From Dorset and Somerset, to the mysterious stones of Cornwall…
To be exact, that should be one thousand, one hundred and twenty four miles, but that makes for a bit of a mouthful as a title… and that’s without the other few hundred miles Stuart had to travel between his home in the north and our starting point at mine.
Don’t let the map fool you either. The roads we took were nowhere near as straightforward as they look, but Google Maps can only handle a few places at a time. It would probably explode if I asked it to show all the detours, going-round-in-circles-looking-for-obscure-sites and strange, convoluted routes we chose.
According to my navigator, half the roads are not even marked on the proper paper map we use, and we are pretty certain that many of them exist only as sunbathing spots for the local ovine, bovine and equine population.
All of which, as you might have gathered, means we had a wonderful time, regardless of the thoroughly English weather we encountered.
We began with a couple of places we wanted to see en route to Dorchester, where we were to collect Helen from the railway station for the Silent Eye workshop. Over the course of that weekend, we visited twelve historic sites spanning several thousand years. The next day we headed west with Alethea and Larissa for moorlands, stone circles and a rather special church.
And then we headed down to Cornwall and, with sacred and ancient sites around pretty much every corner, a misty, turquoise sea beneath fabulous cliffs and wildflowers everywhere, we were in our element.
Without the record provided by the camera, I would have no chance of remembering all the places we visited in any semblance of order!
As it is, I came back with a couple of thousand photos, fair buzzing at the incredible places we had been… and even the long drive home held surprises.
It seems incredible that we could see so much, and all without rushing either. “You’ve been stretching time again,” said Helen after the workshop… and it certainly feels that way.
Perhaps it was the mists… or perhaps the green wormholes through which we walked and drove that exploited a loophole in the space-time continuum…
…but whatever the cause, I came home a very happy hobbit. And with so many places to write about…
The Templar Head
Heading towards the location of our weekend workshop, we had found a route south that avoided the inevitable delays around Stonehenge. Traffic passing the great circle is always slow, although it does give you a chance to see the stones, but with the summer solstice so close, there was every chance that the road would be even busier than usual and we had no time to be caught in traffic jams.
Apart from the irresistible lure of freshly picked strawberries and cherries on sale in every layby, we were not planning on stopping until we were much closer to our destination, and even managed to resist Avebury… but only because we knew we would be going home that way at the end of our odyssey.
So it was with time to spare that we arrived at the village of Templecombe in Somerset, where we wanted to visit the church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known locally as St Mary’s, and gaze upon a genuine medieval mystery.
Templecombe, as the name suggests, was once a preceptory of the Knights Templar and the Templars have been cropping up a lot lately in our research. The religious order of military monks had been founded in 1119 by Hugues de Payens to protect pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. Their patron was Bernard de Clairvaux, who had been instrumental in revising Benedictine monasticism and the foundation of the Cistercian Order.
The Rule of the Templars was strict and complex, enjoining individual knights to poverty, but the Order itself amassed riches through grants of land and donations from wealthy families, allowing them to offer one of the first international banking systems to travellers. It was this financial structure and the wealth of the Order that eventually led to their downfall.
King Philip IV of France, heavily in debt to the Templars, fostered rumours of debauchery, magic and heresy. These charges were almost identical to those Philip levelled at the Cathars and at Pope Boniface VIII, who he kidnapped and accused. Investigations were commenced, the knights were forced to confess under torture to all manner of abominations. In spite of being cleared of all wrongdoing by the Church, Pope Clement V ceded to the power and pressure of King Philip, to whom he was related, and disbanded the Order. The Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was burned alive at the stake, along with many other knights. Others were put to death, some fled, and yet others, it is said, hid the relics and artefacts the Order held sacred.
At their trials, the Templars were accused of worshipping a severed head referred to as Baphomet. This name has since been associated with the Sabbatic Goat created by Eliphas and later by Stanislas de Guaita. Lévi’s original intent with the symbol was to portray the balancing of polar opposites to create harmony… good and evil, light and dark. The symbol was subsequently adopted by various occult movements, both dubious and legitimate, bringing the image into public disrepute and fostering the idea that the Templars were engaging in some kind of black magic.
Little remains now to tell of the day-to-day life of the Templars, and most of the holdings passed to the Poor Knights of St John, the Hospitallers. Sifting through the accounts left to posterity by contemporary writers, it is difficult to separate truth from myth and political machinations. One consistent motif, though, is that of a reverence for John the Baptist, beheaded by Herod, and their worship of a ‘severed head’, presumed by many historians to be the mummified head of the Baptist himself.
Levi’s Baphomet, however, was not created until the late nineteenth century, over five hundred years after the fall of the Templars. The word Baphomet appears as early as 1098 in connections with the Crusades and a little later, as a chapter title in Lull’s book ‘for the instruction of children’… so it seems ridiculous to associate the Templars with some corrupt misuse of Lévi’s Goat.
Given the stringency of the religious Rule by which the Templars lived, I am more inclined to accept Hugh J. Schonfield’s theory that they worshipped a more abstract form of ‘beheading’. Schonfield was a scholar who worked with the Dead Sea Scrolls and suggested that if the word Baphomet is written in Hebrew as בפומת, then by using the Atbash cipher used to encrypt that language, it becomes שופיא, which can be read as the Greek word Sophia… which means Wisdom. And as wisdom is only found through the intellect of the heart, not ‘headology’, the recurring symbol of the ‘severed’ head begins to make sense in a spiritual context.
We had come to Templecombe to see a head and that head was to be found in the church… and you can’t go into an eight hundred year old church and not look around. The first thing that struck me was the semicircular railed area leading to the chancel, which is unusual and seemed reminiscent of the round churches favoured by the Templars.
The next thing that struck home was the eclectic mix of furnishings, that reflects the history of both the building and its congregation. Light, modern woodwork sits happily beside dark sore oak pews, hundreds of year old.
Curiously, there was a window in memory of two Dashwood ladies… and that is a name we have come across a lot in our travels and research. Another lady carved the font cover in 1897 that rests upon the square Norman font, while the Tudor wagon roof sits above the remains of Saxon foundations.
The village is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, but there was a church here long before the arrival of the Normans who built the present edifice in the twelfth century. The Saxon foundations that remain beneath the nave and tower date back much further; the church was founded under the patronage of King Alfred’s great Abbey at Shaftesbury, which was consecrated in AD 888, where he installed his daughter, Ethelgive, as its first Abbess.
Earl Leofwine held the manor until he gave it to Bishop Odo of Bayeux after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and it was granted to the Knights Templar while it was held by his descendant Serlo FitzOdo.
The preceptory, where knights and horses may have been trained for the Crusades and which served as an administrative centre for Templar holdings in the area, was finally established in 1185.
Two of the stained glass windows show the Baptist and, curiously, in both he is portrayed with red hair, as is the personage portrayed in the twelfth century painted panel bearing the mysterious Templecombe Head. The head is surrounded by an escutcheon identical to the one around the depiction of Salome presenting the Baptist’s head to Herodias from the Baptistry in Florence. While the official line is that this is a depiction of Jesus, many also believe it to show John the Baptist who was especially revered by both the Templars and the later Hospitallers.
The painting of the Templecombe Head was found in the outhouse of an old cottage built on Templar land. Mrs Mollie Drew came across it, hidden behind plaster, during WWII and reported seeing a face surrounded by bright, glowing colours. Her landlady gave the painting to the church and the vicar cleaned it in a bathtub of water, losing much of the colour. It has been carbon-dated to the thirteenth century, as early as 1280, dating it to the time of the Templars and microscopic traces of bright pigment and now-invisible gold stars have been found, confirming the account of Mollie Drew. There is no halo, and the Templars always portrayed Jesus with a halo, adding to the speculation that this could be a portrait of John.
Who does it depict? Some have likened it to a Green Man, others to the Shroud of Turin… though the figure on the Shroud does not have its mouth agape. Many have seen a resemblance to the Mandylion, the Image of Edessa that legend avers is a portrait of Jesus, made during His lifetime for King Abgar. The painting remained hidden behind the plaster for centuries… who knows how long? Was it placed there during the Reformation when Henry VIII seized the Abbeys and the holdings of the Hospitallers? Or is it a genuine Templar treasure, hidden seven hundred years ago when the Order was so infamously attacked and disbanded?
Whatever the answers may be, it is a curious experience to gaze eye to eye with this floating head, watching its expression change with the shifting light from horror, to surprise, and then to joy.
A Ring of Life and Death
We arrived in Dorchester with time enough for a coffee and a short wander before Helen’s train was due to arrive, after which we would be heading north a few miles to meet our companions for the workshop weekend. Window-shopping holds no appeal, but the railway station is very close to an intriguing site, one we had already passed and dismissed on our recent research trip to the area.
“Oh, that mound looks suspicious…”
“The sign says ‘Roman amphitheatre’.”
“Romans? Pah…” The invaders, who did their best to wipe out and discredit the Druids, imposed their roads on our ancient trackways (and took all the credit for them too), as well as stamping a ‘mini-me’ version of Rome on Britain’s landscape… they do tend to get short shrift around here, in spite of a grudging respect for their technological advances and organisational capabilities.
Even so, curiosity had got the better of me and I looked up Dorchester’s Roman amphitheatre a few days after our return. I kicked myself… we should have known. It wasn’t Roman at all. Like many other ancient places, it predates the Romans and had simply been taken over by the invaders around AD100… some three thousand years or so after it had been built. We would have to visit…
Maumbury Rings is a Neolithic henge. While ‘bury’ derives from the old word for a hill, the ‘maum’ in its name is thought to derive either from the local dialect, where maen means a ‘great stone’… one of which lies hidden near the entrance, unseen now for a few centuries… or the words for chalk or vessel, all of which fit the site well. The site originally consisted of a central and circular space surrounded by a deep ditch and enclosed within a white chalk embankment that rose around thirty feet high and around thirteen feet wide and almost three hundred feet in diameter.
There is a single entrance to the henge that was once guarded by a stone that has since been lost. Excavations showed that the ditch held a series of shafts, around forty-five of them. Eight of these were examined and were found to be around thirty-five feet deep. Within the shafts were found two potsherds and a collection of flints, carved chalk, antlers and the bones of humans and animals… all of which suggest, if the size of the place alone was not evidence enough, that this was a site of significance to the people who first built the henge.
The construction… an outer bank with an inner ditch… would make these henges pretty useless defensively, with those caught inside able to be picked off like sitting ducks by any attacker who scaled the bank. They could, conceivably, be used to pen cattle or other livestock… but then, why the ritualistic deposits and burials in the pits? The consensus seems to be that these were gathering places for social, ceremonial or ritual purposes… and perhaps all three at once.
We still tend to think of cavemen when we speak of the Neolithic period… the Stone Age… but this is far from being an accurate view. Nearly a thousand years before the Great Pyramid was built at Giza, complex tombs and temples were being built in these isles, many of them aligned with the movement of the stars. Recent archaeological discoveries, such as those at the Ness of Brodgar, are radically changing the way we view our distant ancestors and engendering a growing respect for their technology, culture and knowledge.
Maumbury is not a lone survivor in Dorchester. There are a number of other earthworks of incredible complexity. The term ‘earthwork’ has seemed almost derogatory and sheds no light on what these henges, embankments and cursi may actually have contained or the purposes for which they were used. Close by is the magnificent Maiden Castle, to which we would be heading on the Sunday of our workshop.
There is also Mount Pleasant henge, Poundbury hillfort and burial field, numerous cairns and barrows, a stone circle, Flagstones ditch enclosure and the remains of another site now buried beneath a supermarket car park. Pre-Roman Dorchester was a major site. Sadly, apart from Maiden Castle, which is a bit too conspicuous to quietly destroy, most of the sites have been almost eradicated by centuries of ploughing, urban development and ignorance of their significance.
Mount Pleasant, for instance, of which little now remains visible, was once a great henge enclosing a smaller henge, within which five concentric circles of huge wooden posts were erected, similar to what is known to have existed at Woodhenge and Avebury’s Sanctuary. The posts were laid out with four aisles leading to the centre, forming a cross. Within the aisles were sockets where standing stones once stood. The bones of children were found buried in the henge ditch. We can only speculate on the true purpose of these sites, but we do know that in a time when the fragile world of Man was poised between the natural forces of earth and sky, understanding them, and perhaps seeking to harness them or harmonise our relationship with them, would have been of paramount importance.
Maumbury Rings has survived the depredations of time and plough, largely because it has been adopted by successive cultures and used to serve their needs. The Romans who appropriated the area and built the town of Durnovaria (Dorchester), used it as an amphitheatre for their gladiatorial games, executions and gatherings. They lowered the banks by ten feet, cut four chambers into the embankment and added a seating area. They altered the shape of the central enclosure too, making it oval instead of round and levelling the floor.
In the Middle Ages, the Rings became a gathering place and jousting. In 1642, during the Civil War, Parliamentary troops used the henge as a gun emplacement, once again altering its form. Later still, the bloody history continued as it became a place of public execution. The ‘Pitchfork Rebellion’, crushed in 1685, gave rise to the ‘Bloody Assizes’, where Judge Jeffries, the ‘Hanging Judge’, sentenced seventy-four local people to death for their part in the uprising. He wrote: “These are, therefore, to will and require of you, immediately on sight hereof, to erect a gallows in the most public place to hand the said traytors on, and that you provide halters to hang them with, a sufficient number of faggots to burn the bowels, and a furnace or cauldron to boil their heads and quarters, and salt to boil them with, half a bushel to each traytor, and tar to tar them with, and a sufficient number of spears and poles to fix and place their heads and quarters; and that you warn the owners of four oxen to be ready with dray and wain, and the said four oxen, at the time hereafter mentioned for execution, and you yourselves together with a guard of 40 able men at the least, to be present by eight o’clock of the morning to be aiding and assisting me or my deputy to see the said rebels executed. You are also to provide an axe and a cleaver for the quartering of the said rebels.”
1706 saw the most famous execution at Maumbury Rings, that of Mary Channing. A wild young woman, she had taken a lover who she continued to meet after her parents sought to calm her by marriage to a local grocer. When her husband, Thomas, died suddenly, the post mortem showed that he had been poisoned. Mary was suspected but proclaimed her innocence, asking that she be allowed to touch the corpse of her husband, and, only if it should bleed should she be found guilty. At her trial, she conducted her own defence but was found guilty and sentenced to death… a sentence that was deferred when she was found to be carrying a child. Mary gave birth to a son in prison that Christmas and fell ill with a wasting fever. Three months later, she was burned at Maumbury in front of a crowd of ten thousand people.
The writer Thomas Hardy, a local man, references Mary in several of his works, including The Mayor of Casterbridge, and The Mock Wife was inspired by her story. In the London Times of 1908, he wrote of her execution: ““When fixed to the stake she justified her innocence to the very last, and left the world with a courage seldom found in her sex. She being first strangled, the fire was kindled about five in the afternoon, and in the sight of many thousands she was consumed to ashes.” There is nothing to show that she was dead before the burning began, and from the use of the word “strangled” and not “hanged,” it would seem that she was merely rendered insensible before the fire was lit. An ancestor of the present writer, who witnessed the scene, has handed down the information that “her heart leapt out” during the burning, and other curious details that cannot be printed here. Was man ever “slaughtered by his fellow man” during the Roman or barbarian use of this place of games or of sacrifice in circumstances of greater atrocity?”
Today, thousands still gather at the Rings, but these days they come to watch plays and musicians and most will know no more of its history than is written on the socially acceptable information boards. But these places are not about the facts and figures, they are about the people whose lives they have held, nurtured or seen taken. The gently curving form of the Mother, found so often at our great, ancient henges, has seen too much of bloodshed, horror and violence. Within the banks of the henge, memories linger; I doubt that anyone would remain unaffected, though what is felt there, perhaps, says more about what they carry in their own innermost heart and their empathy for their fellow man.
Going Off at a Tangent
The reason Stuart and I were heading south on our thousand-mile journey through the ancient places of Albion was one of the Silent Eye’s regular workshops in the landscape. The Giant and the Sun: Patterns in the landscape was due to begin in the tiny village of South Cadbury in Somerset, and that weekend was very much part of our journey. We manage to unhurriedly see and do so much on these weekends that it has become a regular comment that we must somehow stretch time… but this particular weekend was going to test that particular idea to its limits…
Every workshop needs a place to start, and with companions arriving from as far apart as Cumbria, London and America, you need to meet somewhere that is easily found. We knew full well that if we converged on the village pub and started talking we would never have time to visit the place we had come to see, but instead of meeting at one of the most intriguing places, where mystery, history and legend come together, we decided to meet at the church.
Old churches are interesting places. They provide not only a window on the social history of an area, but a snapshot of the growth of their community. You can get a real feel for a place by visiting these little churches that have grown with their congregation over the centuries, and often they reveal glimpses of a far distant past, much more ancient than Christianity.
The setting we have chosen for our meeting is rather idyllic, especially when the flowers and trees are in bloom. There are birds everywhere… a good many corvids… and a magnificent yew tree that casts shadows over the churchyard… a perfect place to meet old friends and new.
The church of St Thomas à Becket serves the little village of South Cadbury in Somerset and it is built on the slopes of the ancient hillfort. There is no way of knowing when the first church was built here, but it was probably Saxon, as by the time the village was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, there was already a priest and a church of some importance.
The first recorded vicar was Peter de Burg in 1265. Curiously, this means Peter ‘of the hill’ or ‘of the castle’… a wholly appropriate name, given the situation of his benefice. The church is dedicated to St Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in 1170 and canonised two years later. Inside the church there is a medieval wall painting, showing a red-headed bishop, tucked away in one of the old window embrasures, which may be a depiction of the saint.
The current building dates largely from the 13th and 15th centuries, with the arcade and tower arch being built around 1280 and with all the inevitable Victorian renovations and additions. The Tower was added in the 14th century and is protected by some rather curious creatures.
The air is cool inside and has that faint aroma of damp stone, beeswax, fading flowers and forgotten incense that seems to typify these village churches. Overhead the ceiling arches white, supported by blue-painted beams and gilded figures holding heraldic shields. The freshness of the gold and blue are doubtless modern, but the vaulted ceiling has sheltered the congregation for five hundred years.
The font, sadly, is more modern… no more than a hundred and fifty years old. There is no trace of an older font in or around the church. Many of these little places have fonts that go back to the original buildings, where generation upon generation have been baptised and I find it a little sad to see that link broken.
The pulpit too is Victorian, but here you begin to see traces of the older layout of the church. Beside the pulpit is an odd little alcove. Looking closer, we could see the curve of an old staircase, long since gone. This was the stairway that led to the rood loft, the gallery above the rood screen that once separated the chancel and altar from the congregation. After the Reformation, these screens, surmounted by the Rood, a depiction of the Crucifixion, were removed, demolished, whitewashed or cut down, both to remove the ‘abused images’… images and carvings that were thought to smack of superstition and idolatry… and to remove the separation between the altar and the people. In many old churches, though, the staircase to the rood loft still survives, appearing to lead to a doorway to nowhere.
Older features also include the remnants of a medieval piscina, the basin in the wall into which holy water was poured after the service, that its sacred properties should not leave the church walls or fall into the hands of unscrupulous practitioners of ‘witchcraft’.
The squint, or hagioscope, still remains too. These odd-looking ‘tunnels’ are always angled through the internal walls that separate side chapels from the chancel and were made to allow worshippers in the side chapels to see the rasing of the Host during Mass. It should be remembered that all of our oldest churches were Catholic until the Reformation, when Henry VIII broke with Rome. The Anglican Church is simpler in the forms of its worship…but not so very different in essence.
I have to wonder if, in fact, the essence of religious belief or personal faith has ever been very different. The vision we weave of the creation of all things may differ and shift over the ages, as do the names, faces and stories of our gods, teachers and saviours, but we have always sought a point of origin, an ultimate destination and a pathway between.
Because the quest and its questions are universal, quite often the symbols and iconography of one paradigm can illuminate those of another. Symbols are not literal depictions, even though they may at first appear to be so. In spiritual terms, a symbol speaks to the heart rather than to the mind, pointing us towards ideas that cannot be transmitted as knowledge, but which must be intuited and understood rather than known.
Over the course of the weekend we would be working with a symbol and looking at the patterns in the landscape from ancient to historical times. Setting the known aside, we would attempt to feel our way forward… sometimes picking out anomalies and seeing what they suggested, sometimes finding the parallels between ancient and modern thought and seeing whether we could apply that to harmonise our own lives.
Symbolism is a natural means of communication. Before the majority could read or write, images bypassed the need for literacy and enabled abstract ideas to be shared. We have lost the habit of working with symbols… or we think we have. We all recognise road signs and trademarks. We look at a word and know the sound, the meaning, and all its emotional connections and implications… yet a written word consists of letters… each letter a symbol in its own right. It takes very little to start reading more from an image than it appears to show… we just need to look beyond logic and ask the question.
Why, for example, are there only men in the depiction of the Ascension behind the altar, while only women are present at the Crucifixion on the carved reredos below it? Traditionally, it was the disciples who witnessed the Ascension… although there is a biblical reference that suggests that Mary may also have been present. On the other hand, the bible mentions a number of men attending the Crucifixion.
Is this no more than coincidence or artistic licence? Quite probably… but treat it as a symbol and ask the question and it sparks a chain of intuitive ideas and possibilities. Legends, folklore, myths and stories can be approached in the same way… and will yield more than they seem to hold on the surface. It is not a question of right or wrong answers… sometimes there are no answers, only more questions. And sometimes the answers we find cannot be framed in words. It doesn’t matter. What matters is allowing yourself to step off the treadmill of habit to see and feel your world from a new angle… and we were going to be doing a fair bit of that over the course of the weekend…
The Ramparts of Camelot
We had only a short way to walk to our second site of the day. We were only going to climb a hill, which sounds simple enough, but there can be few places where fact, fiction, folklore and otherworldly dreams are more intricately interwoven than the hill known as Cadbury Castle. Setting our feet to its path would transport us back through thousands of years of history and archaeology and into another world… of myth and legend, where King Arthur held the land.
The hill towers above the little church we had just visited, dominating the landscape in both scale and presence. The trees on its slopes are relatively young compared to the earthwork upon which they now grow and serve to veil much of the magnificence of the structure. Without the information board and a sign for ‘Castle Lane’, you might be completely unaware of where you were going as you enter the wormhole that leads through the encircling guardian trees.
The green lane leads steadily upwards, opening occasionally to give a glimpse of a patchwork landscape of fields and apple orchards, sheltered by Sigwells, the ridge that embraces Cadbury and which holds many archaeological clues to the history of the area. You climb to five hundred feet above sea level and then the landscape suddenly makes sense as you enter the eighteen-acre expanse of the summit and see the panorama unfold beneath and around you. There is no medieval castle at Cadbury, no turrets, no pennants fly… the hill itself is the castle, sculpted from the earth and surrounded by ramparts, embankments and a ditch three quarters of a mile long.
Five and a half thousand years ago, our Neolithic ancestors occupied the hill, leaving behind them sherds of pottery, flint tools and the bones that tells us when they lived there. The advent of metalworking in the Bronze Age changed the way we lived. Ovens remain from that period, as well as evidence that metal was worked on the site. And three thousand years ago, a bronze shield was buried, for some reason, two hundred years after it had first been made. I wondered about that; it would have been a prized possession, being not only sturdy but ornate. Perhaps it was passed from father to son and buried when the last male of the line died? Or was it an offering to the gods?
The Iron Age occupants of the hill constructed enclosures, fortifications and rectangular timber buildings which were later replaced by the roundhouses we more commonly picture from that time. Temples and shrines were added, one upon the other, as a more complex society came into being. These were people of the La Tène culture… the Celtic culture that left us so many artefacts of great beauty and so many clues to how they lived.
Cadbury was further fortified around 100BC and it became a multivallate fort, with many-layered defences surrounding the hill. In AD43, the hillfort was attacked and, a few years later, both weapons and flame were used against it. The timing suggests that it may have been a place of defence against the invaders from Rome, when the Durotriges and Dobunni made their stand against Vespasian’s second Augusta Legion. It would appear that the tribes finally lost the battle for Cadbury, though, as the next thing to appear on the hill was Roman military barracks, complete with Roman temple and they stayed there for the next few hundred years. And this is where it gets really interesting, and where fact, folklore and legend meet.
Unusually, after the departure of the Romans, the hillfort was reoccupied for about a hundred years, starting in 470 AD. Archaeologists found the Great Hall of a Brythonic leader, a stronghold where he would have lived with his family, horses and warriors. The inner defences had been reinstated and reinforced to double the size of any known fortress of this period. Pottery from the Eastern Mediterranean shows the occupants had wide trade links. And local legends have named the plateau King Arthur’s Palace for at least five hundred years…
In Search of King Arthur
We wandered the summit of Cadbury Castle, each of us alone with our thoughts before gathering once again at the centre to speak of archaeology, history and legends. Now, legends are all very well, but many a place has adopted a lucrative tale, just to pull in the tourists. The monks drew in pilgrims with dubious saints and relics, and it is no more than economic sense to capitalise on something that will help the local economy. But there are a few crumbs of fact, as well as the legends, that might place our vision of Camelot at Cadbury, even though the Arthur we think of first did not exist before the medieval romances.
Who is Arthur anyway? Is he just the hero of the medieval romances or something more? Was he the historical war leader mentioned in the oldest texts? Was he a giant? Certainly there are enough ancient sites, hills and megaliths across the country that bear his name to portray him as being of gigantic stature. Or is he something other than that? When we had first visited Cadbury, five years ago, we had both ‘picked up’ a similar impression… that of a ‘wise guardian presence’, the archetypal guardian of the land. Could the King Arthur we know today be a conflation all of these strands, buried deep within the psyche of a nation?
If a historical Arthur did exist, he was most likely a fifth century war-leader, and not an armoured and caparisoned knight. The tales we know and love have their origins hovering between medieval romance and a much older tradition, in whose stories we can find fragments and parallels.
Historically, Nennius, writing in 820, names Arthur as the dux belloram, or war commander, who fought alongside the British kings against the Saxon invasion by Horsa and Hengist and as the victor of many battles, including the decisive victory of Mount Badon. The name ‘Arthur’ may have a number of origins, but the most likely seems to be that it comes from the native Brittonic arto– ‘bear’, which later became arth in Welsh.
Similar names were common throughout the Celtic world. Oddly, one of the names for the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear, is Arthur’s Wain. A wain is a wagon or a wheeled vehicle, and one of the earliest references to Arthur is from Gildas who lived from around 500 to 570, and who wrote of the British King Cuneglas that he had been “charioteer to the bear”. For a king to be anyone else’s charioteer would suggest that person held an elevated status. Dux belloram, perhaps?
Stars were to play a major role in our weekend workshop, in many guises. The Great Bear has been used from time immemorial for navigation, pointing the way to the north star, with Orion’s rising and setting marking due east and west. Orion too was going to crop up again…
But, back to Arthur. There is the circumstantial evidence on the ground. An ancient trackway runs from the base of the castle to Glastonbury and is known as King Arthur’s Hunting Track. The river Cam runs close by and the nearby villages of Queen Camel and West Camel bear its name. Cadbury Castle used to be known to the villagers as Camalet too. And, from the summit of Cadbury, you can see the Tor at Glastonbury, the mythical Avalon to which most of the Arthurian stories are tied and where Merlin himself sleeps beneath the Tor.
The name ‘Cadbury’ may come from ‘Cador’s fort’ and while the legends speak of Cador, Duke of Cornwall, history tells that Cado was the historical son of a Dumnonian king named Gerren. In the old stories, he was a friend and relative of the legendary Arthur, conceived at Tintagel and therefore possibly also a Dumnonian prince. Local tales have been associating Cadbury Castle with Camelot for hundreds of years, long before the people of the land were able to read for themselves Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, and there are snippets of history that add fuel to the fire, as well as local legends.
The Saxon conquest of Somerset took about fifty years longer than anywhere else due to the fierce resistance by a local king. Legend has it that this king was Arthur Pendragon. The size and scope of Cadbury, plus the etymological links and archaeology, may not confirm the claim for Arthur, but it certainly fits the known facts of resistance.
For the doubters, there is the tale of a band of knights who sleep in a cave beneath the hill, beyond a pair of iron gates, waiting to be called to the land’s need. On Christmas Eve and Midsummer’s Night, they ride to water their horses in the spring beside the Saxon church at Sutton Montis, in the shadow of the hill. So deeply ingrained is this story, that when archaeologists came to work at Cadbury, one old gentleman asked if they had come ‘to wake the king’. We had not done so… or perhaps, in a way, we had, waking something higher, buried deep within ourselves, as we visualised an ancient rite and opened ourselves to the whispers of the land.
Priest of the Sun…
‘…Reality is now shimmering in the heat as the air sparkles and I remember that King Arthur sleeps beneath the hill of Camelot like a child in a giant’s womb… ready to wake in the hour of need…
I plunge into the earth in search of a cool cavern, yet my feet stand on the sunlit grass as the Knight who is a Priest approaches.
I pull the furs about me against the chill, standing spear-straight in the winter sun…
He may not pass.
The Temple is mine….
He may not pass without answer…
Behind me a crescent of acolytes, await, with bowl and stone, oil and wine…
I hold up my hand, and he meets my eyes…
“Whither goest thou, Priest of the Sun?”
“I go hence into the Lowlands for the people are in need.”
“What is that need?”
“The need is Love…”
“And what will you give for the passage?”
“I will give my heart’s blood to the land.”
He offers his left hand.
A priestess steps to my side, holding the bowl and the razor-sharp shard of blue flint.
He is silent, save for a sharp intake of breath as the thick flesh at the base of his thumb yields to my ‘stone-blade’.
Blood, red as the holly crown I wear, wells into my bowl.
With blood and oil, I mark him, the sign of passage paid.
I lift the cup to his lips…wine steeped herbs that open the inner sight…bitter… part of the price…
He drinks, his eyes holding mine like a serpent…I like his strength… he is no fool, this one…he knows the true price of vision…
Passing the cup to the maiden I take his hand and lead him into the dark womb of the temple…’
The Silver Stream
“There is an alchemy of fire and water going on within and without.”
It is early. The streets of the Dorset village of Cerne Abbas are quiet as we make our way through the hush of morning to a place of perfect peace. The churchyard attached to the old Abbey has been planted with a row of young yews, marrying Christian tradition and an older paradigm and carrying the past and the present into the future. Old stone bears carvings of angels and the abstract images of lichen and there is something very appropriate about walking through a place of the dead to a moment that marks a new beginning.
Our destination in a green temple… a grove through which a pure spring flows, sheltered by stone and with a colonnade of living trees arching overhead. These linden trees are known as the Twelve Apostle by locals. It is a place of miracles and magic, legend and folklore. Long held sacred and, to judge by the prayers, offerings and clooties that abound there, still held sacred to this day.
The Silver Well, also known as St Augustine’s Well, has its origins clothed in legend. One version states that St Augustine himself struck the ground with his staff to bring forth water for thirsty shepherds, crying, ‘Cerno El!’, which means ‘I see God!’ and for him the well was named, and a shrine built over it. Another says that a hermit paid silver to drink from the well. The hermit was the Celtic saint, Edwold, a member of the Mercian royal house, who lived with the birds and wild things, much like St Francis of Assisi. We would learn more of Edwold later that morning and eventually visit the chapel where he was finally laid to rest.
The little glade has a link to St Catherine too, and has a stone from her chapel which once stood on the hillside above. The stone, like another outside the church garden in the village, bears the symbol of a Catherine Wheel. Catherine, according to the Christian legend, was a pious virgin martyred for denouncing the pagan Emperor Maxentius. She is said to have converted many during her imprisonment, including the Emperor’s wife. Angels ministered to her and doves fed her during her torture, until the Emperor proposed marriage to her. She refused, having dedicated herself to Christ… so Maxentius ordered her to be tortured to death on a spiked wheel. The wheel shattered at her touch, so…as is frequently the case…she was beheaded.
The story is not quite so simple, though, with modern scholars believing her legend to be a twisted version of the violent death of Hypatia, the mathematician, astronomer and philosopher of ancient Alexandria. The main alteration to the story being that it was Hypatia who was pagan and the Christians who literally tore her to pieces.
There may be an even older interpretation of her symbol as it is portrayed on the stone too. The eight-pointed wheel may refer to the pre-Christian celebrations of the Wheel of the Year, and there are many older fragments of folklore associated with this well. It has been credited with oracular powers, enabling those who look into its waters on Easter day will see the faces of those who will die within the year. At the opposite end of the journey, drinking from the well from a cup of laurel leaves or placing your hand on the ‘wishing stone’… the one with the Catherine Wheel… will allow maidens to find husbands, and wives to fall pregnant. And once the baby is born, it should be protected by dipping it into the well as the first rays of the sun shine on the waters. If that is not enough, it is also a healing well, that cures problems with the sight and many other ills. Vision, health and creation… all quite appropriate, in essence, for our purpose too.
Many birds sing in the trees, a robin and a wren dart through the leaves, rabbits graze the green lawn and skitter just a little further away as we enter the shelter of the venerable trees. Later, at the close of day, two of us would return to savour the silence and watch the creatures who live there, delighting as, with no fear at all, a tiny shrew sought its supper around our feet and swam in the spring. It is a place that seems to welcome all.
There is a small lawn with a stone bench and an altar, over which carved water flows. Separating the little lawn from the path is the crystal-clear stream. It emerges from the darkness beneath a stone and collects into a pool before continuing its journey unseen. The analogy of the underground stream and its emergence into clarity and light was perfect, as we were here to celebrate and ratify the Third Degree Initiation of one of the Companions of the Silent Eye.
‘To initiate’ means simply, ‘to cause (something) to begin’. The road to that inner state we call initiation begins long before we consciously set our feet upon that path… it is a lifetime’s journey. Within an organisation such as the Silent Eye, it is also a moment of completion, marking the end of one phase of life and study, and the beginning of another. For the initiate, who has watched and worked to emerge from the shadows of unknowing to this point of both completion and new beginning, it is a threshold, a point of transition… and for those who have walked with them a little way, it is a moment of joy and beauty.
Initiation cannot be conferred by human hands. Not all who reach the Portal will pass the Threshold. Not all who knock will see that door held open to the Light. Initiation cannot be bought, nor can it be earned through effort. It is not a goal. It is a recognition of the soul, and a symbol of the contract between the Candidate and the Inner Light. It comes not as a reward, nor as a gift, but as a Grace.
Barbara Walsh and Alethea Kehas had both arrived at this point of the journey at the same time, but while we celebrated Barbara’s passing of the threshold in April at our annual workshop, Alethea had not been with us. At the time, we were saddened, but she was able to fly over from America for the June workshop… and there could be no more fitting person to guide Alethea through the celebration than Barbara… and no more perfect setting than the Silver Well in which to celebrate Alethea’s new beginning.
Crossing the land upon which the Abbey of Cerne Abbas had once stood, our party split into two groups. The more adventurous went to climb a hill. Having climbed it once before, on the hottest day in memory, and without hats or water, I joined the more sedate party that skirted the bottom of the hill. We knew too that although the view across the Dorset hills was well worth the climb, the gentleman we had really come to see could only be viewed from a distance… or from the air.
We had come to see the Cerne Abbas Giant… for us an old friend, but for the rest of our party, this would be their first encounter with the great figure carved into the chalk. Our secondary quest, though, was for a crop circle. We had heard of one ‘in a field below the giant’ and there had already been one rather fortuitous crop circle in that area.
We wondered some time ago if we should run a workshop in and around Cerne Abbas. Not only is it an area rich in archaeology and curious remains, but there had also been the ‘Glastonbury effect’. As we walked from the Silver Well to the church that first day, Stuart had been moved to blurt out that it ‘didn’t feel as if we were in England’. Later discussion revealed that this was the same, peculiar feeling he had experienced at a particular spot in Glastonbury and again at the little church in Nevern in Wales.
Now, both of these spots are associated with large-scale sacred geometry in the landscape, on which much work has been done over the years, by eminent researchers and surveyors of both spiritual and scientific persuasions. Archaeoastronomy and sacred geometry in the landscape are, it must be said, not accepted by all, but having done our own research, we are convinced there is some basis of truth, even though the more extravagant claims may push the boundaries of believability sometimes.
The thing with this kind of stuff is to keep an open mind. Science, as well as alternative archaeology, is continually widening our vista on the past. Many things that our ancestors were once considered too primitive to accomplish have now become accepted as mainstream fact.
In both the previous locations where the ‘feeling’ had been apparent, it has been demonstrated that ancient sites mark out specific points on a figure called the vesica piscis, a geometric shape formed when two circles overlap in a particular way. What, we wondered, if there were a vesica at Cerne Abbas?
We Googled. If there was one, someone would have found it, surely? It certainly looked that way, as the very first thing to come up was the image of a crop circle containing a vesica and the figure of the Mother Goddess. And that one was in the field just below the very masculine giant… and had gone down just days before.
Now, crop circles are another area wide open for debate. Personally, I don’t buy the ‘aliens’ theory, and some are quite obviously commercial, jokes, or quite personal… but there are some curious anomalies with these complex and beautiful patterns. Is the land itself trying to speak through the makers of some of these designs? I do not know enough about them to judge… so I’m keeping an open mind.
From ‘maybe’ to ‘we should run a workshop there’ was a very quick shift. Especially when we realised that, although no-one had reported finding a vesica, they had found a large-scale geometric figure, marked by sacred sites in the landscape… and so the two of us had to dive down to Dorset on a research trip and the workshop evolved from there.
The most obvious ‘pattern in the landscape’ around Cerne Abbas, though, is the Giant… and he too demands an open mind. He stands a hundred and eighty feet tall on his hillside, within a six-sided enclosure whose outlines are still faintly visible. In one hand he holds a club, the other arm is outstretched and archaeologists have found traces of what may be a skin draped over it… and the possibility of a severed head in his hand. Some have compared the figure to that of Hercules with the lion-skin draped over his arm. Others see Orion… and the stellar alignments with that constellation are striking.
He is a curious figure, with his own head being not only minimally sketched and sized, but invisible from most of the viewpoints close to hand. His virility, on the other hand, is not open to question. The giant is cut into the chalk of the hillside, gleaming white against the green. Above his shoulder, to the viewer’s right, is an Iron Age earthwork enclosure known as the Trendle, and there are burial barrows on the hill too dating from a similar period.
These figures need regular ‘scouring’ to keep them bright and this would have been a task that the villagers performed together as a community. Couples too would come together at the obvious spot when they wished to conceive a child.
The purpose of the giant, as well as its date of origin, is unknown. The most prosaic theory is that it was cut in the seventeenth century as a political joke aimed at the Puritan Parliamentarian, Oliver Cromwell. This is supported by a lack of documentary reference to the figure before that date. My favourite is the legend that the giant is the actual outline of a real giant who came from Denmark to invade the land at the head of an army, but who was beheaded by the villagers as he slept on the hill.
The most prevalent belief, though, is that he is an ancient figure, like the prehistoric White Horse at Uffington. As the grass grows over the chalk, the figures disappear… which might be one reason why no mention of the giant has been found before the seventeenth century. But then again, the earliest documentary mention of the White Horse only dates to the twelfth century and carbon dating has proved that the Horse has indisputably been there since prehistory!
The most compelling indication of the giant’s antiquity though, must lie in the astronomical alignments with Orion. While we know that very many prehistoric monuments indicate the procession of the seasons, the movements of the stars and planets and were used to predict celestial events, I find it wholly unlikely that a political satrist would go to that much trouble for what must have been, by the very nature of politics, a transient joke.
Perhaps the giant represents something else altogether… an archetypal figure, protecting, defending and fertilising the land. Could he be a depiction of some father-warrior-god-king, deeply entrenched in the psyche of the early inhabitants of the land? Perhaps a figure from which the very earliest myths were born that would eventually be grafted onto the legend of Arthur…
For now, the figure keeps its secrets and we ponder on who, or what, his mate… his feminine counterpart… might be. Are we looking at the Earth herself? Or might there be some symbolic figure in the landscape, just waiting to be discovered…
In the shadow of the giant, we withdrew to a quiet spot beneath the trees for the second part of our visualisation in preparation for the next place we would visit…
We walked back into Cerne Abbas for our final visit of the morning. The plan was that we would give a bit of a tour of the church, pointing out some of the more intriguing iconography and historical features before giving everyone time to explore for themselves. I also wanted to get a full set of photographs as it had been five years since our first visit. We have learned a lot in that time about these old churches and have a much better idea of what to look for. I was bound to have missed many things of which we ought to have taken note. But the best-laid plans of mice, men and serial church-crawlers and all that… It started well, but we got side-tracked.
We did manage to look at the carvings outside the church. They are strange, even for grotesques and gargoyles, being mainly comprised of giants with smaller figures. One theory suggests many of these types of figures represent sins… and a sin may indeed seem giant-sized to the repentant sinner in hope of reformation or in fear of hellfire. Be that as it may, these giants have a place only on the outside of the church… within, only spiritual stature counts.
In many areas of ancient and religious art, there is a hierarchy of size; you often see gods, saints and kings portrayed as larger than those around them. Christianity is a religion where a Child holds the keys of heaven.
One curious carving beside the north porch, though is more utilitarian than symbolic. The open-mouthed face is a chimney outlet for a fireplace that once warmed the toes of the incumbent priest, traces of which can still be seen within the church.
We entered the church and were soon side-tracked. As it turned out, between them, everyone found the most important bits of the church in the context of the workshop and we got to talk to artist John Coleman, better known as Ikon John. The artist uses archaic techniques and styles, painting with egg tempera and gold leaf to create ikons that continue an age-old tradition, and which have been commissioned by Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and Coptic churches and individuals.
His work draws upon the symbolic language of images… a concept at the heart of our workshop… and it was a real gift to be able to speak with him. Not only did we learn a little about his work and the Cyrillic script used in ikon painting, he also told us of another large hillfort which is now on our ‘hit-list’ and about the burial of St Edwold, the hermit associated with the Silver Well. He even gave us the location of his final resting place, which we felt we ought to visit before heading north once more.
Meanwhile, our companions had wandered around the church, discovering its details and secrets. The church of St Mary the Virgin belonged to the Abbey that cast its mantle over Cerne Abbas. When the Abbey was first founded, the people of the village came to the nave of its church to pray. Around 1300, the monks began building St Mary’s and its first vicar was installed in 1317.
Most of the fabric of the current building is fifteenth and sixteenth century, but traces of the original church remain in the chancel, where there are medieval wall paintings showing the Annunciation and scenes from the life and beheading of John the Baptist.
Most of the stained glass is either heraldic or comprises of small, individual panels set into clear windows. There is only one full stained-glass window, showing the Adoration of the Lamb from the Book of Revelation.
The oldest stained glass is a tiny fourteenth-century panel, high up in the tracery, showing a rather solar lion. As one of the oldest local names for the Cerne Giant was reportedly Helis, and the giant once carried a lion-skin, this just adds fuel to the flame of mystery.
Plaques, most of them painted, commemorate local people from the past few hundred years of Cerne Abbas’ history. One mentions ‘William Cockeram, Gent and Practicioner of Phifick and Chirugery’ who died aged forty-three. Another pays tribute to members of the Notley family, early settlers to America, who owned the land now known as Capitol Hill, but which was once called Cerne Abbey Manor.
There are post-Reformation scripture panels painted on the walls of the nave; the Puritans banned all religious iconography and ‘abused images’ that smacked, to them, of superstition. The medieval wall paintings that once covered the walls of almost every church with colour and stories were destroyed or covered with plaster and paint. High above the chancel arch, a few traces of those earlier paintings can still be seen.
The arches of the arcade brought us back to geometry. They are of the Gothic shape, formed from the interlocking circles of the vesica piscis, the figure that had been our initial inspiration for holding the workshop in the area. It is a shape often found in religious iconography, usually as an aureole around the figures of Christ and the Virgin.
The most intriguing geometry though, is the so-called Consecration Cross. These were crosses, painted on plaster for the interior, usually with a candle sconce beneath them, or carved in stone for the exterior of a church. There would originally be twelve inside and twelve outside, marking the places where the presiding bishop anointed the building with holy oil during its consecration ceremony. Few survived the inevitable remodelling and repainting over the centuries, but occasionally, we stumble across one.
A Consecration Cross is supposed to be just that… a cross, often inscribed within a circle. Usually, a cross has four points… but not this one. It has six and looks much more like a flower or a star than a cross. Therefore, it is not a ‘cross’. We have seen these same symbols before, also described as Consecration Crosses, and simply accepted the name without question… which is the human default position when a trusted authority speaks. This time, a chance comment as I researched made me question what we were being told.
A little further digging and it seems we are not alone in questioning the meaning of this daisy-wheel symbol, thought to date back to the thirteenth century. Oddly enough, this is the time when the Templars were active in the area… and the examples we have previously seen of this symbol were in churches with Templar connections. But, regardless of the possible meanings and connections of this six-pointed, daisy-wheel ‘cross’, it was an interesting find in light of what we were going to be doing that afternoon…
The Pattern in the Landscape
Leaving the church, we gathered in the little garden beside it which, so the church’s Keeper of the Keys would later tell us, had been sold to them for the princely sum of £1, with the sole proviso that the garden be used. Beside its gate is another fragment of the old Abbey, bearing once again the symbol of St Catherine’s wheel… which seemed fairly appropriate considering what we were about to do.
The gardens are a beautiful and peaceful spot, tucked under the wing of the church. The air is fragrant with the perfume of herbs and old roses. Apples grow on carefully tended trees and there are bees and butterflies in abundance. We gathered around a small, paved square lined with benches to start the next part of our adventure.
We had been convinced to hold a workshop at Cerne Abbas because of a feeling and a series of coincidences with geometry. At first, we had thought we might find a vesica piscis in the landscape, but we had discovered that there was already a recognised geometric figure marked by sacred sites. It was listed as a ‘hexagram’, with venerable old churches on each of the points… and most of these older churches are built on sites of a more ancient sanctity than their stones and mortar. A quick look at the map confirmed that the figure seemed pretty accurate and we had dived down to Dorset to check out the sites.
It did not take long to realise that, while there was indeed a nice, six-pointed figure in the landscape, there was no guarantee it was supposed to be a hexagram. Granted, the symbol known as both the Star of David and the hexagram is associated with Christianity, alchemy, Judaism and features in pretty much every religion and culture in some form, but a six-pointed figure does not have to be a hexagram. There were other options.
It could be a rayed star, a daisy-wheel like the odd ‘consecration cross’ that we had found in the church, or a simple a hexagon. It could even be marking points dividing the circumference of a circle. And, if it were centred around a seventh point, the circle would then be the traditional symbol for the sun. On top of that, the Cerne Giant had, coincidentally, been known as ‘Helis’… which is close enough to ‘Helios’ to be intriguing.
But it had been the hexagram we had been given to work with, so the hexagram it would be. In magical and alchemical terms, the two triangles that form the hexagram represent the elements which, when brought together to form the six-pointed star, symbolise perfect balance and harmony.
The hexagram in the landscape appears to be aligned with magnetic north, rather than ‘true’ north, which might imply that it was older than modern mapping techniques. Not that we really needed that implication, when all the churches on its points predate that scientific differentiation by centuries. Oddly enough, the figure of the hexagram can be used as a starting point from which it is possible to geometrically draw a vesica… the only problem with then finding a vesica in the landscape is that the geometry required means you have to know which of the six possible directions on the starting hexagram is ‘up’.
Later, there would be time to play with Google Earth, overlaying geometrical forms onto maps, with a really surprising result. For now, though, we were taking Cerne Abbas as the centre and working our way round from there.
But our weekend, although using the geometries, was not really about them. It was about how we might work ‘with’ the land to create harmony. We had devised a simple demonstration, assigning the planets to the points and centre of the hexagram that is formed from the symbolic Fire and Water triangles and, drawing lots, had assigned each planet to a member of our company. At each site visited, we would walk the pattern, drawing together the two triangles to create a harmonious whole. At each site, also, we would meditate on a seed thought, finding an expression of each planetary colour in nature. The simplest of such rituals may have a profound effect when performed with intent.
And that was the end of our morning… especially as the rain began to fall. All that remained was to find shelter for a few minutes until the New Inn, a sixteenth-century coaching in, was ready to open its doors for lunch. After which, we would be going on a church-crawl…
Priest of the Sun II
Giant Hill, Cerne-Abbas
…We stop, looking out across the processional way… as the torchlight approaches.
The sky is clear, and the Hunter’s Moon illuminates the white outline of the giant.
From the Trendle comes the sound of drum beats… soft and insistent, an echoed heartbeat of earth… the truncated scream of a stag pierces the night as the drumbeats increase their rhythm…pounding like blood through the temples…then dying down to a soft thrumming which waits….
She watches from the hilltop.
There will be blood tomorrow too… for vengeance, for betrayal… for a kingdom…many will fight for her… many will die…but she holds the power.
They will come, over the hilltop, through the valley… and they will be caught.
She has the high ground and those who serve her know its ways…But tonight she watches and waits… there is another service… she watches the dark forms approach from the enclosure…The man is bound with the skin of the stag, but not immobile… naked, washed with pure water from the spring, oiled and perfumed, beautiful in his youth….
She holds her blade before her… speaking to he who is led…drawing the sharp point, almost gently, across his skin…marked with the blood in spirals…tracing them with the blade and watching his body respond…
“Whither goest thou, Priest of the Sun?”
“I go hence to the hillside for the land is in need.”
“What is that need?”
“The need is Life.”
“And what will you give for the passage?”
“I will give life.”
She draws the maiden to her side. She too is naked and blooded, but unbound.
Her hair falls in a long cascade, glinting in the moonlight.
She places the maiden’s hand on his and nods…the two are led away onto the hillside…The drums begin again, softly at first, but with growing insistence, thrumming in the blood… rising, louder, faster…mirroring the rite on the hillside…reaching fever pitch…Life and death… this hillside will see them both…generation and destruction….
The One with the Alien…
‘Green represents Spirit over Matter’
We had decided to visit six churches with our companions. That is a lot of churches to visit in one afternoon… and we were conscious that they are not everyone’s cup of tea. These ones, though, are all old and interesting, and each one of them marks a point of the hexagram in the landscape with which we would work. We had assigned each of the churches to a place on the Fire or Water triangle, which carried with it a planetary attribution and colour, and each companion had chosen ‘their’ church by drawing lots.
We hoped it would be an interesting exercise and give a taste of the ‘thrill of the chase’ that we get when we are on the trail of mysteries, although you can neither predict how others will feel, nor assume they will feel as you do… or as you hope they will. We would have to wait and see.
We started with the Church of the Holy Rood, in the village of Buckland Newton. The area is rich in archaeological remains, with traces of prehistoric settlements, dykes, barrows and forts on every hill. Ancient trackways converge on the area and it seems to have been a hive of early activity. Dungeon Hill, an Iron Age hillfort, lies to the north of the village and Roman remains have also been located.
The church stands apart from most of the village and, on arriving, seems to be alone with the manor house opposite. The old manor is probably one of the reasons why the church appears to be rather grand for its surroundings, set as it is amidst green fields and farmland. Another reason is that historically, the church also served the villagers of Plush and, it seems, they were assigned their own door on the north side… the side traditionally reserved for the Devil’s Door, through which the demon could escape when baptisms were being performed. It makes you wonder about the relationship between the two villages…
The tower is the first thing that strikes you, being very tall for the proportions of the village church… a feature we would find was common to the churches we would visit. There are old yew trees throughout the churchyard, which is always a good sign. You are watched by some rather odd gargoyles as you approach too.
Another good omen for our quest was finding the four, six-pointed wheels carved on the sundial… Not a bad start when you are looking for a hexagram.
The south porch is very grand these days, thanks to the carved lantern. Above it is an old Parvise, a little room kept for the priests visiting from Glastonbury Abbey, to whom the church once belonged. The porch gates and lantern were given by John Bishop IV of Massachusetts, in 1989, to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of the marriage of his ancestors, Alice Dunning and William Bishop. They were married in 1589 and emigrated to America around 1600.
The church is an old one, originally built eight hundred years ago, though the figure of Christ in Majesty that greets you in the porch is a hundred years older than that. No mention is made of its origins, and I have to wonder whether there had been an even earlier church on the site.
Much of the chancel dates to the thirteenth century, while the nave and the font are fifteenth century. Near the ‘Plush Door’ is a heavily carved Poor Box, that has collected alms for the past five hundred years.
The base of the tower is hidden behind a carved screen, which is a pity as the stained-glass window by Kempe cannot be seen. It shows the three canonised Archangels Gabriel, Michael and Raphael, and I wonder once again why the Church saw fit to accord sainthood to Archangels. It seems a superfluous honour…
There is no lack of stained-glass though, with some stunning panels around the chancel, showing unusual scenes like the raisings of the dead from both old and new Testaments and some complex, symbolic patterns.
Beneath many of the windows are glass cases holding medieval tiles with fragments of intriguing designs. Behind the altar is a reredos, carved in high relief and showing Christ ascending, and fortuitously for us, surrounded by an aureole in the shape of the vesica piscis. Both altar and reredos were carved by a Mr Tolhurst of Mowbrays and were dedicated in 1927.
There are a number of really interesting old memorials dotted around the walls, including one whose date I could not make out but which must be three or four hundred years old.
There are many examples of heraldry throughout the church, including one I rather liked, showing birds and with a motto that means ‘Truth without Fear’. And one of our number was a girl named Truth, and the motto seemed wholly appropriate, given the events of the morning.
There is a lovely wooden sculpture too of the Virgin and Child. She raises Him above Her… or He rests lightly within her hands, a fleeting presence reaching down with the kiss of Love. There is much tenderness in this work and much to contemplate. As parents and teachers, it is for us to raise those within our care and let them fly. Their time within our hands is brief and our hope is that they will rise to find their true selves… and perhaps, as they look back with love, we will learn from them too.
As we could not access the tower where we intended to work where possible, we gathered in the porch for our meditative ritual, finding the symbolic planetary colours within the living land. But before we left the church, we had to stop and look at its oldest inhabitant… and wonder what on earth we were seeing. The small stone plaque was found in the vicarage garden in 1926. Its presence attests to the age of the site as a place of significance in the area, as the carving dates back around fifteen hundred years, making it historically Saxon. It shows a wide-eyed figure with what appears to be long hair, wearing trousers of some sort beneath a full-skirted coat.
He smiles, and the strange eyes seem amused at our puzzlement. Some have suggested it must be an early depiction of St Thomas, because it carries his symbol of the spear. Although, it does not look particularly saintly to me, nor does he seem to be holding the spear. In fact, at first glance it looks more like a tail… or an arrow carried in a quiver. Others believe it to be secular rather than religious but offer no explanation for what it might show.
It is an amazing thing to find in a village church, but it is not the first time we have come across treasures you might only expect to find in a museum, housed in a church way off the beaten track. It will not be the last either, for it is one of the joys of visiting these venerable old buildings that they hold the history of a thousand years and often more, holding it lightly and within reach as if to say ‘here, this is your past and these were your people’.
The One with the Swallows…
‘Red represents Matter over Spirit’…
We had assigned our second church, All Saints in the village of Piddletrenthide, to Mars, but nothing less warlike could you imagine than the tranquil stream and thatched cottages that surround one of the finest churches in the area.
Like the previous church, it has an inordinately tall tower, surmounted by more really intriguing gargoyles. Not for the first time, I am grateful for the long lens on the camera, which allows at least a glimpse of what is hiding in plain sight, just too high to see. It is an interesting church with a lot to see…
There is a plaque in the churchyard pointing out the Dumberfield graves… the family that was the inspiration for the D’Urberville family in Thomas Hardy’s book. Being a local man, Hardy crops up in many of the places we visited.
There are heraldic beasts perched on every protuberance around the exterior of the church… which, on closer inspection and in spite of their regal appearance, seem to be the symbols of the Evangelists… quite unusual they are too, given their placement. A sundial still casts a shadow to tell the time… and, like the one at Buckland Newton, it bears the ‘daisy-wheel’ symbol that had intrigued us at Cerne Abbas.
Beneath it, the Norman door is closed against the ingress of baby swallows. We watched their aerobatics… the parents seemed to be taking the babies out for a training flight and we were lucky enough to see them circling within the porch. For some reason, swallows seem to favour church porches as nesting places.
There are Norman carvings on the capitals of the pillars within the church, but most of the present building dates back only to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries… and was inevitably and heavily restored in 1852 by John Hicks, though he left the squint in place, through which worshippers in the side chapels could see the Host being raised and which, rather oddly, today seems one of the most vibrant details.
There are a number of very fine Victorian memorials, showing weeping women, broken pillars and all the usual visual tropes of grief from that era. Apart from their historical and artistic value, these elaborate memorials never draw me.
One memorial stood out, though, and that was a stained glass window dedicated to those fallen in battle, in memory of a young fusilier from the village killed, aged twenty-five, during WWII. He stands at the foot of the Cross, his sword has been laid down, and Jesus seems to look down with love and compassion.
Curiously, there are stars surrounding the Cross and, given some of the questions thrown up by our quest, this seemed appropriate. Another window shows the Christ within a vesica once more and the pulpit is carved with the hexagram.
All the stained glass, though, is magnificent, particularly the Madonna and Child and the West window in the Tower.
The Madonna is one of the most tender I have seen, while the great West window is a wonderful depiction of the Ascension with attendant angels.
This church has everything going for it. All the right historical and architectural details, a literary association, wonderful glass, Norman carvings and an idyllic setting. As we gathered to meditate on the colours and symbolism of our attribution of this beautiful church, I could not help thinking how inappropriate it seemed to assign this place to Mars… or how right it felt.
When we had first visited the church, I had been excited about everything we saw… but somehow, the place left me cold. It spoke to the mind, but failed to touch the heart. The next church, however, would be the complete opposite…
The One with the Dragon…
‘White represents the Crescent of the Soul’…
The little church of All Saints at Nether Cerne is in the most beautiful and peaceful location imaginable. On our first visit, we drove down the tiny country lane that runs beside the infant River Cerne, expecting to find a village. There are only a couple of cottages, a farm and a beautiful seventeenth century manor house… and a sign saying ‘to the church’ which seemed to point between two tracks leading into the middle of nowhere.
Leaving the car, we took the right-hand track, following it behind the manor’s stables, until we found a gap in the wildflowers through which we could see the church. Feeling rather like naughty children, trespassing where we shouldn’t, we followed the hint of a path into the manor gardens.
The church is tiny and stands opposite the door to the manor. By contrast, its tower is proportionately huge. There are a handful of graves, including a military grave bearing a carving of crossed rifles, and a feeling of utter peace.
All Saints, though remaining a consecrated place of worship, is a retired church. After eight hundred years, the building is at rest, yet it retains a luminous sanctity and tranquillity matched by few others we have seen. It is a place that simply needs to be felt.
It is surrounded by fields, sheltered by trees and a silence broken only by birdsong and the quiet whisper of the river. We did not expect it to stand open… yet the door swung inwards to allow us entry to a little church that keeps an antler with the candlesticks.
Although it was built in the thirteenth century, it was remodelled two hundred years later. It is a very simple church, seeming bigger on the inside than the outside.
There is little to see at first, just a few stained-glass windows, two of which are superb. The face of the Christ in the East window, above the altar, has faded and lost its features, but the Lamb and the Crucifixion are worthy of any place of worship.
The font is a curious affair, oval, rather than round, and looking rather like half an upturned melon. It pre-dates the present church and may come from a much older building. I cannot find out whether the Purbeck marble font was part of a church already on the site, or whether it was brought from elsewhere, but it appears to be at least nine hundred years old.
The tower is the most interesting part of the building, with a tiny door leading to the stairs and some curious carvings on the pillars. Small, shield-bearing angels guard the entrance to the tower, but from within, you look up to see an eagle and a tiny dragon.
As we gathered there for our meditation on the planetary colours and seed phrase, it was evident that these could not have been better chosen.
The One with the Light…
‘Orange represents Expansion through Wisdom’…
The current Church of the St Nicholas, at Sydling St Nicholas, dates largely to the fifteenth century, with the tall tower being the oldest part of the building. However, it stands on the site of at least two earlier churches that go back to the earliest days of Christianity in the country.
We had been unable to get inside the church when we had come down to reconnoitre for the workshop weekend as it was in use, so this would be an adventure for all of us… we had no idea what we might find.
There are a good many unusual features. For a start, the church is covered in gargoyles, all of whom are up for adoption in an effort to raise funds to preserve the building. Gargoyles were working sculptures, designed to carry water away from the foundations of the building when it rained, while grotesques served either as decorations only or as a symbolic spiritual message… although there are many that seem to be a covert commentary by the mason, making a point about local notables.
Above the porch, an ascetic saint holds his finger skywards in blessing or warning. Most of these niches are now empty, but most parish churches would have had a similar statue before the Reformation. There is an old fireplace in the porch, where, one assumes, the parishioners could warm themselves in winter. I doubt if Cromwell’s Puritans would have approved of that either.
They certainly did not approve of the stained-glass, and little of the early glass survived their stones and muskets… just a few intriguing fragments placed in a frame and hung above the font at the base of the tower.
The font is a really curious affair, most unusual. It appears to have been made from a Roman column and set upon a later pedestal. Beside it, leaning forlornly against the wall, is another old basin, large enough to be a font.
High above the nave is a collection of painted roof bosses. Most of them are simple floral designs, but a few of them seem to have more to say…
The protruding tongue of one of the bosses is echoed in another fragment of old masonry, now ensconced in the squint. Traces of the old pigment remain and you get a glimpse of how magnificent, colourful and possibly garish these churches once were, when they were painted throughout. They must have been startling indeed to the common folk for whom dyes, tapestries and colour were largely out of reach.
They were reserved for the wealthier families, like the Smiths who once lived at Sydling Court. Rumour has it that there is, or was, a tunnel from the crypt of the church to the Court too, and not for the first time, I wish we could access some of the lesser frequented areas of these old churches.
There are several memorials to the Smith family, including one to Mary Smith, a mother of twelve who lost eight of her children in infancy. She died aged eighty-one in 1797, ‘full of years and good works’.
The two most intriguing features of the church for us, though, were in the east and west. In the east, on the altar, is a carving which we assume must be Christ with outstretched arms as it sits in the place of the Cross. I wasn’t the only one to think this figure looked rather like an alien from a sci-fi movie…
In the west is the tower where we gathered for our meditation. We had assigned the planet Jupiter and the colour orange to this spot, along with our seed thought. As we finished our meditation, the sun came through a small fragment of stained-glass and it appeared that we had made the right choice…
The One with the Magician…
‘Grey represents Spirit mediating between Soul and Body’…
Our penultimate church was in Batcombe… these days a small and straggling hamlet, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. There has been a church on the site of St Mary Magdalene for nigh a thousand years and very possibly more. It stands in a green valley, far enough from people to make a congregation seem barely feasible.
The church boasts a tower taller, in proportion to the rest of the single-celled building, than many grander churches we have seen. Indeed, the first impression you get when you arrive is of the height of the tower and the isolated beauty in which it stands.
The church is a simple one, with the main entrance still being through the base of the fifteenth-century tower, and leading to a nave and chancel. It is a long, narrow building and lacks both ornamentation and stained glass. It is vaguely unkempt, appears almost abandoned… and yet it has a curious tranquillity and a welcoming feel. Of all the churches we visited, this was the one where we felt most at home.
Outside, there is a warmth about the stone and the simplicity of the doorway is inviting. There are gargoyles watching from the four corners of the tower and a pair of heads flank the door.
An odd shield-shaped marking… perhaps a mason’s mark… looks rather like a smiling face, positioned close to the entrance. Around the corner, a fragment of pre-Norman masonry hides amongst the flints on one of the buttresses, suggesting the presence of a Saxon church on the spot, long before the Normans arrived and began building the churches we appreciate so much as repositories of art and local history.
All in all, it is an inviting place. Once inside, the air is cool and ‘clean’ in some indefinable way. The tower walls hold a handful of memorials that show a little of the history of the community.
I was particularly taken by the elaborate border of one memorial that combines an angel with fruits, foliage and a skull, as well as the rather startled-looking skull on another that has an almost cartoon-like feel.
The font stands at the back of the church, where the tower meets the nave, and is a curious affair. It has a Norman column with a curvaceous yet cube-shaped limestone basin which is older than the pedestal upon which it stands. There are circles inscribed on the sides of the basin, looking very much like those odd consecration crosses we had found earlier at Cerne Abbas.
There is little to see in the rest of the church at first glance, especially after the wealthier places we had already visited. But look a little more closely and there are still wonderful artefacts to be found.
The fragment of an old screen hides beside the organ. Pews hide an ancient holy water stoup and a rare twelfth-century pillar-piscina, set against a triangular alcove.
A carved stone screen separates the nave from the chancel and an illustrated Bible graces the lectern. The fifteenth-century collar-beam roof is held in place by roof bosses carved with foliage and curves gently over the nave.
Victorian restorations erased the Minterne Chapel that once held a very curious burial and a bit of local folklore. The local squire was known as ‘Conjuring Minterne’. He dabbled in magic and was regarded with fear and superstition. After setting off to ride over steep Batcombe Hill one day, he suddenly remembered he had left his spell-book open on the table, where his servants might find it.
To save going back by the road, he turned his horse around and spurred it to attempt a massive leap over the church, knocking off the pinnacle as he soared clear over the tower. The fearful villagers were afraid that they might offend the devil by repairing the damage, and bad luck was promised to those who attempted to do so… and for a hundred years they left it alone. When it was repaired, they repaired it at a crooked angle.
It is said that Minterne vowed that he would be buried neither in nor out of the church, so he was buried half in and half out of the Minterne Chapel. The church was redesigned and rebuilt by John Hicks in 1864, and the Minterne chapel was sadly lost. The memorial tablets were repositioned on the north side of the tower and one must wonder if the John Minterne mentioned in the carvings is the conjurer…
A “conjurer” used to be an important character in a Dorset village, and was held in respect. He was supposed to be gifted with supernatural power, which he exercised for good, and by his incantations and ceremonies he could cure many sicknesses.
In another of those curious coincidences, we had assigned this church to Mercury as part of our meditation… and in many systems, Mercury…Hermes… is intimately associated with magic.
The afternoon was drawing to a close and we had one more church still to see, if time allowed, yet it was with some reluctance that we left Batcombe. With its air of quiet, resilient grace and a standing stone hidden in a nearby hedge, it really is a magical place.
The One in the Garden…
‘Yellow represents the Circle of the Spirit’…
On our research visit to Dorset, we had really had to look for the Church of St Mary the Virgin at Hermitage. We had driven up and down the lanes for ages, before finally spotting a sign that led behind the village green and into the gardens of a cottage. We could see the church… a tiny, single-cell building, but felt a little awkward invading someone’s garden to get to it. Apparently though, that was the path to the church.
One of the reasons we had been unable to locate the church originally was the lack of a tower. Not only had this made our quest a little more difficult, it had also obliterated our theory about the tall towers and their significance within this six-pointed landscape in the shadow of a priapic giant. Luckily, however, a bit of digging soon reassured us on that point at least.
The village of Hermitage is said to take its name from the presence of the Augustinian Friars who settled here nine hundred years ago. They were under royal protection and were eventually given grants of land by the Crown. The friars remained for three hundred years, and built the little church in the fourteenth century.
The present church was heavily altered and restored in the seventeenth century and the font dates from this period. There was once a tower, that contained an apartment for the curate, but that was removed, leaving only a lonely gargoyle, jostling for place with the modern wires.
Around 1800, the barrel roof was installed, giving the church its current appearance. There is still a medieval door in the north wall and a scratch dial… the primitive sundials used for telling the times of the services… on the outside of the building.
The setting, like the church, is simple… it is very much a part of the community and obviously loved. Not far away is The Lady’s Well, a sacred spring once used by the Friars, but whose origins…and the Lady to whom it is dedicated… may go back much further in time.
Within the church, the Lady is the Virgin Mother with Her Son, a beautiful and unusually human sculpture. In some magical systems, the dark, Cosmic Mother is associated with the planet Saturn, the planet at the centre of our meditation, while the little church, filled with summer light, we had assigned to the Sun.
For our purposes, though, the chair carved with the hexagram seemed a most appropriate find, as it was here that we would complete our meditation. Beneath the ghost of the tower, we ourselves symbolised the seven points of the hexagram, moving to bring the fire and water triangles together to create a symbolic representation of harmony and wholeness.
Our day was complete. We were to meet for dinner at the old inn in Cerne Abbas that had once been part of the Abbey buildings, so everyone had a little time to themselves. Some went back to their hotel. We went for petrol and spent a little while in the quiet of the Silver Well. And some went off on an adventure of their own, hunting yet another pattern in the landscape…
Accident or Design
Although the hexagram was the main ‘pattern in the landscape’ that we had come to investigate… with a little help from the Giant on the hillside… there was another pattern that had been intriguing our companions… that of the crop circle that had recently appeared on the hills opposite the Giant.
We had no luck in finding it with the scant information we had that morning, but the girls had been doing some research of their own, and it was no surprise when they bounded into the pub, looking as pleased as punch.
Trawling the internet for pictures and asking the locals, they had, between them, located the circle and two of them had gone in search of it on the ground. They had found the field in which the crop circle had gone down but had been unable to find anywhere on the narrow lanes to park their car and walk. Could we, perhaps, knowing the area a little better, find the time next morning, before the final site, to go and have a look? We agreed a meeting, set the rendezvous for the last visit of the weekend and eventually headed to bed.
The nature, purpose and origins of crop circles may be open to debate, but their fascination is a given, especially the ones that had appeared around the village with such seemingly perfect timing. First, when we had only just made the decision to do a workshop in the area, the very first thing that came up when we Googled ‘vesica’ and ‘Cerne Abbas’ was a crop circle of a vesica containing a goddess figure; uncannily appropriate when we were looking at wholeness and completion below a giant priapic chalk carving.
This latest figure was just as strange, having gone down days before, and being made up of the same geometric elements as the symbols we were using. Steve had given one of his excellent presentations at a workshop some years ago, where he demonstrated that the astrological glyphs representing the planets can all be drawn using elements of these simple forms… the circle, the semi-circle and the cross. At Cerne Abbas, we were working with those planetary symbols… and so, coincidentally, were the creators of this latest crop circle…
Next morning, as is our habit, Stuart and I were awake and out very early. We decided to see if we could find a way of accessing the crop circle for the girls and headed for the hills. We found the field with no problems, found a spot to park and even found a footpath. We had about three-quarters of an hour before we were meeting the girls. We could actually see the landmark of the mobile phone tower, yards from the circle. Plenty of time!
We set off down the track at a fair pace. We soon realised that the tower was much farther than we thought. We pushed on, determined to walk till the last possible minute. As we neared the tower, we passed a huge boulder beside the track, remarking that it looked like a ‘significant stone’, but there was no time to linger. As it was, we had run out of time before reaching the tower and had just a minute or two to verify the presence of the circle, snap a few useless pictures and dash back to the car.
There would not be enough time to get to the crop circle before meeting the rest of our party for the final site, but at least we had clear directions and a parking spot for the girls, two of whom would be back in a couple of days, though Helen would not be with them.
When Larissa and Alethea did return, they visited the crop circle… and I hope Alethea will tell more of her story when she gets the chance. What they did not know, because we did not know, was just how odd it was that the circle went down just there.
It was not until I started playing with Google Earth, when we were home again, that I had chance to work out where our hypothetical vesica in the landscape might fall, and things got even odder. Using the positioning of the six churches to create a hexagram, you can extend the geometric forms to draw and therefore find a vesica. I am no expert with that software, but even I could see that Cerne Abbas itself was not the exact centre of the hexagram as we had assumed. The centre of that shape, which, with the extended geometries is also the base point of the vesica, falls close to the hamlet of Up Cerne. I took a closer look.
I trawled all my usual sources and found they were referring to an ancient way-marker or boundary stone beside a track. My sources had pictures. Not only was it the same ‘significant stone’ that we had noted on the approach to the crop circle, but it was also the Bellingstone that stands beside the Wessex Ridgeway and which we had decided, prior to the workshop, would be far too difficult and time-consuming to locate. Instead, we found it by accident.
The crop circle is in a field close to the Bellingstone, close to one of the best viewing points for the Cerne Abbas Giant. According to Peter Knight, the stone and Giant are astronomically aligned with the Beltane sunrise. Belenos is one of the old Celtic gods whose name means ‘Shining God’. Beltane is celebrated with fires and Belenos was worshipped as a solar god. The sun is the centre of our planetary system… and the crop circle made of planetary symbols was, as near as I could determine, right at the centre of our hexagram… and one of the two points of the vesica we had been seeking. Apparently, we had found that by accident too.
You cannot, as the saying goes, make this stuff up. No-one would believe the sheer volume of coincidences… and yet they happen. All the time. Why and how? Do we simply read more into coincidences than is really there? Does the subconscious process unconsciously gathered information in some way we do not yet understand? Or are there indeed unseen forces moving us like pieces on a chess-board? If so, they have a wicked sense of humour!
The Great Hill
Our final site of the official weekend workshop was Maiden Castle, an enormous prehistoric structure just outside the Roman town of Dorchester. We gathered in the car park beneath the hillfort and began the climb to its gates.
The name, Maiden Castle, is of debated origin, with some scholars taking it to mean an impregnable or unconquered fortress, while others look to the old Brittonic language and see it as mai-dun, the great hill. Perhaps it is both, but for our purposes, the site was definitely well named and large enough to be the virginal bride of a Giant.
The human occupation of Maiden Castle goes back over six thousand years to the Neolithic era, when the hilltop was cleared of woodland and a causewayed enclosure was built. Finds suggest this was a place of gathering for ritualistic purposes, rather than a settlement at first. There is evidence that stone axe heads were made and polished there and these axes were as much a part of ceremonial regalia and a mark of authority as a weapon. They are found as grave goods in important tombs and were traded across Europe.
The graves of two children were found within the low banks of the enclosure and it is thought the banks were more a symbolic separation, perhaps between the lands of the living and the lands of the ancestors. A little later, a huge bank barrow was built, over eighteen hundred feet long, but which is barely visible today. The barrow may have represented the presence of the ancestors within the community as well as acting as a dividing landmark.
In the Iron Age, a hillfort was built on top of the original structure and later extended to the west to enclose more than double the original area, until it covered more than forty-seven acres. The information board graphically illustrates the sheer enormity of Maiden Castle when it tells you that the summit alone is the size of fifty football pitches. It is the largest hillfort in Britain and one of the largest in Europe.
We entered via the maze… a complex arrangement of deep, steep ditches and high, blind banks. Worn by millennia of weather, the banks have eroded and the ditches have lost their original depth, yet it is still an incredible feat of engineering. Defensively, it is a fabulous way of intimidating, separating and confusing an enemy, but we wondered if that were its only purpose. As a processional way, the snaking progress of torches in the dark would look both impressive and magical as they climbed the hill through the coils of the maze.
We began there… and all our plans, ideas and research went for naught, as our companions were drawn, this way and that, called to their own explorations and following their own visions and inner prompting. That is as it should be… anything we create for these workshop weekends is designed to encourage that inner voice, so we can hardly complain when our companions hear and follow.
A few of us began to walk around the ramparts, marvelling at the scale of what remains and discussing the history of the site. What began as a small settlement became the largest of its kind in the area, with many roundhouses built in a random pattern. Then, for a short while in its long history, the castle was organised and held under strong leadership. The old homes were demolished, and orderly streets of houses built. The ramparts were strengthened and the community reorganised. Little now remains visible of what was once there, but the inner eye sees beyond time and recreates the conical rooftops, the grazing of goats and kine and the slow swirl of many hearthfires. Where does imagination begin and end? When does conscious thought become unconscious vision? And where is the portal beyond which we cannot see…until we do?
The Great Hill II
(Continued from Part I)
Halfway across the length of Maiden Castle, the terrain changes. It is a slight demarcation… little more than a step ‘up’ at one end… yet the change is palpable. While the western entrance leads onto a place where people lived, the eastern end of the enclosure is where the dead were laid, in the care of the priesthood. We do not know exactly how these people worshipped, though we may glean a little insight from the so-called ‘primitive’ tribes that still exist. Their beliefs would have been animistic and their priesthood would have included the healers and seers, the shaman and the wise-woman. The earth was a living being and every rock, tree and creature a manifestation of Spirit. The forms of faith may differ, but in essence, they are the same as our own.
On our first visit to the site, five years ago, we had felt the change in the land. It was only later, when we did the research that we found that we had ‘seen true’. There are many graves in this part of the hillfort, all buried with reverence and respect, though some had died violent deaths. In the 1930s, Sir Mortimer Wheeler found a cemetery containing fifty-two skeletons and, although many of the males had died of horrific injuries, they were buried with care. Grave goods of pots, metalwork and even joints of meat were sent with the dead to the otherworld.
At the easternmost point of the hillfort there is a gate. Few visitors seem to venture through it to the mirror-maze beyond. Echoing the western maze, this one is more unkempt, left in peace for the atmosphere to build and the energies to whisper, and it seems more ceremonial than practical. It had been within this maze that we had seen how it could be used for the rites of passage and we had planned on gathering our companions here for the third and final visualisation of the weekend. Unfortunately, when we reached the eastern end, half our companions were already following their own calling to the Roman temple…
While many hillforts had fallen out of use by the time the Romans arrived, Maiden Castle continued to be occupied and acted as a centre for crafts and trade. When Vespasian subdued the south in AD43, it seems likely that resistance was strong from the fortress… over 2000 slingshots were found stored in pits near the entrance to the maze, the confusing and winding pathway that served as a defensive measure and processional way.
On the northern side of the Castle is the outline of a Romano-British Temple dating to around AD400. It was built on the site of an Iron Age building and may have replaced a much more ancient shrine. We do not know to whom the original shrine was dedicated, but a plaque found at the site shows Minerva and suggests the Temple may have been dedicated to the goddess of wisdom and had particular significance for one of our company. It had something to tell me too, had I but realised it.
Her symbol is the Owl… which was going to prove astonishingly significant over the next few days. Being kept in the dark by your own mind sometimes where these things are concerned, it is only now that the pieces are coming together. The Owl is the symbol of my own home city, where a modern Minerva wears the Owl mask and holds three aligned stars, like those of Orion’s Belt… which ties us back to the Giant and its alignments. I won’t even mention that my city got its Owl from the nobility of Anjou, who were granted lands in the area after the Norman Conquest, or that the nobility of Anjou were major players in the birth of the Knights Templar… and we had started our adventures that weekend with a Templar Head.
So it was unexpectedly perfect that we gathered for the final visualisation at the centre of the Temple of Minerva, where we again joined with the Web of Light to send thoughts of peace and healing out into the world. It never matters that our plans must change when the unexpected occurs… leaving ‘space for spirit’ means accepting the gifts of the day and being aware that sometimes, the day knows best. And then the weekend was over. All that remained was to say our farewells in the car park… but once again, for some of us the weekend was not the end, but only a beginning. But that is another story…
Priest of the Sun III
Maiden Castle – Dorchester
… “Whither goest thou, Priest of the Sun?”
“I go hence to the High Place for the soul is in need.”
“What is that need?”
“The need is Light.”
“And what will you give for the passage?”
“I will give my Self.”
He is naked save only for a white cloth around his lions…he has left all else behind as he embarks on this journey.
She looks deeply into his eyes, reading his soul’s truth there.
This is the final test.
If he fails, he will not survive.
Many years she has watched as they have come and gone, many she has seen and taught, many have failed, some have succeeded… only those with hearts that see true.
The labyrinth is woven, energies crackling and shifting between the ramparts, almost visible in the moon-dark night.
Line and spiral, blade and vortex…all wait.
She leads him between the two fires that mark both the entrance and exit to the labyrinth…though which one is which only few will ever know.
She marks his brow with a kiss and raises her hands…
At her signal the fires are extinguished with a hiss of steam and a billowing smoke.
The plateau is dark… there will be no flame to guide him. It is silent.
There will be no sound to draw him back.
He is naked and bereft as a soul new born… in a limbo now…awaiting a birth… or a death… The gates close behind him, and she ascends to her place on the edge, facing the morning that is so far away… her place… where she will watch…
Her eyes adjust to the heavy darkness and the change comes, shifting her vision to that other sight. Below he too waits, that his eyes may adjust to the night and his feet walk true.
He begins, walking carefully, treading the labyrinth with purpose and intent.
He walks the first straight, beneath her… he feels her there and looks up, futile though it be in the dark with the blackness of her robe pulled around her like a cloud. She smiles… he knows… she has hopes for this one… West he turns, her eyes cannot see him, but she walks each step with him…another straight, another bend… and a sword at his throat…The Guardian towers over him and he freezes… had he been walking faster the sword would have pierced his throat. The Guardian speaks a ritual question… but he has not been given an answer… he has to Know…
The voice whispers into the night and the sword is lifted…he walks on…Through the rough grass and stones, barefoot… another Guardian… a spear at his chest…no words this time… only a gesture… he responds, and the spear is withdrawn. Again a corner, a straight…the meandering path like the fleeting thoughts of the mind turns every which way…A blade at his belly…choices to make in silence…only the Knowing to guide him…And another… and another…She walks with him, feeling every step from her perch…Only the last now…he is pushed to his knees, a sword across the back of his neck…a cauldron before him…a whispered response… and a flame is given…Below her the light of a single torch illuminates a small, flickering patch of the hilltop.
On the horizon the first blush of dawn… It has been a long night…A knock on the gates, firm and confident…they open…she stands between…The sun gilds the morning…she embraces him….
“Whither goest thou, Priest of the Sun?”
Where the Earth Leads your Feet…
While the workshop weekend was officially over, the adventure had only just begun. We said farewell to the Cumbrian contingent, who had a very long drive ahead of them, and the rest of us headed into Dorchester in search of lunch. The girls took us to a place we would otherwise have missed…Yalbury & Yvon’s… where we found the best elderflower cider and for which we owe the girls our heartfelt thanks. We were so impressed, we called back there a few days later and had a wonderful meal. But, between that first French toast and the final Raclette, there were many more adventures waiting for us.
But first, we had to get where we were going. We said our goodbyes to Helen and arranged to meet Larissa and Alethea the next morning, a hundred miles away, near Tavistock in Devon. Then, while the girls went to explore Maumbury Rings, we hit the road for the next leg of our journey.
These few days around workshops constitute our holidays. As both Stuart and I have regular jobs and limited leave, we have to make the most of wherever we are and we had been wanting to visit the West Country for a long time. I have fond memories of travelling there decades ago, but this would be Stuart’s first visit… and there was a lot that we wanted to see. My own trips had been largely ‘touristy’, and this was to be more of a research trip, visiting the ancient places that still grace the landscape.
We were particularly interested in the Michael Line, a ley or alignment marked by ancient sites, that crosses England from Land’s End, the most southwesterly point of the country, to Hopton on Sea in Norfolk on the east coast. There is much debate about the nature, purpose and even the existence of leys, with everyone holding their own opinion. Some see them as earth-energy lines, some as woolly-minded curiosities and others as remnants of ancient trackways. My personal opinion is that if our ancestors were more in tune with the land than we are today, perhaps they did sense the earth-energies that doswers pick up with rod, twig or pendulum… and where better to place a trackway than where the earth leads your feet?
There are differing opinions of dowsing and dowsers too… but if the British Army can employ them, then regardless of the label of pseudoscience that has been firmly affixed to this and other similar practices, there is enough in it to warrant a bit of notice. The easiest way to convince the general public not to take notice of any phenomenon that falls outside of the realm of traditional science is to label it with one of the epithets that suggest that anyone believing in such ‘rubbish’ has lost the plot. ‘Conspiracy theory’, ‘pseudoscience’, ‘fringe’ (especially when prefixed with ‘lunatic’), ‘paranormal’ and ‘supernatural’… profess a belief in any of these, and many people will look at you askance.
Me? I like proof. I like evidence. I’m a Virgo and it goes with the territory… if using astrology as an illustration doesn’t immediately label me as a ‘weirdo’. But, in the absence of proof, I keep an open mind. How do you define proof anyway? I was taught to dowse by my grandfather as a very small child, wandering around with rods made from a pair of bent wire coathangers. I know dowsing works… I have proved it to and for myself and there is a small pair of travelling rods tucked away in my handbag.
But orthodox science would not accept personal experience as proof. My problem with laboratory-based evidence is simply that you cannot prove or disprove anything if you don’t know what you are looking for or what to ask… and we are very far from knowing everything about this beautiful and mysterious planet we call home.
So… back to the Michael Line. Our plan was to visit some of the sites on the Michael line. St Michael, his earthly counterpart St George and their respective dragons having been major and recurring symbols in our own work over the years and anyway, we needed some way to choose which few sites we would aim for amongst the thousands we might visit in the area. We would have liked to be able to see some of the sites on the Mary line too… the feminine counterpart of the Michael line, that weaves its way along the ley. But there would not be time for that… or so we thought. So, off we went to Tavistock, choosing to take the old road across Dartmoor…
Into the Mists…
I have always loved Dartmoor. It a place so rich in ancient remains that you could spend a lifetime exploring and never reach the end of it. There is a higher concentration of Bronze Age remains here than anywhere else… with over five thousand hut circles just for starters! There are so many legends, ghosts and strange tales that the area has inspired writers from Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie and J.K. Rowling. There are peat bogs and weirdly shaped rocky tors, standing stones and haunted tombs. It is a truly mysterious place and you feel as if you have passed into another time and place as your wheels touch its narrow roads. There are a profusion of wildflowers, birds and animals… and it is incredibly beautiful. Every branch of science, from archaeology to zoology must have an interest in the area… no wonder it is protected by National Park status. So, I was as excited as a child as we climbed up to the hills and saw the open road snaking away before us.
“I can see this is going to take a while.” My companion sounded resigned to his fate as we pulled into the third stopping place in a mile. Low clouds were rolling in over the distant hills, enclosing the moor, horizon to horizon, in its own bubble of space and time. The ‘real’ world was receding, and it felt as if we were entering another world of magic and mystery.
“What’s that?” I swung the car into yet another stopping place, and passing between a pair of guardian watchers, we were out on the moor in a moment. A crudely-carved cross, around five and a half feet tall, as gnarled and twisted as an ancient oak, stood guard beside the road. Bennetts’s Cross is one of a hundred and thirty-two crosses on Dartmoor, some erected only a century or so ago, but many of them a thousand years old. They were boundary markers, guiding waymarkers for travellers or, according to one legend, memorials for murderous monks.
The story goes that there were once four monks, so dissatisfied with the austerity of monastic life, that they were overjoyed when their abbot left to visit Rome. They wanted to celebrate… but celebrations require money and they were vowed to poverty. To line their pockets, they murdered a wealthy traveller, but before they could begin their carousing, they were called out onto the moor. Winter is harsh on the high moors; snow and ice lay on the ground and the wind howled as it froze everything in its path.
The monks were horrified to discover that it was the ghost of the murdered man who had called them out… his presence mesmerised them, and they followed him out onto the moor. The ghost led them to a mire where the ice beneath their feet cracked and they were sucked down into the bog. When the abbot returned, knowing nothing of the murder and mourning the loss of his brothers, he raised crosses to mark safe paths through the moors, so that no other travellers might be lost to the mire.
But Bennett’s Cross may not have been one of them… it is thought to have been carved from a standing stone that would predate Christianity by perhaps thousands of years and, to add fuel to the theory, it stands on a ley, as do so many of the ancient sites. But the age-old relic has a very modern bit of technology at its heart. Like many other ancient monuments in the area, it has a hidden microchip to help prevent its theft.
We returned to the car… there was still a fair drive ahead and the afternoon was drawing to a close. We had barely seen anything of Dartmoor yet… but we were not destined to do so. Just a mile or so later, the mists came down, swallowing first the horizon, and then the road ahead, leaving us crawling at walking pace for miles as we made our way through the heavy veil that was to be our gateway to another world…
Nice Weather for Ducks and Drake…
It was raining when we finally found our way through the mists. It was still raining when we arrived in Tavistock, to be welcomed by a surprising figure. Sir Francis Drake… privateer to Queen Elizabeth I, circumnavigator of the globe, defeater of the Armada… looked down upon us benevolently as we modestly circumnavigated his roundabout. This was a little coincidental as Stuart had played Drake at the annual workshop that year, but we had not realised that Tavistock was his birthplace. We knew there was a statue of him at Plymouth Hoe, but did not realise that the Plymouth version was no more than a copy of this one.
It was a little coincidental too as we had been given some interesting food for thought at a recent Silent Eye meeting regarding Drake and his famous bowls, suggesting a connection between them and the leys… and we were on the trail of the Michael Line, one of the most significant leys in the land.
For now, though, we were tired and hungry… it had been a long day. We found our hotel and went looking for supplies as we didn’t fancy the noise and bustle of the pub restaurant. With most shops closed, late on a Sunday afternoon, we settled for sandwiches and cider and beat a hasty retreat back to the hotel to escape the rain, where Drake again looked on from the hotel wall.
The weather, though, decided to cooperate as the evening drew in and the rain stopped. It was too good an opportunity to miss and we needed to stretch our legs after the long drive. Tavistock is an attractive town, dominated by the church and the ruins of the old Abbey that had brought the town into being… at least in its present form. The archaeology suggests that there was a settlement here long before Christianity was a twinkle in the eye of Time.
Officially though, the town grew up around the Abbey that was dedicated to St Mary and St Rumon. The Abbey was founded in 961 by Ordgar, Earl of Devon. The Danes destroyed the Abbey in 997 and it was rebuilt, only to be destroyed again with the Dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII. With the tin and mineral trade, the town had prospered, being granted charters for fairs and markets that still continue to be held after a thousand years.
We wandered the town streets, coming face to face with ‘our’ Coyote in a gallery window, exploring some of the Abbey ruins that are still dotted about the town and ending up at the bridge over the River Tavy.
We followed the path beside the tumbling water in the fading light to pay our respects to Sir Francis. We walked back through the park, along the course of the old canal, admiring the civic amenities and deciding that we rather liked Tavistock. The pity was that we would be leaving fairly early next morning to meet the girls… but perhaps, if we were lucky, the church might open early enough for us to get a glimpse inside…
The Early Birds and the Tinners Hare
We were, as always, up and out early. This time we were on a mission of hope… we hoped the church would be open, as it looked too good to miss and we were meeting the girls a few miles away that morning too.
You might have thought we’d be all churched out after the marathon on Saturday, where we had visited seven of them, but each one is an adventure… you never know what you will find. What we found in Tavistock was an open door and morning prayers in progress. Withdrawing quietly, out of respect, we went for a walk through the old town, watched the birds foraging for breakfast… then tried again. This time, we were in luck.
The church of St Eustachius is one of only two dedicated to the saint in Britain. Eustachius was a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity in the second century, when he saw a vision of a crucifix lodged between a stag’s antlers. Refusing to worship the gods of Rome, he and his family were persecuted and massacred.
One of the first things you see as you enter the church is the etching of the stag on the modern glass door and an older wood carving showing the saint’s conversion.
A church may have been established on this site as early as 1193, but the first definite historical reference tells us that there was a church here by 1265. That church was not long-lived, and a new one was built by Abbot Robert Champeaux and dedicated in 1318, making the current building seven hundred years old.
There are all the usual later alterations, additions and renovations, that make these old churches pieces of living history.
Just inside the door are a fifteenth century font and an old pillar stoup, not unlike one we had seen earlier that weekend, and dating to the fourteenth century.
Above the font hangs an antique copy of Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch, where the bodies of the Virgin, the Christ Child and John the Baptist are arranged in a triangular pose, with the two boys playing with the little bird.
Aside from its mastery as a piece of art, Raphael’s painting is a deceptively simple one, holding a good deal of symbolism, from showing the Virgin reading a book to the colours of her garments… and not a few mysteries such as why the Holy Mother is looking not at Jesus but at John…
There is an abundance of wood carving in the church, adorning the walls, covering the pews and creating a magnificent nineteenth century organ screen with a whole host of angels. And it is this very variety of arts and crafts that make these old churches such a delight to explore.
For us, though, convicted churchaholics it would seem after the past few years, it is the symbolism that draws us, as much as the history or the art itself. Threads we have been following for years now may be untangled at the next church… or ravelled even more tightly than before with the addition of some new theme.
It is hard to explain what can be conveyed with a raised eyebrow, or an ‘oh yes?’ when we see a motif repeated or expanded… one we may last have seen five years ago, at the other end of the country. You would have to follow the journey with us… which is one reason why it is told in our books and on our blogs.
It would take an essay to explain just why it is significant that Raphael’s Virgin looks to John, or why the stained glass depiction of St Michael by Charles Eamer Kempe jumps right out at us. The artwork and artefacts are all interesting in their own right, but the added dimension of a shared journey makes each one of them a new piece in a puzzle we may be gleefully solving for the rest of our lives.
Some things, though, are worth looking at simply in their own right, without any need for a reason. The stained glass in St Eustachius’ church is magnificent… with far too many glorious windows to include them all.
St George and St Michael are both included more than once, along with their dragons. One window is basically an examination of conscience.
There is a magnificent window by William Morris as well as the one by Kempe, and another by Clayton and Bell… all names to conjure with where stained glass is concerned.
But it is not magnificence that really holds the key to these old churches… it is the human story. You may find it in the small details that are often overlooked, like the handsewn banner of the Virgin and Child, or the stitched story of St Eustachius draped over the pulpit.
It may be no more than the names in the Roll of Honour, where the men and women who were lost to war are remembered in a book kept safe in a glass case beside fragments of medieval tiles.
You might find it in the memorial inscriptions and dedications, in the figures that grace the tombs of the wealthy, or in the wooden cross that commemorates a life poorer in gold but perhaps richer in love and joy.
Look down and the tiles and flagstones are worn by the passage of thousands of feet, look up and be caught by the puzzle of the Tinners’ Hares… three hares sharing three ears who each have two ears of their own. It is a symbol found across the globe, in many cultures and religions.
In Christian terms it is thought to represent the Trinity… while in pre-Christian terms it referred to fertility and the lunar cycle. Or so we think… the real meaning is not a certainty, and so, as with the best of symbols, we are left searching within for its meaning.
Curiously, the Book on the lectern was open at a page where it says, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen’… and that is the way to visit these old churches. Listen to the stories told by wood and stone, needle and glass… for they are all part of our own story, and it is surprising what you can learn about the present from the past.
Leaving Tavistock behind, we headed out for our rendezvous with Alethea and Larissa. There were hawks in the sky and a woodpecker on a fence post as we travelled the green wormhole through the trees. We arrived at our destination forty minutes early and parked the car near the village pond. We had already found both our next stop and somewhere to park while we visited… not by any feat of navigation, but simply by driving past. We had, therefore, nothing to do. But we had parked next to the village church, after all… it would have been rude not to try the door, which obligingly swung open.
Christ Church in North Brentor is not the most attractive of buildings. It is quite obviously modern, being a Victorian creation. There had been a chapel of ease on the site prior to the new church, but that had long-since disappeared by the time that Isabella Hollwell… an interesting surname… made her last will and testament.
The only thing to survive from the early church was its bell, which still calls the faithful to worship. When the good lady died soon after the writing of her will, aged only fifty years old, the funds were released and, in 1856, work began on the new church. It cost the princely sum of £1,003 and was built by Richard Gosling of Torquay. Bishop Phillpotts performed the consecration a year later.
Christ Church is not technically a church, but a chapel of ease, built to provide the villagers with an alternative to their Parish Church. One with easier access, especially in winter. Later that morning, we would see for ourselves why Isabella had thought that such a good idea.
For now, though, we were content to explore the narrow nave and tiny chancel. From the outside, the church looks quite substantial in size. From the inside, you see how small and intimate it really is and, in spite of the unpromising Victorian exterior, it has a warm and friendly feel.
Inside, the church furnishings are of rich, gold-toned oak, ornamented by a flock of carved angels with truly beautiful wings. They perch upon the font cover, decorate the walls within their gilded frames and watch over the church from high wooden pillars.
There are a number of paintings on the walls, but with just a few exceptions, the impression is one of craft, not art. The tempera painting in the Children’s Corner was created by Ernest Heasman, an artist who had begun his career working for Kempe, one of our recurring stained-glass manufacturers, and he is best known for his work in that field.
The reredos behind the altar is the work of Christopher Webb, yet another of ‘our’ stained glass designers. Both of these artworks date to the 1930s, when the oak furnishings were installed.
There is little stained glass, though, apart from some strapwork, a depiction of Christ as the Shepherd within a vesica, and the east window over the altar, where the ascending Christ is also shown within a vesica.
The east window is unusual…and I cannot find out who made it. The central scene with Christ in the vesica is surrounded by Christian symbols, alternating between vesica and roundel. The colours are particularly rich and I found the detail quite beautiful.
Given what we had been looking for over the weekend, this did not seem a bad omen for the day, especially when we noticed the hexagrams carved on chairs and baseboards, accompanied by the cross pattée … a type of cross favoured by the Templars. While this Victorian church would never have housed the Templars, we felt quite at home.
What gave the place its rather homely feel, though, was the work of local people. The multicoloured tapestry kneelers were created in 1964 by local crafters to designs by Lysbeth Gallup. A hand inscribed Roll of Honour remembers the dead of the Great War, with too many names… and too many the same… for such a small village.
The quilted Mothers Union banner is hand sewn and protected by a glass case. There are fresh flower arrangements adding fragrance and colour to odd corners and notices to show that the church still plays a major role at the heart of the community.
There is something special about that, something that ceases to worry about dogmatic differences and religious divides. Any place of worship, whatever the faith it professes, or any place where a community comes together with the welfare of its people at heart, has a magic all of its own.
There is a verse in the Bible that says, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”. As a child, in Sunday School, we were taught that His name is Love…and you do not need to belong to any religion to gather in that name.
The time of our rendezvous was at hand. The girls would be arriving to share an adventure. We left the little church, touched and surprised by what we had found behind its uncompromising grey walls.
Legends on the Rocks
The morning after the workshop, with Alethea and Larissa squeezed into the back of the car, we headed back along the road towards Tavistock, in search of the next site of our day’s explorations. We were going to have a long drive later as we were heading down to Penzance for the night, but for now, the Michael Line was calling…
So the drive from North Brentor was a short one… a matter of minutes… as we were only going to the Parish Church. Even from the road, we could see why Isabella Hollwell had bequeathed the money for the building of the new one at the centre of the village. What promised to be a pleasant climb for us on a cool summer morning, would be a vastly different affair for the parishioners in the middle of winter… especially if you happened to be carrying a coffin.
The church of St Michael de la Rupe… St Michael of the Rock… stands on an extinct volcanic cone, over eleven hundred feet above sea level. It is rich in both history and legend, and both have links to our own quest.
The rock is ringed by an Iron Age hillfort that predates Christianity. You can still trace the embankments as they circle the hill, over two thousand years after their construction… though all who make their home within their sanctuary now are the cows and the wild creatures who care little for the history of mankind.
Wildflowers dance in the green, funnel-web spiders festoon the embankments, catching the mist, as the cows watch the path that winds around the hill. There are swallows darting overhead, skimming the breeze with an aerial mastery unmatched.
Rabbits burrow in the churchyard and they are one of the reasons why, although the church is still officially open for burials, there are no new graves. Another reason is the lack of soil atop the hill. The shallow layer of earth meant that the dead were placed in a crypt below the church, but whenever a heavy rainstorm hit the area, the crypt flooded and set the coffins to bobbing around like Halloween apples…
The church was built around 1130 by the Giffards… Norman lords whose forebears had accompanied William the Conqueror when he invaded Britain in 1066. Their loyalty had been rewarded with grants of lands and while Walter Giffard was building one of my own local churches, Robert Giffard built the church atop Brent Tor. At least, that is one story.
Another tells of a wealthy merchant caught in a dreadful storm at sea, who promised he would build a church on the highest point he could see, if he survived the onslaught of wind and wave. Some say the merchant was none other than Robert Giffard.
Whoever built the church, they took much of the stone from the Iron Age hillfort with which to build it… and it was not built without opposition. In some versions of the story, it was the Devil himself who caused the storm and the merchant survived only when he called upon Saint Michael to deliver the ship from disaster. Keeping his vow, the merchant began to build a church on top of the ancient beacon hill called Brent Tor.
But, every night, the stones would be thrown down by the Devil who wanted no church atop the hill. The merchant, in desperation, called upon St Michael once more and the mighty archangel threw a rock at the Devil, catching him upon his heel and making him flee in pain. Another version, though, says that it was the Devil who threw rocks when the pagan villagers decided to convert to Christianity and build a church at the foot of the hill. They persevered until, during the night, the Devil moved the new building to the topmost point of the beacon, expecting the villagers to cede and give up their new faith, Instead, they decided to leave the church where it was, calling in a bishop to dedicate the church to St Michael who guards the high places. The Devil threw a tantrum, Michael appeared in a blaze of light and threw a stone to cast the Devil out. Whichever tale appeals, and whether you believe the Devil or the Archangel threw the stone, the boulder still guards the entrance to the pathway that climbs the hill.
The church is known locally as The Candle, in memory of the hill’s ancient role as a beacon in time of need. There is some evidence to suggest that the cult of St Michael replaced the earlier worship of the Roman god Mercury in the high places, and that in turn, Mercury had replaced the older Celtic god Lugus or Lugh… who was also a god of light. St Michael’s is still a working church and worship is held there from Easter to Michaelmas. It stands open for prayer and pilgrimage, still a beacon of spiritual light for those to whom its faith speaks… and for those who see all faiths as part of One Light, bearing all names and none.
The church stands on the Michael Line, the ley that runs across the country from Land’s End to the east coast in Norfolk. Dowser Hamish Miller and Paul Broadhurst wrote of their visit to the hill in their book, The Sun and the Serpent:
“The mist grew thick: a strange sense of peace descended. There was an indefinable feeling that we were being observed. On a flattened mound, with the church above obscured by cloud, we found what we had come to think of as a node point, where the current focussed and entered the ground, accompanied by a strangely-shaped pentagram. There was a long period of silence.”
Like over eight hundred other churches built in the high places, the church on Brent Tor is dedicated to St Michael. The leys are also called dragon lines, and St Michael is traditionally the dragon-slaying archangel, though esoteric thought has him bringing the dragon under control beneath the point of his blade, rather than slaying it.
On one level, this may be seen as Christianity subduing the devil or the old pagan religion… or as human nature being brought under the control of the Divine Will… or the bestial aspects of humanity being subdued by the spiritual side of Man… There are many more interpretations of this symbol, and what you see depends on where you have chosen to stand.
The stained glass window in the east, however, shows Michael not with a dragon, but holding the Scales… balancing life and death, good and evil. He looks to his sword, held like a sighting rod, equally and perfectly poised, as if requiring no effort to hold it in his hand. The saint has not always been so serene, though, as lightning damaged the church, somehow missing the depiction of the saint, a few years ago… but what the lightning failed to accomplish, vandals managed when they smashed the window in 2002.
The church is tiny, just big enough to house a small congregation and its memories. An octagonal font stands near the tower in the west and still bears the remnants of the lock used to protect the holy water from theft by medieval witches.
There are a few simple memorials on the walls, testament, once again, to how the violence of war decimates even the most rural of communities.
Significant for us was the passage at which the Bible on the lectern was opened… the Nunc Dimittis, the song sung by Simeon at the Presentation of Jesus. The Simeon story has been weaving its way through our journeys for years.
Significant and mysterious too is the strange dispensation granted to the Abbot of Tavistock by the Pope Celestine III in 1193, when the church is mentioned as Sancti Michaelis de Rupe, and the Papal Bull declared the Abbot exempt from the interference by the Bishop of Exeter – or any other person. So far, I have not been able to find out why…
Add to that the odd sundial dated 1694 that shows an incised figure described as ‘half angel, half imp, wearing a flat cap and having outstretched wings’ and all you can say is that, for a small village church, St Michael of the Rock has an awful lot of stories to tell…
Mist and Mystery
It took us about an hour to drive the twenty-odd miles from Brentor to the Cornish village of Minions on Bodmin moor. There were two sites that we wanted to visit, both of them on the Michael Line, the ley that crosses the country from toe to rump. The girls were amused by the name of the village and by the sheep that occupied prime position in the middle of the road, showing little inclination to move for something as unremarkable as traffic.
We lost Alethea and Larissa almost as soon as we had parked the car on the edge of the moor as they went off to explore the stones of the Hurlers. They disappeared into the mist that shrouded the stones and that was fine… we would find them later and meanwhile we too needed to explore.
Bodmin Moor is littered with archaeology, both ancient and modern. The skeletal remains of tin and copper mines break the horizon, a testament to the shifting stories of human history, while the earth they plundered is littered with stones. Quarried and blasted, shaped by wind and water or smoothed with reverence, the landscape bares its heart to those who would see.
The two stones called the Pipers stand guard, turned to stone for playing music on the Sabbath… while the men of the land suffered the same fate for a game of hurling… or so the story goes. It is a common theme at ancient sites, where the Christian clergy sought to discourage the old ways and pagan beliefs with threats of damnation and eternal torment.
It is not so very different in our own time, when we still tend to look at our ancient ancestors as little more than barbaric and unsophisticated savages, ignoring the complexity and beauty of their legacy. Not far away is Rillaton round barrow, which, when excavated, yielded a beautiful golden cup from the Early Bronze Age. It was made around seventeen hundred years before the birth of Jesus and is of the same date as at least some of the circles on the moor.
The legends tell that a Druid priest haunts the area around Rillaton, offering those he meets a clear draught from a cup that cannot be drained. The symbolism is also clear… the cup of wisdom never runs dry and all may drink as much as they are able. The legends, though, also add the tale of the traveller who met the Druid late one night and was offered such a drink. Instead of accepting, he threw the cup at the ghost. His body was found the next day in a ditch…
Mistwraiths danced across the moor as we left the portal of the Pipers and made our way to the Hurlers. There are three stone circles here in all, with the central one being the oldest. The stones are precisely chosen and shaped… everything has meaning and purpose, it seems, even if we have forgotten how to read the story.
There are the familiar shapes we see in the stone circles across the land. One stone resembles an odd shaped upright in Derbyshire. Another is the same shape as the ‘horse’ stone in the Avenue at Avebury. There are the pillars and lozenges that are thought to represent male and female… the dynamic and receptive potencies of the universe… and a very definite sense of presence; almost as if the stones watch and wait for those who will, one day, understand.
The stones of the three circles are carefully dressed and positioned, taking into account the slope of the hillside and the lay of the land, so that they all appear to be the same height, even though it is not so. The central, oldest circle, has a single central stone, mirrored in the pool of water created by the unremitting mist.
The smallest circle is the most southerly and measures a hundred and five feet across. Nine stones survive, and it is easy to miss the fact that this is a circle at all, as only two of its stones remain standing, with the rest forlornly felled by time and weather.
The central circle is not a circle at all, being elliptical. Half of its original twenty-eight stones are still standing and it measures a hundred and thirty-eight feet across. The inner surface of the stones has been hammered smooth and, when it was excavated, they found that it had once held a crystal floor.
A paved way once led from the central to the northernmost circle, which is a hundred and fifteen feet across. The three circles, so close to one another, form an almost unique arrangement. We could not help noticing the fact that they do not sit in a straight line, but are slightly offset… rather like the pyramids of Giza… and we wondered if they might represent the stars of Orion’s belt, and if the Pipers were more than a portal, but also served as sighting stones.
Sure enough, our later research revealed the work done by Professor Thom, that suggested stone to star alignments with Vega and Arcturus, two of the brightest stars in the night sky. Given our own odd journey and research, it did not escape notice that Vega is part of the constellation represented as a bird of prey, and Arcturus means ‘bear’… as does the name of the legendary king, Arthur, who we had already equated with an archetypal figure like the one seen at Cerne Abbas two days before.
More recent research by astronomer Brian Sheen, using a state of the art computer programme, confirms that the circles predict the precise date of midwinter, when, once a year at midnight on the winter solstice, they align exactly with the stars of Orion’s belt. Not bad for our ‘primitive’ ancestors from four thousand years ago.
We finally found Larissa and Alethea close to the base of the path up to the next site we wanted to visit. We had been watching for a while, seeing the ghostly shapes of stones half-revealed by the swirling mist. We all wanted to climb to the Cheesewring… also on the Michael Line… but knowing how treacherous the mists can be and seeing how uncertain the path and how dangerous the quarried cliffs could be, we were feeling uneasy about the climb.
Looking back on that moment, it wasn’t logical at all. There was bound to be a safe path and safety barriers to such a well-known landmark, but every time the mists cleared and we decided that perhaps we could go for it, the mists came back in and the entire hill disappeared from view. Sometimes you just have to listen to what the land is telling you… and it was telling us, quite firmly, ‘not now’. Perhaps we could come back one day… and perhaps ‘then’ would be the right time. Maybe there was something we needed to do or see first… odd as it may sound, it is often the way with such journeys.
We made our way back to the car, stopping within the central circle to pay our respects in meditation and visualise the Web of Light that has become such a part of our work with these sites. When we were just about to leave the moor, we looked back for a final glimpse at the Hurlers…and saw the Cheesewring sparkling against a perfectly clear sky, as if to confirm that we had made the right decision.
There was time to share a meal at a local café before heading back to Brentor, where we took our leave of the girls. It had been far too short a visit… they always are… and especially when we knew that the places we were yet to see would have had Alethea glowing!
We drove back along the same road for the third time that day, and there is magic in that number. We were heading for an overnight stay in Penzance, about a hundred miles away, regretfully passing a good many places we would love to have stopped. But although we thought we had done with the Hurlers, they had not done with us. Not only would there be another chance to see the Cheesewring, but, when we began to look closer at the pictures we had taken, we noticed something strange. On a day when there was no sun to cast shadows and when the mist shrouded everything in sight, there were two dark figures on one of the photos. Except, they aren’t figures… and there was no-one there except that sense of presence. A trick of the light? Perhaps…
The Dancing Stones
We spent the night in Penzance… and that’s about as much as we can say about the place. It is probably unfair to judge the town on the little we saw of it in our ten-minute stroll by the sea, on a cold, rainy evening, after the sun had dipped below the horizon. Next morning, as our hotel did not offer breakfast, we were able to get away bright and early, passing through picturesque Newlyn with barely a glance and in search of stones and the sites that mark the Michael Line.
We did not have far to seek, as Cornwall is littered with ancient stones, from circles and menhirs, to burial chambers and ancient crosses. The wayside crosses are curious affairs too, reminiscent of the old Herms that once guarded the crossroads. There are many of them across the county and, while we began by stopping excitedly to photograph each one, by the end of the morning we realised that to do so, we would need a month or two more than the few days we had at out disposal. Instead, we took the road towards Lamorna, in search of the Dance of Stones.
Instead of being turned to stone for playing games on the Sabbath, the Merry Maidens were petrified for dancing, or so the story goes. Like the Hurlers, though, a pair of standing stones called the Pipers accompany them. These two ten-feet tall stones are on private land, but luckily, we caught a glimpse of them as we passed, towering over the hedgerows.
We were lucky too to spot the discrete signpost for the Merry Maidens. Cornwall is incredibly rich in archaeological sites and seems to have made a conscious decision to protect them by making them less than obvious to find. The signs are there… they are marked on the maps… but only the determined, dedicated or just plain stubborn are likely to find them… especially when the sea-mist rolls in and covers the land in a pale pall of silence.
Appearances to the contrary, though, it was the perfect weather to be making the acquaintance of these ancient stones. The camera lens was constantly misted, the world receded into the mute, grey magic that swirled and gave life to the silent stillness of the frozen dance.
We were fair bouncing with excitement when we got our first glimpse over the gate. The stones seemed to form a different horizon in the mists… as if opening a passage into another time, another landscape… an otherworld. And, as we approached, the very integrity of the circle seemed to confirm that this could not be the here and now that we knew.
The Merry Maidens circle is called Dans Maen in Cornish, from the words for ‘stone’ and ‘dance’, which is possibly a corruption of Zans Meyn, meaning sacred stone. Another name is Dawn’s Men… perhaps a corruption of the Cornish too, but I wonder if it harks back to the astronomical alignments of the stones.
Unlike many stone circles, this one is perfectly circular… and appears complete. There are nineteen stones, standing around four and a half feet tall and the circle is about eighty feet across. Modern thought is that there were once eighteen stones and that it may have been ‘tidied’ at some point in its past.
The alterations in the landscape are not just a bit of tidying though… there was once a second circle of similar size at the site. There were still seven stones remaining a couple of hundred years ago, but by the end of the nineteenth century, it had disappeared. Perhaps its stones now lie buried in the Cornish hedgerows that grow from walls of monumental stone.
The circle is part of a wider ceremonial landscape, with a Bronze Age barrow cemetery close by, where the remains of numerous cremation burials were found. In one hedge is the Gun Rith Standing Stone, which may have been part of a processional avenue. A cup-marked stone found in the vicinity is now in the Truro museum for safe-keeping and a holed standing stone, still known locally as a betrothal stone, now serves as a gatepost. And, had we but known it, we were to stumble across another site almost immediately…
We left the Merry Maidens, still buzzing with the magic of the stone circle in the mist. Distracted by the profusion of wildflowers in the hedgerows, we might have driven blithely by, but…
“What’s that…” we said in unison as my foot hit the brakes, just seconds after resuming our journey. Finding nowhere else to park, we turned around, parked once more at the Maidens and walked back to look at what had caught our attention.
You almost have to be ‘tuned in’ to stumble across Hirvedh Treguhyon. From the road, it seems to be no more than a couple of stray boulders in the grass of the verge, but in fact, it is a superb example of a Neolithic entrance tomb… a rare type of passage grave. It was once covered by a mound of earth, with only the entrance visible and blocked by a carved stone, but now it stands open to the winds, its capstones exposed, and its occupants long departed.
Hirvedh Treguhyon… or Tregiffian Burial Chamber… was first built four to five thousand years ago. Only half of it is now visible, as the road that was built in the late nineteenth century obliterated the rest and its mound is long since gone. Even so, what remains is well worth stumbling upon.
The fifteen-foot-long central chamber was constructed with a lining of granite uprights and capped with massive stones, some ten feet long, of which four still remain. The entrance enclosure is still in place, and a replica of the carved stone that once marked its threshold stands guard. The original stone was thought to be so significant that it was taken to the museum in Truro some years ago to protect it from weathering and vandalism.
At first glance, the cast reproduction of the cup-marked stone seems no more than a meaningless jumble of depressions, but closer inspection shows the cups to be a mix of circular and elliptical carvings, numbering twelve of one and thirteen of the other. Given the position of the tomb, at the heart of an ancient, sacred landscape littered with standing stones, circles and barrows, many with astronomical alignments, experts began to look at possible meanings. They came to the conclusion that the stone probably refers to the annual lunar cycle… as every year holds either twelve full and thirteen new moons, or vice versa.
Quite why our ancestors chose to carve the lunar cycle into stone, we may never know and can only speculate. Some alignments may be easier to understand and explain on a mundane level… full moons would allow activity after sundown, including travel and hunting. Solstice and equinox, for example, would have a bearing on agriculture and the breeding cycle of animals… and we still welcome the ending of the cold, dark womb of winter.
Whether there was any reason beyond the practical, though, is not something we can prove… except by looking at how human thought evolves within a society and Man’s relationship with those forces he perceives as emanations of divinity. The understanding of our dependence upon Nature for survival has always engendered respect for her forces… and respect may, over time, evolve into reverence… and devolve into supplication and propitiation, before seeking another focus and dismissing its former gods as primitive.
We tend to forget that our initial respect was for the natural forces that allow us to live on this beautiful planet. If we perceived Spirit in the rocks and trees, the clouds and the rivers… maybe there was a reason for that and by entering into communion with the life around us, we gained a deeper understanding of our own.
That our ancestors had deeply-held spiritual beliefs, is evidenced by the care with which they laid their dead to rest. From the simplest stone-lined cist, to the elaborate tombs of monumental stone, no effort was spared. Gifts were given to the dead in the form of grave goods… often the best and rarest of objects would be sent with the dead into the otherworld, and their mortal remains were treated with care and respect.
In this one small tomb, half buried beneath the modern road, layer upon layer of burials were found, showing that the tomb was used for generations. On the deepest, oldest levels, cremations were interred in pits, with each ancestor’s ashes contained within a funerary urn. Offerings of flint tools were left… and who knows what else… food, or perhaps flowers, that have been devoured by passing millennia.
For the two of us who entered the forgotten tomb, our feet washed by the morning dew and our faces damp with mist, there is always a sense of reverence. We do not know the stories of those whose remains were laid to rest in this place, we do not know their hopes and dreams, their fears, loves or beliefs… but we know that they were not so very different from our own. Millennia apart, they are still our kin, and our bodies remember what time has forgotten. Their past is our future and the dead guard the gates of life.
A Toe in the Water
The legendary land of Lyonesse lies off the uttermost point of Britain. It is told that the people of that land were tall and fair, beautiful to behold, wise and learned. At the centre of their lands was a wondrous city, with a great place of worship… or a castle… at its heart. No tales survive of why the cataclysm came that drowned the land in a single night, though later, there were the inevitable whispers of wickedness and the wrath of the Christian God.
Only one man of Lyonesse escaped the deluge, a man named Trevelyan. Out hunting near Sennen, his horse cast a shoe and delayed him as night fell. Falling asleep beneath a tree, he was awoken by the roar of the rising sea and, mounting his horse, rode before the crest of the wave to higher ground at Land’s End. Local families still bear the three horseshoes on their crests… and the crest of the Vyvyan family, who claim direct descent from Trevelyan, bears the white horse. No trace of Lyonesse was ever seen again, though sometimes the bells of the great city of Lions can be heard ringing in the mist.
Vyvyan… Viviane… Lady of the Lake, whose Isle of Avalon is lost in the mists… She who helped King Arthur to his throne and was, perhaps, one of the three queens who sailed his dying body into the mists of legend. You can hardly help but wonder at the links between Lyonesse, the Lady from the Arthurian Cycle and the fabled lands of Atlantis.
There is an alternative explanation… a more rational one… there always is, though where truth is concerned, logic and legend need not always be at war. There are the remains of Bronze Age and Neolithic settlements strewn across the area, with evidence of drowned villages below the stretch of sea between Land’s End… the toe on the foot of Britain… and the Scilly Isles. It is probable that these villages were the victim of rising sea levels. Even St Michael’s Mount seems to confirm this, as its name in old Cornish is Karrek Loos y’n Koos … ‘the grey rock in the wood’. The Mount is now a sea-girt isle… but perhaps it was once a hill in a forest.
I am not sure this logical explanation really does what it says on the proverbial tin. It certainly does not dismiss the legend of Lyonesse… all it does, for me at least, is suggest that there really was once an important settlement that was lost to the sea. Perhaps it was the place where a strong leader ruled, or a gathering place for the shamans, or the wise-folk we would eventually come to know as the druids. Or perhaps it was a settlement ruled by a Lady… Whatever the truth of it may be, and I am happy with both truth and legend… something magical passed into the folk memory and remains to this day.
It was to see the sea that covers lost Lyonesse that we made our way to Land’s End, but that was not the only reason for our visit. It had been a busy morning since leaving Penzance. We had seen Newlyn, the fishing village that has inspired so many artists, discovered the wonderful wayside crosses that have guarded the crossroads for a thousand years and more, gone back in time to dance with the Merry Maidens to the tune played by the petrified Pipers in their field, and visited an ancient tomb. So, our second reason for the visit was quite pressing… we were ready for breakfast.
The facilities at Land’s End were closed… it was still way too early… and while we would happily have wandered the cliffs for a while until they opened, the sea mist was so thick around the toe of the land that we would not even have seen the edge of the cliffs, let alone what lies beyond. I bethought myself of the inn just up the road, which, after a few hundred years trading, must surely still be there… the first and the last inn in England, depending on which way you are travelling.
It was indeed still there. It was also closed… there are some drawbacks to getting such an early start, though it is hard to think of many. We drove on, turning down the hill towards Sennen Cove. There really had to be something open there. Or… perhaps not. At least, not for another hour or so.
Not that I cared. I seldom see the sea and I love it, regardless of the weather… and the sea at Sennen was particularly beautiful. Deep turquoise, jade and purple, deepening to the colour of lapis lazuli where it crashed on the distant reef. White-crested waves rolled in from the Atlantic, washing a perfect sandy beach bounded by green and rocky cliffs, all enclosed in the embrace of the sea-mist.
I gazed at the beach. My companion, raised by the sea, still walks its shores often enough not to feel the sea-longing in quite the same way. Me, I still get as excited as I did as a child.
“Is the tide coming in or going out?” I asked.
“Going out,” he assured me, knowing full well what that meant and resigned to the inevitable walk on the chilly beach. As my shoes came off and I felt the sand between my toes, I was in heaven.
We walked along the shore and sat on the rocks watching the waves. I still count for the ‘great seventh’ as my grandfather taught me. I remembered childhood holidays here, long, long ago, and the tales of the Piskies dancing in stone circles. I recalled trawling rock-pools for anemones and crabs, watching the sea for dolphins and learning how to find and identify the fossils and gemstones we found as we walked.
I remembered too collecting seaweed to take home to my great-grandmother. But it had to be the right kind of seaweed.
“No, to predict the weather.” The crispy strands she hung on the picture frame would soften when rain was due.
So, we sat and watched, marvelling at the jewelled colours, the ancient sea-creatures frozen in the rocks and the timeless beauty of sea. Behind us, a chough watched us… and in these parts they say that King Arthur lives on, his spirit borne in these dark-feathered birds. Above us, on the headland, was Maen Castle, an Iron Age promontory fort. Older still are the legends.
“What was that?” The sound came from the sea… more like a cow than anything that should have been out there in the mists. Perhaps it was the Whooper of Sennen, whose voice was always heard from the mists, warning the fisherfolk of coming storms at sea. It is said that his voice was heard no more after two men ignored the warning and took out their fishing boat, never to return. Or perhaps, no one was listening…
“Are you sure the tide’s going out?” The waves crept ever closer, washing around the rocks at the water’s edge. The mist was beginning to feel more like rain and the wind was getting up.
“Er…” So we strolled back to the car, passing the still-closed café. There was still a good while before it would open…
“There’s another village just up the road…” We took shelter and I knocked the last of the sand from between my toes.
Just a Place to Play…
We liked St Just as soon as we arrived… the little town, just a few miles from Land’s End has a good ‘feel’ to it, even when it is shrouded in sea-mist. It is a place of old stone and flowers, and, unlike many more modern towns, it still projects a strong sense of history and community in spite of the inevitable traces of tourism.
Although breakfast was our priority, the first thing we found was a mystery. Heading towards the obvious central point, the clock tower, we found ourselves within what looked like a henge, right in the middle of the town. Now, Cornwall is better than many places at preserving its archaeology, but for a town to have grown up with its walls pressed close to a henge would be unusual, to say the least. The earthen banks seemed almost, but not quite right, though, and the circle of six stones within the enclosure didn’t look or feel quite at home either. It was almost as if this were a pretty good fake.
We walked through the enclosure, surrounded by the embankment and the mist, wondering what on earth was going on here. Once outside the gates, we had a better idea. The stone and earth embankments formed the Plen an Gwarry, which means the ‘playing place’ a medieval arena used for the performance of the Cornish miracle plays. These were religious stories designed to help the spread of Christianity by capturing the imagination and attention of the audience.
So, not a henge then… or was it? In the eighteenth century, there was a seven-foot-high bank surrounded by a ten-foot ditch… which certainly sounds like a henge. The playing place was restored and remodelled to give work to local people as the mines began to close in the nineteenth century, exposing the walls and losing the ditch. Even so, it is one of only two such playing places that survive near-complete today. It has been used over the centuries for everything from cock-fighting to dancing and is still at the heart of the local Feast and the Lafrowda festivities.
But what was a henge if not a place where people gathered to celebrate both their mysteries and the festivals of the year? Although there may not be archaeology at the playing place to support or refute the theory, I have to wonder if the henges, stone circles and barrows that pepper the area did not have an effect on the construction of the plen an gwarry. If all the traditions of your folklore, history and landscape work in circles, what other form would you choose for a gathering place at the heart of your nascent community?
A circle is the simplest and most natural form where all positions are equal, where a company of souls may come together to watch or be part of something greater than their individual presence. Not for nothing do the legends tell of Arthur’s Round Table… and that legendary king was, we are told, conceived and born at Tintagel, just a few miles up the Cornish coast. St Just’s Plen an Gwarry may or may not be older than it appears in physical terms, but the true origins of the playing place are, I believe, rooted in the mists of prehistory.
Under One Roof…
We had finally found breakfast in a little café that doubled as a bakery, gallery and bookstore… and there can be no better combination. Well fortified for the rest of the day, we strolled back into the misty little town of St Just. It would have been impolite not to visit the church while we were there. Silly too, as we could tell from the little bit of tower that peeps over the rooftops that it is an old one.
We were greeted in the churchyard by an ancient Celtic cross, bearing a simple carving of Christ with His arms wide open, more weathered, but not unlike the one at Kniveton, the little church that smiled. There is another eroded cross there too, and, we were to find, at least another one inside the church.
Above the entrance to the porch is yet another sundial. Many churches have lost their dials, or have only the face, minus the gnomon, and it was a delight to find so many still intact and bearing interesting designs and details. This one is incised with an angel and a rising sun and is inscribed with the name of Nicholas Reseigh and the Latin motto ‘Sic transit gloria mundi’… ‘Thus passes the glory of the world’.
As soon as you walk in through the south porch, you know this is going to be one those churches that has so much to offer that you would need a book to share everything. There are family histories tied up in the very stones of the place, symbols to decipher, wonderful details carved on the capitals of the arcade and treasures built into the walls. Everywhere you look, there is something to see.
As we entered and started taking pictures, we were encouraged to explore and write about the church by one of the members of its community. There has been a place of worship here since before records remember. St Just itself is named, in Cornish, ‘Lan Uste’ and a ‘lan’ was an early religious enclosure.
There has, according to the local stories, been a church on the site since it was founded by St Just, also called Iestyn, a fifth century saint and a son of the Cornish King Gereint. Other sources describe St Just as being born a century later, the son of Gereint ap Erbin, King of Dumnonia… the old name for this part of the country… which would make Cador, Duke of Cornwall, one of his brothers. Duke Cador appears in a number of the Arthurian tales as a relative of the legendary King Arthur, thus giving us yet another link to the Matter of Britain.
A new church was built in 1334, and in 1478 William of Worcester records that relics of St Just were still enshrined in the little church. There were two medieval chapels close by and associated with the church… the chapel of St Helen at Cape Cornwall and that of St Michael at Chapel Carn Brae. Along with the windows depicting the dragon-taming archangel, that was enough to give us our link to the Michael line that we were ostensibly here to pursue.
The present church dates almost entirely to the 1400s, with only parts of the chancel remaining from the earlier church. It is, however, one of the loveliest churches we have seen and felt. Unfortunately, the slate roof has deteriorated badly and is in desperate need of replacing. The community is trying to raise funds to be able to qualify for a grant to replace the roof and protect the historic church for future generations. They have launched a Just Giving campaign, that I promised to mention when I wrote about our visit.
There is a lot to protect here. Just inside the porch is the font, a rather unusual hexagonal affair with scenes from the story of Noah’s Ark and the tetragrammaton in Hebrew, the four letters YHWH, the biblical name of God we know as Yahweh or Jehovah.
Beside it is another stone that looks like a small stoup or even smaller font. It came from the little chapel of St Helen, outside of the town near the sea, but as the chapel would not have been granted leave to perform baptisms or keep holy water, the true purpose of the stone is unknown.
The limestone pillars of the arcade are topped with intricate carvings, including one that shows a ‘lovers’ knot’… which is possibly a reference to the fishing industry in the area. There are vines, leaves and shields and, throughout the church, there are details that refer to local families, like the carved fifteenth century bench end, showing six swallows, three scallop shells and a crescent moon.
The stained glass is particularly good, with one window commemorating the eighteen-year old lighthouse-keeper, Owen Boyle, who was washed away by a wave at Longships Lighthouse in 1877. His was the fifth death in the first four years after the lighthouse was built.
Another marine legend is also commemorated here. The flag, the White Ensign, was given to the church for safekeeping by Captain Russell Grenfell. It last flew on HMS Revenge at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.
A memorial window commemorates the local people who died in WWI and is unusual for showing an ordinary soldier, rather than an officer, at the foot of the Cross.
The elaborate tracery of the east window… the stone ‘frame’ that supports the stained glass… is fourteenth or fifteenth century and is an unusual design, looking like the branching leaves of a palm tree.
There are echoes of past times everywhere. On opposite walls of the church there are the narrow entrances and stairs that once led up to the loft above the carved wooden rood screen. These screens were ordered to be removed after the Reformation and many were lost. In St Just, the screen remains… recycled to make the altar rails and frontal for the Lady Chapel.
Recycled too is the Celtic stone cross shaft, over fifteen hundred years old, that was built into the wall of the church long, long ago.
Near the back of the church is another stone, the Selus Stone, that also dates back around fifteen hundred years. On the front it bears the Chi-rho symbol, and the side is carved with a Latin inscription, ‘Selus Ic Iacet’…’ Selus made me’. This is thought to be a memorial to St Selevan, also known as Salomon of Cornwall, a warrior prince and possibly the brother of St Iestyn, the founder of the original church on the site. Which would make Selevan too a relative of the legendary Arthur.
And just when you think a church can offer you no more, there is more… much more. A memorial to Francis Oats, who died in 1918… he was nicknamed ‘Diamond Ring’ and, with Cecil Rhodes was part of the De Beers diamond company in South Africa. His three grandsons are also mentioned on the memorial, all of whom were killed in WWII, showing how little worth diamonds have against that of a human life. Another plaque from the eighteenth century tells how a mother mourned her child.
Behind the altar, carved in 1896 in alabaster carried from our more usual playground in Derbyshire, is a magnificent reredos showing fourteen Cornish saints and scenes from the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi.
And, to top the rest, there are medieval wall paintings, over five hundred years old. One shows Christ, dressed for work in no more than a loin cloth, blessing the tools of local tradesmen.
The other is a depiction of St George and the Dragon. Although I may have told a slightly different version of the tale in a poem a while ago, the traditional story tells that a dragon was terrorising the land and, to ward off the worst of its depredations, the people offered it first sheep, then men… and finally, even the children, whose fate was sealed by drawing lots.
The princess of the land drew the short straw and, although her father offered all he had to spare her, she was sent to the dragon. Enter St George, who found the princess, subdued the beast beneath the point of his blade, then bound it with the princess’ girdle. The dragon followed her like a lamb into the town… then the story goes on to say how it was slain. Later interpretations Christianise and literalise the myth by saying that George slew the Devil… or all evil… instead of looking at a rather more mystical interpretation, which seems a more likely possibility…
You just would not believe that so much could be packed into such a small church… and I have only shared the highlights here. We even had a parting gift of a hexagram that tied in with our Patterns in the Landscape weekend, two days before. You need to go there, feel the atmosphere, meet the people and see for yourself why this little church should be preserved. The loss of the traditional fishing and mining industries have cost St Just dearly over the past decades… it should not have to lose the heart of its church too.
You can help preserve this beautiful old church!
Please share their story on social media or, if you would like to do something more to help, click the highlighted links to visit their Facebook Page for details of the campaign, or donate via their Just Giving campaign.
The House of the Raven…
We could have chosen to visit Chysauster, that being the biggest and best preserved of the ancient settlements in the area, but that very fact means it is more likely to be full of people and it was the lives of our ancestors, rather than those of our modern siblings that drew us. Carn Euny, on the other hand, although it is only a few miles from St Just, is about as far off the beaten track as you could wish. Narrow Cornish lanes lead to even narrower lanes… and finally onto tracks that look as if few vehicles ever use them, and even fewer should. Perfect. So, to a litany of ‘are we there yet’ and ‘we’re in the middle of nowhere again’, we headed in search of mystery.
By the time we actually were in the middle of nowhere, we knew there could have been no more perfect site to choose, nor any more beautiful location for an ancient settlement. We left the car at the hamlet of Brane and entered a wormhole that would take us back in time, many thousands of years, to the hearths of our distant kin.
The site had lain hidden until it was rediscovered by tin prospectors in the early nineteenth century. It was partially excavated at the time, though most of the subsequent excavations took place after 1960. There is a farmhouse and a well nearby, and the ruins of an eighteenth century cottage within the compound, made of stones robbed from more ancient homes… and it was these we had come to see.
The land at Carn Euny has known Man since the early Neolithic era, though no visible trace of this period now survives. Excavations have shown that the first permanent timber houses were built around 2200 years ago, but they were not the earliest constructions on the site. There was already a subterranean mystery, built in stone, in the heart of the earth.
The next major work took place around a hundred years later, when stone homes were constructed. Some were individual huts, but for the most part they formed part of a dwelling, where a cluster of homes and buildings shared walls and gathered around a central and enclosed courtyard. These courtyard houses are only found in this one small part of Cornwall. It is the remains of this village that can be seen today… at least on the surface.
The community thrived, planting fields and raising livestock in the fields they created nearby. They may also have been engaged in the quest for tin and other ores mined in the area since the earliest times, as they lived within the shadow of Caer Bran hillfort, a huge and important earthwork not half a mile away, that may have been a place where these precious metals, the foundation of a magical new age of metalworking, were stored and protected.
Caer Bran means the ‘fortress of the Raven’, and Brane, where we had parked, comes from Bosvran ‘the house of Bran’. Given our associations with the Raven over the past few years, you might have thought we had done our research first, but no… Carn Euny was a side trip; we were supposed to be visiting sites on the Michael Line and knew nothing about this site or the area at all, except for the presence of that one subterranean mystery. It is only as I research to write that the pieces fall into place and another of those odd synchronicities comes to light. Not that it would be the only one at Carn Euny…
The theory is that this refers to Bran the Blessed, Lord of the Island of the Mighty… who has figured in our work right from the outset. He it was who continued to speak for decades after his head was severed and it is his head that lies beneath the White Hill… the site of the Tower of London… protecting the land from invaders.
Bran appears in the Mabinogion, and is linked to the Grail of Arthurian legend through the motif of the Fisher King who lived at Castle Corbenic… and ‘corben’ is an old French word for ‘crow’. The links between northern France and Cornwall are ancient; they share many roots and legends and much of a common history.
We had been on the trail of Bran even before we realised it, had written him into our earliest book, The Initiate, reconvened the Assembly of the Wondrous Head during Leaf and Flame, walked the mound at Harlech where a castle now stands upon a site of ancient sanctity and written the story of the Clan of the Raven for the Feathered Seer. And that is without all the Templar stuff that keeps cropping up… bearing in mind that the Templars were accused of ‘worshipping a severed head’.
It is well known that the Celtic peoples collected heads as trophies in battle. There is a practical reason for this… a head is a recognisable thing, where a hand or foot, for example, could belong to anyone. Diodorus Siculus, in his first century Bibliotheca historica wrote about the custom, though it must be remembered that ‘spin’ and propaganda existed in ancient Greece and Rome, just as it does in the modern world, the custom itself is well enough documented:
“They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses. The blood-stained spoils they hand over to their attendants and striking up a paean and singing a song of victory; and they nail up these first fruits upon their houses, just as do those who lay low wild animals in certain kinds of hunting. They embalm in cedar oil the heads of the most distinguished enemies, and preserve them carefully in a chest, and display them with pride to strangers, saying that for this head one of their ancestors, or his father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a large sum of money. They say that some of them boast that they refused the weight of the head in gold.”
Scholar Paul Jacobsthal wrote that “amongst the Celts the human head was venerated above all else, since the head was to the Celt the soul, centre of the emotions as well as of life itself, a symbol of divinity and of the powers of the other-world.” The many representations of heads in Celtic art would tend to support Jacobsthal’s contention, and the legends would seem to back him too.
It makes me wonder. Just what was the connection between the Templars and the Celts? Celtic Christianity was ‘outlawed’ in Britain after the Synod of Whitby in 664, when the Ionian perspective… a more nature-based way of living and worshipping that harked back to the ancient pre-Christian beliefs, was discarded in favour of Roman Christianity. Were the Templars, in defiance of the ruling of the Church in Rome, worshipping with a Celtic rite? It is an interesting possibility and would be a thread that brought together the fragments learned in all our years of wandering.
Sometimes I regret not doing the research first… not often, but sometimes. In this case, had we known, we might have climbed Caer Bran, which is said to be a sanctuary from evil spirits and a place where you may find the Pobel Vean… the Little People. Or we might have found Mên Scryfa, the standing stone a few hundred yards away from Men-an-Tol, carved with an inscription that translates as ‘royal raven son of famous leader’ that is said to mark the place where the ‘royal raven’ fell in battle… and to be of his exact height. But then again, if we had done the research first, we would never have gone to Carn Euny in the first place… we would have been chasing an itinerary and missed so much of what the days offered as gifts.
As it was, we wandered through the ancient village, glimpsing the ghosts of earlier times amongst the stones and wildflowers, lost in a ‘middle of nowhere’ that was actually a house of the raven. We traced the buildings and rooms, built in our imaginations the thatched roofs and heard the laughter of forgotten children as they played amongst the goats and hearthfires. We waited in the green silence until we almost had the place to ourselves… and then we went underground…
The Green Chapel…
Beneath the flower-strewn lawns of Carn Euny is a mysterious passage known as a fougou, which comes from the old Cornish word for ‘cave’. There are many theories about why they were built, but no definitive evidence. According to the experts, they may have been places of refuge in case of attack, cold storage for food or places with some kind of ritual significance. It is a standing joke in archaeology that anything that is not understood is called a ‘ritual site’, and this tends to demean the many places that undoubtedly were once seen as spiritually significant… But at Carn Euny, the stones speak for themselves.
I knew there was a fougou at the site. I had visited one forty years ago in the area, impressive in its age and construction, but relatively uninteresting; it was just a stone-lined tunnel beneath the ground. I was quite happy to accept ‘storage’ and ‘refuge’ as definitions for that one and, to be honest, I was expecting little more at Carn Euny. And this is one of the joys of not doing your research before you visit such places.
The fougou and what it holds are the oldest parts of the site still visible. We had seen one end of the tunnel through the empty socket of the window of the old cottage that once stood amidst the remains of the ancient settlement. The low entrance didn’t look too promising. We had found a second entrance, now sealed, and stuck the camera through a gap in the boards to see inside. That was none too promising either.
The third entrance, though, was a different matter altogether. No sooner had we descended beneath the level lawns than the earth swallowed us. The burgeoning sunshine was eclipsed by cool shadows as stone closed around us. All sense of time fell away… we could have been anywhen… but the sense of place was palpable.
Ahead of us stretched a low tunnel, stone-lined and roofed with massive slabs. The small portal at the far end led to the old cottage, but any glimpse of the world outside was obliterated by light. Before us was a single stone, whose guardian presence in the shadows looked for all the world like a cloaked and hooded figure. And, what it guarded was a treasure, old beyond imagining.
The low lintel of the portal forces you to bow down… even one of my reduced inches. You cannot enter without at least the appearance of reverence… and when you do, the sense of reverence comes easily. You stand within a circular chamber, its walls tapering upwards and inwards like an old-fashioned beehive, to where a discrete modern grille lets in a little light.
Before you is a niche, reminiscent of a chimneyless fireplace. Between you and the niche is a stone that may have been part of the roof, but looks as it if should once have been standing, or perhaps it has always lain flat, serving as a chair, table or altar for the rites that took place within the belly of the earth. And all the walls are covered with a moss or lichen of some kind, that is the most brilliant emerald green that appears to light up from within. Like truth or being, the luminescence occurs only when you stand directly before it… turn away, even a little, and it is gone, leaving only the emerald scar behind.
The acoustics, even with the repairs to the once-collapsed roof, are wonderful. It is not hard to imagine how the sound of drum and voice could invoke the heartbeat of the earth here. Was it something akin to a sweat lodge? A place to commune with the ancestors or a shamanic place of inner journeying? That was the impression it gave.
Stone remembers, and even after millennia, it seemed to respond to the chant that began to resonate through the chamber. One man came in hesitantly, looked around for a second with the eyes of a startled doe and left. A few moments later, another man came in, bowing low to earth before taking his place with us. His companion joined us, and, without a word, we four held the quarters, as if it were the most natural thing in the world… as indeed such magic is, when we let the earth speak and we listen.
“It is nice to see people treating these places with respect,” said the gentleman as the echoes died to whispers. Later, we introduced ourselves. We mentioned that we were visiting some of the sites on the Michael Line as described by the late Hamish Miller in his book, The Sun and the Serpent, written with Paul Broadhurst.
“Oh, did you know Hamish?” No, we had never met him, explained Stuart, but he had heard him give one lecture in person. Our new acquaintance, Tim Willcocks, mentioned how helpful Broadhurst had been when he was writing his own book, On the Trail of the Waitaha. Stuart smiled. Of all the many lectures Hamish had given over the years, it was one about the Waitaha, the first peoples of New Zealand, on which he had heard Hamish speak. Yet another synchronicity to add to our growing list.
We stood in the fougou sharing stories and getting to know each other a little. There is an odd feeling of kinship when such meetings occur, as if there is recognition, rather than a simple crossing of paths. Exchanging contact details, we left the chamber in no hurry to part and stood by the guardian stone talking for a while, before walking together to St Euny’s Well, a sacred spring a few yards beyond the boundary.
(Years later, sitting around the dinner table with our companions on yet another workshop weekend, we would learn that this ‘coincidental’ meeting was even odder than we had realised, as our new acquaintances were part of the group run by an old and dear friend who has attended many of our ritual weekends. And none of us live anywhere near Cornwall…).
We passed a guardian carved into an old tree stump and a four-legged guardian greeted us as we walked past the one cottage still inhabited after so many years. The well, that showed barely a trace of moisture when we visited, is covered by an incongruous modern grille and an enormous boulder, bigger than most cars, and is surrounded by trees festooned with small offerings. Close by is another spring, guarded by ancient stones.
The well is dedicated to St Euny, about whom little is known, except that he now marks one end of St Michael’s Way, a pilgrim route across Cornwall, that can either be started at Lelant… a place associated with St Euny… or at St Ives, which is associated with his sister, St Ia. Her story is better known; it is told that when her brothers sailed across from Ireland to bring Christianity to these shores, she was refused permission to accompany them, being too fragile for the journey. Seeing a leaf floating on the water, she took her staff and pushed the leaf beneath the waves. The leaf grew, and she stepped upon it, sailing it across the sea to when her mission called her.
Religious services were held at the well until the eighteenth century, only when they ceased did it begin to fall into disrepair. Women would still bathe their children in its waters to cure and protect them for illness and the clooties attest to a continued reverence for the site.
We walked out beneath the sun, looking over the landscape once farmed and mined by those who had lived at Carn Euny. The sun had burned away the mists and the air sparkled. Earth and water, fire and air… and together we had touched something of spirit. Reluctantly, we took our leave of each other, hoping that we will one day meet again and promising to stay in touch. We would have stayed longer, but we had a tide to catch. The gentlemen, in typically English fashion, began to shake hands. Pratima and I looked at each other, raised our eyebrows, smiled and hugged… as then did the gentlemen. A few days later, I had an email from Tim, with some photographs he had taken in the fougou… sometimes magic just happens.
The Path Through the Sea…
The tide was still in when we reached Marazion, and yet a line of people snaked between the shore and the island half a mile into the sea, seemingly walking on water. We were going to join them, walking the old pilgrim route to St Michael’s Mount, one of the first points on the Michael Line, that runs from the westernmost tip of the land to its eastern shores.
The Mount rises from the sea topped with a fairytale castle and is now completely cut-off from the mainland. The castle, like the island, has belonged to the St Aubyn family since around 1650, although it has been gifted to the nation, the family still lives there and manages the mount and the tiny village at its feet. Aside from the thousands of visitors, it is a peaceful place, though it has not always been so, and for a thousand years it has seen warfare and siege, from the Normans, to the pillboxes of WWII that still remain, tucked into the rocks.
The Cornish name for the island, Karrek Loos yn Koos, suggests that it was once a rocky hill within a woodland. The remains of a hazel forest have been found at low tide on a nearby beach, and radiocarbon dating suggests that the trees were swallowed by the sea around four thousand years ago. Was this the cataclysm that drowned the fabled land of Lyonesse, just off the coast here?
Historically, John of Worcester writes that in 1099, the Mount rose from a forest and was still five miles or more from the sea. In November that year, according to his account and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, the sea rose in fury and left the mount stranded in the sea.
Today, St Michael’s Mount can be reached at low tide by walking the cobbled causeway. With the tide still ebbing, we were going to get more than our feet wet, but it seemed the right way to approach the island that has held a place in human history since the Mesolithic era that began ten thousand years ago.
Early flint tools have been found here, including a leaf-shaped arrow head. Many traces of later occupation are probably long-since buried by the later building on the mount, though there are the remains of a cliff castle… a type of prehistoric hillfort… and occupation from both the Bronze and Iron Ages.
Legend tells that the island was built by Cormoran, a fearsome giant who terrorised the area, feasting on sheep, cows and small boys. Cormoran was slain by a lad named Jack, who was given the title of Giant Killer. Another tale tells that Cormoran and the Giant of Trencrom amused themselves by throwing rocks at each other… until one of the missiles went astray, killing Cormoran’s wife Cormelian, who had carried rocks for the island in her skirts. She was buried beneath Chapel Rock, a boulder that had fallen from her apron when Cormoran kicked her, having found her bringing green stones for the building of the isle instead of white.
Chapel Rock also marks a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary, where pilgrims would pause to pray before crossing to the island. Christian legends tell how St Michael appeared to local fishermen on the island, while still another tells of Joseph of Arimathea, his associations with the tin trade in the area, and how he brought his young nephew, Jesus on one of his trading trips. The legend is echoed in Glastonbury, also on the Michael Line, where He is said to have landed at the port at Pilton, where the church of St John the Baptist marks the place of the landing.
The mount was involved with both the sea and the tin trade for at least four centuries before the birth of Jesus. It has also been a place of pilgrimage; a monastery may have already existed on the site as early as the eighth century and it was once a priory of Mont St Michel, a very similar island just off the coast of France. An indulgence was granted by Pope Gregory in the eleventh century encouraging pilgrims to visit the island, and there is still a medieval chapel on the summit of the island today.
We waded barefoot through the sea to reach the island. We would have liked to see the chapel, which, by special permission, serves the Order of St John, a chivalric order that follows in the tradition of the Templars and their successors. We had no desire, and would have had little time, to visit the castle and its gardens… and we were not prepared to pay the full ticket price for all of that, just to visit the church. It is always disappointing when there is an entrance fee for what is supposed to be a place of worship.
We would have liked to explore a little, but most of the island is walled and inaccessible without a ticket and we could not have faced the crowds. Instead, we sought a little peace. After the silence and beauty of the morning, the hordes of holidaymakers struck a strident note. We watched the gulls and the tiny mother bird beachcombing to feed its young. We found the representation of St Michael above the portal to the family cemetery, where the St Aubyn’s rest alongside drowned sailors. We had come here simply to acknowledge the island’s presence and its place on the Michael Line, and to walk the pilgrim crossing… just being there was enough. And anyway, the afternoon was drawing to a close and we still had a couple of things we wanted to see. So, retracing our steps across the now dry causeway, we headed back towards St Just…
The Chapel on the Cape
We drove through St Just this time, looking for a site we wanted to see before the day was done. Fortuitously, we took the wrong road out of town and ended up on the hills above the sea at Cape Cornwall. The headland juts out into the Atlantic and, on a sunny day with time to spare, would have been the perfect place for an afternoon’s exploration. As it was, our visit was necessarily brief, and our main aim was to locate the place we really wanted to see.
Even so, the Cape warrants a mention. It is, above all, incredibly beautiful. The old Cornish name for Cape Cornwall was Kilgoodh Ust, which means the “goose back of St Just” and that is a perfect description of the shape of the land. Below us Priest Cove welcomed the waves. Beyond its shores are the Brisons… twin islets known as An Gribow, the reefs, in Cornish. The islets are a sanctuary for many seabirds but may be best known for looking like the reclining profile of General Charles De Gaulle.
The Cape has human history dating back to the earliest times. Burial cists dating back to the Bronze Age have been found there and yielded fragments of early pottery. The nearby headland of Kendijack is home to a cliff castle and indicates that the area was significant in the Iron Age…possibly for the ores that were found here and which provide the link to more recent history. The monument wreathed in mist that stands upon the summit is actually the chimney of the tin mine that closed in 1883. The mine was bought by the Heinz company in 1987 and donated to the nation. The chimney was left as both a memorial and a navigation aid to shipping, as more that a few ships have been wrecked on the rocks in Cornish waters… not all of them entirely by accident, as we would later find.
On the landward end of the headland are the remains of a small chapel which stands on a site of Christian worship thought to be one of the earliest in Cornwall, dating back to the Romano-British era. Little now remains of St Helen’s Oratory, the medieval chapel that replaced the earlier building and whose mysterious hollowed stone ‘font’ stands beside the font of the church in St Just. The empty shell is open to wind and weather, yet it still bears an ancient cross on its gable. It is not the original cross… that was lost long ago. A stone, possibly from the earlier chapel, was found there in the middle of the nineteenth century by the vicar of St Just, John Buller. The stone was carved with the Chi-rho symbol and dated to the fourth or fifth century. He took the stone back to the vicarage, but his successor, for some unknown reason, threw it down the well in the garden…and it has never been recovered.
Here too, though, is more recent history. The gravestone visible in the chapel precinct marks the grave of Donald Arthur Payne, who was a farmer at Nanpean Farm. He was responsible for building the Cape Cornwall Golf Course and was buried here in 1995.
Much of Cornwall’s coastline remains unspoiled by modern tourist attractions and money-making facilities. Here it is the air and the sound of waves, the profusion of wildflowers and the cry of gulls that attracts the visitor. It is the beauty of an azure ocean, the silent sea-mist that engulfs the land and the life in the rocks that calls to the heart. There is never enough time. Were I to spend the rest of my life there, I would not have enough time, enough words or skill to do it justice. All you can do is be there and feel the place and its peace. For us, the day was coming to a close… our first day in Cornwall… but there were still places to see before the day ended, and one was just over the next hill. As the mist rolled in once more from the sea, we were back on the road, seeking a fairy mound and an unexpected adventure…
Ghosts in the Wildflowers
We headed back the way we had come, to take the narrow turning we had missed…a fortuitous misstep which had allowed us to see Cape Cornwall. We were looking for an old tin-mining site where, once upon a time, something quite remarkable had been found buried beneath the debris.
Ballowall… Krug Karrekloos in Cornish and sometimes called Carn Gloose… is a cliff top barrow that was first begun in the Neolithic era, which began around six thousand years ago, and which saw continued use through the Bronze Age. The factual description of the place is the easy bit. Borlase, the Cornish antiquarian who first excavated the site, not long after it was exposed beneath the mining debris, was drawn to the barrow in 1878 by the miners’ tales of strange lights and dancing fairies.
The excavation was not up to modern standards… they seldom were in the early days of archaeology. Finds were not fully recorded and have been lost over the years. Interpretation was not always well-informed and the reconstructions undertaken were sometimes less than accurate. Even so… this place is quite unique.
The barrow is seventy-two feet across, and while its walls now stand ten feet high, they would have originally been twice that height, making it a striking and impressive structure, perched on the moorland above the sea where the rays of the setting sun would touch the pale stone with gold and illuminate its entrance.
The first phase of the barrow was a central chambered tomb. Later, in the Bronze Age, the outer ‘apron’ of walling was added, with Borlase creating a walkway between during his reconstruction. Within the central chamber five stone-lined burial cists were found, containing fragments of pottery that were probably funerary urns for cremation burials. There are also two deep pits that were probably graves.
The central chamber is a beehive-shaped structure, with walls that slope upwards and inwards, very similar in shape to the strange chamber in the fougou at Carn Euny. Beyond its walls is the later walkway which, though it damaged some of the cists, allows you to see the other burial places and graves within the structure. The apron or curtain wall that surrounds the whole is also pierced by a grave chamber that contained Bronze Age pottery and bone.
The site may have continued to be a place of reverence long after the final burial and building work was completed. For how long, there is no way of knowing, though a Roman coin was also found during the excavations, and the Romans were here until the early years of the fifth century.
We arrived, once more shrouded in mist, to find the site deserted, mysterious and not at all happy about its current state. I did say that ‘facts were the easy bit’. The barrow rises from a sea of bracken and wildflowers, with purple heather and the blue of sheep’s-bit punctuating the green. Stonecrop and other succulents nestle between the stones and the air is alive with the buzzing of bees.
We walked the perimeter, marvelling at the stonework and the beauty of the place. In an ancient landscape unmarked by the spectral skeletons of the mines looming through the mist, the structure would have commanded attention from afar. Within the greater prehistoric landscape of the area, strewn with hill- and cliff-forts, Ballowall would have been a sacred and significant place, home to the ancestors and a link with both the past of the clan and with the Otherworld.
Climbing the apron, we entered the inner walkway created by Borlase and trod the circle around the central chamber. He may have maimed the site with his interpretation of its form, but in doing so, he inadvertently returned a sense of awe and mystery to the barrow. You walk the narrow passageway, embraced by the walls that still tower above your head and feel the touch of the past, a breath on the nape of the neck, a whisper in the shadows. Finally, we entered the central chamber and sat for a while in the place of the dead.
Here, we were the ghosts… the beings out of sync with time, whose place was in another world and another era. We did not belong within the resting place of the ancestors… and yet, we were not unwelcome guests.
The only thing that the graves now hold are wildflowers, bees and memories. Within the walls of the tomb there is a silence that goes beyond sound. The air itself flows differently as the wind is forbidden entry and, though roofed only with mist, the walls amplify each quiet word.
The barrow, though a tomb, is not an unhappy place. It is a place of peace and is as welcoming as all of these ancient houses of the dead seem to be. There is none of the modern fear of death…only respect and a kind of familiar reverence for those who have passed into the beyond and who guard the way for those who are to come after them. Yet something in the stones felt saddened and in need.
It is one of those things impossible to describe without sounding like a basket case, but we both felt the same thing… the chamber wanted to be closed, re-roofed, restored to its womblike state. Just a few hours earlier we had worked in another beehive chamber at Carn Euny. We knew how it should feel, what it should look like, how such a chamber would sound. And so, in imagination, we rebuilt the chamber. Stone by stone, tier by tier, we restored the roof and, before we left, sealed it behind us.
Such things may sound strange, but these ancient sites still speak to something deep within the human heart. Those who were laid to rest here were our distant kin. Go back far enough in time and we are all kindred. Human imagination is a potent thing, residing at the heart of magic, mystery and emotion…even respect. All that we imagine has a reality on its own plane, and although, when we departed, the site looked no different from when we had arrived, something had changed.
Whether that change was in the spirit of the place, or whether it was in us, this simple act of respect for the ancestral dead, and for the once-living who had held the place as sacred, made a difference. There are ancestral memories in our DNA, folk memories that speak to us beyond logic, and each site seems to carry its own signature experience that can be shared by those who ‘open up and get out of the way’. We do not always have to understand. We do not even have to believe… we can simply set aside disbelief and accept the experience that the moment offers. And usually, that is its own reward.
The Land that Time Forgot
We stood on the clifftop just beyond Ballowall Barrow, marvelling at the beauty of the seascape, or what we could see of it through the gathering mist. The bracken was already thigh-high, covering the fractured stone with a green blanket scattered with a profusion of wildflowers. Below us the Atlantic waves foamed as they broke on the reefs and beaches. The sea-mist covered any trace of the hand of man. There could be no more magical landscape.
As we watched, strange faces and creatures came to life in the rocks as the ‘dragon’s’ breath’ swirled around them. It felt as if we were on the edge of time and place, not just the edge of the country… and as if one more step would take our feet out onto the eddying clouds and into that realm where the Fae and the Pobol Vean reside. Or, perhaps the mist would carry us to long-lost Lyonesse, and its fabulous city whose bells can still be heard from deep beneath the waves.
It had been a magical day too, from Penzance in the early morning, through Newlyn to the Merry Maidens stone circle and Tregiffian barrow, to Land’s End and Sennen Cove, with a walk on the beach before breakfast. There was the wonderful little church in St Just, Carn Euny with its fougou, holy well and the friends we found there…not forgetting St Michael’s Mount, Cape Cornwall and the barrow we had just left. It was incredible how much we had seen once again, in so little time and without ever hurrying. It was not as if we had taken the straight route to anywhere, and most of the roads we had chosen were little lanes. We had even doubled back to St Michael’s Mount because of the tides! And the day was far from over.
We left the cliffs and regained the road. We were heading for Hayle, just north of St Ives for the night, but there were a couple of other places we wanted to see on the way. We let the map carry us away from the main road and out into the hills.
The ‘toe’ of the country is so rich in ancient sites and churches replete with history that we could have stopped every mile or so to explore. We were looking for two rather special sites, though, and the day was drawing to an end, after all. We passed through glorious countryside and hamlets that can only be called picturesque. The skies had finally cleared, allowing us to see the hillforts and standing stones past which we were driving, reluctantly, it must be said. But could we find the two sites we were seeking? We could not.
We have learned to listen…eventually… when the day speaks. It was not too long before we realised that it was saying ‘enough is enough’, at least for one day. We abandoned our search and drove into Hayle. The faded glory of a Georgian inn and the early evening ‘celebrants’ at the bar were more than made up for by the best bathroom we had seen in a while, and a landlord who provided us with everything we needed for a very early breakfast next day.
We sat on the town steps, eating fish and chips with our fingers and well satisfied with our day… especially as we had now armed ourselves with a brand new map… one whose crisp paper folds showed all the little lanes and side roads. Given what we had planned for our second day in the area… we were going to need it…
Seeking the Circle
“It’s somebody’s drive.” The neat rows of montbretia made that very clear. Yet, this was at least one of the ways we could, according to the map, get to our first site of the day. We had already driven up and down the road, done a couple of ‘U’ turns and consulted the very detailed map we had purchased the evening before, but maps only tell you where you need to go… not what is in your way on the ground. Like private property.
“But the map says…” So, we turned into the farmers drive, pretty soon realising that the unmade track was never intended as a public thoroughfare. We pulled over at a safe spot and consulted the map yet again, somewhat uneasy at what felt like trespassing, even though the map assured us we had a right of way. It was at this point that the farmer himself came up the drive. Half expecting to get our ears chewed, we flagged him down and asked him the way to the stone circle. He assured us that although we could get to it this way, the easiest way by far was from the layby on the main road. Apparently, there was a path. What was curious was the look in his eye and the way he bade us enjoy our visit. It might have been simple good-humour. It could have been a long habit of dealing with tourists. But we both picked up on the knowing twinkle that seemed to say he knew something about the place that we, as yet, did not. We were about to find out…if we ever found the dratted layby.
The layby in question, for anyone seeking the stone circle of Boscawen Un, is not a layby. There are neither road markings nor a proper road surface to suggest that this is anything other than yet another passing place on the narrow road. The vaunted sign post is, in fact, just a fence post with the name of the site carved into it and almost hidden by the grass and wildflowers. The only reason we finally found the spot is because we had tried everywhere else, doing yet another ‘U’ turn in our desperation to find the place. We took one look at the track that led from the gate and headed for the boot of the car. ‘Flaming June’ or not, this was a job for the wellies. Duly booted we crossed the threshold between road and field and set off down the narrow path in search of our quarry.
The morning was heavy with sea-mist. Were it anywhere else but Cornwall, I would have called it a thick fog, but there really is something about this country at the foot of the land that exudes magic and mystery. There are few other places where the legends of the Fae and the Little Folk seem quite as reasonable, where speaking of mist as the dragon’s breath seems an accurate description, or where, when strange things begin to happen, you simply accept them as the way things ought to be. Cornwall has never forgotten the magic in its soul.
The mist closed around us and we left the world behind. The tall grass, bent and bowed by the weight of water held on every stem, covered the path before us and closed it behind us as we passed. Dew-drenched webs shimmered in the shifting, uncertain light and wildflowers glowed like scattered jewels against the soft green of our world. Great stones rose beside us, caught in the ancient walls of the field, or showed their faces beneath our feet. Damp-winged moths fluttered as we disturbed the grass and the water made us one with the morning, saturating everything it touched. The sweeping green of my skirts were soaked and heavy within the first five yards. Within ten, there were puddles in my boots… I was walking on water and with every step, water carried me forward. Looking back on that morning, we should have been cold, uncomfortable and unhappy with our lot. Instead, we laughed and forged ahead, regardless of forks in the path or the distance we walked.
There was something in the air… but, as often happens, we didn’t even begin to notice until the wisdom of hindsight set in. At the time there was just the excitement of anticipation. At each choice of path, we instinctively chose what proved to be the right way forward until we found ourselves in a path between high hedgerows that curved around to the left. We followed it onwards, until it came to ‘T’ junction. To the left there was nothing but mists, swallowing the path, to our right was a gate… and right in front of us was a noticeboard upon which sat a robin; these little birds always turn up at important places. His bright eyes were fixed upon us and his red breast glowed like a stop sign, just to make sure we didn’t miss what he was showing us. We turned and looked through the gate onto a vista of the Otherworld…
The Mating Dance
We stood at the gate in hushed awe. For a moment it seemed as if we were looking through a rift in the mists of time, back to an age that has passed beyond memory, when the land was still young and the old gods walked the earth. It was the silence before the thunderous applause that greets a virtuoso performance, the inbreath before a lover’s sigh and the hush of a candlelit temple. The mists that had closed around us as we crossed the fields now veiled the circle of stones from the eyes of the world. We were alone with history and magic.
There are places that are hard to describe, almost impossible to write about…not simply in order to do them justice, but because they reach inside you, lighting long forgotten corners of memory that are older than your own. It is hard to remember the details of what we did at first, how we passed through the gate into the enclosure that protects the circle with a ring of living green. I recall walking between the stones of the ‘entrance’ at some point, feeling the tension dissolve and the mist part as if a curtain had been drawn back for us… though that could not have happened. Or could it? At Boscawen Un, I am ready to believe that anything is possible.
The first thing you see is the central stone, almost ten feet tall, yet positioned at a deliberate angle so that its tip is only around six feet from the ground. Our first thought was that it looks decidedly masculine. It also looks like the gnomon at the centre of a sundial, though it is positioned just southwest of the centre of the circle.
Its shape is also reminiscent of a stone axe, a shape we have seen over and over again associated with these ancient sites. The stone axes were as much ceremonial as they were practical, with beautiful, polished examples being traded across Europe, even in the Neolithic era when the standing stone was erected. There are also traces of two axes carved into the stones, similar to others found in Brittany, just across the sea. The angle of the stone is curious and was thought, for a time, to be the result of disturbance by treasure hunters at some point in history, but excavations have shown how the stone is supported in a way that suggests the angle of its setting was deliberate.
The standing stone is the oldest part of the circle and may predate the surrounding stones by thousands of years. The official suggestion is that it was a place where rites were practised for the fertility of the clan and the land. This is often used as a simplistic blanket for all ritual sites that are not fully understood, but here… and given our initial impressions… I don’t think we would argue with that.
Around the central stone, nineteen stones form an elliptical dance up to eighty-two feet in diameter, dating to the Bronze Age. The stones each stand between three and five feet high and have smooth-worked surfaces facing the centre of the circle. The theory that the circle deals primarily with lunar energies is supported by the fact that there are nineteen stones, representing perhaps the Metonic Cycle… which describes the lunar cycle that takes nineteen years for the moon to return to an exact spot in the night sky. One group of stones is aligned with the direction of the midsummer sunrise, and one stone in particular has to be significant, being a huge, single block of white quartz streaked with scarlet.
This stone is placed directly behind the menhir at the circle’s heart and it makes its presence felt in no uncertain terms. It seems to be the feminine counterpart of the standing stone and has the feel of an altar. It may indicate the presence of the full moon at the summer solstice, and the circle itself is aligned with the summer solstice sunrise at Lamorna Gap.
Close to the ‘entrance’ are the remains of what seems, at first glance, to be a burial cist, though it is not what it seems at all. Its purpose remains unknown, though we felt it had something to do with dreaming at the circle. Nearby, hidden in the bracken, are the remains of a burial mound where decorated urns were found containing cremation burials. There are also a number of standing stones in alignment from Sennen, through the Field Stone close by, to a triangular stone we had noted right beside where we parked to talk to the farmer and ask for directions.
The circle is enclosed within a green wall of stones, earth and flowers that were erected to protect it in the mid-nineteenth century. In the hedge is an ancient elder… and the ‘scawen’ of Boscawen Un is Cornish for the elder tree, one of the sacred woods of the Druids and one with strong feminine associations in folklore and legend.
Boscawen Un is still used as a place of ritual. It is a place where handfasting ceremonies are performed. The modern-day Bards held the first Gorsedd Kernow here in 1928, based on the tradition of earlier gorsedds in the sixth century. It is doubtless used by local covens and certainly by visitors from every branch of the spiritual tree. We were struck by the impression that this is still a working circle, thousands of years after it was built… even if it is no longer used for all the rites for which it was intended, though the forces thus invoked still make their presence felt.
We knew none of this when we visited the circle. Snippets read here and there, perhaps, but no coherent picture had been built to shape our preconceptions; the research comes later. It is not about dissecting these sites, but about feeling them and learning what we can from the experience. Each site has its own unique character and song… and the circles of stone are not called ‘dances’ for nothing.
Time stood still. It felt like no time at all, yet my camera tells me that our visit took over two hours in all. We mooched around a little, but felt little need to do so. I set my back to the standing stone and let the earth flow through me then, by common and unspoken accord, we stood by a stone, just to the north of the quartz. Other than that one stone and the central menhir, the stones of the circle are an unremarkable grey granite, with, at first sight, nothing to recommend one above another. This one drew us. It was, we felt, the right place to be. A week or so later, we found out why… The Michael line we had been pursuing meets the Mary line at a node in the circle… and the Mary line enters through ‘our’ stone. Even the earth energies ‘mate’ here.
It was while we stood there that we heard the bellow of a stag, eerie in the mist. Over and over it bellowed, even though it was way too early in the year for the autumnal mating challenges…and even though the red deer in Cornwall are very rarely seen this far west. It is an unmistakable sound and one we had heard at close quarters one day, early in our adventuring, when we had been privileged to watch one such challenge. Why was the unseen stag bellowing in the silvery light? Was it really there, or a ghost of some arcane past called up by our silent presence in the dance of the stones?
As we left the circle, we turned and watched the unremarkable stones as they seemed to shift and morph, revealing faces and forms that we had not before perceived. The place was alive with magic and somehow, we had been blessed to be part of it for a moment that had allowed us through the veiling mists. We were reluctant to leave, and I will count that visit as one of the most magical of my life. And, once outside the gate again, when we looked back, the circle had disappeared.
There was a strange postscript to the visit to Boscawen Un… one that did not fully reveal itself until later. For a start, I realised that me, the serial photographer, had barely used my camera. Then there was the water. Utterly drenched for the past two hours, with our clothes dripping and with whole pints of water needing to be poured from my boots, we were obliged to change into drier clothes in the layby before getting back into the car. With the sheer quantity of cold water and a sunless morning, as well as my long-term health issues, I should have been frozen, stiff as a board, in pain and struggling after our visit. Instead, I spent a full twenty-four hours completely pain-free for the first time that I can remember. I felt like a girl, new-made, full of energy and care free… and if I can thank the stones for that, then I do, with all my heart. Mind you, it was just as well I felt that way, given what else we had planned for the day…
The ‘First and Last’ Church
We were sorely in need of grounding after our visit to Boscawen Un stone circle and set off in search of breakfast. Okay, second breakfast. Land’s End… now a tourist attraction rather than the end of the land… was full of visitors and wreathed in, if possible, even thicker mist than the day before. There seemed little point in paying to park there if we would barely see the edge of the cliffs, let alone beyond them. As it was a little later than the previous day, we tried the First and Last Inn… but we had no better luck there either. It was still closed. I remembered a little café that we had passed on a back road, so we headed that way, catching a glimpse of crosses in the churchyard of St Sennen’s. That would have to be our next stop.
Duly fortified with a breakfast that would serve us as both lunch and dinner too, we returned to the church to explore. The sea-mist had settled around the tower, hazing everything with grey. The sign proudly proclaimed that the church had been founded, by St Sennen himself, in 520 A.D., though, as the church admits, ‘the identity of the saint himself is a bit vague.’
Sennen is thought to be the St Senan who was born near Kilrush in Ireland in 488 where he founded a goodly number of churches. The story goes that he visited Land’s End on his way to Brittany and founded the little church en route. The faith in this area is Celtic Christianity, the Ionian faith of St Columba, rather than the Roman variety imposed after the Synod of Whitby in 664; Cornwall goes its own way… it has its own distinct identity and in everything except legal terms, is more another country than a county.
The current building bears no trace of the original church, except, perhaps in the wayside crosses within its churchyard… and even they are not supposed to be there. A Rector of the parish in 1878 thought, for some reason, that all the crosses should be collected and erected within the shadow of the church. Only two now remain… it seems that he was ‘encouraged’ by the locals to put the rest back where they belonged. I approve of that; such stones were erected where they stand for a reason.
The church is under the patronage of His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, who is also Duke of Cornwall. That title has its place in Arthurian legends which tell that Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, was the husband of Igraine, the lady desired by Uther Pendragon. Gorlois, to protect his wife, rebelled against the king and was killed… and Uther took both Igraine and Gorlois’ castle of Tintagel, where their son Arthur was born.
St Sennen’s is mediaeval. Parts of the nave and chancel are still the original thirteenth-century stonework, but most of the building dates to the fourteenth and fifteenth century… with the inevitable Victorian ‘restorations’ throughout. The church was dedicated to its saint in 1327, re-consecrated in 1440 and the Victorian works were undertaken in 1867. Just to confuse matters, a Latin inscription on the base of the thirteenth-century font inside the church assures us that it was dedicated in 1441 on the Feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist. The information given on the church also points out the sealed north door, used during baptisms to let the devil out… and suggests that one should be careful where one stands at a baptism as ‘the devil now has only one way out!’ Perhaps the sea-borne tragedies it has witnessed encouraged the little church to develop a wry sense of humour to preserve its sanity.
The sea is never far away… a mere stone’s throw from the church. Many of the memorials in the churchyard and within the church speak of those who were lost at sea. One stone tells the story of Mary Sanderson. Her husband, Samuel, was the captain of the New Commercial, sailing from the Mersey to Jamaica in 1851. The ship struck the Brisons during a gale and the captain, his wife and crew were overwhelmed by the mountainous waves. Most were lost to the sea or dashed against the rocks. Only one member of the crew managed to gain the beach at Sennen, clinging to broken timbers. Mary and Samuel were cast up on the Brisons… the rocky islets whose name means ‘the breakers’. They were cut off, marooned for two days and nights, while local fisherman and even the revenue cutter Sylvia tried to rescue them. Finally, the rescuers managed to get a rocket line across to the couple and Mary, wearing only her nightdress, crossed on the precarious line, through the raging, gelid sea… only to die before reaching the shore. She was thirty-four.
Samuel was rescued later that day and he buried his wife in the churchyard at Sennen on 19th January, 1851. In recognition of the gallant efforts of the rescuers, the National Shipwreck Institution (now the RNLI) awarded medals to many of those who had tried to help. Even tragedy may be turned to serve a greater good; Mary’s unwitting legacy still serves the area, its people and the many visitors who come to these shores. In 1853, the first of many lifeboats arrived in Sennen, in recognition of the “…gallant conduct of Coastguards and fishermen of that place.” In 2011, to honour Mary’s own courage and her inadvertent gift, the Cornwall Coastwatch renewed her gravestone.
Every gravestone tells a story, though the stories may have vanished from memory. But this little church that has seen so many tragedies is not a place of sadness, but of inclusiveness and warmth. There are rabbits amongst the stones, birds on the pinnacles and swallows nesting in the porch… it is a place where nature is as welcome as the people. We just hoped the door would be open…
The church of St Sennen did not disappoint. It has a cosy feel; a still, silent haven from the elements and the constant motion of the sea. I wondered how many women had taken refuge here in prayer over the centuries, waiting for their menfolk to come home from stormy seas and how many had given thanks for a safe return.
The simple bowl of the font is at least eight hundred years old, and, as always, when they have so many centuries of history behind them, it seems to be a symbol of the community of the church… the people and their stories. In a village setting, this feeling is even stronger; for hundreds of years, almost every villager would have been touched by the water it has held. The font cover is of more recent date. It was carved by a local farmer named Saundry from the timbers of the Khyber wrecked in 1905.
On the wall behind the font is an unusual wooden board, containing the text of a letter from a king. The Carolus Rex is a letter of thanks to the people of Cornwall who had given their support to King Charles I. The local website, which is well worth a read for both the detailed history and the sense of humour of its writer, says of the affair:
“For some reason, probably just a very sensible dislike of Roundheads, the Cornish tended to be loyal to the King during the Civil Wars, at least the richer ones did, and because of their willingness to hide the King’s son and heir in lofts, bedrooms and stables as he escaped from the Parliamentary troops*, Charles I wrote them a letter of thanks, copies of which his son Charles II commanded to be placed in every Cornish parish church at his restoration in 1660, where they have been largely ignored ever since.
* The Cornish almost certainly didn’t hide him in any such way really, not even in an oak tree.“
Frankly, as I have chuckled all the way through reading that website, I almost feel I am wasting my time writing about the church… I certainly can’t better the website! But… I have to try, even if it is only to record my own impressions of the place.
The quiet peace is appealing, yet it has a very practical and down to earth feel to it too, as if the life beyond its walls has seeped in with the mist. The lovely but unwieldy lid of the font has a nifty hatch arrangement that allows the font to be used without lifting the heavy wood.
The base of the tower is used as a vestry and is enclosed by a modern cedarwood screen which, according to the same website, now stops “the whistling draughts which shoot down the tower, and used to shoot straight up the congregation.” And the missing head of a statue of the Virgin, for whose decapitation the writer blames the Roundheads, was given a replacement by a local lady. I find her work serene and tender.
Georgian brass candelabra are the only ornate touch to the roof which is simple and functional. Although, “the Georgian years were not a good time for church attendance, even by the clergy,” says the website, detailing examples of less than regular attendance by at least one incumbent for whom the weather was as a determining factor.
There is some really lovely stained glass, particularly the memorial window to John Giffard Everett, thirteen times elected Mayor of the City of Wells in Somerset. Both the style and the subjects are unusual, showing St John, Jacob and Enoch. The latter raised a private smile after our encounter with Dr Dee at the Elizabethan workshop in April.
There are other memorials on the walls, some of them simply engravings below the carved and gilded panels showing scenes of local life that line the wall behind the main altar. Others are grander affairs in marble, crafted for posterity but often touched with an echo of a family’s love.
Once more, we were surrounded by angels too… carved on the bench ends in the chancel, guarding the altar with golden wings and looking down on the church from its jewelled windows.
And, as a finishing touch, a fragment of a medieval wall painting peeks through the whitewash of the Lady Chapel.
St Sennen’s is an odd mix of faith and pragmatism, beauty, extravagance and simplicity, passion and solid reliability…. much, I think, like its people. Visiting these old churches is not only a privilege… for in how many other places can you get ‘up close and personal’ with artefacts hundreds of years old and still in use? It is also a way into the heart of any community.
Christianity, of whatever flavour, was the official religion of these isles for many centuries and, for most of that time, was as much an obligation as a choice of the heart. However a church was founded, its life evolves around its people and it shows.
Perhaps the most touching and telling detail for me was the pulpit. Not for the carvings of saints, bishops and the Baptist, but for the fish that ‘swim’ through the foliate frames to every panel and all around the edges. You might miss them at first glance, but once seen, the central role played by the sea in the life of this congregation cannot be missed.
Of the thousands who visit Land’s End and Sennen Cove every year, many of whom stop at the First and Last Inn, whose car-park adjoins the churchyard, I wonder how many take the time to visit this quite and peaceful little church, the first and last in this corner of Britain?
I would like to express my thanks to the writer of the St Sennen’s church website for the comprehensive history and the laughter.
Rite of Way
Our next stop was right on the coast. On a day when you could see where your next step would take you, and had we been blessed with more time, we might have parked at Land’s End and walked the cliff path… which would, undoubtedly, have been the simplest route and, as it turned out, possibly the quickest too. But then, we would have missed a truly magical journey.
Instead, we chose to take a ‘short cut’. We would drive to the closest point we could get to our destination then walk a short way… or so we thought… between the fields and out onto the cliffs. We thanked whatever Providence had made us buy a detailed local map and set off down a series of increasingly isolated farm tracks until we found a gap in the hedgerows that looked like it might once have been a track… but it was certainly not the lane the map had suggested it would be.
We parked the car and entered the green tunnel between high hedgerows. It didn’t look like a long walk. At the first corner, though, the rutted track gave way to a narrow path festooned in greenery and wildflowers, climbing the embanked walls typical of this part of Cornwall.
These walls are curious affairs in themselves, seeming to consist of twin walls, often made of gigantic stones that would look more at home in a stone circle, infilled with earth. Grasses, flowers and shrubs colonise these walls, making them into natural gardens. The profusion of life in these sheltered ecosystems is as astonishing as it is beautiful, but when the mists close around you, and the green walls tower above you, the outer world slips into oblivion.
There was nothing ahead except the green pathway. Nothing behind. No way to see over the high banks…and no way of knowing which way you were walking through the swirling mists. Each corner revealed a new stretch of green… it felt exactly like being in a maze.
Distance was impossible to judge. Time seemed to stand still. There was no way to judge how far we had come nor how far we yet had to go…or if we were moving at all. The only relief was the occasional glimpse through an ancient field entrance, overgrown and half-obliterated by Nature… and these gaps in the green walls were flanked with great, guardian stones that seemed to watch our progress and call in the mists to veil our view of the ‘real’ world beyond the path.
Yet, there was something more real about this journey of one foot in front of the other, than any other path I have walked. The grasses whispered memories as we passed. Webs captured the mist in jewelled nets, butterflies guided faltering steps, brown fairies flitting in and disappearing against the damp, stony earth. Small birds, and even our familiar robin, led us onwards until, after what seemed like an eternity of utter tranquillity, we emerged into a farmyard.
From there, the track widened a little, opening out to let us glimpse the mammoth stones of which the wall was built. Not for long, though, as we were once more plunged back into the green shadows of the lane.
At last there was a gate and, beyond it, the heathlands of the cliffs. After the narrow confines of the green cocoon, passing through the gate felt like a rebirth. Yet, now the mists descended in earnest. We could see no more than a few yards ahead until we finally reached the cliff path.
Visibility was little better there. Like the sea pounding the shore far below us, the mists rolled in as waves, sometimes giving us glimpses of silhouetted headlands, sometimes shrouding them completely from view.
Faces peered out from the rocks; strange shapes and figures danced with the shifting, amorphous blanket that appeared to encase the wildflowers in soft ice. Gulls skimmed the currents, crying unseen above us, while below the cormorants opened their wings as if casting spells.
There is power in a journey, especially when it is undertaken as a quest or a pilgrimage… a sacrifice of effort and energy pays the toll for such a rite of passage. Trust in the call of the path leads you onwards and you are content to follow where the heart and the land may lead.
We turned our footsteps towards Land’s End… aware in some strange fashion that had little to do with the logic of the thought, that the land… our land… ended here and that what lay beyond was another realm, one into which we might be invited, but which we could never enter without that call.
The mist came down, veiling the marriage of land and sea from view. We walked on, uncertain that we would be able to find the place we had come to see… but we need not have worried. Our guide was waiting, perched on the guardian stone…
The Head of the Dragon…
We have lost count of the number of hillforts we have seen, climbed and contemplated… but Carn Lês Boel would be our first true promontory fort. These Cornish ‘fortifications’ or ‘cliff castles’ seem to be nothing of the sort, though, and the fortifications, such as they are, seem to defend something other than a settlement.
The narrow, rocky promontory juts out into the sea, surrounded on three sides by sheer and dangerous cliffs. On the landward side, it is bounded by a bank and ditch which, even accounting for the effects of erosion by centuries of weather, still seems a meagre defence, more symbolic than practical. It extends in a wide arc around the entrance to the headland and would take a lot of men to defend it against aggressors.
The natural defence of the headland is the land itself. Just a few men could hold the narrow neck of land that joins Carn Lês Boel, the ‘bleak cairn’, to the mainland and few could attack it at any one time. Not that there is any evidence of aggression or of defensive action there. In fact, there is no sign of anything to defend at all… no hut circles, burial sites or any trace of a settlement at all. So, what on earth was going on?
The area enclosed by the cliffs is inhospitable. There is nowhere on its rocky, boulder-strewn surface where you could build a home, even if you were foolhardy enough to brave the wind and storms that drive in from the sea. Another Cornish promontory fort gives the clue; Treryn Dinas, a similar site, was comprehensively excavated and found to be a Bronze Age site with ceremonial and ritual significance that played a central part in the life of the local people. Perhaps Carn Lês Boel fulfilled a similar role?
The entrance to the ‘fort’ is flanked by a pair of standing stones, one of which has now fallen. The remaining stone is very obviously deliberately placed and chocked into position. It was on this stone that the little bird was waiting. The cliffs were wreathed in the thick sea-mist that had dogged our footsteps throughout our time in Cornwall… which was a shame as we should have been able to see Land’s End from here.
We stepped between the stones and walked out onto the headland. “Come on, guys,” I raised my eyes to heaven. “Give us a break!” And, right on cue, They did. The mists parted, lingering just above the distant cliffs. For just long enough to explore, we had immaculate blue skies and the most incredible colours and vistas.
The timing was just too perfect to ignore. Even the birds were in on the act, it seemed, as a wide-winged hawk sailed into one of the shots that should have contained only the soaring gulls and dark cormorants. Feeling uncomfortably like some unlikely weather-mage, I wondered whether the weather was not giving us another clue to the ancient purpose of the ‘fort’. Was this what the Bronze Age ancestors were attempting to do here? Temper the weather that governed the sea routes that bore the early tin-traders across the water?
The working of ore, the alchemy of turning stone to metal, was a new thing. The advent of metal for tools and weapons instead of stone heralded great change in the way we lived. The old legends paint the smiths and metalworkers as magical, often godlike beings… surely a folk memory of the respect and esteem in which those who forged the precious bronze were once held. For a people in tune with the natural world, and dependant upon fair weather to sail both for trade and to fish, it would make sense that they might seek to influence the weather. To call in the mists…or dismiss them.
One main reason for visiting Carn Lês Boel, though, was that it marks the place where the Michael Line… the dragon-line that runs right across England… makes its most westerly landfall. Hamish Miller and Paul Broadhurst had dowsed and mapped the lay of the ley in their book, ‘The Sun and the Serpent’ and we had brought a copy with us for reference, so that we could visit some of the sites that fall on the Michael Line.
Within that book is an iconic picture of Hamish Miller seated on the rocks of Carn Lês Boel… and, in homage to his work and vision, we wanted to recreate the image in essence, if not in detail. The rock was not hard to find, being the one distinctive feature of the headland.
As we left, the mists closed in once more. We felt we had been gifted with a brief glimpse into another world…or the Otherworld. And we still had to take the long misty pathway back to the car. But the place was not yet done with us, it seems. Doing the research as I wrote tonight, I caught sight of a picture of the beach below Carn Lês Boel… Nanjizal Cove.
The image stopped me in my tracks and left me staring open mouthed at the screen. I have searched for years, wondering if it were a real place or some confused but magical memory of the Durdle Door or some northern beach. Yet, it is a place I know well… I know its pools and textures, the sound of its waterfall and the waves through the portal called the Zawn Pyg, the ‘Song of the Sea’, yet I have been there only in a recurring dream that has been with me as long as I can remember.
I will not tell all of that dream, for some things, I think, may be broken when held up to too much light. Suffice it to say that within it I met the people of the sea and they showed me how to dance with the waves, how to scale them like mountains and laugh as I fell, one with the water as it crashed on the shore. I may never swim in those waters in reality, but one day, I think I need to visit that hidden cove…
A Haunt of Rogues
It had been an incredible morning, starting with the magic of Boscawen Un, our visit to Sennen church and then the long walk to Carn Lês Boel and back. Still flying from the experience, we felt in need of grounding and liquid refreshment and as, by this time, we were long past noon, we knew that the First and Last Inn in England would be open. It’s a curious place; while definitely geared for serving the tourists and the road, it is also the ‘local’ pub for a good many villagers and the two atmospheres meet and meld very well. We sort of had to go there, being in the area.
The inn was originally built to house the masons working on the ‘new’ church next door, which was completed by around 1430. The current building still dates in part back to that time, though most of the pub is housed in later additions to the inn. Today, it is one of the best-known inns in Cornwall. Not just because of the fact that its name is accurate… it really is the first and the last inn you come to at this westernmost point of England… but because it has a rich history, with plenty of legends attached.
Sennen was a centre of the ‘free trade’, better known as smuggling. Import taxes on goods such as brandy and tobacco were high and enterprising seamen brought such goods into the country by less than orthodox routes, avoiding the excise men and thus the import duties. Cornwall was also once known for its ‘wreckers’, who lit lanterns on the cliffs to lure unwary ships into dangerous waters so that the wreckage could be combed for valuable cargo.
The First and Last Inn was a haunt of both smugglers and wreckers. Its stable rooms, now used for holiday accommodation, once housed the donkeys used in both of these operations and tunnels were dug beneath the inn in which the smuggled and salvaged goods could be hidden. One of them is visible in the bar of the inn; Annie’s well.
The well is named after Annie George, who, two hundred years ago and with her husband, Joseph, ran the inn as rent-free tenants of a local farmer, who rejoiced in the name of Dionysius Williams. The couple paid no rent in exchange for their silence on Williams’ other source of income… smuggling. The couple decided they wanted a greater income themselves and decided to blackmail Williams who retaliated by throwing the out of the inn. Annie went to the authorities and turned King’s evidence. Williams was convicted and sent to prison and the smuggling operations in the area, and thus the local economy, suffered a severe blow. Regardless of the judgements we may make on the morality of smuggling and wrecking, they were an integral and necessary source of income for many families in this isolated and impoverished area.
Annie also gave evidence at other smuggling-related trials, including that of her brother-in-law, John George, who was convicted and hanged for his crimes. Annie earned the hatred of the local people, but legends tell that they took their revenge in a gruesome manner, staking her out on the beach as the tide came in. Entangled in the fishing nets, the water took her and she was drowned. She could no longer speak against the locals… but that was not the end of her story.
Her body was brought back to the inn and she was laid out in one of the rooms there before being buried in an unmarked grave in the grounds of the church next door. At least, her body was buried, but her ghost remains at the inn.
Although many old inns have the obligatory ghost or two…especially in tourist areas… Annie’s ghost has been seen and reported by many people…and not a few cats who have been found locked away in drawers and cupboards. The grey form of a woman is often seen on the landing of the inn and the chill touch of ghostly presence often reported. I often wonder how we know what name to give a ghost…how can we tell if it is this person or that in any given location, when so many must have died throughout the centuries. Here, though, the case is clear, as those who sleep in Annie’s room report dreams of being drowned or pulled down by fishing nets…
Be that as it may, we too left a ghost of our presence there, for it was the last place we saw the copy of The Sun and the Serpent that we had brought with us. We were still far from grounded when we left the inn and must have failed to pick it up after looking at Hamish’s picture. Food helped… while we were still in Cornwall we had to have a proper Cornish pasty and that took us back into St Just for the final time. Then we would have to hit the road and begin the long drive home… but there were still a number of places we wanted to visit on the way, including one of Cornwall’s most iconic stones…
The One with the Hole…
We had intended to visit this and another site on our way to Hayle the previous afternoon, but the map that has thus far led us without fail across Britain had refused to cooperate. It had been a long and eventful day… we had driven far and were feeling the effects of visiting so many sacred and historic sites… and so we had accepted that the land was steering us in a different direction. This time, though, as we prepared to head home, we were determined to find Mên-an-Tol, one of Cornwall’s most iconic yet enigmatic sites… and this time, we were equipped with a much more detailed map.
Turning up a road we had both passed and debated the day before, we found a parking spot by the gated track that leads to the stones. It is a fair walk, but we were now so high that the mists had finally lifted and we could see for miles over the Cornish hills. Had we done our research before the trip, we might have known of the other local sites… the barrows and standing stones… and in particular, Men Scryfa… a ‘raven stone’ we would have had to see and Boskednan stone circle, which we would have had to visit too.
Time, though, not being on our side, it was probably just as well that we were unaware of what we were missing. We still had one last site to see after this one…or so we thought… before a long drive to our next hotel.
The track climbs gently to the top of the hills, sheltered between old farm walls and banks of wildflowers. Once again, we were accompanied by birds, butterflies and the small, silent creatures that give life to the land.
An old spring and an ancient stone stile marked our progress as we climbed. The promised half a mile seemed a long, long way… a ‘country mile’ no doubt… but, just below the crest of the hill… and therefore exactly where you would expect it to be… there is a break in the wall and a path leading out into the moor.
The stones are small and barely visible, yet you can feel their presence from a considerable distance. We approached the site, which had just emptied itself of people, with a fair amount of excitement. No-one who has an interest in the ancient sites of old Albion can fail to recognise the stones of Mên-an-Tol, which simply means, ‘the holed stone’
Very little is known about this place, though recent archaeological work has begun to throw a little light on its history. The focus of the site today are the four stones that remain of a much larger monument. Two uprights and one fallen stone flank a central holed stone unlike any other in the country. The standing stones, like others at stone circles in the area, have one face that has been worked until it is smooth and would suggest that they were once part of a circle too. The holed stone stands upright between them, although antiquarian drawings show it may have been set at a slightly different angle in past times. We had already decided that we thought there should be a circle, after a brief look at the place and long before any research was done…
Close by there is a burial cairn, as well as the restored Boskednan circle, with its nearby menhirs and cairns and the Men Scryfa standing stone. Not far away are the remnants of ancient settlements and chambered tombs, as well as a number of other Neolithic and Bronze Age sites. Modern archaeology has identified a circle of buried stones around the visible stones at Mên-an-Tol too, and, given all that, it bears all the hallmarks of being part of a wide and socially important sacred landscape.
The official site for Cornwall’s archaeological heritage states that if the remaining stones were, in fact, part of the sixty-foot circle of stones found buried beneath the turf, “the holed stone would probably have been aligned along the circumference of the circle and would have had a special ritual significance possibly by providing a lens through which to view other sites or features in the landscape, or as a window onto other worlds.” I find it incredibly exciting that even officialdom can make that last statement.
The site is said to be a node point or junction for a number of leys and is a place where folklore and legends abound. It is, so the tales say, a warded place; some say it is guarded by a piskie, others by the spirit of an ancient wielder of magic, while yet others whisper that its guardian is Merlin himself.
In folklore, it is a place of healing. Pass through the holed stone and your back problems will be cured… and curiously, a modern osteopath has suggested that this may be true, as the angles required for a grown man to accomplish this feat could realign a spine. Or a grown woman… I can attest to that!
Pass a child through the opening nine times and you will cure it of rickets. Pass a woman through the holed stone seven times, feet first, on the night of the full moon, and she will conceive a child. Such children as are born after this ritual will almost always be sons, but if a daughter is the result, then she will be gifted with healing hands. The healing touch of the King’s hands, or passing the sufferer through the holed stone, were the only known cures for scrofula, and the stone was well known as a place to lift curses and to protect against or avert the effects of the ‘evil eye’.
Divination could be performed by crossing two brass pins and placing them on the top of the holed stone. The pins will then move of their own accord in answer to questions. As we had no brass pins, we could not test this particular bit of folklore, but it is curious to note that some researchers have reported background radiation levels as being very much higher than normal at certain times. Perhaps folk magic recognises something for which, these days, we need machines.
We had spent some time with the stones and I had already crawled once through the hole stone in both directions, although it felt as if we were missing something. In spite of the long journey ahead, we were unaccountably reluctant to leave, even when three American ladies arrived… and when we have had a site to ourselves for a while and another party arrives, that is always our signal to depart. Instead, we sat and waited while they looked at the stones. They were voluble and friendly… one obviously now a resident of the area, the others her friends come to visit. The local lady showed her friends how to seek the healing of the stones. “Touch the standing stone, crawl through, touch the other and crawl back. Touch the first stone again, then embrace the holed stone.” She demonstrated, her movements describing the infinity symbol, then coming to rest in the centre… which made perfect sense.
When asked where she had learned of this, she smiled and said, “The local Bard…”. Stuart and I looked at each other. He raised the eyebrow. So that’s what we’d been missing! And we’d had the answer to our question from a Bard, and a bard is either a singer of old tales and preserver of old lore, or a Druid… or both. It couldn’t be much clearer.
The ladies soon departed… and we once again passed through the stone, this time following the Bard’s instructions. That felt much better, although it was their use as sighting stones that resonated the most with me. It is easy to see how the holed stone could have been used to survey and construct other sites, but as a stone of vision it would have found use within a sacred enclosure, and we have seen other such stones that served that purpose, including the Seeing Stone at Barbrook and the stone that became a portal to the lands of the Fae at the Nine Ladies circle.
Reluctantly we turned our backs to the stones to begin making our way back to the car. We had gone just a few years when I spotted a pale shape rising from beyond the wall. My camera was in my hand and I snapped the distant form, not believing my eyes. A hunting barn owl, the mid-afternoon sun reflecting from its wings. We seldom see owls and, as I snapped, I bethought myself that we had been in the Roman temple of Minerva just a couple of days before… and the owl is her symbol, just as it is the symbol of my own home city. Although I had yet to make the astronomical and Templar connections there, I could not help thinking either of the snowy owl that had greeted us the very first time Stuart had come south when we had gone to Uffington and Wayland’s Smithy and our adventures had begun.
We took it as a good sign… and we were to see other owls in flight the next day, at least two and possibly three, as we continued our circuitous journey home. And if I choose to take the owls as a promise of further adventures to come, who is to say me nay in such a magical place?
The Mystery of the Weeping Stones…
There was one more site we intended to see before we hit the road in earnest, and that was Lanyon Quoit. It is one of the best-known dolmens in Cornwall, probably in part because it is so easy to access, standing in a field right beside the road and not far from Mên-an-Tol. We were really looking forward to seeing this site and so, it was with some excitement that we climbed the stile into the field.
It looks amazing in the empty landscape. The huge capstone, weighing around thirteen and a half tons and over eighteen feet long, is supported on three upright stones. Old stories tell that a man could ride a horse beneath the capstone, but today you must bend your head to enter the chamber that would once have been encased in earth. And for once, it was not a happy place.
The ancient burial chambers that we have visited are usually warm and welcoming. There is no sense of any fear of the dead, but on the contrary, an invitation to enter and commune with the ancestors… those distant kin whose presence gives access to the Otherworld. Where the tombs are sealed by earth, stone, or archaeologists, there is a feeling of vague disappointment and yearning, for these were places meant to be visited, where the womblike darkness of the earth could lead to a rebirth for the dead and, perhaps, a spiritual rebirth for the living.
Lanyon Quoit, though, we didn’t like. It was hard to explain… it didn’t ‘feel’ right. Stuart thought it might be because one of the uprights was not in place, although we have visited dolmens a worse state of repair and not felt this sense of loss and sadness.
Still, we dutifully explored the dolmen and the surrounding area, full of stone burial cists and the traces of another dolmen, now almost gone. The stones once formed a chamber beneath a mound of earth and at least some of the cists may have been placed within the structure, whilst others may be later additions to the site. We wandered off, exploring other stones, both of us, I think, feeling unaccountably guilty that we could not like this ostensibly impressive and undoubtedly famous quoit. But we didn’t like it at all… it was an uncomfortable place and a sad one. As if the stones themselves wept. And we couldn’t figure out why…
It had everything going for it. There are still traces of the sixty-foot-long mound that once enclosed the stones, though there is a theory that this site was never completely covered and the stones may have been left exposed for ritual purposes, while the capstone may have been a site of air burial, where the bones could be cleaned by the birds. The site itself is around four and a half to five and a half thousand years old and it is an imposing monument. It is also known as the Giant’s Table, for obvious reasons, and the Giant’s Tomb because the local legends tell of a giant’s bones being found within the structure. Maybe those of Albion himself, who knows? But, no matter how much we tried… the feeling of discomfort remained, and we did not linger.
It was only on returning home and starting the research that the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. The quoit had collapsed in a storm in 1815, the ground beneath it having suffered at the hands of treasure-hunters. For years its stones lay scattered on the ground until, nine years later, enough money was raised by public donations to allow the site to be rebuilt by Captain Giddy of the Royal Navy.
While this was undoubtedly an admirable endeavour, the reconstruction was not as precise as it should have been. One of the fallen uprights was too damaged to put back in its place, so the capstone now rests on three, rather than four legs. The height of the capstone was considerably lowered and the monument now stands at right angles to its original position… which, it is believed, was once aligned with the cardinal points.
Mystery solved. The megalithic builders did not simply plonk down stones willy-nilly. They were carefully sited, aligned with landmarks on the horizon, with astronomical and seasonal events, and with regard for the currents of the earth. The theory is that such sites either harness or augment the earth’s natural currents, that are not unlike those unseen lines of force that manifest when you sprinkle iron filings around a magnet.
If there is any truth to this theory… and anyone who ‘feels’ these sites or dowses them is likely to be convinced that there is… you cannot turn them around and expect them to ‘fit’ the landscape or to continue to fulfil their true role within it. But the antiquarians of the nineteenth century were as yet unaware of the hidden complexity of these sites. The interest in the stones and their builders was a nascent and unregulated study and most people still thought such structures had been built by either the faeries, the Druids or even the Romans. Our discomfort and the dissonance of the stones was explained.
We retraced our footsteps and pointed the car towards our convoluted route home. We were not planning on stopping again until we reached our hotel and that would not be for another few hours. But well, this was Cornwall… we were almost obliged to get distracted…
The Wells of the Wishing Tree…
“Ooh!” My companion, well used to the consequences of such exclamations, braced himself as I swung the car off the road we were supposed to be taking and onto a narrow lane. The sign was intriguing and, although we had visited our last planned site of the day, one more couldn’t hurt…
I would probably not have followed the sign had it just said ‘holy well’, but it also sported the words ‘and Celtic chapel’ and that made it irresistible. We had no idea at all of what we might find, but, in my defence, I had this vague notion of the site being close to the main road. Quite why I should have thought so when almost every other site we had visited had entailed a fair walk, I have no idea…but I didn’t expect it to be more than a ten-minute detour.
Leaving the car, we entered a green tunnel straight out of a fairytale. Moss and lichen adorned twisted branches, ferns and flowers lined the path and at any moment, I expected to see the dryads holding out their hands in an invitation to the dance. I have seldom been more aware of the presence of the trees, yet it is difficult to explain why that should be so. It was simply a well-worn path where none of the trees were ancient or particularly remarkable… apart from the undeniable feeling that they were…
We had already walked a good bit further than expected when we saw the clootie tree. Standing slightly apart from the rest and festooned with offerings, it marks the place of the Wishing Well, a wide circular pool with a spring bubbling up at one end, and the entrance to the Holy Well. The Holy Well itself is about a hundred yards away, hidden in thick undergrowth across the spring and the deep mud through which, unprepared and unsuitably shod, we were not about to go wading. There is a small, stone cistern there, half hidden in the trees, and had we been wearing our boots we would have followed the branch in the trail to see it.
The Holy Well is dedicated to St Madern, which may be a Christianised version of a much earlier name. Little is known about the saint except that he was a hermit in Cornwall with connections to Brittany. It is possible that, like many of the early local saints, he did not exist at all…or at least, not in the way he was adopted by the Church. St Madern’s well is also called Madron Well, after the nearby village. But is that the only reason for the name?
‘Modron’, the divine mother of Mabon, whose name comes from Maponos, ‘the Great Son’, is the Welsh version of the old Celtic goddess known as Dea Matrona in the Gaulish lands of Brittany…. And that is one ‘connection’ right there. Dea Matrona was a Mother goddess, often depicted, like Isis and the Virgin, holding her Son to her breast. Mabon is, in some tales, said to be one of King Arthur’s warriors, and his mother may have been a much earlier personification of the personage known to the Arthurian Romances as Morgan Le Fay… which might explain the magic in the trees…
Although the circular stonework of the Holy Well is only around a thousand years old, the sanctity of the site goes back to pre-Christian times, and much of the magic still preserved in folklore tells a decidedly pagan story. One of the legends of the well tells of a man named John Trellie who was paralysed from the waist. The story was reported in a seventeenth century account and tells how John was cured by bathing three times in the well and spending three nights on the grassy hillock beside the well known as St Maderne’s Bed. The bed was remade every year… and this sounds much more like a pagan goddess ritual than a Christian rite, although the Bishop of Exeter was pleased to confirm the truth of the cure.
John was not the only one to seek healing here and the rite required the sufferer to bathe three times naked in the water, walk three times around the well and sleep for three nights on the ‘bed’. They would then tear a strip from their clothing, dip it in the well and tie it to a tree and, as the cloth perished and rotted away, so would their illness disappear.
Another less-than-Christian tradition saw maidens cutting straws into inch long pieces and affixing them at the centre with pins to make an equal-armed cross. Throwing them into the water at Beltane, they would count any bubbles that rose from them…each bubble representing one year before they would wed.
The twin wells feel to be very much a place of feminine mysteries and the spirits of wood, earth and water take precedence here. The overlay of the later patriarchal religion seems a fragile mask, no more than an attempt to gather the site within the fold of the Church… at least officially. The reverence of the Mother at the ancient Holy Wells was widespread, right up until the Reformation when such practices were frowned upon and forbidden… though that did not stop the old traditions from being remembered and observed. Was the chapel too a later addition, adding its presence and the stamp of authority, or did it have a different story to tell? We walked on, waiting to find out…
The Chapel in the Grove…
A ruined chapel stands in a tiny clearing, sheltered and roofed by the trees that cluster close to its walls as if to offer it protection. The walls still guard the interior from view and a single doorway in the northern wall gives entrance. There is a sense of simplicity and peace about the chapel and its glade; centuries of prayer have hallowed the place… and its sanctity may be measured in more than just the hundreds of years that its walls have survived.
The chapel is not large, measuring just twenty-five feet by eighteen, with stone walls two feet thick making the interior considerably more intimate. The stones still stand eight or nine feet high and entering the green-roofed precinct, you leave the world behind. This seems right, for this has been a sacred space for longer than the chapel walls have closed around it, in spite of the destruction it suffered at the hands of Cromwell’s men.
The remains of the chapel are at last nine hundred years old and stand upon a much earlier sacred site. One theory suggests that the Welsh and Irish brought their goddess with them when they came to Cornwall around fifteen hundred years ago and that St Madern, to whom the chapel is dedicated, is a corruption of the Celtic maternal deity, Mordron.
Natural springs, always a place of feminine mysteries, were held as sacred places of healing and vision and have been venerated from the very earliest of times. There is an abundance of them in this westernmost corner of Cornwall, a land of mists and magic that the Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus named Belerion, ’The Shining Land’, almost two thousand years ago. The spring that feeds the Holy Well and the Wishing well close by was once also channelled into this glade, eventually becoming an integral part of the chapel.
The single doorway through which you may enter the chapel is in the northern wall. This in itself is curious for a Christian chapel, as traditionally the north door was the ‘devil’s door’, through which the demons could escape when baptism drove them forth… and the chapel is often referred to as the baptistry. In magical systems, the primary compass points are associated with the elements, and north is assigned to the element of Earth.
Along the north and south walls are stone benches, probably dating to the twelfth century, built into the walls. In the southwest corner of the chapel is a strange stone cubicle, unlike anything I have ever seen in a place of Christian worship. Until recent years, the spring fed a fountain in the outer wall that fell into a shallow pool. Today the water, weather permitting, comes from the fields, but still flows in summers not plagued by drought. As the chapel is called a baptistry, you have to think that this is a place where baptisms were performed, or rituals of healing in the waters of the sacred spring. From this highly unusual ‘font’, the water flows to a drain through the north wall, flowing through a channel across the western floor of the chapel…and the element of water in magical systems is assigned to the West.
The altar, a low stone block with a carved depression in which a cross could be placed, sits, as always, in the east. In magical systems this direction symbolises the element of Air, the dawning light, the breath of life and the soul. When we visited, the altar was decked with flowers and offerings, and if they looked more pagan than Christian, no disrespect was intended. The chapel is still used by pagan and Christian alike.
Of the four directions, only the south is unmarked by any defining artefact, and we cannot know if once it held the candles that sent prayers winging to heaven or the chapel lamps. There is a fifth element, the quintessential element that unites the others, whole in themselves, yet but facets of a greater whole… Æther, or Spirit, and this little chapel in the glade needs nothing more than the green grove above its open heart as a symbol.
We stood a while in the quiet peace of the place. I wished there was more time to simply sit and absorb the living silence… I wished too that we might come back when summer had not drunk the earth’s moisture and the waters flowed freely. Perhaps, one day, we will… but for now, the road called and this time we would obey the summons. There was a long way to go before we would reach Bodmin Moor and the unusual inn at which we were going to stay for the night…
A Haunt of Ghosts and Smugglers
Image: ‘Self’ at Wikipedia GNU 1.2
It was dusk when we arrived at our hotel. Between rush hour, such as it is in Cornwall, and my refusal to believe that a sign reading ‘museum’ was really a sign for the inn we were seeking, it had taken a while to get there. I had mixed feelings about staying at the place, given both its fame and its notoriety, but as it was in exactly the right location and a reasonable price too, we were to spend the night at a place reputed to be one of the most haunted inns in the country.
It wasn’t the prospect of ghostly roommates that bothered me so much as the fear that as the place has succumbed to the tourist trade, it would focus more on its profitable history than on the comfort of the guests. I need not have worried. The guest rooms and facilities were exceptionally good, and my only complaint is that, with the veritable plethora of well-documented ghosts, I slept undisturbed and saw nothing… at least, as far as I know. Because, let’s face it, unless a ghost sticks to the accepted rules by being amorphous, giving you inexplicable chills, walking through walls or making unsettling noises, how are you supposed to know if you’ve seen one?
To be fair, we were in the more modern wing of the inn. There had been an inn on the spot since 1537, and prior to that there is an abundance of archaeological evidence that the area was occupied right back to prehistory. Most of the ghostly activity is reported in the building that replaced the older inn and which dates back to 1750, when the coaching inn on Bodmin Moor was a haunt of smugglers.
The wreckers and free-traders from the Cornish coast used the isolated inn as a halfway house, and one tale says that Jamaica Inn got its name from the barrels of rum that illicitly made their way there. In fact, the inn took its name from the Trelawney family, local landowners, two of whom had been governors of Jamaica… but that rum, tobacco and many other illegal imports passed through the inn is beyond question. The smugglers had over a hundred routes over which they carried their contraband goods and, when the present inn was built, there was nothing else for miles around, making Jamaica Inn a perfect stopping place.
The isolation, nefarious history and bleak situation became the inspiration for Daphne Du Maurier to write her most famous novel, Jamaica Inn. The author had stayed there in 1930 and become lost on the moors when the mist came down, having to rely on her horse to guide her back to the inn. She stayed several more days and the dark thriller was the result.
As to the ghosts, they are many and varied. A woman and her child walk through the walls into one bedroom and have been seen standing by the beds. It is thought the young woman spent her last night alive there before boarding a ship that was lost at sea. In another room, there is a man who wears a cloak and tricorne hat. In one of the cellars, another cloaked gentleman presides. Voices are often heard speaking a language which might be Old Cornish, doors bang, glasses smash of their own accord and, in the courtyard, horses still whinny and metal-shod wheels crunch upon gravel that was long since replaced by cobblestones. Perhaps the most chilling tale, though, is that of the gentleman who stands by the fire… a young man who was called outside and murdered, so the story goes. Or the old man who is often seen sitting on the inn wall, speaking to no-one… waiting…
Chasing the sunset with the camera, I can say there were corners of the old inn building that sent a chill up the spine, but then… it is an old inn. But that was the only hint of anything untoward; I slept like a baby and was so tired after our explorations that I would probably have needed a fully accoutred spectre with rattling chains and bloodcurdling moans to wake me. Which meant that next morning, we were well rested and got an early start. And we had a rendezvous with the Lady of the Lake…
A Lake of Legends…
Next morning we were once again up and away early, though this time our first stop was only a mile or two down the road and still on Bodmin Moor, a place where there must be as many legends as there are people who visit the place. We had come to pay our respects to a lake and to those who, so the stories tell us, reside within its depths.
Dozmary Pool is a small and isolated lake left behind by a glacier. Around it the remains of flint-working have been found, suggesting it was a gathering place for early Man and there are many prehistoric remains in the area. The waters of Dozmary feed nearby Colliford Lake and it is one of the sources of the River Fowey. There are no trees and no shelter, and although the ordinary world measures its depth at around ten feet, it is said to be bottomless. Perhaps it is, for the waters of Dozmary mirror only the vastness of the sky and the light that shimmers and sparkles in its wind-born ripples. You can imagine that at night, here where there are few traces of modern man, the still surface would reflect the stars and would indeed appear to hold infinity within its heart.
Jan Treneagle, an evil man who made a Faustian pact with the devil in exchange for wealth and power in life, is a central character in Cornish folklore. At his death, he was doomed to wander until the end of time, performing impossible tasks. One of those tasks was to empty the bottomless Dozmary Pool using only a holed limpet shell. He escaped from this thankless task and headed instead for Roche Rock. The devil caught up with him there and Treneagle was set to weaving ropes from the sands of Gwenor Cove.
The weaving of ropes has an echo in the legends of the lake too. The Victorian writer and folklorist, Sabine Baring-Gould, wrote of the witch’s ladder, woven of black wool, with white and brown thread and designed to curse an enemy. Aches, pains, boils and ills would be woven into the ladder which was adorned every two inches with the feathers of a cockerel. This would be thrown into Dozmary Pool and the spell-caster would watch the bubbles rise from the bottom of the lake, believing that as they did so, so would their curse be set free to do its abominable work.
One tale says that the name of the lake comes from ‘Dozy Mary’ and refers to the murder of a young woman at the spot. Other and more recent tales tell of the Beast of Bodmin, a strange cat-like animal that terrorised the livestock on the moor as recently as 1978, while an older story tells an even darker tale…
Back o’er the moor, the frozen moor,
Flies the cursed soul to Dozmary Pool.
With gleaming fangs and eyes aflame,
The pack, the pack, the hellish pack
Race by his side, yap, yap, yap –
Race by the side of the soul in pain.
~ The Ballad of the Haunted Moor (full text available online here)
But not all the tales of Bodmin Moor and Dozmary Pool are so dark. The most widely known legend to speak of this lake seldom names it, so that many would not realise that it was from these waters that the legendary King Arthur was given his sword, Excalibur. The legend, as told by Malory, says that when Arthur lay dying after the battle of Camlann, mortally wounded by Mordred, he instructed Bedivere, one of his true knights, to take the Sword of Britain and cast it into the lake whence it came.
Twice Bedivere took the sword to the lake, but he could not throw away the Sword of Britain, symbol of Arthur’s kingship… and twice he returned to the dying king to say the task had been fulfilled. When Arthur asked what had happened, Bedivere could tell him naught, so the king sent him back to do his bidding. When he returned to the lake the third time, and cast the sword into its waters, the hand of the Lady of the Lake rose from the water to catch the sword… and there it waits to this day.
Two swords have been found at Dozmary; one, a blade allegedly linked to a Victorian mystery, was found by author Andrew Collins and formed the basis of his book with Graham Hancock, The Seventh Sword. Another created a bit of a stir a few years ago, when a little girl bathing with her father in the lake found what at first appeared to be a medieval blade, but which turned out to be an offering to the Celtic gods left in the waters in the ‘80s by a local man.
Even when the tales of the popular Arthurian legends are traced back beyond the Romances to a more ancient root, and when the Lady and her Lake might be taken as symbols in a deeper story yet, still the quiet waters of Dozmary hold mystery, and to stand on its shore in the early morning light is to touch something beyond words. We saw neither hand nor sword… though the child in me held her breath and looked through the eyes of hope as the day brightened and the silver surface changed to purple and blue… but there is a magic in the mirror of the lake that goes straight to the heart.
The Templars and the Lawless Church…
Our hotel the previous night had been just off the main highway across Bodmin Moor… a perfectly good modern road that would take us where we wanted to be by a fast and direct route. We were never going to take it… not when we might explore obscure hamlets, narrow country lanes and a plethora of places by which we could get sidetracked. The first of these we had noticed while checking the start of our route; a tiny village with an intriguing name. We felt obliged to explore…
Even by our standards the road we took was a little primitive and we were obliged to stop on several occasions while a ewe convinced her lambs that roads are not always the best places to play and sunbathe.
It was not far to Temple, a tiny village off the beaten track and seeming quite remote from the world. The village takes its name from the hospice founded here nine hundred years ago by the Knights Templar, to offer accommodation and protection to pilgrims travelling across bleak Bodmin Moor en route to the Holy Land. In 1314 the hospice and lands passed into the hands of the Knights Hospitaller after the Templar Order had been accused of heresy, tortured and slaughtered at the instigation of Phillipe le Bel, King of France, who owed the Templars a considerable amount of money.
The village remained in the hands of the Hospitallers, the natural heirs of the Templars, until King Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome and suppressed the religious houses five hundred years ago.
Today the village is part of the parish of Blisland, the origin of whose name baffles scholars but which to me suggests simply that it might echo an ancient tradition that this was a blessèd land and, in the care of the Templars, an outpost of the Holy Land.
The Templar’s own chapel is no more, having fallen into ruins after their suppression. The current church, dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria, was built upon the site of the old eleventh century chapel. Although the fabric of the church owes much to its predecessor, what remains above ground is almost entirely Victorian, though there are many traces of the more ancient building to be found and many references to its Templar history.
For many years St Catherine’s was famous as a place where runaways could marry without banns or license. In 1584, writer John Norden called it “a lawless church where many bad marriages are consummated and where are wonte to be buried such as wrought violent death upon themselves”. Until fairly recently, those who took their own lives were condemned to be buried in unconsecrated ground. The ‘lawlessness’ continued until 1744, when the church finally came under the wing of a bishop.
For a hundred years, no services were held in the little church and it fell once more into disrepair. An ash tree, growing up through the floor was the only worshipper to raise its face to the light. In 1883, Cornish architect Silvanus Trevail restored the little church, incorporating what he could salvage of its earlier history into the stonework. An outbuilding beside the porch reuses the carved symbols of the Knights Hospitaller, a wheel-head cross and other relics of the Templar building.
In AD 451 the Archbishop of Jerusalem was made a Patriarch and granted the use of the Patriarchal Cross, one of which can been seen incised into one stone of the outbuilding. The Knights Templar were later granted permission to use this cross and Godefroy de Bouillon, Duke of Lorraine, used the Patriarchal Cross on his standard during the First Crusade, capturing Jerusalem and being granted its crown. It is from him that it derives its other name, the Cross of Lorraine.
Inside the church, the base of the Norman font was restored and placed as a gift by a local lady. The original base of the font was later found buried nearby and set into the wall above the church door.
Many of the artworks and artefacts were gifted to the little church as it was reborn from ruin once again. That sense of community is one the Templars would have recognised; the wealthiest Order on earth in their day, each Knight took a vow of poverty and many of their symbols, including the iconic knights sharing a horse, reflect their dedication.
St Catherine, her hair unbound to signify her dedicated maidenhood, holds the palm of the martyr and stands beside the wheel upon which she did not die; in spite of popular legend, the wheel burst asunder when she was placed upon it and she was beheaded when all their attempts to kill her had failed.
St Francis of Assisi, surrounded by the birds to whom he preaches and with the stigmata clearly marked on his hands and feet, watches over the quiet and peaceful church.
On a more disturbing note, three huge iron nails sit on a windowsill… a reminder of the torture symbolised by the stigmata.
The stained glass holds themes dear to the hearts of the Templars too, and includes their cross pattée above the altar and a rare image of a mounted Templar in a tiny geometric window within the tower.
There is a sense here of much that is hidden just beneath the surface. Stones concealed by plaster and whitewash, symbols that hint at a deeper knowledge, stories almost forgotten… We were glad to have come, feeling somehow that we were bearing witness to a past of which we knew little, but which wanted to be heard.
In this place, the bodies of those for whom life had proved too much to bear had been given a place within the embrace of their god. Here too, those who loved in spite of opposition from the world had been joined in His sight. The politics of the exoteric Church had taken a back seat and a simple message of Love had won the day. Furnished with gifts from its congregation, decked with fresh flowers from village gardens, even today, there is something about the little Templar church that embraces the spirit, not the letter, of its faith.
House of the Ancestors
Our next stop was only about half an hour’s drive from the Templar Church, and the road took us through the silent green of Bodmin Moor. With a long drive still ahead, I restrained myself, albeit barely, from turning aside at every interesting signpost, but I was determined to see one of Cornwall’s finest burial chambers… Trethevy Quoit.
The name, Trethevy, is thought to derive from the old Cornish for ‘place of the graves’. The locals call it the Giant’s House and there are tales of giants playing games with the stones. It has another name too, King Arthur’s Quoit, though I have been unable to find any reason why the legendary monarch should be associated with the place. The area, though, is rich in Arthurian sites, from his birthplace at Tintagel, just a few miles to the west, to King Arthur’s Hall and his Bed on Bodmin Moor… and Dozmary Pool, where the Lady of the Lake gave him Excalibur and to where it was returned on his death.
Since beginning our workshop only six days earlier at Cadbury Castle, one of the main contenders for the site of Arthur’s Camelot, we had been falling over references to King Arthur at every turn. Even at St Michael’s Mount there are tales of him battling a giant. We were beginning to come to the conclusion that there was something we needed to look at in the story… especially when we realised that our next two workshops would also take us to sites associated with the Arthurian tales. In September, we would be visiting a castle which, according to Malory in his Morte D’Arthur, was Lancelot’s Castle of Joyous Guarde, and in December we would see a Round Table… But that was still in the future. For the moment, as we parked the car and headed into the field, we were more interested in his Quoit.
Around five and a half thousand years ago, a community came together to raise a house of the ancestors. The stones stand nine feet tall and are capped with a single slab weighing some twenty tonnes… an incredible feat of engineering by our standards, yet the megalithic builders, who knew the secrets of working with stone, built this and even greater monuments across the whole land.
The Quoit would once have been hidden beneath a mound of earth and stone, of which traces are still visible, forming a ring about twenty feet in diameter. The stones at the entrance to the structure would have been left uncovered, forming a portal to the realm of the ancestors. The Quoit itself is walled with massive uprights, one of which has now fallen into the central chamber that would once have held the bones and cremation urns of our ancestors and theirs. who would act as intermediaries between this world and the Otherworld.
There are many similar dolmens, though this is one of the best in the area and has some rather curious features. Most obvious is the hole deliberately bored through the edge of the capstone. This would have been exposed and was probably used for marking an astronomical event, though without the rest of the monument… which may simply have been another stone or wooden posts, it is impossible to say for certain what it might have been.
Light was used to some effect in many of these ancient places, right across the world from Egyptian Temples to Newgrange in Ireland, marking the passage of the sun like a sundial, or illuminating significant features at astronomical high points of the year. Even now, in the ruined tomb, there is something in the fall of light between the stones that hints at secrets long-forgotten.
There are a series of cup marks carved on one of the stones…eroded now and faint. The uprights seem to be shaped like figures and forms, with faces revealing themselves as you spend time with the stones. One vast figure looks very like one of the moai of Easter Island.
Amongst these shapeshifting stones that would once have been seen only by the dead within the earthen mound, one stone stands out for its angular and smooth appearance, and that is the blocking stone at the entrance. It is a shape we have seen at many other sites…for there are a number of distinctively shaped stones seem to occur over and over again, right across the country and we wonder if there was a particular significance to their form.
Although the portal would have been kept free of earth, the entrance would have been blocked by this huge monolith, too large and too well placed to be easily moved. Perhaps it was not necessary to enter the resting place of the ancestral bones once enough had been laid there? Like charging a battery…
The blocking stone has a unique feature we have never seen before: a rectangular ‘door’ cut away at the bottom, into which another stone fits to seal it. Was it through here that entrance could be gained to lay bones in the tomb? Was this an exit for the spirits of the dead? Or an entrance for those who would keep vigil with the bones of history and knowledge?
Sadly, although its mysteries remain unsolved and its presence remains imposing, Trethevy Quoit is now on the Heritage at Risk register, as erosion, grazing livestock and housing just a few feet away undermine its stability. These houses of the dead are beautiful, magnificent and full of secrets we have yet to unlock. They were places where communities came together, not just for funerary rites, but for the celebrations of the year, where the ancestors were invited to be a part of both the present and the future, not just the past. I would like to think we could at least preserve their stones for our children and our children’s children.
Like an abandoned church, all you may see at first are the tumbled gravestones and the empty altar. Yet although the dead may be laid to rest within its walls, a church is a place for the living. So too are these ancient stones. A ruined church is a sad affair, its empty altar is lightless, its roof no longer echoes back the prayers of the faithful. Yet, spend time within its walls and the shadows begin to whisper, telling the story of its history and touching the heart of its purpose. These ancient stones still whisper too…
Toeing the Line
One of our main aims in taking the Cornwall trip, quite apart from the sheer beauty of the place and the fact that it is strewn with more ancient and sacred places than you could visit in a lifetime, had been to visit some of the sites on the Michael Line. The Line is a subject of much debate and is believed to be a ley… or an ancient trade-route, an earth energy current, a total fabrication, pure coincidence or a pilgrim route, depending upon your particular bias. About the only thing that can be said about it without argument is that it is a mystery.
The line runs from Carn Les Boel in the south westernmost part of Britain right across to Norfolk, on the east coast and is marked along its entire length by the presence of ancient sites. Some of these sites are archaeological treasures dating back to the earliest marks mankind made upon our landscape, others are relatively modern, and include medieval crosses, holy wells and churches a mere thousand years old. Such churches, though, were usually built on ancient sacred sites, so it is probably true to say that all the points thus marked were already held sacred by our early ancestors.
The name ‘Michael Line’ comes from the fact that many of the churches on this line are dedicated to St Michael… the beatified dragon-slaying archangel of Christian myth. Leys are often referred to as ‘dragon lines’ and it is the energy of the red and white dragons of old Albion that flows through the veins of our land. The symbolism of St Michael with his dragon and blade is something we see in many old churches. Often, the dragon is not being skewered by the saint, but simply subdued and held at the point of the weapon. One interpretation of this is that Christianity triumphs over evil… another, often seen by the ecclesiastical establishment as being the self-same thing, it that it triumphs over pagan belief. It is equally possible to interpret the image symbolically, and have the rule of Man claiming ‘dominion’ over the natural order of the earth… or of Man’s spiritual nature in complete control of the ‘lower’ instincts.
The other symbol often seen in St Michael’s hands is that of the Scales. We had seen his image holding the Balance only days before at Brentor, just an hour’s drive from the village of St Cleer, where we now found ourselves. We had no real intention of visiting St Cleer, but I happened to know it had an old church, and as Trethevy Quoit falls within the parish boundaries, it would have felt rude not to pay our respects.
St Cleer, however, is not on the Michael Line, but, as we later found, along with many of the other sites we had not intended to visit, it is on the Mary Line. So, for that matter, were Trethevy Quoit, Boscawen-Un and a few places that we were to visit on our way home. The Mary Line, marked by places named for Mary, the Christian embodiment of the Mother, follows the same principles as the Michael Line, but weaves its way sinuously around its masculine partner. It was something of a wry surprise to realise that we had been unconsciously ‘balancing the scales’ by following the meanderings of the ‘feminine’ counterpart of our ‘dragon-line’.
The church at St Cleer would have been well worth a detour, though, even without the silent promptings of impulse. It stands on a mound in the centre of the village… always a good sign… and is dedicated to St Clarus, a fairly obscure saint who came to the area to preach Christianity, but was obliged to flee to France. The reason for his flight runs along a theme common to many of the lesser-known saints, many of whom were probably Christianised versions of older local deities. In this case, however… and quite appropriately given our own dance with the masculine and feminine leys… the polarities were reversed and it was the gentleman who was obliged to remove himself after angering a local noblewoman by refusing her advances. This ‘impious and lewd lady’, rebuffed by the saint, set two ruffians to track him down. Following him to his hermitage at Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, they murdered him. As is usual in these particular tales, the saint was beheaded and later hailed as a martyr to chastity.
So, we had a church on a mound, a saint whose story conforms to one we hear over and over again, and it didn’t take us long to spot a carved Norman door on the north wall of the church. The north doors are often small and have frequently been blocked. These are the ‘devil’s doors’ where the evil banished by the rite of baptism could escape. We also found an ancient cross, typical of so many we had seen by the wayside throughout Cornwall. There was obviously a long history attached to this church.
There was a wooden church on the site twelve hundred years ago, but the first recorded mention of this building dates to 1212. In 1239, Ingebram de Bray, Lord of the manor of Roscraddock in St Cleer, gave the church to the Knights Hospitaller and it remained in their care until 1538. Much of the present building is original, although the tower was damaged and replaced five hundred years ago.
It is a big church… it looks like the kind of place the local gentry would have attended, with all the pomp and ceremony they expected of their position. This can be wonderful for churchaholics, leaving a rich legacy of art, craft and symbolism… especially in combination with the Knights’ involvement.
It can also be disastrous, for when ego holds the reins, heart and spirit can be drowned by a display of wealth and power. What would we find here? There was only one way to find out…
The Balance of Power…
The church in St Cleer may be dedicated to St Clarus, the missionary saint who fled to France to escape the importunate advances of an amorous noblewoman, but at first glance, that seemed to be one of the few nods that masculinity would get within its ancient walls. We did not know at the time that the village was on the Mary Line, the feminine counterpart of the St Michael ley, but we ought to have guessed, given the plethora of women that gazed at us from the stained glass, the carvings and the textiles.
Appropriately enough, it was a woman who greeted us as we entered, turning off the vacuum cleaner so that we could explore in peace, and sharing with us snippets of history and local knowledge, and directions to the holy well we wanted to visit before leaving the village.
If ever a church were to celebrate the Divine Feminine, this was how it could be done. Even the angels, which are technically genderless, looked feminine… even those that might have been intended to be male.
The church is bright and airy. Most of the windows are of largely plain glass, with inset panels depicting female saints and martyrs, accompanied by an angelic orchestra and angels bearing the symbols of sainthood and, for the Virgin Mother, the Crown of Heaven.
Some, like St Buryan, after whom a Cornish village was named, are ‘local’ saints, while others, like St Margaret of Antioch, with the dragon from whose belly she escaped, are better known. We found many of ‘our’ saints amongst those pictured, those whose names and stories crop up time and again in our research, including St Catherine with her wheel… who had been making her presence felt since our early morning ritual at the Silver Well in Cerne Abbas a few days earlier.
In the Lady Chapel, a statuette of the Holy Mother and Child is flanked by candles and the altar bears finely embroidered saints… Lucy, Agatha and Hilda of Whitby with her snakes. Behind a blue screen, you can still see the old aumbry, where the elements of Communion were kept and the piscina where any surplus holy water was given back to the stone.
The chancel floored in black and white marble… the chequerboard design common to so many temples of the Mysteries… has a more traditional window, by Clayton and Bell, showing scenes from Jesus’ life, including, appropriately enough, the raising of Jairus’ daughter. In the small lights above the main panels, we once again see the sword-wielding archangel, Michael, whose name asks a question, “who is like God?“
The most recent window was installed in 2014 and is the work of designer David Whittley , made by Alan Endacott. It was donated by British newscaster, Gordon Honeycombe, just prior to his death and celebrates three centuries of his family in Cornwall. It shows St Petroc, one of Cornwall’s patron saints and the ill-fated martyr, St Clarus, whose refusal of the noblewoman’s advances cost him his head.
A final traditional theme is the window showing Faith, Hope and Charity, personified as women. While they hold the Sacred Heart, the Chalice and the Palm, they do so beneath the gaze of the All-Seeing Eye. No surprise to see this and other Masonic symbols in a church of this standing…
Most of the magnificently carved woodwork is nineteenth century, including the wagon roof and altar screen. The beams are flanked by angels in the chancel, but I would have loved to have the time and equipment to photograph all the corbels and bosses.
At each intersection, there are carvings and some of them are very curious indeed, reminiscent of many of the misericords we have seen, as well as the medieval bosses found both in the great cathedrals and some of our small village churches.
Behind all this, the Norman font stands quietly in the west, still baptising the children of the village after eight hundred years. The font, with its intimate involvement in the lives of the people of the parish, is always a symbol of continuity to me and I am glad to see these survivors from an earlier age at the heart of a church. Many older fonts were lost, destroyed or buried throughout history, so to find them still in service, or restored to their rightful place, is a joy.
All in all, the church was a good one by our odd standards. Although local wealth was clearly displayed, especially in the very earliest and the Victorian additions, so was local care from the community. The woodwork gleams, the flowers are fresh and you can tell that the place still has a place within the life of the village.
It was interesting to see so many feminine forms throughout the church and even more so when we eventually realised the presence of the Mary Line in St Cleer. This concept of ‘masculine and feminine’ though is often misunderstood when being spoken of in symbolic terms. It does not refer to men and women… although that is one level on which it manifests. It refers to polarity and can take as many forms as there are polar opposites in form, force or function.
It is only when two forces are perfectly poised in ‘opposition’ that balance is achieved, and only when they are balanced can they join to create something new. The feminine force is receptive, the masculine force dynamic and while the outer form may suggest one of the poles, the inner force may be quite different… which is one of the reasons why, when the patriarchal view began to take precedence, the idea of the Divine Feminine was suppressed. It isn’t easy to run a patriarchy if everyone recognises the inner strength and dynamism of Woman.
Today the pendulum is beginning to swing in the opposite direction, with many embracing and promoting the Goddess in all Her forms and manifestations, with too many forgetting that the Divine Masculine is required in equal measure for Her to function at all. It is not surprising that a church held for centuries by the Knights Hospitaller should embrace a distinctly feminine iconography, for although they were Knights of St John, they held the Holy Mother in particular reverence. And perhaps, in embracing that balance of power, they showed a wisdom we would do well to follow.
For once we had the forethought to ask the lady in the church for directions to our next port of call… the Holy Well in St Cleer. After our almost accidental visit to the Holy Well at Madron that morning, we felt we should see this one… and we were later to learn that the Mary Line runs straight through the well and the cross that stands beside it.
There is no saying how long this particular well has been venerated. The Christian rite of baptism and the shift in allegiance for the healing properties of water were a natural progression for many ancient wells where pre-Christian reverence had long held sway. Offerings have been found at our holy springs and wells going back to the earliest times, and there are thought to be over six hundred known sites still in existence here and a number of them have yielded offerings linking them to the Celtic reverence for the severed head. It is interesting, in that case, to consider that we still use the term ‘well head’…
Researching St Cleer’s Well threw up some interesting snippets. It seems there is some debate about whether the village was named after St Clarus to whom the church is dedicated. Clarus’ Feast Day is November 4th, which is also the Feast of St. Clether, who is also known as Cleer and Clederus. St Clether was the son of King Brychan Brycheiniog, who ruled in south Wales and his brother was St Nectan, whose hermitage still exists, in one of the most magical and beautiful of glens, close to Tintagel, where King Arthur is said to have been born. Clether ruled the area around Nevern after his father’s death and fathered twenty sons. We had seen the memorial to Maelgwn, one of his sons… the Maglicu stone… when we had visited St Brynach’s church in Nevern. When St Brynach brought the early Christian message to his court, Clether abdicated and himself became a hermit. Perhaps St Clarus was not ‘St Cleer’ after all?
Then again, there is the possibility that the village was named for St Clare, the spiritual sister of St Francis of Assisi. She was the founder of the Poor Clares who had a religious house in the area to which the well may have belonged at some point. Most likely, though, is that the village was named after the Knight, Ingelram de Bray of St Clair sur Epte, who built the new church in the village in 1250 when he married the heiress of the Manor of Rosecraddoc. It was Ingleram who first built a housing for the Holy Well, which stood until it was destroyed during Cromwell’s war on idolatry almost four hundred years ago.
The well was in ruins and many tried to carry off its stones, but wherever they were moved, they were always restored overnight by some mysterious force, or so the story goes. It is well known that the fairies frequent these places and you do not want to anger the Fae!
In 1864, it was restored… without removing the stones… by one Henry Rogers as a memorial to his grandfather, Reverend John Jope, who had been vicar of the parish for sixty-seven years. His household staff remembered him too and local legend has it that they would never kill a spider as they believed the vicar’s spirit to be present within them!
What remains now is the restoration of a fifteenth century well-house with a cross from the same date standing beside it. There was once a cistern and bathing pool too, though of these there is now no trace. The waters were reputed to be able to cure the lame, the blind and the insane. Within the well-house was a ‘bowsening’ pool. The term is obscure but probably relates to a nautical term referring to pulling something up with a hoist or tackle, which gives a hint of how it might have been used…
An old account of bowsening at another sacred spring dedicated to a Christian saint tells of how the person suffering from insanity would be violently pushed into the water a number of times, until the cold and shock subdued them. They would then be taken to the church where Masses would be said for them. If a cure ensued, the saint under whose aegis this was performed would get the credit. If not… it was back to the pool, and this would continue until a cure was assured, or until the poor lunatic died of his ordeal.
Thankfully, the pool was covered during its restoration and only relatively recently partially reopened. It is now kept covered by a metal grille, through which the clear water can be seen… at any time when the country is not suffering a drought. There was very little moisture in evidence when we visited, for which we are grateful as it means that our particular form of lunacy could not be cured…
Second Time Lucky…
Three days and countless ancient places earlier, our attempts to visit the Cheesewring with Alethea and Larissa had been thwarted by the roiling mists of Bodmin Moor. Mists or not, we were determined to try again on our way home, so once again we found ourselves walking through the triple stone circles of the Hurlers.
This time it was sunny and there were people wandering the stones with us… lots of them. There is much to be said for choosing a day of poor weather when visiting ancient sites. It is not that we object to sharing them but it is much harder to get to the heart of a place when it is full of visitors. It is also unpleasant to see how some… a very few… treat these important parts of our heritage. We view them as the sacred places they were to those who built them and accord them the reverence and respect we would accord to any place of worship, ancient or modern. We do not always have to share a faith to recognise that, at its heart, when humanity turns its face to the stars we are seeing the same Light.
So, leaving the stones and its visitors behind, we passed through with a moment’s acknowledgement of their presence and headed for the Cheesewring, a precarious pile of rock named for its resemblance to an old type of cheese press. It stands at the centre of a once-inhabited landscape and would doubtless have been revered for the spirit of the stone. The formation, over thirty feet high, is natural, carved by thousands of years of weathering… or so the prosaically-minded will tell you. Others will recount how the rocks were piled during a wager between a giant and a saint.
The Giants of Cornwall were unhappy. Christianity had come to the land and the saints were taking over their holy wells and sacred hills. One of the biggest Giants was Uther (who just happens to share his name with King Arthur’s father… but I digress…). Uther was not only the strongest of the Giants, but also amongst the cleverest and he was chosen to represent the Giants’ cause and get rid of the encroaching saints.
He went to Saint Tue, a frail, ascetic man who fasted much and proposed a rock-throwing contest, to which the saint agreed. If the Giant won, the saints would leave the land, returning the holy wells and their offerings to their rightful owners. If the saint won, the Giants would accept the new faith. Uther threw the first stone, a huge boulder which landed on the summit of Stowe Hill. Tue looked at the stones and, his heart full of prayer, lifted lightly a great rock and hurled it at the hill.
Time after time the two contended, until they each had a pile of rocks twelve boulders high, perfectly poised, one atop the other. When Uther hurled the thirteenth rock it missed his pile and rolled down the hill. Tue hefted the final stone, praying with all his might… and an angel carried it to the top of the pile. The Giants had lost and were converted to Christianity and the face of the West Country changed forever. But atop Stowe’s Hill, the stack of boulders remains, still perfectly balanced.
But was it the saint’s or the Giant’s stack that was left standing? Either way, the topmost stone is said to turn three times around when it hears a cock crow, which does bear some relationship to the Biblical story of Peter’s denial… and Peter was the “rock”. On the other hand, the antiquarian, Borlase, recorded that even until relatively recent times, “the vulgar used to resort to this place at particular times of the year, and payed to this stone more respect than was thought becoming of good Christians”.
Giants were not the only problem, though, according to the legends, for the Druids too were not all happy at how the new religion that was sweeping through the land. Beyond the stack of stones is the Druid’s Chair, and the tales tell that whoever sits in that chair will become a poet or a lunatic. The Chair belonged to a Druid who owned a golden cup that never ran dry. Perhaps it is he who was buried in the Rillaton round barrow? Although the golden cup found in the barrow predates Christianity by nearly two thousand years and the barrow by almost as much… But then, what is a mere matter of time to a Druid?
Legends aside, there is enough to occupy the attention on Stowe’s Hill. Half of the hill… and who knows how much archaeology… was eaten away by quarrying. The quarry has its own history, having supplied the limestone cladding for another British icon… Tower Bridge in London. The Cheesewring and the other monuments above the quarry were mere feet away from being destroyed by the ongoing harvesting of stone, until, in the nineteenth century, public outcry and the Duchy of Cornwall put a stop to it. Today, just a couple of feet of earth and stone, and a few strands of barbed wire, separate the Cheesewring from the edge.
While the summit of Stowe’s Hill is crowned with naturally weathered boulders, neatly, if precariously, stacked, that is not all that needs protecting. The hill is ringed with two enormous dry stone walls that form a Neolithic or Bronze Age tor enclosure. The smaller rings the outcrop at the southern end of the hill while the larger one surrounds the rest of the ridge.
Within its boundaries are one or two important structures that were totally ignored when the blasting started at the quarry. Just the odd stone roundhouse, two Bronze Age cairns… and the small matter of a hundred house platforms, all dating back four thousand years or more. But there was a time, not so very long ago, that the old stones of our collective heritage were not seen to matter or to have any bearing on modern life.
Even now our heritage is constantly under threat, although we are generally pretty good at preserving the past… especially at sites where there might be money to be made, or is that too cynical? Oswestry hillfort was fighting for its life recently as housing developers tried to build beneath it, destroying the wider landscape which is an integral part of the site. Mere minutes from my home, the site of Sir Henry Lee’s Manor has been buried under a housing estate. Sir Henry was a prominent figure at Queen Elizabeth I’s court and her Champion. A mile further along, the site of the Battle of Holman’s Bridge now lies beneath another housing estate, at a spot where five hundred and ninety men died when Prince Rupert of the Rhine was defeated by Cromwell’s Parliamentarians in 1642. The landscape of Stonehenge is under threat from unsympathetic planners and a five and a half thousand year old barrow cemetery, containing forty-one burials of ‘national importance’ is now buried beneath the playground of a new school at Bicester.
Britain is incredibly rich in ancient remains, with over a thousand known stone circles, let alone the wealth of other monuments dating back to the beginnings of mankind’s story in these isles. The complexity and construction of many of these sites gives the lie to the old supposition that our ancestors were primitive. It would have taken a community working together with a common goal and common beliefs to build these places… and many show that those beliefs were rich, complex and encompassed a knowledge of land, stars and psychology that we would never have guessed without studying these sites.
This is our history… and part of the greater story of the human race. We have barely begun to scratch the surface of understanding, and yet, in all too many places, monuments go unprotected, preserved only by the goodwill of the landowners and farmers on whose land they stand. Arbor Low, the ‘Stonehenge of the North’, is on private land and well cared for, but that is not always the case and we know of at least one stone circle where the farmer’s views destroyed the site utterly.
When we walk amongst the old stones and carved earth we do so with reverence. Not only because many of these places were held sacred by their builders, for many are no more than domestic hearths and homes, waymarkers and the last vestiges of early agriculture… but because they hold the keys to understanding great chapters of the human story. Thus, they are part of my life and yours… and a little respect is the least we can offer.
By writing about these places and sharing the legends, folklore and myths they have engendered over the centuries, we stand in awe of mystery. How did the story of the Druid’s golden cup survive for four thousand years in the folk tales of Bodmin Moor? A cup that was found in a barrow not far from the village where the story is told. Somehow, memory survived… what else do we still have to learn and uncover that may shed light on who we are and where we have come from? And what will we lose if these sites are lost to future generations….
An Unexpected Encounter…
We took to the backroads again, nodding to Drake’s statue as we passed through Tavistock once more, climbing up towards Dartmoor. On our way south, the mists had closed around us completely and we had seen little more of the wild beauty of the moors than the first few yards and the tarmac in front of the car. This time, the skies were clear, and the few miles over the moor looked like taking a while, as I could not resist stopping at almost every possible place.
Dartmoor is an ancient and unspoiled landscape. Once, long, long ago, it was forested, but our early ancestors began creating clearings to attract game. That worked so well they no longer needed to follow the herds, but settled down, forming the communities that left behind them a landscape rich in archaeology. A landscape we would not have time to explore on this trip, sadly.
Rocky tors crown the peaks where heather, gorse, and bracken rule over almost three hundred and seventy square miles of moorland. There are innumerable stone circles, settlements, cists, cairns, standing stones and stone rows… I think you could spend a lifetime up on the moor and never fail to marvel at the richness of its history or its bleak beauty. And if the archaeology were not enough, there are many legends and old stories to explore, from the Hairy Hands that grab a driver’s wheel, to tales of piskies for whom saucers of cream are still left at the door, black dogs, strange beasts and the occasional ghost.
And then there are the ponies. The pure-bred Dartmoor pony is now rare, with only a few hundred on the moor, where once there were thousands. The decline of the tin mines and the advent of mechanisation meant that the hardy, gentle ponies with their thick winter coats were no longer an economic necessity. The few that remain are kept in enclosed areas to prevent interbreeding with the semi-feral hill ponies that wander freely over the moor. It is these that the visitor is most likely to see and, thoroughbred or not, they are a delight. We were lucky to see many mares with tiny foals, some finding their feet and exploring, others just resting amongst the grass and wildflowers.
The relationship of man with these beautiful creatures can be traced back at least three and a half thousand years and their bones have been found in tombs on the moor. There is no way of knowing, without evidence, just how long ago man and horse began their symbiotic relationship, but one of the earliest artworks that remains in Britain, dating back around twelve and a half thousand years, is a carving of a horse that we had seen at Cresswell Crags, far away in the north. The ponies continue to play a critical part in the ecology of the moors, trampling down gorse and bracken, and at least one species of butterfly is wholly dependant upon their presence.
During daylight hours, the ponies wander close to the road, knowing full well that tourists are always good for a snack, even though it is forbidden to feed them. Stop the car to take photographs and you will not leave without encountering one of these friendly and curious animals who know nothing of the law and a good deal about how to convince tourists that they really need that illegal snack.
Sadly, though, the need for speed kills around a hundred and fifty animals on the moor every year. The open roads are too much of a temptation for ‘boy racers’ of any age or gender. Garden waste dumped by the side of the road poisons horses and money kills many more. The market for Dartmoor ponies is poor, with foals not even selling at market for £10… so foals are shot and sold to zoos as lion meat. Many of the farmers who keep Dartmoor ponies do so at great cost to themselves and various bodies are doing all they can to preserve and encourage the survival of the breed, including a controversial attempt to create a market for pony meat in restaurants. The hope is that if farmers can sell three-year-old ponies for the table, at least the foals will not be shot at birth, and the income would ensure their survival. That after thousands of years of living and working with these gorgeous creatures their survival depends on whether or not we care to eat them seems an appalling indictment of our society. Surely their presence in our lives and lands is worth more than that?
We were nearing the end of the road across Dartmoor and it was definitely time for refreshments. This was handy, as I wanted to stop anyway… and we could not leave Devon without at least one cream tea, even if we were only passing through and it was only mid-afternoon. Luckily, I knew just the place. Not only would there be scones with jam, cream and a nice pot of tea, but there just happened to be a couple of things I wanted to photograph.
Postbridge is situated where the road across Dartmoor crosses the East Dart River. The water flows dark and golden from the moor where it rises near Whitehorse Hill, tumbling over boulders or smooth as silk in quiet pools. Not all is as tranquil as it seems, though, for it is here that you are most likely to encounter the ghostly Hairy Hands grabbing your wheel as you drive across the moor.
Not far away too, there is the tragic grave of Kitty Jay, a pregnant mother rejected by her lover around three hundred years ago. In despair, she took her own life and was buried at the crossroads. This was the custom for suicides, so that their ghost would be confused, unable to find their way home and thus unable to trouble the living. Every morning there are fresh flowers to be found on her grave, though no-one knows who puts them there. Locals say it is the piskies…
At Postbridge, there are two bridges by which you can cross the river. The first carries the modern road and its three granite arches have spanned the waters since 1780. Alone, it would be beautiful, with the river tumbling through the stones beneath it, its banks full of wildflowers and sparkling with damselflies, but it is not alone.
A few yards downstream is the famous clapper bridge. This one must have been hair-raising to cross of a dark and moonless night. Clapper bridges were often placed close to a ford where carriages and carts could cross the stream while the feet of men and packhorses could remain dry.
They are built as a series of stone piers upon which huge slabs of stone are set. Some clapper bridges may date back as far as the Stone Age, though most are medieval. This one is only around eight hundred years old and is still in use today. So much so that getting any photo of it without a constant stream of people was nigh on impossible…
Postbridge also houses a Visitor Centre and is a popular place for people wishing to explore Dartmoor and nearby Bellever Forest. The downside of this is that it is unlikely you will be able to sit in quiet contemplation by the river when visitors are arriving by the coachload. We withdrew to the back garden of the pub and watched the bees and dragonflies as we refuelled for the last leg of the day’s journey.
We still had a hundred miles to drive to our hotel for the last night of the trip. We were determined to get a good bit closer to our destination before we stopped again. But I was already missing being close to the sea…
Dog-sick with Ice Cream
By late afternoon I was flagging. We had been on the road for a mere six days, and although we never rush and we always take our time at each of the sites we visit, we don’t stop either. It is easy to drive the short hops between sites, staying alert for obscure turnings, the perils of road-hogging sheep and lanes so narrow the hedges either side brush the car doors. But, after a few days, the longer stretches get tiring unless you are planning on stopping along the way, for that breaks the journey into bite-sized pieces and gives you a chance to stretch your legs.
My navigator keeps an eye on me though. “Fancy an ice-cream?” he said, casting a critical eye over his driver. Well, as it was rush hour and the roads were busy, and as the sea was only two or three miles to my right, that seemed like an excellent idea. He found me a seaside town where there was not only bound to be ice-cream, but also a last look at the sea.
I was born in an inland city and have lived away from the sea all my life. Distance is relative and what seems like an impossible distance to someone from a small country may be a daily commute for someone born in a land as big as the States. For all that Britain is an island, and a fairly small one at that, trips to the coast were rare and therefore special. I think that inland-dwellers tend to forget that we are islanders at heart, but the rhythms of the sea still sing in our blood and the sea calls to something that is buried deep within body and soul.
So, we drove into the little town of Seaton in South Devon and headed for the shore. The cliffs of the Jurassic Coast encircle a bay of deepest sapphire. The shingle beach was almost deserted as we sat with our ice-creams beside the sea. Watching the bathers, you could see how steeply the beach falls away at the waterline… no place for small children to paddle, perhaps, but I was sorely tempted, and had I packed a swimsuit, would have been in there like a shot.
Instead, I watched an old lady and her elderly dog… a joyful and strangely familiar dog, with a passion for tennis balls. We cannot bring Ani on these trips when they begin with a workshop, but I couldn’t help thinking how much she would have loved to be frolicking in the water and chasing her ball. After a week away, I was not homesick in the slightest, but I was missing my Ani.
Time was getting on and with still another fifty miles to go, we did not linger for long. Uncertain of what would be available in the village inn where we were staying, we decided to stop in Dorchester for something quick to eat and chose to return to the place where we had eaten with the girls at the end of the workshop weekend. They would have a light snack… or so we thought. They also do a wonderful elderflower cider… But apparently, Thursday nights they do a unique take on one of my very favourite meals… raclette. The whole central island counter is covered with dishes containing salads, pickles, olives and charcuterie with which to stack your plate. The chef melts mounds of a local Dorset cheese over the lot and me? I was in heaven. (Thank you Alethea, Larissa and Helen for introducing us to the place!)
Just a few more country lanes, a few more places where ‘if only we had time’, and we arrived at our destination, the aptly named Fox Inn. We had pretty much come full circle and were once again in a village close to Cerne Abbas. The adventure was almost over… all we had to do was go home. We were unlikely to find anything else on the way, though we did intend stopping at a couple of familiar places. But then again, you just never know what surprises a day is going to offer…
The Smallest of Churches
We were up bright and early for the final day of our journey home. We drove once more to Cerne Abbas, finding the village almost deserted and the church just being opened by the old gentleman who is the Keeper of the Key. We wanted to go in and get all the photographs we had not taken on our previous visit, as we had been talking to the Ikon painter, Ikon John. The old gentleman insisted on sharing some local history with us and showed us a couple of things we would never have noticed, like a date carved into a wall outside the church. John Coleman, the icon painter, had told us of another church we now wanted to visit, not far away, and this was to be our next port of call.
The church of St Edwold, he had told us, is a chapel at Stockwood, ‘just up the road’. It is a redundant church where regular services are no longer held, but which is still a consecrated place, cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust. It proved to be a little tricky to find as it is so small that it is hidden behind a tree in what appears to be someone’s garden. It is also surrounded by a stream and can only be accessed via a tiny stone bridge.
The church is a single-celled building, a mere thirty by twelve feet, topped, incongruously, with a seventeenth century bellcote supported on four pillars and sporting a grotesque mask. This and a handful of gravestones beneath an old yew are the only clue to its presence.
Our reason for visiting was simple… John had told us the story of St Edwold, a member of the Royal House of Mercia who had chosen to become a hermit and found his way to Cerne, long before it became Cerne Abbas. The story told locally says that he was the one for whom the Silver Well was named, when he gave a silver coin to the shepherds by the spring. He lived in harmony with the wild things, over a thousand years ago, long before St Francis of Assisi came to fame for preaching to the birds.
We were told that Edwold had a hermit’s cell at Stockwood but also lived by the Silver Well in Cerne and was much beloved by the local people. After his death, his relics were preserved and were eventually laid to rest in the Abbey Church, now the church of Cerne Abbas. Pilgrims came from far and wide in reverence, but the bones came under threat when the Dane, Canute, plundered the monastery in the eleventh century.
The devout monks removed the relics and they were hidden until the threat had passed. Canute became a benefactor of the monastery, but Edwold’s bones were buried in secret beneath his old hermitage at Stockwood.
So, although the current building dates only to the fifteenth century, and was restored and the bellcote added in 1636, it seems likely that there was a holy place here since the ninth century. As a side note, or so John told us, during renovation work, bones had been found buried beneath the church… and John should know. He had obviously done his research…
What remains is the simplest and most delightful of churches, with absolutely no frills or furbelows. There is a nineteenth century font, a bible marked at the Magdalene’s meeting with Christ at the tomb, an embroidered cross of the type used by the Knights Hospitaller and the traces of pilgrims honouring the saint for hundreds of years.
There is a simplicity and quiet peace to the place that makes you want to stay a while in a silence broken only by the whispering of leaves and the song of birds. It is a perfect place for contemplation and you can see why a hermit would have chosen this spot. Our thanks must go to John Coleman for telling us its story. Without him we would have missed this tiny church.
The Knights Come Down to Drink…
We had already been sidetracked by St Edwold’s tiny church, but we were definitely on our way home now. Except, we thought that as we were passing, it would be a pity not to visit the little village of Sutton Montis, the place where the ghostly knights that sleep beneath Cadbury Castle are said to bring their horses to drink. We had tried to visit on the first day of the workshop and taken a wrong turn somewhere. Perhaps we would have better luck this time.
So, sticking to the backroads as usual, we drove through the English countryside at its best. Small villages bedecked with flowers, vast swathes of vivid green against old, golden stone, tumbles of roses… and every so often, places we really wished we could have stopped.
The one place we had to pull over was the crossroads at Leigh, where an ancient carved cross stands on its steps, guarding the way. In 1905, the Reverend Dicker, Vicar of Piddletrenthide, wrote an account of the eight-hundred-year-old cross and from this we know that on two sides the carvings represented St. Christopher carrying the Christ and St. Michael slaying the dragon… two images that seem to follow us around.
Resisting the temptation to go in search of Leigh’s church, we continued to Sutton Montis and found the church where the spring is supposed to be, where Arthur and his knights water their horses.
There was a beautiful old yew that refused to be properly photographed, but there was no sign of the spring… perhaps the drought was to blame. But the church was intriguing. It was also, much to our disappointment, locked, which was a shame for the building has Saxon origins and these very old churches often contain real treasures.
The present church is largely twelfth century, with the usual later additions and Victorian restorations. A rather incongruous portico has been added in lieu of the traditional porch, beside which stands an old stone bowl, which might once have been a holy water stoup, but now lies forlorn and forgotten.
The windows were intriguing, from what little we could see from outside. It is always frustrating to get these exterior glimpses and be unable to get a proper look…
The east window, over the altar, is modern and, was one of John Hayward’s final works. The artist kept and incorporated fragments of ancient glass, including the circular fragment which contains the image of a crown. It also seemed to contain some interesting features, like a constellation of stars and geometries.
Oddly enough, the tracery of one of the chancel windows contained a hexagram… which would have been a perfect introduction to the workshop, had we found it that first day.
There was only one thing for it; where there is a square of clear-ish glass, the camera can work wonders. Sure enough, there were windows whose stories were unusual… especially that east window.
I also managed to get an interior shot that showed the carvings on the Norman chancel arch, but I could get little else. Perhaps we had seen all we were supposed to see here? That is often the feeling we get when denied full access and we have learned to accept it.
Still, beyond the seventeenth century barn at Parsonage Farm, there was something else to see… and a little further down the road too, where we got a wonderful view of Cadbury Castle.
It was the perfect farewell as we said our goodbyes to Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset… and headed off towards Wiltshire. We were never going to make it through Wiltshire without stopping… especially as the pub at Avebury would be open for lunch by the time we got there…
Somewhere Old, Something New…
Instead of driving to the Red Lion as is our ‘tradition’ when coming back from these research trips via Avebury, we decided, for a change, to stop at the pub on the outskirts of the great monument. There was no reason for this particularly, we just thought that we should. And anyway, there is a rather cheerful stone outside the pub that welcomes you and invites you in. It may or may not be ‘original’, but it is not out of place in this landscape. As it was a hot and sunny day, we took our drinks out into the garden of this thatched, seventeenth century inn.
Watching a dog-walker disappear into the bushes, we realised there was a hitherto unsuspected footpath, so, when we had finished our drinks, we decided to have a wander and stretch our legs. We were immediately swallowed by a wormhole that led to wonders…
I have written so often about Silbury Hill, the largest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe, that it must be familiar to many regular readers as it is to us…. We always stop there to pay our respects when we pass. But we had never seen it quite like this before, floating above a sea of pure white flowers. The mound, said by some to be a representation of the gravid belly of the Mother, looked like it was dressed for a bridal.
One of the curious things about this deliberately flat-topped hill is how it can hide in the landscape. The summit is exactly the right height to remain unseen against the horizon from almost every angle except the ceremonial places and processional ways… and for a people with such skill, this can hardly be accidental. From our wormhole, we had the perfect angle to see the hill line up with the horizon and I rather think I would like to spend a week or two at the numerous significant sites at Avebury checking exactly where else you could see it do this…
Elated by the gift of such beauty, we continued walking the wormhole, emerging onto the lane that runs into Avebury and right through the great stone circle. As we had never found ourselves on foot at this point of the vast site, we decided to carry on and see if we could get a shot of the two small stones we generally only see from the road.
The stones are known as the Longstones and individually as Adam and Eve. Adam, the larger of the two, once formed part of a Cove…a five stone enclosure, while Eve was part of the Beckhampton Avenue… an avenue of twinned stones that formed a processional way between the cove and the main circle. At the far end stands the Sanctuary, with West Kennet Long Barrow close by, at this end, there was a cove and another long barrow.
This cove was formed of five tightly spaced stones, open towards South Street Barrow. A cremation burial was found at the cove, but excavations showed no signs of any burials beneath the barrow, which, unlike other similar structures, had been built around wicker partitions using alternate layers of white chalk and darker earth.
Stewkley’s famous drawing shows the circles of Avebury before landowners robbed the stones for building materials, broke or buried them, and show how it formed the body, elongated neck and tail of a dragon. Not inappropriate for our trip, as Avebury, and specifically the cove, are a place where the Michael and Mary lines come together in a node.
We decided to see if we could find a path to these stones… we had never visited them as we had always been in the car at this point when visiting Avebury. We were not hopeful, but we knew there was a track of some sort and perhaps we could get closer. We did not expect to get this close… or to find what we found!
A field of wildflowers, alive with butterflies, moths and small creatures surround the two stones. “It’s a horse!” The stones were not small at all, they were huge, and Adam looked very like the carvings of the bridled horse that we see on the more ancient churches across the land.
“No, it’s a cow.” Sure enough, from another angle, the stone morphed into this sacred beast… for surely both horse and cow would have been of great importance to our ancestors. Curious that Stuart should have seen the feminine symbolism and I the masculine at this crossing point of the Michael and Mary lines.
“It’s a spirit stone!” There was no other word for it… the perception of the stone constantly morphed, taking first one form, then another, as the eye alighted on shapes, figures and faces. We have seen this so often now at ancient sites that we are sure the choice of stone was deliberate for a people to whom animism was a way of life.
Eve was the same, though her spirit showed great faces watching over the landscape, as well as amorphous figures that seemed to portray every emotion. By this time, we were just lost in wonder and spent a while laying by Adam surrounded by wildflowers.
Even knowing that we had a long way still to go and another ‘courtesy call’ to make, we were reluctant to leave, but, if we had found our way to the stones, maybe the barrow too would be accessible?
And so it proved. Driving into and beyond Avebury, we had been seeing the long barrow for years, every time we had gone round the roundabout. From the road it looks as if it is on private land and cannot be accessed. But, from the Longstones, it can… and we were jubilant. There may not be much to see… no entrance, no chamber… in fact, to most it would be no more than it is… just a mound of earth and chalk, crowned with flowers. To us it was another gift… and just for those we had received at Avebury alone, we felt we must have been doing something right over the past few days…
The Horse and the Crop Circle…
As we drove through Avebury to our next destination, we were more than glad that we had been prompted to stop at the Waggon and Horses instead of our usual port of call. The Red Lion, crammed full of people, was ringed about and protected by metal grilles. It had not even occurred to us that the summer solstice celebrations would be having that level of effect on the tiny village that is encircled by the stones.
Hundreds of people descend on the stones to watch the solstice sunrise, the party lasts all night and there is music, dancing and rituals of all kinds. The atmosphere is reportedly good there, but it is for this very reason that we try to schedule our events for a weekend close to, but not on the solstice or equinox. We did not stop… it was too busy. We know the henge and circles well and we had already been granted an amazing gift that day in a place we thought we knew. But there is always more to see and discover and we have yet to spend a night amongst the stones…
Instead we drove through, heading for Hackpen Hill, where a white horse graces the hillside… though this time, we were not on an equine quest. The Hackpen Horse is a modern creation, ninety feet long and was cut by a parish clerk, Henry Eatwell, in 1838 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Victoria, with the help of a local pub landlord. It is possible that they simply recut an older figure, though no evidence remains if that is the case.
There is a good bit of lore here though. A field of sarsen stones close by may have provided some of the stones for both Avebury and Stonehenge. The prehistoric track now known as the Ridgeway runs just behind the horse… and if you are walking there, it is as well to beware of fairies:
“That the Fairies would steale away young children and putt others in their places; verily believed by old woemen of those dayes: and by some yet living.
Some were led away by the Fairies, as was a Hind riding upon Hakpen with corne, led a dance to ye Devises. So was a shepherd of Mr. Brown, of Winterburn-Basset: but never any afterwards enjoy themselves. He sayd that ye ground opened, and he was brought into strange places underground, where they used musicall Instruments, violls, and Lutes, such (he sayd) as Mr. Thomas did play on.”
From Remains of Gentilisme and Judaisme by John Aubrey (1686-7), edited by James Britten and published 1881.
We had visited the Horse before, finding some really good stones in the area too. Sadly, we had not been carried off by the Fae, which is rather a shame… we have a few questions we would like to ask them…
This time we had come for the crop circle. We didn’t want to go in it… just to see it and, perhaps, get a photograph or two for Alethea, Larissa and Helen. We rather hoped that we would get a decent view from high up on the chalk ridge, as the pattern once again reminded us of some of the work we had been doing the previous weekend. The angle was wrong, though… we tried from the Ridgeway and from the Horse, we even considered climbing trees… but we could not get a good shot. And, just a few weeks later, another circle went down in the next field.
There is so much controversy and so many differing opinions on the origins and purposes of these patterns in the landscape. From farmers making a pound or two in entrance fees, to sheer artistry or hoaxers, from aliens, secret technology to earth energies. There are accounts of what may be crop circles going back hundreds of years, and yet no definite account before the past few decades.
The geometries are complex, the construction not easy. If they are made by human hands, perhaps their makers are responding to something they feel in the land… geometric forms are symbols that can communicate something beyond their basic shape and who knows where the inspiration for any artistry comes from? Aliens have been credited with making these circles and what are aliens, when all is said and done? Perhaps they are simply the technological age’s way of interpreting an unknown something that would once have been regarded as the Fae?
But, let’s face it, talking about either aliens or fairies in this day and age is likely to have people shaking their heads and looking askance. I think we have to define our terms a little more precisely and be aware that what we attribute to the actions of creatures falling under either definition may simply be the brain trying to find an image and a word for something beyond our knowledge so that it fits logically within the realms of our experience.
As far as I am concerned, the jury remains out on crop circles. I am open to any kind of evidence and am inclined to withhold belief until something convinces me otherwise. The mathematical probability of the existence of alien civilisations has been proven, though whether they are hanging out in our corner of the galaxy remains to be seen. Of the existence of the Fae, I have only personal experience to go on… and I would not speak of fairies, a name that conjures up images of little winged cuties, I might speak of nature spirits though, and Nature is not always cute. Of the earth’s own energies there can be little doubt, though the nature of those energies is yet another debate… But we had simply come for a photograph. And then we were on the final stretch… taking the backroads to Swindon, stopping at The Plough for a very late lunch or a very early dinner… then on to Uffington…
Back to the Future…
We went back once more to where it all began. Paying our respects to Dragon Hill, the ancient White Horse and the hillfort known as Uffington Castle, we left the car and the world behind and walked to Wayland’s Smithy.
I have written so often of this place, we had been here just a couple of weeks earlier with our friend, Gary Vasey, but it is a place of which I could never tire. Not only for the wonderful long barrow and its standing stones, or the beautiful glade and peaceful setting, but for the affirmation that we did indeed find a path on our very first visit together, and have stayed on it ever since, even though it took us a while to realise what was happening.
For that I am grateful. We have had the most wonderful adventures over the past five years, both within the work of the Silent Eye and through our own exploration of the ancient and sacred landscape of these isles. It is a path I hope to follow until my feet will carry me no further; a path that has brought me nothing but joy.
After a week in the land, our eyes, and perhaps more than that, were attuned to the stones. They were alive in some indefinable way and the faces and figures within them danced for us… or with us. At one with their beauty and with the inner life of the land, we saw the entrance to the inner chamber lit golden by the sun, a fleeting reminder of the magical lightshow we had witnessed at Bryn Celli Ddu.
We had nothing to do, no purpose except love, no need except presence, touched by the benediction of the spirit of the place. Although we were reluctant for the journey to end, it was the perfect way for this chapter to close, knowing that a new one would begin. As we left, even the stones were smiling…