seen on many a church wall… fragments of decorative masonry and bits of crosses… even a small chunk of the roof-tile carving from another hogback… one of the type we were, by now, more used to seeing. It was no use, though. I was going to have to look eventually…
I had never seen anything like it before, though technically… apparently… the Brechin hogback is a ‘type A endbeast’. Honestly… What it is, in fact, is an incredibly beautiful and sinuous piece of the craftsman’s art. It is almost as long as I am tall… and that doesn’t take into account the missing length from the damaged end. It was, at one point, reused as a grave cover and bears a 17th century inscription on its underside. However, the stone itself is a thousand years old, probably contemporary with the Round Tower in whose shadow it lies.
The design is similar, if not symmetrical down both sides of the central spine. On each side, there is a pair of entwined beasts and a pair of figures, identified as being ecclesiastical by their accoutrements. Even here the theme of the twins carries through and I cannot help wondering how significant that is… how deep it goes. It is something we have come across so often now that there must be more meaning to it than we realise.
The ‘end beast’ though was the most fascinating thing… Two enormous eyes remain of the damaged head, making the spine of the stone the spine of the creature itself. The whole thing is covered in vines, curling and interlacing with the beasts and figures. It feels ‘alive’ somehow… not as if the decoration was imposed upon the skin of the strange stone creature, but as if the beast encompasses all within it somehow. As if it contains creation… I think of the World Serpent, of Ouroboros… I wonder how different their cyclical symbolism is from the Christian teachings of the Resurrection…
Then chuckle to myself as I realise I am at it again… I may have curbed my tongue this time but I would still have been burned at the stake by the Inquisition for some of the comparisons going through my mind. I am reminded, all of a sudden, of a medieval wall painting we had seen long ago in Broughton… a gruesome exhortation against blasphemy that shows in graphic manner what damage those guilty of that sin were inflicting on the ‘body of Christ’. The contrast was stark between the joyous, organic beauty of the early faith that seemed to celebrate the very laughter of the earth and the later, purgatorial dictates of zealots who deem there to be only one way to reach the Divine. Such suffering and grief that division has caused through all nations for so many centuries. Where, I wondered, had we gone wrong?
Glass and Stone
We left the corner of the church with the ancient stones to look around the rest of the little cathedral at Brechin. Normally you have to really look to find the treasures of history, but here we seemed to keep falling over them. The stained glass was incredible; mostly modern but full of light and some of the most vivid colour we have seen. The chancel is full of windows and very light, a great window with beautiful tracery illuminates the west. Both sides of the church have huge panes of art and, unusually, even the clerestory windows are glazed with stained glass representing the Celtic saints.
Our St Kentigern was there, under his nickname of St Mungo which means ‘good friend’ or ‘dear one’, a name said to have been given to him by St Serf who cared for him as a child. We’d come across him several times since Aspatria a few days before. There were all the major figures from the Bible including a stunning triple window from 1949 by Douglas Strachan showing David, Moses and Melchizedek.
But it was not all light and colour. There was the plague stone, referring back to the bubonic plague that struck the area. Dated 1647 it is inscribed: “Luna Quater Crescens Secentos Peste Peremptos Disce More Et Umbra Sumus.”, which means, roughly, “Four Quarter Crescents Of Moon. Six Hundred Persons Died Of The Pestilence.” There was a quiet, shadowed chapel whispering the memory of private prayer and at its entrance another medieval cross slab with the shears to cut the thread of life.
Then there was the font… very simple… Norman with carved arches on a modern base. What was mounted on the wall above it though was something else… ‘The Mary Stone’ said the inscription. Like one of the parishioners, apparently, who had thought the same for years, I had first assumed the central figure was holding a sheep, but no, it is a depiction of the Virgin holding the baby Jesus… so still the Lamb, perhaps.
The Pictish Cross is about three feet square. It was found buried in a garden in 1872 and dates back to around the ninth century. It appears to be the oldest Scottish stone to bear a Latin inscription, S.MARIA MR. XRI. (St Mary the Mother of Christ). She is surrounded by the evangelists, flanked by angels and what appears to be yet another raven. “Above the angels”, says the cathedral’s website, “is a bird, more crow than dove-like, representing the Holy Spirit.” So, I‘m not imagining things then…
Considering we had only stopped in Brechin to find a pub, we had stumbled over much more than we bargained for! However, the pub was now even more of a necessity than ever and we felt it was time to move on. Regaining the car we headed for the coast road again. The sky was darkening, the car dashboard worrying and the clouds heavy with potential snow. A little while later we sat in a tiny pub in Montrose and weighed up our options. Risk a sick car in the snow even further north…? Or take the coast road southwards again. Reluctantly we decided to turn south. We would not make our hoped for destination north of Aberdeen… but perhaps we could make it back to Edinburgh in time for dinner…
The Water of Leith
We left Montrose after no more than the visit to the pub. We may regret that, of course, having been led there pretty much by accident, but we were not aware of any particular reason for being there … other than the pub… time was getting on and the church looked closed for the day. And anyway, we were both disappointed at not making it as far as Boddam after all… and dinner was a long drive away. Nor had we any idea where we might be going to stay that night. We would see where we ended up.
The snow ceased and the hawks returned almost as soon as we left Montrose, so we were pretty sure we had made the right choice. Taking the coast road for a while through Arbroath to Dundee the sky softened to pastel and dinner or not, we had to stop. Just so I could take the odd picture of the changing light…
We crossed the Tay for the second time that afternoon then slipped, just for once, onto a slightly faster road and headed south towards Edinburgh. Both Stuart and I have friends in Leith, a district of the city that sits on the southern bank of the Forth of Firth so we decided to head that way in search of somewhere to eat… and left a message to see if one of our friends was free to join us.
Of course, we had to find the Quays first… the bit my companion remembered where he knew we would also find dinner. This proved a little problematic, but after all, you can only go so far when one part of the town meets the water. Finding the place we needed, we set off to walk beside the Water of Leith where the old port buildings and pubs have been given a facelift.
My companion sought a source of Guinness while I took a few opportunistic photos. We finally settled on the Kings Wark, on the waterfront… and old building with walls thick enough to withstand pretty much anything. Guinness and orange juice being duly provided… there are downsides to being the driver… we finally settled down to await a perfect meal of fish and chips…
“Happy Birthday,” I said… for yes, it was his birthday.
He raised his glass.
I raised my camera. It was a fair exchange.
Sadly our friend was not able to join us, so we went back to where we’d parked the car.. then I decided I needed to get a photo of the lights on the water. We walked to the end of the street and had the gift of a long-legged young fox unconcernedly walking right by us. I snapped… and got a mere ghost of two of the creature against the lights of the cars… but it was enough for us.
Musselburgh… there used to be a hotel… though given my luck so far they’d probably demolished it. It certainly wasn’t where it used to be. We’d go on to Prestonpans… Nothing. We stopped at the Wemyss Hotel in Longniddry… they had no rooms but kindly recommended a B&B. We tried another on the way… but both were full. In January?
“You could try Aberlady…” said the woman at the last of the two. It was late… we discussed parking by the beach and using the duvet I’d packed…But we’d try Aberlady first. It was on our way… and not far until we saw a hotel. But of course, I had shot past it in the dark and had to find somewhere to turn round. Pulling into a side street we passed another, simpler place… we decided to try there first.
The Old Aberlady Inn is a proper old Inn, sympathetically modernised and with roaring fires. We were greeted with warmth and smiles and escorted to comfort. There was everything we could need, even chocolates and little flasks of sherry with proper glasses in the rooms…Which was perfect and proved itself to be the water of Lethe. Before bed, however, I wandered down to the car to get something and caught sight of an information board about the village… Wandering over to have a look, I thought we might just have to explore a little before we left. Apparently, there was an old market cross near the church…And thus ended the sixth day… and I can’t believe it has taken me 15 posts to write about one day! How did we manage to fit it all in?!
We needed a walk after breakfast. We’d made a start on the fruit and cereals… and there was toast. We may not have bothered had we realised that the plates soon to be delivered would feed the pair of us for a week. We certainly wouldn’t need lunch…Two or even three of everything; all the usual suspects like eggs, bacon grilled tomatoes and sausages… but also potato scone, black pudding and haggis. The Old Aberlady Inn did us proud. We really needed a walk!
So off we went in search of the 18th century ‘Mercat Cross’ I had seen marked on the board the night before. We hadn’t far to walk… which was probably just as well… before we found it on the main street. We must have passed it in the dark last night. A thrush… a mistle thrush I think… looked down on our activities from an overhanging branch as we walked beyond the worn stones. We had spotted something else.
I’d seen something marked called the ‘loupin on stane’. The last word, I had understood, but it wasn’t until I saw the mounting block outside the church that the penny dropped and I understood the rest. Loupin-leaping-loping… stone steps to help those who needed it onto their horses after church. Of course!
We wandered into the graveyard, looking at the tombs. It was far too early to expect the kirk to be open, even in summer. In January we had no chance. There were a good many stones from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as the burials of the Earl of Wemyss and his family and a rather curious and weatherworn carving that caught my eye. Probably because of the twin theme again, even though this was only a few hundred years old.
We found more information boards behind the church looking out to sea, telling of the ancient hillfort that had stood here, the castle ruins and the smugglers cave that had, perhaps, once been a souterrain… those enigmatic underground spaces that could have been used for anything from storage to ritual. It was from Aberlady that the mother of St Kentigern who we had first met in Aspatria and kept stumbling across, is said to have been cast adrift in the coracle and there is evidence of yet another Culdee chapel that once stood close to the present church. There was, it seemed, a lot to explore here and, given the welcome we’d had, we would be more than happy to come back.
We wandered round to the door… we had to at least try after all. It was locked, of course, but I was looking at a photograph in the porch of the Aberlady High Cross… We had, it seemed, stumbled across another! Turning to leave we were greeted with a cheery good morning by a gentleman who introduced himself as the Beadle of the kirk. We were lucky, he said. Normally the church wouldn’t be open, but he had just popped along to put the heating on for the cleaners… he turned the key in the lock… Had we come to see the Aberlady carved stone?
We just looked at each other. A random stop in a random place, guided by the Wemyss Hotel… a random need for a walk right then… and we randomly arrive on the doorstep at just the right time to be allowed in and given a guided tour…? Even for us that is pushing coincidence a bit! And, apparently, there was a stone…
Dead Locks and Angels
We followed the Beadle in silence into the church, grateful for the history he was giving us about the place, as much for the information as for the fact that we had the chance to gather our wandering wits. I think we were both struck by the utter unlikelihood of the morning.
The church is beautiful… very simple and with much history tied up with the family of the Earls of Wemyss. The first thing we were shown was entirely unexpected… you don’t fall over sculptures by Antonio Canova every day … not in village churches anyway. There were other monuments, both incredible and discrete, including a simple plaque to Captain Hon. Walter Charteris, son of the 9th Earl, who was killed whilst serving with the Gordon Highlanders at Balaclava during the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854.
The windows, set deeply in the walls, are small jewels catching the light. Over the altar in the east the stained glass is by Edward Frampton, copied from the Sandro Botticelli painting of the Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ, which is in the possession of the Wemyss family. Other windows tell the story of the Life of Jesus. I particularly liked the Ascension… the arms, body and halo, with the light of the Holy Spirit descending, seem to echo the Celtic Cross above the altar.
And then of course, there was the stone… just a fragment, and a replica at that. Found in a garden wall in 1863, it is so similar to the nearby cross at Abercorn (which we didn’t know about..) that it is thought the two may be the work of the same craftsman. The back shows the Aberlady Angel, the front four seabirds with their necks and legs entwined forming the familiar ‘Celtic’ geometries. It is strikingly similar to a design in the 8th century Lindisfarne Gospel and may date from this time. Aberlady was on the pilgrim route from Iona to Lindisfarne… Holy Island where we were heading later that day.
Because of the Abercorn stone and some of the others that we had seen like Ruthwell, it had been possible for a master stonemason Barry Grove, to reconstruct the cross. We could see it in the memorial garden, the Beadle told us as he locked the church door behind us. He was sorry to hurry us… he really shouldn’t still be there… but he would show us the vestry in the base of the bell tower… The low arched ceiling with its trap door to the loft covered a tiny room. The church pewter sat on the windowsill below my favourite of the stained glass. The Beadle showed us the ‘dead locks’… huge padlocks used to secure the newly dead and told of older Beadles sitting guard over the graves, up in the tower, armed with guns to protect the dead from the bodysnatchers.
I have said before that we generally prefer to have the little churches we visit to ourselves, Sometimes we fall lucky and meet someone who knows and loves the old buildings, sharing their knowledge and their affection with warmth and simple pride. These meetings are as much a gift as any of the treasures we fall over. We took a reluctant leave of the old gentleman, following his instructions to see the oldest tomb in the churchyard before going to the memorial garden to see the reconstructed Aberlady Cross.
“Why is there a pyramid in the middle of East Lothian?” We’d both seen it before of course on our travels, but had never taken note in the way we do now that our adventures with the books have taught us so much. We knew it was close to North Berwick and I seemed to remember something being on top… Later research confirmed… North Berwick Law is a volcanic plug that stands some six hundred and thirteen feet above sea level on the flat plain. It is topped with an iron age hill fort of some complexity and remains from the Napoleonic and World Wars. It is topped by an archway of whalebones… once authentic, now replaced with a fibreglass replica donated by a friend of the town. For once neither of us suggested climbing it. We were on a mission.
“We’ve got to stop at the public toilets in North Berwick.” I was dubious. Not that we needed the facilities, having but recently left Aberlady, but, I was informed, they put flowers in them. Now, ladies, you know this is not so infrequent an occurrence, though municipal toilet blocks do tend towards the utilitarian to be fair, but I hardly liked to mention that to my friend. The gentlemen, apparently, are not so well treated. If he wanted to visit the floral delights of the public conveniences I was not about to throw a rub in his way. And I would take the camera. Not into the Gents, you understand. I would do my own research. There is pleasure… and a fair amount of laughter…in simple things. However, as is usually the case when you do need these places, we couldn’t find one.
“Er, what’s that?”
“I already am…” We got out of the car. Heading towards the sea we had spotted a tall cross of Celtic style. For a moment, silhouetted against the sky, it could have been any age, but it soon resolved itself. It was a memorial to nineteen year old Catherine Watson who drowned in 1889 saving the life of a drowning boy. My companion, however, was already off towards a small, white harled building behind it.
I walked through the door in his wake… and into a chapel. All that remains of St Andrew’s Old Kirk. I read the boards. There had been a small chapel here as early as the 7th century, it is thought. Probably built by monks from Lindisfarne, the Holy Island. Later a church was built. A sanctuary cross has been found, marking it as a place where those in trouble with the law could seek refuge. Several grave markers, including one for a twelfth century knight stood around the little room. A cast for making pilgrims badges was recovered… and the pins that held the shrouds of early residents of the graveyard here, buried without coffins in unmarked graves which, as the board gleefully informed its reader, made grave digging a messy business.
We walked out into what remains of the foundations of a church that was swept into the sea in the storm of 1656. There had been those who called it divine retribution as the church had garnered a sinister reputation. When King James I of England and VI of Scotland sailed home with his bride, Anne of Denmark in 1589 their voyage was attended by storms. Rumours that demons had been sent to attack their ships sprang up and convictions of witchcraft abounded on both sides of the sea. James instigated the infamous North Berwick Witch Trials. Many were tortured to confession by the most barbaric methods and burnt at the stake. The little Old Kirk was said to be the place where the accused had gathered to meet the Devil.
We walked on to the point of the rock that separates the two beaches. Now the Scottish Sea Bird Centre looks across to Bass Rock, sporting modern sculptures of the birds and seals. Much of the time white with gannets, all we could see was the white of the old lighthouse. There are caves and a castle, as well as a hermit’s cell and chapel there too and its shape had become familiar on our trip round the coast. But as I said, we were on a mission and for once we had to watch the clock. We didn’t want to miss the tide.
For with the flow and ebb, its style
Varies from continent to isle;
Dry shod o’er sands, twice every day
The pilgrims to the shrine find way;
Twice every day the waves efface
Of staves and sandalled feet the trace.
Sir Walter Scott
We arrived an hour before the tide would come in, drowning both the causeway and the ancient pilgrim route that still crosses the sands and the mudflats. It would either be a flying visit where we would see little, or we could choose to wait until the tide went out, some eight hours later to leave Holy Island. The causeway would be lost beneath the sea and the Island would become itself for a while, cut off from the world and a place of utter peace at this time of year… We weren’t in a hurry.
We parked the car and walked down to where we could see the castle. My companion had never visited Lindisfarne before and I had managed only the briefest of visits, always ruled by the tide and other obligations. This time we could explore. We drove slowly across the causeway. The sands and grasses of the dunes seem not to form a clear delineation between sea and shore and it seems odd to drive where you know there will soon be waves.
This would be my first winter visit and therefore the first time I had seen the island itself. Normally there is the façade provided for tourist and pilgrim… for this is still a place of reverence, even today. There were very few people about, mostly the odd islander walking a dog or going quietly about their life in the unaccustomed silence. Holy Island was closed for the winter.
None of the little gift shops would open before February, the Scriptorium and museum were closed. But there was bound to be a pub open and that would be our first stop. We had eight hours to explore. It is not a big island… three miles long by a mile and a half wide… but it has a history worth the telling and a rich and varied wildlife.
Today around a hundred and sixty people live on the island yet 650,000 people visit every year. Most visitors come in warmer weather and leave before the crossing is closed by the sea. I was glad we were here in winter and would stay while the sea came in. We almost had the island to ourselves it seemed, except for a solitary walker, who silently trod the pilgrim’s path.
Out to the Castle
We had found a pub and, duly watered and warmed by the coal fire of the Crown and Anchor, had wandered out to look around. The tide was still out, but the few visitors were already making their way back to their cars. We walked out along the deserted path towards the castle, passing only the obligatory black dog and his owner on the way.The history of the island goes back to the earliest times, with finds dating to right to Mesolithic times including a quarry for flint with which the sharp tools were made. There are many birds… both seabirds and the more familiar birds of the land. The light sparkles on the water, glittering motes more precious than jewels, born of sun and sea… the essence of the life of earth. There is always something quite primal in being on an island, and though Albion herself is an island we forget that readily when we live inland. Here we are reminded as the sea closes in behind us and we no longer have a choice whether we go or stay.
We would have stayed the night, waking to dawn on the sea, but many places were closed, others expensive. Instead, we would cross the causeway after dark. For now, though, the afternoon still waited to be explored. The castle loomed over us, perched upon its rock. It would be closed, but then, we had not come here to wander its rooms.
The castle was built around 1550 upon the highest point of the island, a hill called Beblowe. Many of its stones were taken from the Priory which had fallen into disuse. It had been the site of a previous fortification, but little more than turf ramparts it would seem. The castle was constructed and held a small garrison. It saw service in the Jacobite uprising and had eventually been used by the coastguard when it was found by publisher Edward Hudson, the owner of Country Life magazine.
Hudson engaged Sir Edwin Lutyens to refurbish the castle in the Arts and Crafts style and Gertrude Jekyll designed the gardens, making it a beautiful holiday home for its owner. Today it is in the care of the National Trust. In summer there is a steady stream of visitors climbing the steep slope to the gate.
Over the water, Bamburgh Castle is outlined in the haze and the tall stone obelisks of Guile Point guide boats into the little harbour. We stopped to watch another robin leading us onward it seemed, beyond the sheds made of upturned boats towards a small outcrop of rock that looks towards the open sea. We watched the water… for a while there was nothing else.
Then a flash of movement caught my eye. I raised the camera, ever hopeful… and caught a kestrel hunting. Joined by its mate they flew over the roof of the castle, the pair silhouetted against the sky. Walking back towards the village I spotted one of them sitting on a post… then noticed its mate a few feet away. We watched them for a good while, with me inevitably snapping away. They too were watching…us.
A Tide of Silence
Winter on Holy Island, it seems, is silent save for the song of the waves and the cry of the gull. The visitors had left; the locals all seemed to be indoors. It was as if we shared the island only with the birds. Which meant, of course, that we were hugely outnumbered.
They were everywhere. Another robin, blackbirds and gulls… doves and sparrows. A posse of chickens ahead of us on the path… and we had the kestrels. And that was without the mallards, the lapwings and the heron caught on camera sneaking along the line of a fence. He obviously thought he was in stealth mode…
The place is a paradise for birdwatchers… and seals are common here too. But the fading light made it impossible to see if the movement in the waves were shadows or these creatures of the deep, and we felt that rather than watching the birds, they were watching us. We seemed to be constantly accompanied by feathered sentinels, and we went where they led and saw what they guided our gaze to see.
There was, for a little while, no other way to be. The waves had closed around Holy Island and a silence unknown on the mainland descended. We walked back to the pilgrim’s path and saw how the sea had taken both it and the road. It is a strange feeling, knowing there is no way back, even when it is only for a few hours. It is one I could get used to.
“I want to live on an island…”
“You already do…” Well, yes, I know… but here I could walk from shore to shore in an hour at the pace of the sheep. It is easy to see why it had become a place of spiritual retreat very early in its history.
St Aidan was sent from Iona, the heart of Christianity in the north at that time, to found a small monastery on Lindisfarne around 634AD on land granted to him by King Oswald of Northumbria. He was succeeded as abbot on his death in 651 by Finan, and it was he who baptised Paeda, son of Penda, the last pagan king of Mercia thus bringing Christianity to the heart of the land.
The monastery later passed to the care of St Cuthbert. He was born into a noble family around 634AD. Many stories of miracles grew around his life, giving him the title of Wonder Worker of Britain amongst the common people. He was known for his kindness and generous heart. He chose to live an ascetic life and withdrew from the world when he could to live in solitude.
Just below where we would stand to watch the sunset is St Cuthbert’s Isle… a tiny rocky outcrop little bigger than a modern house. The remains of a chapel and the circular earthwork that may have been his home still stand in the shadow of a simple cross.
Strangely enough, St Cuthbert who had been born in the Borders through which we had driven, had also built a small hermitage in what is now St Andrews… where we had been the day before… and a shrine was raised to house his remains in Durham Cathedral. Although we didn’t yet know it, we would pay our respects there the next day.
We watched the sea hold the island in its embrace and walked quietly to the little church that sits in the shadow of the ruined Priory. There is something about the place, when the sea opens and closes the doors to the world that invites quiet contemplation. We could feel why it was a perfect site for a monastery and why those who came as pilgrims long ago still came today. Even if their Path is not identical to our own, there is a kinship and when there is nothing but the wind, the waves and the vault of the sky, divinity seems very close and touches the heart with its presence.
The Parish Church of Saint Mary the Virgin on Holy Island is thought to stand on the spot where St Aidan founded the first small church around 634AD. Bede wrote of the old church that it was a thatched affair, built with old oak and unsuitable for Abbot or Bishop. A later stone church was built, and eventually the Priory that now stands in skeletal splendour against the sky.
There has been a place of Christian worship on this spot for some fourteen hundred years. Within the fabric of the chancel parts of the original seventh-century stone building remain, making it the oldest structure on the island to still bear a roof. St Cuthbert would have prayed here.
The little church served the community of monastery and islanders during the height of the golden age of Northumbria, when the Lindisfarne Gospels were created… the fabulously and meticulously illuminated manuscripts that still survive today, the cover in almost pristine condition, each page a masterpiece of art and detail… a work of dedication and faith.
The manuscripts were produced around 700AD… the exact date uncertain, given how long they would have taken to craft. It is thought they were made in commemoration of St Cuthbert by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 and until his death in 721. Today a replica is displayed in the church and the carpets before the altars are designed as copies from the pages.
The church and monastery continued until the Viking raids began on 8th June 793AD. The raids continued and the monastery was abandoned in 875, leaving, it is thought, only a small community of monks on the island. The relics of St Cuthbert were taken to safety. When the saint had died, his coffin had been opened nine years later and his body found to be incorrupt. The relics were revered.
Today a statue called The Journey, by Fenwick Lawson, stands in the aisle, remembering the long and varied story of Cuthbert’s travels after death. When his coffin was opened again in 1104 a book was found… a tiny Gospel of John, measuring only three-and-a-half by five inches. The book is now in the British Library… the oldest surviving Western book in its original binding.
There were also vestments placed in the tomb by King Æthelstan who ruled from 927 to 939AD, made from rare Byzantine silk and embroidered with what has been called a ‘nature goddess’ pattern. These too still survive.
Most of the current building dates to the twelfth century. The Benedictine monks of Durham began to rebuild the church around 1120 and continued into the 1200s. It is a lovely old place, gently restored in 1860 with oak and pine lending further warmth to the glow of the stone.
There is light and colour from stained glass and paintings echoing the earlier work. Many of the windows understandably bear scenes with fishermen and boats. The island owes its daily living to the sea. The light was red gold on the stones of church and priory, flaring like a beacon as we left to head up to the Heugh, a high point overlooking St Cuthbert’s little island, to watch the sun as it sank towards dusk.
We walked up to the Heugh, a high point of the island, to watch the sun set in the west. Once there was a fort here and some of the ruined walls remain, providing a little shelter from the prevailing wind. There are the remains too of the Lantern Chapel that may have been a beacon and lookout point.
The view from here today is spectacular, looking inland onto the ruins of the twelfth-century Priory, eastwards to the castle and along the coast of the mainland to where the silhouette of Bamburgh castle punctuates the horizon and the day markers of Guile Point reach for the sky.
The light was amazing, turning the pink sandstone to red then gold, painting the landscape with long shadows and glittering on the water, casting an aurulent pathway to the sun. Below we could see the little spit of land, no more than a sea rock cut off from the island by the tide, where St Cuthbert’s chapel once stood.
A simple cross stands on the tiny islet. It was to here the saint retreated in search of solitude, and later further still to the island of Farne. Legends say that like St Francis his rapport with the birds and beasts was great. He would talk to the birds that flocked around him and the seals would come and sit at his feet, warming them against the frozen north wind that blew across the sea.
Certainly, the birds were still with us as we climbed past the simple memorial cross, designed by Lutyens in memory of those who lost their lives to war. The shocking number of crosses at its foot may be more a reflection of those who remain than the number of dead, but the tiny population of the island means that few families escaped unscathed from the conflict.
From here we could look down into the precinct of the Priory, seeing the lovely rainbow arch, the remains of the old crossing tower and the plan of the precinct. This corner of the island, with the village nestled against it, is the home of so much history.
The ruined priory had been the home of monks and the artistry that created the Lindisfarne Gospels. It had seen the lives of saints unfold through the 7th century and known the rabid bloodshed of the Danes when they decimated the little community. And yet, for fourteen hundred years, the light of their faith had been kept burning.
We watched, gradually becoming colder and colder, as the sun sank behind the distant hills. The chill barely mattered in face of such beauty. Plumes of birds flew overhead in the silence, solitary wings crossed the aureate glow and cries of haunting magic drew us into their spell.
We watched until the last sliver of gold poured itself along the hilltops, then, as the light changed once more, made our way back to the village and the warmth of the fire in the Crown and Anchor. There we partook of suitable refreshment before a wander back to the car beneath the crescent moon to collect the laptop.
We whiled away the time until the tide would turn, working on a project near completion in the homely warmth of the pub, surrounded by the unmistakable smell of coal fires and childhood. It was pitch black by the time we were ready to leave and make the crossing back to the mainland as the tide receded from the causeway.
The drive was surreal. There are no lights to guide you, no kerbs to prevent straying, no luminous paint or glowing cats eyes… just a flat causeway snaking through the sand in the dark, gleaming with seaweed and receding water. It didn’t help that one of my headlight bulbs chose that moment to fail. The layer of deposited sand made it impossible to see the edges of the roadway and it is not a drive I will forget in a hurry. There seems nothing but you and the sea… the world stops. But then, it had been slowing all afternoon and had disappeared with the sun. It had been a time out of the world somehow… a threshold crossed into a magical land; an island beyond the mists of time.
It was getting late by the time we left the island. Ten miles back to the last hotel we had passed or forge ahead and see what happened? We forged ahead and fell lucky, finding a little place north of Alnwick where we could spend the night. Next morning we were up and away early, breaking our fast on the provisions with which we had stocked the car… and deciding, in true Hobbit fashion, that second breakfast could be had in Durham.
We found a superb little place in the city centre… the Jumping Bean Café. I warn you, stay clear… unless, of course, you want to end up addicted to crumpets covered in toasted cheese. In which case, I highly recommend it. We looked at the artwork on the walls and watched a pied wagtail on the decking as we waited, curious to taste this unheard-of combination. Cheesey crumpets were, we decided after the first bite, definitely the way forward…
The police had reopened the bridge across the river by the time we had done; the body floating in the water had been recovered and turned out to be no more than a log washed downstream. We wandered through the ancient alleyways… ginnels we would call them in Yorkshire… and up towards the castle and Cathedral. A huge memorial cross in the Celtic style dominates the green, but is dwarfed beside the majesty of the cathedral itself.
Now, you’ll have to excuse me but there are a couple of things that get my goat and I fail to understand either of them. No flash photography within the Cathedral… no photographs in the chapels set aside for prayer… those I can understand. The first may cause damage to delicate materials… and I never use a flash in historic places for that reason. The second is unfair and distracting to those who are simply there to pray.
But no photography at all… sometimes ‘for copyright reasons’… on a building whose copyright probably ran out the best part of a millennium ago… this I fail to understand. Obviously they want you to buy their illustrated guides. But then there is copyright on the images…
Unfortunately the first thing I ever do when walking into any church is turn towards the altar end with the camera and take at least one picture. For the colours we talked about in The Initiate… So I had taken two pictures before we got in as far as the sign that said we couldn’t.
The other thing, that really gets to me…of which Durham at least, I have to say, is not guilty is charging entry. To a church. Either a house of prayer, or important parts of the national history and heritage, depending upon your religious bias. And some of them charge £18 per person. Which makes it excedingly expensive to visit, say, Westminster Abbey… Now, I know these buildings take a lot of upkeep and the cost of renovation and preservation is huge. But make it discretionary, please. Or charge an affordable price at least. Charge, by all means, to visit the bits normally out of bounds… like the tower or the crypt … that’s fair enough. It makes it a choice. It doesn’t prohibit people from visiting these wonderful buildings on purely economic grounds. Even Jesus got angry at usury in the Temple…
As a matter of course we always leave a donation in the boxes of the little places we visit…or buy their guides… We value our history deeply and want to see it preserved for future generations to enjoy as much as we do. But charging entry at such elevated prices? It only serves to exclude the poor and make family visits an expensive experiment.
I know that entry is usually free to the services held in the chapels of these great buildings, but for those who wish to touch the heart of the nation’s history and perhaps show their children the wonders they themselves saw when they were young… it should not become a financial impossibility surely?
Okay, I’ll shush and we’ll continue the tour…
The cathedral of Durham is one of the finest Norman buildings and a World Heritage site. It stands on a rocky height above a loop in the River Wear, a perfect place defensively. At the time of its establishment it fell under the protection of the Earl of Northumberland, a kinsman of the Bishop.
History tells how the relics of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne were borne with love by his Brethren to Chester-le-Street when the raids of the Danes forced them to flee Holy Island in 875AD, taking the relics with them. A shrine was set up there to the saint, but they were obliged to leave there too in 995. Legend tells they wandered until, following two milkmaids searching for a dun cow, the coffin became immovable. This was taken as a sign that here the new church should be built. On the external walls a carving can be seen of the milkmaids and the cow… and a nearby street bears the name of the Dun Cow.
Initially a small wooden structure was raised, then enlarged to house the relics of the saint. In 1080 William of St. Carilef was installed as the first prince-bishop by William the Conqueror and it was he who caused the building of the present Cathedral, which continued after his death.
The massive pillars, carved with the distinctive Norman chevron resemble those of Dunfermline Cathedral and as there were ties between the two it is thought the same masons may have worked on both buildings.
St Cuthbert’s relics were installed in a new shrine behind the altar of the cathedral. When the tomb was opened in 1104 the tiny Gospel that belonged to the saint was removed along with the silk vestments laid there by King Æthelstan in the 10th century. The Gospel is preserved in the British Library, the vestments remain one of the finest examples of Anglo-Saxon embroidery.
The shrine itself was destroyed at the time of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, but the relics were spared. Cuthbert’s coffin was later preserved when the tomb was again opened in 1827, reconstructed to show the rare carved Saxon wood and a gold and garnet cross recovered that has become an emblem of the saint.
There is a legend that tells that the real remains of Cuthbert were removed from the tomb before Henry VIII’s officials arrived at the cathedral; his body replaced with that of a more recently deceased monk. The tale says that to this day only twelve brothers know the true location of the saint’s relics and as one dies, the secret is passed on. Fact or fiction? We will probably never know.
Cuthbert is not the only saint whose remains are housed at Durham. The Venerable Bede, writer of the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, called the first historian of Britain lies beneath a marble slab, along with many figures known to history. It is a beautiful place… The rose window above the Chapel of Nine Altars is worth the trip all on its own.
Yet perhaps the single detail that brought home the human side of the church was the bronze door knocker on the huge North Door. This is the symbol of the tradition of Sanctuary offered by the cathedral to all those who were in trouble with the law… a law much harsher once upon a time than it is now. The present knocker is a perfect replica of the twelfth century lion fugitives would use to attract the attention of the clergy. Once within the church they would don a black robe with a yellow cross of St Cuthbert on the shoulder. They would confess their crime to the clergy who would then care for them, house and feed them for thity seven days, after which they had to leave, either to their death by execution, or to be escorted by the constables to a seaport where they would to leave the country. In a harsh world, this may have been the only hope for those accused of serious crime.
Opposite the cathedral stands a Norman castle and keep, part of the Palatinate of the Prince-Bishops of Durham and still in use today. I was glad to have seen the place, but it was a fleeting visit. We had smaller fish to fry on the North Yorkshire coast. Smaller… but far more satisfying…
… And suddenly we were in Yorkshire again, where our trip together had begun. It was almost over. But then, Yorkshire is a big county… we had things still to see and another night before we headed back to Sheffield. The weather had curiously turned bleaker and colder the further south we went and there was more snow in Yorkshire than we had seen in Scotland save on the distant mountains.
We turned once more to the coastal roadwhose western counterpart had served us so well through Cumbria and Scotland and headed southwards to the tiny village of Lythe, just north of Whitby. Friends had told us there were Saxon remains there in the church, though we had little idea what to expect. We had seen a couple of pictures, but were, perhaps, less than enthusiastic as we squelched through the mud of the farm track where we had parked and walked through the biting wind to the tiny church of St Oswald. In fact, what we expected was to find that it was locked.
We were, however, in luck, and by a curious coincidence, the couple just leaving had signed the visitors’ book and were from the same district in Sheffield as my companion. I would urge anyone visiting the old churches to sign the books… funding for the preservation of many of these historic sites can be influenced by the number of visitors.
A simple little place, St Oswald’s. Very much what we have come to expect. A wooden church from around 900AD, replaced by stone in Norman times, probably around 1200AD. A central nave, aisles north and south and a raised chancel beyond the arch. Very pretty, very peaceful… and lovely stained glass in the windows. A very fine modern screen, dating from 1910, separates nave from choir, and the ceiling is painted. Sadly, many of the original Norman features were lost during nineteenth century restoration, as is the case with so many of our old churches.
The best bit for us was the west end of the church… neatly turned out as a mini museum to house a collection of ancient stones, complete with a comprehensive set of information. We had fragments of carved crosses and hogback stones; Viking and Saxon stonework… a medieval Green Man… and some wonderful imagery to work with. And, had we been able to predict when we would actually make it to Lythe, there is a crypt full of other stones that can be seen by appointment…!
The hogback bears an incised image of the Lythe ‘gingerbread man’. He does look remarkably like the modern confection, but has a far more interesting story to tell. The hogback was placed in the churchyard almost a hundred years ago during a renovation and left to gather moss. When it was cleaned in 2007 the figure was uncovered. I have to say, I entirely approve of many of the information boards in this little museum… particularly as they accord with some of the conclusions to which we had already been brought as we work on our books together.
Then there were the wrestlers. The footwork looks fairly self-explanatory on the humans, though the characters involved are up for debate. On the other hand the horse-like beast below the two figures seems to have scales and appears at least to have an unconscionable amount of legs yet again. Say, for instance, about eight, which of course brings us back to Brechin, Bakewell and the other stones depicting Odin’s steed, Sleipnir. Though admittedly, it is difficult to be sure what were carved as legs and what is damage after over a thousand years.
But then we have to mention the tympanum, though I’m not entirely sure what to say… A fragment of a twelfth century panel that would have filled the arch of the Norman door. The inscription says it is probably a passage from Genesis referring to Adam, Eve and the Tree of Life. If so, I have to say, the imagery seems a tad unorthodox and the symbolism leaves much open to question.
The Cross head is unusual in Yorkshire, having more in common with the Irish High Crosses than local work. It dates from the mid 800s to 900s AD. The back of the cross is simple interlaced carved with a central boss. The central head on the front face bears no halo and ‘may not be a representation of Christ’. Either way, it is a beautiful thing and the purple of the heather before it seemed perfect to me. It would of course. The heather covered hills of Yorkshire are my home… even covered in snow.
A bitterly cold day in mid-January is not, I have to say, the ideal time to go to the seaside. Especially not in North Yorkshire. But go we did. I have fond memories of Whitby as a child… sitting on the beach in summer, huddled in a sweater and drinking Horlicks brought on a tray from the café at the top of the slip. I brought my own children here when they were very young too, though to be fair, it was at least slightly warmer. Probably not quite as icily cold.
Not that I cared. I love Whitby and it has roots in my family: I pointed out the house one of my ancestors used to live in a few centuries ago. I had been delighted when I traced the family back to a specific house still standing from seventeenth century Whitby and one of these days may see how far back that association went. My companion too has links with Whitby, though they are of a more mysterious nature and my lips are sealed… First things first though. We needed a pub. With lunch… and a fire.
We found both in the Dolphin, right beside the swing bridge that allows the fishing boats out of the Esk and into the sea. Yes, another Esk… first Cumbria, then Scotland… now Yorkshire. There was something a bit coincidental about that. Of all the rivers in all the country… we get three Esks in special places.
After lunch we wandered into the old town to the south of the river estuary. Even here there were few tourists. Not surprising given that the temperature had dropped even further, though we were at least sheltered from the wind. I needed a Lucky Duck. It’s traditional. They were first made half a century ago as lucky charms for actors at the theatre in the town. I was given one every time we went to Whitby. I bought them for my sons. Now I needed one for my granddaughter.
With the little Murano glass duck in my handbag we set off to explore. The glass shop sits just off Church Street, with its tiny, columned market built by Nathanial Cholmley in 1788. The old, narrow streets seem to huddle together here and all styles and periods can be traced within them. Small alleys with names like Arguments Yard run off Church Street and I know from past explorations that cobbled courtyards and unknown treasures lie hidden in many of them.
I tried not to drool over the jet in the windows. I’ve always had a thing about proper jet… not ‘french jet’ which is actually glass and cold, but the warm black depth of Whitby Jet… a fossilized wood some hundred and eighty two million years old and prized since Neolithic times for jewellery. It came to the height of its popularity in the time of Queen Victoria as mourning jewellery and some fantastic pieces of craftsmanship survive. Today, it is the gem of choice for the Goths who frequent Whitby and those who come here for the vampire connection. Bram Stoker set part of his Dracula in the town, inspired by the ruined Abbey and the church perched high on the cliff top. Which, even though we had said we would not, was where we were going next. Up to the cliff top via the famous 199 steps.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Whitby. Even the trip to get there from my childhood home takes you across the North York Moors and if you are lucky enough to go in summer, chances are the heather will be in full bloom from horizon to horizon. This time, however, we just had the bitter winter wind. Not that this was a bad thing at that moment… it made the climb up the 199 worn sandstone steps less of a warming experience. In summer it is hot work. Like all such things, there is the tradition that you cannot count them. I, at least, have never managed it… I get distracted.
From here there are wonderful views over the little town and its harbour. Whitby still depends on the sea for most of its income, though the whaling and herring fishing has long since declined to be largely replaced with tourism and the manufacture of jet jewellery… and fossils of course. There are so many to pick up on the beaches here, released by the constant erosion of the cliffs.
As we climbed up to the church and saw the disappearing cliff face over the town, I recalled that it is not only fossils that the wind and rain releases. That cliff face has eroded by a good distance since I was a child and human bones from the graveyard have been sent into the streets below by the landslips that have placed homes beneath the cliff at significant risk. If that sounds like something from a horror movie there is reason for that too… Bram Stoker set much of his book Dracula against the stark silhouette of the Abbey and church atop the cliff.
There are a lot of literary associations with Whitby through the ages. The Whitby Gazette carried the first published works of Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, back in 1854. But perhaps more importantly it was the home of Cædmon, the earliest English poet whose name is still known to us.
Cædmon tended the beasts at the Abbey during the time of St Hilda when was the Abbess here. (657–680) The venerable Bede, writing a few years later tells us that ‘the art of song’ came to Cædmon in a dream and that, writing in Old English, he was able to take the stories of the scriptures and transpose them into works by which “…the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven.” Only a fragment of his work survives today… just nine lines.
As we reached the top of the 199 Church Steps we saw the carved stone cross erected in his honour upon which the lines have now been carved… a modern version, erected in 1898, very reminiscent of the cross at Ruthwell that we had seen days before, even down to the inscriptions running along the edges. Some of the patterns were taken from the Lindisfarne Gospel… and to see the cross here linking back through the centuries and our journey, at a place so pivotal to the history of Christianity in Britain, was a strange feeling. These threads all tie together, part of a richer tapestry whose design we are perhaps too close to see.
It was going up for three o’clock as we headed towards the church, seeing the gentle scars of the changing building in its mellow stone. Once again we were lucky and found the doors open to visitors in spite of the time of year. We wondered what else we might find…
The Church on the Cliff
The Church of St Mary the Virgin sits high on its cliff above the town. It was founded around 1110 AD, during the time of Abbot William de Percy and the exterior reflects the twelfth century architecture in golden sandstone. The interior, though dates mainly from the 1700s and is a strange a place as you will see. Historically, it is an important survival. Aesthetically it is a claustrophobic jumble.
It is difficult to make sense of the space. High sided eighteenth century box pews, like cattle pens… some marked ‘for strangers only’… fill the main body of the church while upstairs galleries look down. The ‘walls’ of the box pews are so tall that I, for one, could not see into them from the aisles between without making an effort to do so. Some are plain wood, others lined with green baize and others still bear red velvet cushions. A social hierarchy of comfort or piety? Although all is painted in bright, fresh tones, and lit by the huge brass chandeliers that hang from the ceiling, it has, to me, an overbearing atmosphere.
Right in the centre of what should be the nave is an incongruous, but doubtless practical stove for heating. There is also a three-tiered pulpit, all polished wood and red velvet, illustrating the importance of the sermons in the eighteenth century. While, doubtless, this central position is also practical, allowing all the parishioners to both see and hear the minister’s perorations, I could not help feeling that it deprived attention from what should, perhaps, be the focus of the worship in a Christian church… the altar, invisible from most of the church.
The place has a strange and cluttered feel. In the few spare corners left by the pews, odd treasures lurk; an iron bound chest, a Saxon coffin for a babe… art and history tucked away in every nook and cranny. The chest is interesting though. It is around three hundred years old and has three locks… one each for the vicar and the churchwardens. It used to hold the church plate and parish records, but it was stolen in 1743 and thrown over the cliff. The chest was recovered, but the contents were gone.
It was with a feeling of relief that I approached the quire… a more ancient and traditional space altogether. Here the lovely tones of stone are left on display. The steps are lined with flowers and flanked by a pair of medieval fonts. Three lancet windows are set deep in the east wall of the church and a simple Celtic style cross, carved in wood, hangs above the altar.
The glass depicts those whose history is entwined with church and Abbey, including St Hilda and Cædmon, along with saints and the dignitaries of the church, for Whitby held a critical place in the history of Christianity in England.
One thing I really did like, however, was the lack of electric lighting. Until recently electricity was only used in the church to power the organ and a television monitor. While there is more lighting now, the church when light is required, is still lit with candles… there are no light bulbs in the chandeliers and sconces. Perhaps when the flames are lit and the shadows dance with warm light, the little church with its square stance and battlemented tower might come into its own and show an inner beauty that transcends its odd appearance. And maybe, after all, that is the real point of such places.
Now [we] must honour the guardian of heaven,
the might of the architect, and his purpose,
the work of the father of glory
as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders;
he first created for the children of men
heaven as a roof, the holy creator
Then the guardian of mankind,
the eternal lord, afterwards appointed the middle earth,
the lands for men, the Lord almighty.
Cædmon’s Hymn, composed between 658 and 680AD.
Saints and Snakestones
We walked further up the cliff towards the fourteenth century ‘cross’ that rises from its steps in front of the gatehouse. The Abbey, of course, was closed by the time we got there…if, indeed, it had been open at all on that bleak January day. Situated high on the cliff it is an imposing sight from anywhere in the town and it is impossible to hide the ruins behind a stone wall… so at least we could look and, with a bit of judicious clambering, get a few photographs.
I know it well. I spent many days here as a child and teenager. There is something about the place that has always drawn me back, as if the veils of time slip away and I see the days of old. But it is not to the grand ruins of the twelfth century that I am drawn, but to an older time. There was once a roundhouse on this headland, then the Romans tarried awhile, leaving the traces of their passing and it was not until the seventh century that the abbey came into being.
The original abbey was a wooden and thatched affair, founded in 657 AD by King Oswiu of Northumbria. He installed Hilda as its first abbess, a daughter of Hereric and his wife Breguswith of the Deiran royal house. Hilda had been raised a Christian and when she was thirty-three, she decided to join her sister in the convent at Chelles Abbey in Gaul. Instead, she was called by Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne… later St Aidan… to come north to the settlement at Whitby… then called Streoneshalh… to become a nun and Abbess.
The monastic community at Streoneshalh was formed of both monks and nuns, living separately but sharing a communal life and worship, following the model of Ionian Christianity and the Celtic Church. As abbess, Hilda cared for the many small houses, home to two or three, the communal lands and possessions and those who worked them. It was here she met Cædmon, a simple man who tended the animals. He dreamed an angel and was inspired with song; this gift Hilda fostered.
From the Venerable Bede we learn that Hilda a strong character. Her name means “battle woman” and her energy was notable. She was skilled as both administrator and teacher, caring alike for the humble and the great. Her wisdom and authority were much respected and while kings sought and valued her advice, the small folk loved and revered her. Bede wrote of Hilda, “All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace”.
When the Synod of Whitby met to discuss whether the Church should follow the Ionian or Roman ways of Christianity, Hilda accepted the change and brought her community quietly into the Roman fold. She remained abbess until her death in 680 AD at the grand old age, for those times, of 66 and so revered was she that even now the gulls dip their wings in respect, it is said, as they fly over her Abbey.
Of course, there are other legends too and I have seen her ghost myself… or so I was told; a shrouded shape in one of the high, ruined windows… But then again, I am also told it is an optical illusion caused by the sun through the ancient tracery. Many have seen it, as well as the unquiet spectre of Constance de Beverly… a nun from the later Norman Abbey, immured in the dungeon for breaking the vow of chastity with a young knight.
Two holy wells locally bear Hilda’s name, one reputed to be beneficial for the eyesstill flows in the grounds of a small church which also bears her name. It may be that Hilda chose the spot as a retreat because of the pure spring… or perhaps the truth lies in the legend that says she prayed there for water and a spring gushed forth from the ground. There are many such stories, though perhaps the best known is that of St Hilda and the snakes that infested the ground where she was to found the Abbey. It is told that she turned them to stone… which is why the area is littered with snakestones, or ammonites, the spiral fossilised remains of molluscs we used to collect from the beaches. Another legend explains why none of these ‘snakes’ are found with heads… that, it is told, was down to St Cuthbert who beheaded them all. Which didn’t stop a few intrepid traders from carving heads on the snakestones for tourists long ago…
Over the Moors
We left Whitby, continuing our route southwards through Yorkshire along a road we had travelled together once before. “We’ll have to go to Whitby,” we had said back then. “In winter,” we had added, looking at the steady stream of traffic crossing the North York Moors. We had been looking out over the heather covered Hole of Horcum, after an utterly magical morning and a very odd meeting with a sagacious llama. The sun was warm on our backs and the moors looked at their beautiful best. They looked a bit different now as my sanity was called into question while I waded through the snow to the same vantage point. Equally beautiful, to my prejudiced eyes, of course. But different. Whiter. And colder.
It was getting towards dusk too. The sun had long since set behind the hills and the only light was that which lingered in the sky. There are no street lights on the moors and we had still been unable to find anywhere to get the bulb changed in the headlight… a job I would do myself in minutes on any other car than a Puma. Even the experts struggle.
Mind you, just for once we actually had a vague idea where we might end up that night. I had come across a reference to a little church just outside Pickering where there appeared to be a number of fragments of old carved stone… and there just happened to be a pub in the village, right next door, where they did accommodation. Perfect for an early start on our last day on the road.
Pickering we had visited on our earlier jaunt, calling at the church there to see the most fabulous medieval wall paintings. We had explored the area over a long weekend of summer and heather, climbed hills, forded more streams than we had hot dinners, chased a disappearing Roman road and found revelations in stained glass amid the scarecrows. The whole thing about the Simeon windows goes back to that trip and we told the story in our book Heart of Albion… as well as on the blog.
It was late afternoon and almost dark as we turned right in Pickering towards Middleton and the little church with its convenient inn… which had inconveniently closed and taken down its sign. Driving on we passed through another couple of villages without seeing anywhere we fancied.
“How far’s Cropton?” Not far… this was the pub with the micro-brewery in the garden where we had stayed for the weekend last time we were here. The turning came up immediately. The New Inn is a busy place all year round… but it was worth a try. We know the food is good and the beer even better. Stacey, the smiling bar manager, checked the bookings… she wasn’t hopeful… but yes… as long as it was just for the one night…
Chatting away she showed us up to the top floor… we exchanged a glance. What were the chances of the same room being the only ones free on both visits? Mind you, we had given up on coincidence long ago and accepted synchronicity instead. I looked up at the painting on the wall… with a definite Ani looking back at me, well…it almost felt like home.
Back to St Andrews?
Yes, we were heading back to St Andrews… no, not the one in Scotland, sadly… though I would, given half a chance. In fact, I mused, I could pretty much never come home given a camper van and some way to make enough to survive… I should have been a gypsy… I was daydreaming. And while I have nothing against that at all, I probably shouldn’t be indulging whilst driving.
We were going back to St Andrew’s church… the one we had passed the previous evening. The one that had stuff in it. A brief foray on the internet had produced the information that it held “some remarkable Jellinge style Viking/Christian crosses”… I liked the plurality of that… as well as an “internationally significant Anglo–Scandinavian Collection of funeral carvings and other artefacts.” Not to mention a Saxon tower on a Norman church and some intriguing stained glass. As a final stop, it sounded perfect. It was a beautiful morning. And there was an eighth-century cross inset into the wall of the Saxon tower… not that we knew it at the time, I only noticed it today on the photos…
“The church building is open daily from dawn to dusk, and is a beautiful place” it said. Except it wasn’t. Open, that is. And we’d lingered over breakfast… we were in no hurry after all. But the door was shut. The way barred. We were being frustrated at the last hurdle. A local lady kindly informed us that the keyholder lived down one of the back lanes and would probably be along soon, so we lingered a little amid the snowdrops, then drove into Pickering in a futile search for a place to get the headlight fixed. Then we came back… and it was still locked.
So what could we do? There were no keyholder contact details and to be fair it was a Saturday morning in January. We simply turned the car for home, deciding to take the long way back, cross country, instead of the direct A roads and motorways. We weren’t even certain we would be able to get into back Sheffield anyway. If the local weather sage in the New Inn was to be believed, the snow had fallen and more was forecast. We would meander and see what happened.
We waved to the distant spires of York Minster as we passed. They rise above the plain, high above the ancient walls of the city, towering above even the modern buildings. One of these days we would have to go there. But not today. We still had no headlight and needed to get it replaced long before the light could fade. We stopped at a garage… purely because a hawk was hovering in front of it. I tried unsuccessfully to get a decent shot then went in and asked for the nearest place to get the light fixed.
“Oh,” said the assistant, “there’s a Halford’s in Selby.” Which, of course, was just a mile or two down the road. And now we had a reason to stop there. I knew Selby well. Once I had known it very well, in fact. My great-grandmother had lived there for a while and so had an early boyfriend… at a boarding school just outside the town. There had been the stock auctions where my father bought pigeons… and then, there was the Cathedral. A very special place. It looked as if, thanks to the hawk, we were going to get our grand finale after all…
Dignity and Memories
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 779 AD mentions a settlement called Seletun. Archaeological remains show it to have been first settled by the Vikings and there was an extensive Roman presence. Today the little town of Selby still straddles the banks of the Ouse in the West Riding of Yorkshire. These days, since the reordering of the counties, it belongs officially to North Yorkshire, but the less said about governmental interference with our Ridings the better. The Ridings themselves cannot be changed by the transience of politics. There are three Ridings …from Thirdings, it is thought… North, West and East; we dispensed with the south. The Ridings meet in the Vale of York… the Ainsty.
To be fair, Selby Abbey isn’t actually a cathedral, just a normal Parish Church, though I know many a parish church that would fit comfortably within the walls of its vestry, and many a cathedral that would be dwarfed by its size and magnificence. I had been there before, long, long ago, before I had any real knowledge and no understanding of anything other than the beauty I found within its walls.
Still, the memory is a fond one. I had been taken by my grandparents when we had gone to visit great grandmother. She had gone blind one day on her way to work one day… already well past retirement age, of course… and was being cared for in Selby. I remember a few things from that early visit… like the Stars and Stripes and the story of the Maundy Money which Grandma Annie told me outside the south door of the Abbey, showing me where the queen had stood.
So, although I had been inside the church before that was more than forty years ago and I knew little of what to expect. The exterior I knew well by sight, but again, I’d had insufficient knowledge to form any understanding of it back then. Seeing its beauty was enough for the youngster. Coming back armed with greater knowledge to something I had thought familiar was an object lesson in the errors of preconception and a graphic reminder that the more knowledge we bring to anything we do, the wider the gates of understanding will stand open to allow us to pass within.
Standing at the gate we saw a beautiful building… obviously Norman going by the intricacy of the carved arch of the West Door and the weathering of the stonework. Even if it proved to be a restoration, the proportions were ‘right’. It had always been there. The whole frontage suddenly becomes an inventory of periods based on the shape of the towers and the windows, the arches and columns and you begin to read its story in its very fabric as you approach. The lower tier is Norman, almost a thousand years old. The next tier medieval Early Gothic, the towers, rather short and square, are Victorian. It had the feel of George Gilbert Scott’s hand in it too… and that proved to be correct. We have seen much of his work on our travels.
It seems incredible that only a couple of years ago, before Stuart and I began our adventures with the books, our knowledge had been somewhere between rudimentary and non-existent. We are by no means experts… that would take a lifetime apiece… but we have been privileged to learn a good deal on our wanderings.
The church was founded in 1069 as a Benedictine Abbey and built by the de Lacy family. Not an easy build, as like the great Minster at York the foundations rest on just three feet of sand above the water table. The builders had to let the structure settle onto wooden beams sunk into the unstable ground. Unsurprisingly parts of the building collapsed in the seventeenth century causing extensive damage and reconstruction. What is more surprising is that, given the unpromising instability of the ground, the great church stood undamaged for half a millennium. A fire destroyed many of the monastic buildings in 1340 and caused damage to the church which was rebuilt.
The church itself survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, though most of the monastic buildings are now gone. In 1618 it became the Parish Church for the town. A fire caused a huge amount of damage in 1906, melting a peal of bells in the tower with the heat. Somehow, due to the diligence of the firemen, the great, medieval East Window survived in all its glory. The reconstruction and restoration of the church was begun yet again and what remains can, perhaps, be called a testament to Yorkshire grit… that stubborn determination that rolls up its sleeves and refuses to surrender. What remains is something very special…
We walked down the Norman nave, passing Abbot Hugh’s pillar, identical to those at Durham cathedral where we had been the day before. Was it only the previous day? Similar too to the great carved columns of Dunfermline a few days earlier. For an unplanned trip, we seem to have followed a trail where several strands were interwoven in a continuous knot like the interlaced pattern of the Celtic stones.
We passed between the tombs of knights and their ladies… of bishops and dignitaries carved in stone to be remembered. How little we change, after all, across time and borders… how different in essence are our tombs and our desire to remain in human consciousness, to leave an indelible memory and our mark upon the world which is the cradle of our souls.
Near the Crossing a blackened wooden head… Christ or the Baptist perhaps… hangs on the wall. Its expression is one of both quiet joy and serenity. I can find no reference to dates or origin, but I wondered if the carving was a survival of one of the two fires that have devastated the church. Strange to think that without the apparent destruction, the building would not have evolved into the beauty it is today.
The Abbey has an unusual triple dedication to Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Germain, the saint being seen as the patron of the church. His is an unusual story. He was born in the 378 or 380AD at Auxerre in France, and rose to military and social prominence. The Bishop of Auxerre saw in him a spiritual potential, but Germain resisted all attempts to turn him to the Church. The bishop kidnapped him, bound him and locked him in the church before shaving Germain’s head with the monastic tonsure. Oddly, Germain accepted this calmly and went on to become a monk and a truly saintly man.
He came to Britain and preached, converting many to Christianity and even led the British against the Picts and Scots to gain the bloodless “Alleluia Victory” in 430AD, where he had the concealed army cry the paean three times so loudly the enemy, thinking themselves outnumbered, turned and fled. Close to the town of Selby, a field is still known as Garmon Carr… Garmon was the name by which he was known in England. It is possible the saint visited the area. Oddly, given the trail of clues we had been following, Germain is thought to have been a teacher of St Patrick.
Germain was known for his dreams and visions. One of his major sermons in Britain was at St Albans, then Roman Verulamium, where St Alban, the first British Christian martyr, had been beheaded. Alban revealed himself to Germain in a vision and his cult grew from that point. It was another vision that sent St Benedict to Selby to found the Abbey. He dreamed that Germain had told him to found a great abbey at ‘Selebiae’ where three swans would mark the spot. After wandering far, Benedict found the bend in the Ouse where three swans alighted and the birds have been the symbol of the Abbey ever since.
Not all the monks from Selby were so saintly however, nor did they always follow the Rule of St Benedict to the letter. The thirteenth century saw visitations by various Archbishops who found that the resident bishop was failing in his ecclesiastical duties by not singing Mass, conducting prayer, or preaching. He wasn’t even turning up in the Chapter House for meetings. Though that may or may not have been worse than the findings of the previous Archbishop, called in to deal with the monks after complaints of their dealings with married women… How many stories could these walls still whisper?
Royalty and the American Flag
Another huge window fills the end wall of the south transept, showing scenes from the early history of the Abbey at Selby. On both walls, the stained glass depicts members of the Royal House; on one side Victoria, Queen and Empress, with Albert, the Prince Consort, and on the other Edward VII and his queen, Alexandra.
For me, however, this little corner holds memories far more personal. I remember standing here with my Grandma Annie as she told me about the tradition of Maundy Money. There is a little display case with the purses and coins that Queen Elizabeth handed out to parishioners here in 1969, at the time the nine hundredth year of the Abbey, the only time the Royal Maundy Service had been held in a Parish Church rather than a cathedral.
The Royal Maundy Service is an ancient tradition that has evolved over the centuries from the instruction of Jesus… the mandatum given to His followers at the Last Supper. He told them to love one another. In medieval England, the monarchs would, on Maundy Thursday and on other Maundy days throughout the year, wash the feet of the poor in the rite known as pedilavium. The poor would be given food and clothing as alms. King John is the first monarch in recorded history to have performed this act in 1210 AD, though the bishops and other personages had done so for centuries.
Today the Maundy Service is one in which Queen Elizabeth, known for a deep and real faith, participates every year. Specially minted coins are given out these days, instead of goods, to a number of pensioners from the parish; one for every year of the monarch’s life and while the coinage is a nominal sum and legal tender, their value to collectors is much higher.
There are other allusions to royalty within the church… one a very curios sculpture that you would miss if it were not pointed out and a torch provided! Within one of the small, pierced bundles of carved stone foliage, you are directed to shine the beam of the torch… and there you find a tiny white portrait bust of King Edward VII. It is not the only such surprise, though the others you have to look for… Tiny portraits and creatures are hidden in other carvings too.
Then there is another very curious detail; one of the clerestory windows above the main altar is part of the American Heritage Trail. The American flag flies there, marking an unexpected connection. I remembered my grandmother telling me about this too, so I had been looking for it. It would be easy to miss if you did not know, though a corner of the church celebrates this snippet of history.
The window bears the coat of arms of one of George Washington’s ancestors, John Wessington, who was… oddly for us, given where we had been the day before, the Prior of Durham. The fourteenth-century stained glass shows a shield which bears his coat of arms; three red stars and two red bars on a white ground. Another representation of the crest is in Northamptonshire, at a church associated with the Spencer family… coincidentally my grandmother’s surname. That one is dated a couple of hundred years later and can be found on the tomb of Lawrence Washington, a direct ancestor of George. This is the same crest that was found inside a book and on two seals belonging to George Washington himself. The story says that this is where the Stars and Stripes had their origin. Odd to think that the earliest known version of the Stars and Stripes may be on the window of a Yorkshire parish church.
Selby Abbey – Phoenix
“From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring…”
Tolkien, Lord of the Rings
Just before midnight, October 19th 1906, workers who had been installing a new system in the organ saw flames in the window. Soon fire raged through the building. Glass shattered, flames leapt through the roof, the towers acted as great chimney belching smoke… silver streams of molten lead poured into the church… Selby Abbey was burning. It wasn’t the first time.
There had been a fire too in 1340 which had caused extensive damage. Parts of the church had never recovered. This time, however, the damage was worse. Fire crews battled to save the Abbey. A special crew were dedicated to an attempt to preserve the great treasure of the East window, keeping it cool and wet against the flames in a desperate effort to protect the fourteenth century glass.
The roof of the choir and the belfry were destroyed, as was the interior woodwork and much of the glass. A peal of eight bells in the tower had melted. The devastation of the Abbey, which had survived so long, seemed complete. Given the level of destruction, it would have been understandable if only a chapel had been preserved for future worship and the rest allowed to fall into ruin. The people of Selby, however, had other ideas.
Within hours, a restoration fund had been established. Money poured in from across the country. Townsfolk stood at the gates of the Abbey and held sheets into which visitors threw money. The Abbey, it seemed, would, like the proverbial phoenix, rise once more from its own ashes.
“…And so long as you haven’t experienced
this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest
on the dark earth.”
The restoration began. The foundations, laid on a meagre three feet of sand, had caused collapse in 1690. At that time the central tower had collapsed, destroying the south transept, and while the tower had been rebuilt, the transept had remained in ruins. Sir George Gilbert Scott had restored the church in the nineteenth century, but it was not until the fire of 1906 that a complete restoration was undertaken.
Every scrap of flame-blackened stone had to be cleaned. Woodwork and glass needed to be painstakingly replaced. Yet work progressed rapidly. The nave was rededicated within a year. The tower restored within three. The south transept, which had never been rebuilt after the collapse in 1690 was rebuilt, funded by William Liversedge and reopened in 1912. John Oldrid Scott supervised the painstaking task of bringing the Abbey back to its former glory, conserving and preserving its fabric and beauty for the future. In 1935 Charles Marriott Oldrid Scott raised the height of the west towers and, for the first time in its history, the Abbey was finally complete, consolidated and able to show its true beauty to the world undamaged.
It is only because of the flames that the church was able to be reborn, whole and complete. Without the disaster, would it simply have known the constant struggle against time and decay that is familiar to us all? From apparent devastation, something beautiful emerged, a butterfly from the cocoon. This too is part of the human story… who amongst us has not seen those radiant ones who come through disaster to shine the light of the human spirit and inspiration into the dark corners of our own despair?
A thousand years of history lie in these stones. Two thousand years of faith echo in these quiet chapels as whispered prayers. It was the love of the local people for this scarred and ravaged beauty that gave her once more the strength to shed her veil and stand proud and glorious to face the world. Love can work miracles. From ruin to the delicate bridal veil of light and colour she was brought, reborn and clean, made whole through love.
Faces from the Past</stron
When the church was restored after the fire of 1906, the wooden roof had to be reinstated. Looking up today, you could be forgiven for thinking this is the original work, so faithfully have the beams been reproduced. The bosses, however, are, for the most part, the original medieval work. The bosses were secured to the ceiling beams with wooden pins. When the flames consumed the roof of the church the pins burned away and the bosses dropped to the ground, escaping largely unharmed. Most were recovered, a few replaced and they were all later gilded, restoring the roof to its former glory.
It would need a whole book to tell the stories of those bosses. Nothing was without meaning in medieval church art. Some of the symbolism we can readily interpret, either from the records and legends that remain to us, or from the perspective of modern understanding. Some elements may seem odd to our eyes and there is no doubt in my mind that some are a simple expression of humour and joy. Some meanings would have been topical and are lost to the mists of time; others speak to us at a level beyond logic.
There are scenes from the Bible and from everyday life, such as the man bringing in the harvest. Yet we have to wonder whether this is merely what it seems to be on the surface, or whether there is a deeper and more symbolic message, referring back to the biblical maxim of reaping what we sow. From the perspective of the Silent Eye, we would also look at the psychological significance of that and how what we know of life is shaped by our own reactions and perception.
The sun has always been a symbol for the Son… and for the Light. Its life-giving rays bathe the earth and inner Light illuminates and feeds the soul. The hairy anchorite is a familiar figure to us… the woodwose, Wildman of the woods. Almost every culture has one; in Britain, we think of the Irish tale of King Buile Suibhne who was turned into a Wildman for insulting a bishop… or of Myrddin Wylt, later known as Merlin, whose feral wanderings brought prophetic vision. Or even of the story of St Kentigern … another name that keeps cropping up on our travels… where the details of the wildman, Lailoken, are very similar to those of Myrddin. Today we might interpret the woodwose in many ways, depending upon our perspective, from a need to conquer our baser natures, to a need to retain a connection to our deeper instincts, for it is a common factor of many of these tales that the Wildman has a wisdom that ‘civilised’ man lacks and seeks to learn from them.
From the Wildman, it is not much of a step to the Green Man. Many writers make the connection through the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight. Books have been written on the subject… many of them… as speculation and understanding start from all points of the metaphorical compass. Some say the Green Man is the spirit of nature, others equate him with the sacrificial victims of ancient fertility rites, with Jack-in-the Green, Jack o’ Lent and even a prototype of Robin Hood.
Christianity tends towards an equivalence of the green, growing shoots with the death and resurrection of Jesus, although sometimes the Green Man is associated with Judas Iscariot… perhaps an understanding of the principle of ‘necessary evil’ akin to that of Set as the Contender in the Egyptian Osirian myths. We may never know the true meaning the symbol had for those who carved it… perhaps it is enough that it makes us think… but there is at least one Green Man, very often more, in many of our older churches.
There are strange, otherworldly creatures and demons in glass, wood and stone, like the Selby Imp who clings to a column to the south side of the High Altar. Stories in stone that we cannot read with any certainty, like the twin beasts with the human figures… wrestling, hunting or hunted… who knows? Do they warn of the devouring nature of sin or promise victory to the faithful?
Three enigmatic hares share three ears between them… a symbol of fertility…of the Trickster figures of mythology… of the Trinity… there are no records to tell us what it meant to those who carved it, but it is a symbol that occurs across many lands and faiths. It is a symbol with a personal significance for me for many reasons and on Sunday my granddaughter will be christened in the little church close to my home where its earliest representation in Britain hides on a small tile by the altar.
Everywhere you look it seems that eyes look back from caricatures, portraits and beasts of a warped imagination. Look at the serene statue of a bishop and you notice the figure beneath his feet. Look closer and faces stare from the canopy above his head… and beside his feet, two people… or one carrying a head? It is not enough to simply visit places such as Selby Abbey; you have to look, really look… and what you see will leave you with food for thought for years to come.
A Final Blaze…
There is a final jewel at Selby Abbey; the great East Window. I told how the great fire of 1906 had put it in imminent danger of shattering and how a dedicated fire crew had protected the fragile panes with water. Of course, there has been damage over the years and subsequent restoration, but even so, the window is thought to be one of the finest medieval survivals in the country, second only to the West Window at York Minster.
Personally, although the tracery of stone in the upper reaches of the York window may be finer with the heart shaped centrepiece, I have to say I prefer the one at Selby… as much, perhaps, for its history as anything else. Somehow it seems more approachable and human, but then it is not set so far out of reach.
It is known as the Jesse window and dates from c.1330 AD. There are a number of medieval Jesse windows, or fragments of them, that survive through the country. A few small panes survive of the Jesse window from York Minster, dating back to around 1170AD, which is thought to be the oldest surviving stained glass in England. The Selby window, however, is thought to be the most complete and finest of its period. In later centuries, with the Gothic revival, the subject once more became popular and we have seen some fabulous Victorian examples. But nothing as old as this.
The seventy panels of the main window are arranged over seven vertical lights. These panels trace the royal line of the kings of Israel, leading eventually to Mary and Jesus, thus establishing the claim that He was King of the Jews, of the Royal House of David. The inspiration for this motif, common in manuscripts in the medieval period, is a line in the Book of Isaiah:
“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (King James Version).
The image of a tree in this window grows from the heart of a sleeping Jesse. Lineage and hereditary position were of more importance in medieval times, especially to the nobility and clergy perhaps. Establishing and asserting the Royal Line of Jesus would have been of great importance and the two, rather contradictory, genealogies given in the New Testament would have been the subject of both debate and assertion.
The window occupies the entire east wall of the centre of the church. It is huge. The High Altar sits a little way from it these days, making it impossible to get a clear distant view… you would need to be up high. Its colours strew a veil of light behind the altar and the glass of the tracery at the top tells its own story.
These panels show the Doom. The dead are raised from their tombs, their souls led to Judgement where they are weighed on the scales, in a scene once more reminiscent of the Osirian myths of Egypt where the heart of the deceased was weighed against the feather of Truth. The good are guided away by winged angels, the sinners are rather less fortunate and are herded away by demons.
These depictions of the Doom are found in many medieval wall paintings and windows, often monarchs and bishops are shown being herded away to Hell, illustrating the point that it was the purity of the soul rather than worldly success and high office which opened the gates of Heaven. I wonder sometimes if we have forgotten that, in our so-called enlightened age, for the essence of that message applies equally to individuals of all faiths and none when stripped of its stories and particular symbols; it is not what we own or achieve in material terms, but who we choose to be and to become that really counts.
And that was it. Another odyssey reached its conclusion… a strange journey that had stake us across the country on an unplanned journey, following the clues, guided by the weather and touched by the magic of the land. In many respects, it is only in looking back over these journeys when we arrive home, researching the sites and seeing just how impossibly perfectly the strands of story, history and landscape are enmeshed that we realise what incredible gifts these journeys have been… giving us the starting points for so many more adventures and a voyage of discovery enough to fill any lifetime.
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