Why do we always seem to head north in dodgy weather? It was in January 2015 that Stuart and I had set off Discovering Albion on a fabulous journey through the landscape. On the way home, we had chosen to spend the day ‘marooned’ on Holy Island while the tide flooded the causeway and cut us off from the mainland.
It would be three years later before we would pass that way again when, with Steve and some of our companions from the Silent Eye, we would spend a weekend workshop exploring the castles that line that particular coastline… and, inevitably, being sidetracked by everything from standing stones to saints.
As the end of that weekend saw us once more on Holy Island, where we were gifted with both the song of the mermaids and an unexpected meeting with the ancestors, I thought this journey, which adds an extra dimension to the one I have just finished sharing, might be the best one to share next as we continue to be stuck in lockdown and unable to travel in person…
North Easterly ~ A Journey Through Northumbria
We were heading for the Castles of the Mind weekend, so time placed a curtain wall around our freedom to meander. For once, therefore, we behaved, managing to resist all temptation to stop and visit places along the road as we made our way northwards. Our destination was Bamburgh and we had to arrive in time for tea. That we arrived early enough to book in to our accommodation and check out two churches before the meeting was our reward for not straying from the road.
The route we had taken was circuitous, avoiding the rush-hour traffic by the simple expedient of going south in order to head north on calmer routes. Thus, the symbolism of the weekend began early, because although the more direct route would undoubtedly have been quicker, we would have arrived bored by motorways and stressed by traffic, where instead we learned something about the land, found new places to explore and arrived eager to greet our friends, who had travelled from across the country and from the Czech Republic for the weekend. The straight road is not always the best from which to learn.
We would begin with a cream tea and a walk on the beach below Bamburgh’s iconic castle, where Steve would introduce us to some of the concepts he wanted to explore during the course of the weekend, using the symbolism of the castle to illustrate the workings of the ego.
No-one really knows how long there has been a fortress on the site, or whether the striking outcrop on the shore began its life as something other than a defensive bastion. What is known is that it was once a place of the Brittonic Celts, who called it Din Guarie, as early as 420AD. It has been an Anglo Saxon palace, a Norman stronghold and seat of rebellion and is now a private home partly open to the public. The castle has seen many changes over the years, but it still imposes its presence upon the landscape.
Castles are strange, contradictory things, when you think about it. They fulfil many functions, from keeping goods and people sheltered within the safety of their walls, to defending against attack, whilst being themselves both bases for armies and for ruling the surrounding land with the proverbial iron fist. They may epitomise strength, will and power, yet they are also rigid, limited and vulnerable. Under attack they may be broken, under siege they will fall to starvation, flame, or fear. The encircling wall which holds everything within it in safety is also its own boundary, through which both ingress and egress are carefully controlled. The bars of the portcullis can keep people in as well shutting them out.
We stood on the outside, looking in. The gates were closed against us and, in a perfect illustration, we were denied its sanctuary as a sudden squall battered us with wind and rain. Surrounded by the elemental forces of the water and air, it would have been easy to choose a retreat, seeking the shelter of stone walls and firesides.
But the rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and, after all, only we were wet. The sand still held the warmth of the day, the air still retained a memory of summer and the sea had not quite reached its truly northern chill. Closer to the waves, the sand already held more water than the clouds and the footprints it held told their own story. I was surprised by how many were booted, feet encased in miniature ‘castles’, isolated from the earth. It is undoubtedly a hassle to remove and carry boots and socks, then have to remove the pervasive sand from between the toes, but a few had done so and the very human prints ran with those of the dogs who bounded joyfully across the beach.
Already as wet from the rain as I was likely to get, with the sand soft between my toes, I walked along the edge of the waterline. It is a strange sensation, walking thus in silence with the susurration of the sea drowning all other sound. On one side, the waves roll in, in constant, repetitive motion, yet with each wave unique in form, force and sound. On the other side, the beached water rolls out to sea, levelling the sand as it passes, erasing all trace of what has gone before. You walk the path of balance, poised between the ebb and flow, a fragile creature, able to move forward in face of the elements, isolated by their song, yet part of the dance.
The sea too has its power and its will, the strength to erode the foundations of a castle, and the freedom of fluidity. Bounded only by the shores it creates, water rises to form clouds that travel overland and beyond the ocean’s visible limits. Even so, it is vulnerable and suffers at the hand of Man. It may protect its creatures, but it is dangerous, and like the lords of the castle, must be treated with respect.
Walking the shore, with the castle behind me, I would rather be at one with the sea than the fortress, yet both are neither more, nor less, than what they are, their form and function intimately linked and both serve their purpose. The real question, perhaps, is do I want to remain within the apparent security of the walls of my own nature or take my chances with a wider landscape of adventure… Perhaps the path between is the wisest place to walk.
Sidetracked by Poppies…
We had arrived in the north, checked in at our accommodation, and, after a coffee, as we still had a couple of hours to spare before we were all to meet, we decided to stretch our legs and explore a little of the village where we were staying. The pub in Beadnell, The Craster Arms, would have to be visited at some point, especially as it is housed in a sixteenth-century pele tower, whose five-feet-thick walls were designed for the watch tower to warn of approaching danger, and as a refuge when it arrived.
With the Walk and Talk weekend still ahead, though, we stayed clear of the inn; these things need to be approached with an unclouded mind. Instead, we admired the cottages and old manor houses as we headed for the rather unusual church. The tower alone was worth a look, sporting, as it does, an octagonal pierced stone screen at the base of the spire. But what struck us most was the arch of the door that was decorated with poppies and beside it flies a flag that reads simply, ‘Lest we Forget’.
It would be difficult to forget that 2018 marks the centenary of the Armistice, the end of the first World War. Across the country, poppies are blazing in every village church and by the roadside, in town and country, are silent silhouettes, the almost-lifesize representations of those who served in that terrible conflict. We had seen many of them on our journey, and they are deeply moving when you see these lone shadows in the green land they gave their lives to protect. “The war to end all wars” was just another chapter in the violent history of mankind, and it was sobering to reflect that our weekend would revolve around medieval structures whose primary purpose was might.
The church is dedicated to St Ebbe, a sister of the saintly King Oswald, whose relics had once been housed in the area. It is a fairly modern building, dating from 1746, with renovations in 1860. It was built to replace the original chapel, founded by St Æbbe herself in the seventh century, which had fallen into ruins by that date.
It is a simple, small church, exuding warmth from the pink-tinged stone and welcome from its door which, as far as we could see, even stood open at night, with the sanctuary light casting its glow through the stained glass of the east window. It would be a beautiful little place at any time and well worth a visit, but this year, the parishioners have done something remarkable as an act of communal remembrance.
Every window weeps poppies, each one hand made, knitted or crocheted, each one telling a story. There are red poppies for the soldiers who fought and died in the trenches and on the battlefield.
White poppies for those who served but who carried no weapon…the ambulance drivers, stretcher-bearers and those whose belief in peace was stronger than the command to kill.
There are purple poppies for the animals who served our need, without their consent, and yet were maimed and killed …the eight million horses, the donkeys, carrier pigeons, cats, canaries and dogs.
And there are poppies, red and white, for those who were shot at dawn… many who would today be diagnosed as suffering from acute PTSD but were simply condemned for cowardice when they ran from horror.
This little church includes everyone, from the soldiers to the nurses, from those who tilled the fields and fed the country to the mothers who waited and wept.
The WWII Roll of Honour on the wall bears the names of villagers who served and died, but also the names of those who were included in the prayers of this tiny village which, even today, holds only around five hundred souls.
For such a small community, it is a long list… and in every village church there is a similar Roll of Honour. At St Ebbe’s, even the reredos behind the altar is a memorial.
The kneelers are some of the best designs we have seen, including some unusual designs which seem to have been specially made for the occasion…and one with the Tarot ‘Tower struck by Lightning’, which also seemed oddly appropriate.
I should probably talk about the beautiful stained glass with its unusual depictions of saints, and about the carved screen that separates the nave from the chancel, but all the fabric of the church pales into insignificance beside what its people have created within its walls.
A hundred years ago, one murderous conflict ended. My great grandparents served in that war, and some were still here when my own children were young, and still passing on a legacy of memories. A hundred years is not so very long and the legacy of those who lived through those days was passed down to a generation who also took up arms. Their children…our parents…raised us in the aftermath, with memories of their own.
“Lest we forget”? It is not ancient history. Their legacy is a living one, still part of who we are, and will continue as long as humankind takes up arms against each other, seeking still to resolve our differences with the shedding of blood.
Once more we found ourselves gravitating towards the tower of an ancient church. As we were meeting in Bamburgh, it seemed only right that we pay our respects here. It may seem a little odd that although we are not precisely Christian, we spend a lot of time in churches, but Britain has long been a nominally Christian country and for centuries the Church was at the heart of political power…and its churches at the heart of village life. There are few other places where so rich a history can be studied without fuss by anyone who cares to walk through the door.
This area of the North was once a place of great sanctity and home to more saints than can be imagined. Many of them were ‘small’ local saints, possibly ‘adopted’ from pre-Christian mythologies, others are well-documented historical figures and were amongst the most beloved of their kind.
This stretch of the northeastern coastline played a pivotal part in Christianity’s establishment in this country and there are still echoes here of the Celtic faith that was ousted at the Synod of Whitby in 664 in favour of the Roman version of Christianity. Prior to the Synod, it was the Ionian version of the faith that had taken precedence in these parts and two of the most important figures in bringing that faith to the area were King Oswald and St Aidan.
Oswald had been raised as a boy at the monastery of Iona, but when he came to the kingship and took up his throne at the royal seat of Bamburgh, local Christianity was being gradually ousted by an Anglo-Saxon form of paganism. Determined to bring what he saw as the true faith to his people, he sent to Iona for missionaries. They sent him Bishop Cormán, who managed to offend everyone and convert no-one and who accused the northerners of being ‘too stubborn’ to convert. He was soon sent packing. Aidan spoke out against Cormán’s methods and as a ‘reward’ was sent to King Oswald at Bamburgh in his place.
Aidan established the monastery on Lindisfarne, Holy Island, in sight of the castle and set out to bring his faith to the people of the land. His methods were gentle, he spoke courteously to all, no matter how high or low their station. Like his Lord, he accepted all souls with kindness, while he himself practiced poverty and frugality. He and King Oswald became much loved and brought the people back to their shared faith.
Both church and castle had worked together, building schools and religious houses, teaching quietly and taking an interest in the small doings of the villages and their people. The tireless work of these men converted by example, not coercion and that, to me, is the only true form of evangelism, no matter what path, faith or religion it seeks to promulgate. Faith is a spark that must be kindled from a greater flame, not imposed by will or blade.
Oswald was slain in 642 and dismembered on the battlefield by King Penda of Mercia, the last pagan king before Christianity swept through the land. Aidan died at Bamburgh, on 31st of August, 651, leaning against a wooden beam of the old parish church at Bamburgh. That church was a wooden one, of which no trace now remains, save a single, ‘Y’ shaped beam in the roof of the baptistry… the same, it is said, against which the saint was resting when he died.
So we had come to ay our respects, and wandered around the churchyard at St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh, in the shadow of the castle, looking at some of the old and highly unusual gravestones. It may seem odd that although we celebrate life, we spend a lot of time with the dead, especially when we are supposedly ‘off duty’. Whether it is in an ancient burial mound or village churchyard, though, the story is the same… here lie our ancestors.
Since a recognisable homo sapiens came on the scene around fifty thousand years ago, it is estimated that there have been around a hundred and ten billion human beings born on this little planet of ours. Unlike Aidan and Oswald, most of their stories have never been recorded, their deeds are lost, their loves and laughter unknown to the pages of history, but their legacy is our own and, in some small way, lives within each of us.
At least one other story is well-known from this little churchyard and that is the tale of Grace Darling, Bamburgh’s most famous daughter. Grace was born in 1815, a few months after Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Her father, William, was a lighthouse-keeper and when she was just a few weeks old, along with her mother, Thomasin, and six siblings, she was taken to live at a lighthouse on the Farne Islands where she was raised in the harsh island environment.
At four in the morning, on the 7 th of September 1838, Grace looked out of her window at the raging storm and spotted the shipwrecked paddle steamer, Forfarshire. Its wreckage and a few survivors could be seen on the wave-battered outcrop known as Big Harcar. Knowing that the lifeboat at Seahouses could not be launched in such appalling conditions, Grace and her father took a rowing boat onto the sea to attempt a rescue.
While her father rowed, Grace steadied the coble, a type of boat common to these parts, while her father helped survivors into the boat and together they saved the lives of Mrs Dawson, whose children were amongst those who drowned, and four men. Once these had been taken back to the lighthouse, Grace’s father and some of the survivors went back. The route they had to take in the shelter of the islands meant that each trip was a mile each way… and they rescued nine survivors of the sixty-two people who had been on board.
Together they put forth, Father and Child!
Each grasps an oar, and struggling on they go–
Rivals in effort; and, alike intent
Here to elude and there surmount, they watch
The billows lengthening, mutually crossed
And shattered, and re-gathering their might;
As if the tumult, by the Almighty’s will
Were, in the conscious sea, roused and prolonged
That woman’s fortitude–so tried, so proved–
May brighten more and more!
From ‘Grace Darling’, William Wordsworth, 1843
Grace became a national heroine for her part in the rescue. Her courage and strength were much admired and she was an inspiration to many. Sadly, Grace died just four years later of tuberculosis. She is buried, with her parents, in St Aidan’s churchyard, in a simple grave.
Her monument, though, is far from simple and cannot be missed amongst the headstones. paid for by public subscription, the original effigy was replaced when the weather took its toll and now rests within the church, in sight of St Aidan’s shrine.
Within the church too there are other names known to history. One struck me most, that of the Younghusband family, although its most prominent member is not interred here, but in Dorset where he died. Lieutenant Colonel Sir Francis Younghusband KCSI KCIE, was the soldier, explorer and writer who commanded the British Expedition to Tibet in 1904. A strange character, he was responsible for the massacre at Guru in the Himalayas.
“Younghusband’s well-trained troops were armed with rifles and machine guns, confronting disorganized monks wielding hoes, swords, and flintlocks. Some accounts estimated that more than 5,000 Tibetans were killed during the campaign, while the total number of British casualties was about five.” Wikipedia
While Younghusband was rewarded for his service with honours, the invasion of Tibet under the guise of diplomacy led to rebellion, and ultimately to the annexation of the theocracy by China and the exile of its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
But nothing is as cut and dried as it seems. Younghusband, who appears at first glance to be a down-to-earth military type, with his gaze fixed firmly on British Imperialism, had a vision in the mountains as he left Tibet that changed his entire outlook on life and spirituality. It led him to become one of a wave of ‘New Age’ writers and a forerunner of the hippy movement that was to come into being half a century later. His vision filled him with “love for the whole world” and showed him the innate divinity at the heart of mankind… and took him down some very strange pathways on a quest for spiritual and social reform.
Faith takes many forms… not all of them recognised by established religions… and this one little church furnished so many examples of how it can be expressed, and how its expression can impact the lives of others, both for good and for ill. How will history judge us… if it ever remembers our names… both as individuals and as societies? Only time and weathered words will tell…
Sidetracked by Saints
Few churches named after a saint have a historical claim to have been built by their namesake, but St Aidan’s church in Bamburgh is one of the few who have that right. The original church here was founded by St Aidan himself in 635, shortly after he was called to Bamburgh by King Oswald.
Aidan was a monk at the monastery on the island of Iona where Oswald had been raised as a boy. Aidan, like most of those who served at Iona, was Irish and, in the early part of his mission to Northumberland, King Oswald was obliged to act as his interpreter. King and monk shared a mission to bring their faith to the region and must have become close friends.
After Oswald’s death in battle at the hands of King Penda, the king was hailed as a saint and many miracles were attributed to his relics and the spot where he died. Bamburgh’s parish church has a chapel dedicated to Oswald as both king and saint, an over its altar is a gilded image of the king with his sister, St Æbbe, whose church we had seen just an hour earlier.
Aidan’s mission continued to receive royal support from Oswald’s successor, Oswine, and the saint’s manner led to these two also becoming friends. When, during his devotions at his new monastery on Holy Island, Aidan saw the smoke of battle rising from the walls in 651, the saint fell to his knees in prayer and exhortation… and, the story goes, the walls of the fortress escaped the flames unscathed.
Aidan was a visionary in more ways than one and walked through life in the footsteps of his faith. The Venerable Bede wrote of the saint that he never rode where he could walk, gave only hospitality to the wealthy, and all donations he received were given to the poor, used for housing and educating orphans and for freeing those sold into slavery. Winning the love and respect of all, from the lowliest to the highest, it is little wonder that he is venerated in this area…and especially at the church where he died.
He was buried at his monastery on Lindisfarne, the Holy Island, and although the shrine at Bamburgh stands empty, it is still filled with the light of the many candles that are lit beside it. The atmosphere of the church changes as you pass from nave to chancel and stand before the shrine.
There is a sense of coming into a holy place, quite unlike the feeling you usually experience in the quiet and reverential atmosphere of a church. Perhaps it is centuries of prayer that charges the very air and stone with the faith of the thousands who have paused here, acknowledging that whatever they hold in their hearts stems from One Light, no matter by what Name they know It.
The current church dates largely to the twelfth century. The capital of one pillar bears ornate Norman decoration and the style of the building shows its growth, with rounded Norman arches holding Victorian and modern stained glass beside the windows with later Gothic tracery.
The font is a modern affair, with a highly decorated and unusual cover, showing the offices performed by the priesthood. Whilst its stark colours may grate on modern sensibilities, this bright and ornate style would have been perfect for the early church. In a world where vivid dyes and colour were largely reserved for the wealthy, the churches offered a sacred spectacle to all with wall painted, glass and gilding. The glass in the church is truly spectacular, with a huge amount of windows casting jewelled light through the shadows.
Beneath the chancel is a crypt that now contains the remains of a hundred and ten skeletons recovered from the sand dunes below the castle. The Bowl Hill burial site dates back to St Aidan’s time and the people who were buried there may well have known both Oswald and St Aidan himself. They would certainly have known of the saint, and, had they lived after his death, have revered the spot where he died. The excavations spanned decades, and much has been learned from the remains of those who were laid to rest beneath the church.
One skeleton was that of a local man over sixty-five years old, while another of a similar age came from Scandinavia. One young woman was a seamstress and the wear on her teeth shows where she held the needle over the years…and perhaps bit the thread too. A child’s bones show that he was born in the Mediterranean area, and later spent time living in France, while another skeleton, that of a teenage boy, showed a sword cut had struck him from shoulder to knee.
I like the thought of them being laid to rest, with all due ceremony and respect, in a church they would have known fourteen hundred years ago…even though the stones we now see stones would not be placed there until long after they themselves had been forgotten. Later that weekend, we were present at another dig, quite by chance, and saw the first glimpses of the bones of Aidan’s brethren from the Lindisfarne monastery… and that was incredibly moving.
The chancel has an ornately carved reredos showing mainly Northumbrian saints, and is worthy of far more attention than we gave it. Our eyes were held, though, by a series of stunning windows from the Netherlands depicting the Twelve Apostles. The clear, vivid colours are incredibly rich and each window is striking.
Beneath their beauty is a very simple tomb, set into a niche in the wall. It bears the effigy of a Crusader Knight, possible a Templar, and beside him is a banner, the Beauséant… the black and white banner used by the Templars and donated by a modern chapter as a mark of respect for the unknown knight. The banner was used in battle and, in many ways, typifies the utter dedication of those militant monks who lived under its aegis. While one banner of the Order still flew on the battlefield, the Templars were expected to fight beneath it. When their own banners fell, they were to stand with the banners of the Christian Orders…and then any other banner of their faith. Only if all of them fell were they allowed to save their own lives…or they risked being expelled from the Order.
We, though, were obliged to ‘leave the field’, as time was getting on and our friends would be waiting for us… we were just glad to have had the time to visit this beautiful church.
Next morning, we gathered at the gates of Bamburgh castle. We had seen it from beyond its walls, considering how we could glimpse our own ‘inner fortifications’ from a perspective beyond the control of the ego, and now we were about to voluntarily enter a place that could be, like the conditioned defences of the personality, both a haven or a prison.
We had a little time to explore the outer shell and the façade that the stronghold presents to the world, as well as to see how it sat within, yet dominating, the landscape… a landscape largely shaped because of the castle’s very presence. Its landward face looks over the moat to the village that grew in its shadow. The old beehive dove-cote seems a reminder that the homes that cluster close to the castle walls once housed those in thrall to the castle’s lord.
To the seaward side, the imposing defences and lines of cannon send a clear message to any invaders seeking to attack. While where the land and sea meet, a medieval burial ground holds the memory of the dead. As an egoic analogy, it could hardly have been better chosen.
Passing beneath the arch of the gate, you are funnelled through a narrow and easily defended lane, where any visitor to the domain is immediately taken under control. Our own defences are very much the same, allowing others to approach us only through certain channels, even though our ‘gates’ may appear… even to us… to stand open to the world. It is only when you have gained entry …or approval… that there is the freedom to explore.
Climbing the winding path that leads into the courtyard, you are met with defences of another kind. Although the walls are high and thick, especially on the Norman Keep, the real power that is now on display is that of wealth and position.
From the Tudor windows to the ornately carved shields, the inner facade of the castle seems designed to assert social dominance. Magnificently restored and well cared for, there are reminders of its martial past as well as its political position in history writ large in its stones.
Yet, for all it may be amongst the best of its kind, it looks very much like every other restored castle. Castles are serious. They evolve over time, taking on the forms and fashions of the day and yet the plans, well-tested by the centuries, conform to a relatively rigid form; one that serves its purpose admirably, but which appears to leave little room for joy. We see the desire to make a strong statement or to create an impression of solid and established power. The outer face of the inner castle leaves you in little doubt of how its lord sees himself, and here too the analogy is pretty apt.
We ‘let people in’… but just a little way at first. We still have our defences… often prominently displayed. But we seldom let anyone all the way in… not at first. We still have an image of ourselves that we project, a subtle and almost invisible line of defence that hides the reality behind something that looks interesting and attractive… but what happens when you look a little deeper?
Quite appropriately, given the symbolism we were exploring, we would have to wait to see beyond the inner doors, as the interior opens an hour later than the grounds. Stuart sat on the throne of Northumberland… a reconstruction based upon a carved stone found close by… and shared his first reading from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Then we wandered the grounds for a while until the State Rooms were opened and we were allowed to delve further.
I was drawn to an odd rectangle of grass, surrounded by some broken stone walling. There has obviously been another building here once upon a time, and the curved end of the space looked like the remains of windows in the apse of a chapel… which is exactly as it turned out to be.
St Peter’s Chapel was an important place of worship long ago, the spiritual heart of the castle. It held relics of King Oswald, a saintly ruler credited with much good during his lifetime and many miracles after his death. He died in 642 in battle against the pagan king Penda, who dismembered his body on the battlefield. Amidst all the glory of temporal splendour, this sacred place has been left unrestored, open to the winds and with a congregation of birds. The apse, where the altar and relics once stood, now holds only a bell that was taken down because it annoyed the lady of the castle and the villagers… and piles of small change, like a dragon’s hoard, now replace the votive offerings.
There may well be a new chapel somewhere within the castle, where there is indeed a wealth of religious symbolism, but for the purpose of our weekend, this sacred space left derelict in favour of worldly display seemed a poignant symbol for the unchecked ego that cannot see beyond its own projected image to the sacred heart within.
And yet, the chapel was not entirely barren, for within it is a single grave…or so I thought. The cross bears an inscription to ‘The first Lord Armstrong… a genius in his time’. He had loved Northumberland, had bought and restored the castle… it seemed only fitting that he should be buried within the chapel and remain at its heart. The records, however, show that he was buried at Rothbury, some miles away. Is the apparent grave no more than a memorial? An empty tomb… or a sign of love and respect? Perhaps the castle has a heart after all… and if so, it is a very human one. Perhaps I had not looked far enough? And who am I to judge what any heart may hold… even that of a castle?
Over the centuries, many people have used the symbolism of the castle to explore spiritual and psychological concepts. The intellectual exercise is, however, nowhere near as graphic as when you walk through these spaces and get the feeling of an idea built in stone. It was proving to be an interesting experience… and the State Rooms were about to open…
Two things struck me as we entered the State Rooms to look around the public parts of Bamburgh castle. The first was that the collection of objects that were on display was vast, rich and deserving of much more attention than we would have time for. We did notice, though, a shield that bore a remarkable resemblance to the crop circle we had been looking for at Cerne Abbas…
From decorated cradles to archaic helmets, ostentatiously carved furniture and delicate fans made of wisps of spangled gauze and ivory, all were displayed with no apparent order or relationship to each other. The symbolic comparison of a castle to the ego was evidently going to continue. It almost seemed as if the décor was saying there was no value to the priceless things on display except to be displayed. Now, I know that this is probably not the case at all. What can be left undefended by glass and barriers and survive the careless touch of tourists is the most likely reason for the items on display being chosen… but we had been asked to draw comparisons between the castle and the ego and observe our impressions.
I thought how many people I have met who define themselves by their achievements, success, wealth or possessions. I thought too how many of us seek to impress others in one way or another, and how our public faces reflect how we hope the world will see us… and decided that most of us fall prey to that desire in some form or another, even those who vehemently profess that they do not care a jot for how others see them; that very independence can become a ‘prized possession’.
The other thing that struck me forcibly was the lack of atmosphere. The two small salons, in spite of their beauty and décor, had no character at all; they felt unlived-in and ill at ease. It turns out that they were once kitchens before they became ‘State Rooms’, and their true nature was obviously at odds with their new finery. The castle is a grand and glorious place, though. Room after room is filled with history, art and portraiture, but it is not until you go deeper within its walls and reach the King’s Hall with its raised drawing room that there is any feeling of coherence.
Here, you can imagine the grand balls and state functions. It is supposed to be lofty, imposing, luxurious. It is not trying to be anything except itself… and, after the kitchen-salons, that gives a curious effect. Egoically, there is a statement there too; it matters little whether a place or a person is beautiful and impressive, or homely and humble… what matters is whether they are authentic… true to their nature and purpose.
I could have spent weeks learning about the art alone. There were anomalies there too. The overtly regal castle held a good many pieces that struck an odd chord. For instance, there were the portraits of Napoleon with hs two Empresses… the Emperor of France who had come by his position on the heels of the Revolution that had guillotined the nobility.
The very Catholic iconography displayed throughout the house sits cheek-by-jowl with portraits of the Protestant King James and his wife, Anne of Denmark. It was James who, after his bride had been delayed by storms that he blamed on witchcraft, instigated the North Berwick witch trials and he attended the torture of suspected practitioners of the Craft.
One picture in particular caught my eye, a sixteenth century group of the Holy Family, attributed to Marcello Venusti and titled ‘Silence’. The geometric composition of the figures is striking enough, but t was the figures themselves that caught my eye. The Holy Mother watches a sleeping Child that we take to be Jesus. He lays across her lap in a similar attitude to a Pietà. Behind her are figures we assume to be an elderly Joseph and John the Baptist, who could be Jesus’ twin. It may have been the fact that the boys are painted as older than the usual babes that caught my attention. Or that only Mary and John have haloes…. I found it curious too that the Madonna wears green, and that the sleeping Child, who lacks a halo, is as pale as death.
A little later research made the painting even odder. It was painted by Venusti, but the design was a detailed drawing by Michaelangelo. It is also very different from other versions of this painting. The ‘same’ painting at The National Gallery, for example, has the Virgin clothed in blue, the architecture and draperies completely different, none of the figures have haloes and John wears a leopard skin. And the text in the book that the Virgin holds is completely different. We can only assume it is meant to be a Bible, although that book would not be written until long after the Child’s death.
John makes a gesture of silence. Is he asking silence for the sleeping Child? Or indicating secrets…? Which painting is the ‘real’ Venusti? Are they all his? Are others copies? What does the difference in the text indicate? We would need a lot more time to unravel such mysteries… The ego too has its secrets, its blinds and confusions and it can take a lifetime to unravel them.
One mystery was solved though… although it leaves many unanswerable questions in its wake. There is a short corridor with steps leading through an arch. On one side, a huge tapestry, on the other a print of battles and reproductions of scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry. It has a disquieting ‘feel’ and I found I could not easily leave it. When I did leave, I felt compelled to turn around and go back, though I had no idea why. I spoke to Stuart who had followed me and turned to face him… finding that he was not there and I was, in fact, alone.
The moment left such an impression on me that I did some research when we got home. I am far from the only one to have sensed something there. During the war years the castle served as a hospital for soldiers, and one young man traumatised beyond bearing, committed suicide and shot himself in the head. He was seen and recognised after his death, seated on these stairs.
The lower we went in the castle, the more, it seemed, the life of its people made itself felt and the analogy of the ego continued to be apt. Most personal, in an odd kind of way, was the well in the basement rooms. The life of lord and serf alike would have depended upon its waters. The simple well bound their human lives together in a way no other artefact could show.
Lower still and we made the mistake of going into the dungeon. Expecting the empty rooms one usually sees in such places, we were confronted with graphic waxworks depicting every imaginable horror. Such things should never be perpetrated on living beings… and yet the ego can suffer the same levels of torture throughout its life. We witnessed one such torture being inflicted upon a child as we hurriedly left the room. You can imagine the scars the careless comment will leave. “This,” said the small child’s father, “is what happens if you don’t behave…”
Far from the pomp and circumstance of the stately halls, there were real treasures though, tucked away in tiny rooms and easily overlooked. These were not just the objects that affirmed power, nor were they all the creations of gifted artists… many were the small and practical things that had held a place in the lives and hearts of the castle’s people. Simple carved stones from the chapel of St Peter where a saint’s relics were housed. A lost key. Fragments of intricate metalwork going back to the Anglo-Saxon fort. And tiny, glowing specks of worked gold, smaller than a fingernail, bearing the serpentine design of the Bamburgh Beast.
In just the same way, you have to work to get beyond the layers of ego to see the spark of gold that lies, often unregarded, at the centre of every being. It may be buried so deep that it is impossible to see, but, like the castle, the ego is both sanctuary and prison for the treasure at its heart.
There was one more thing we had been asked to do and that was to find within the castle a place we had imagined from the beach below. We were almost ready to leave before I found mine and understood its personal significance. The great black-leaded range reminded me of the one in my great grandmother’s scullery, and so I left the ‘State Rooms’ with a fond smile for remembered warmth and the aroma of oven-bottom bread.
Anyone who wishes to have a virtual wander around the castle can visit their website for a 360° tour here.