Discovering Albion- Day 3: Chester Cathedral

We should have known, of course, right from the first. It was there, written in flowers and earth… but although we saw, we didn’t see. How could we? Such signs and portents seldom become clear until after the fact and it is easy to read much into little. Even so… we really should have known, given what we are writing about.

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The sun was cresting the constructed horizon of the town as we walked to the Roman wall to take a first look at the Cathedral, its rays gilding the warmth of the red sandstone and setting a fire in the damp blackness of the trees. From here we could see into the grounds where a Celtic Cross… a solar cross… was laid out in the garden.

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The cathedral was still closed, so we had gone in search of breakfast though I could, undoubtedly, have simply stayed there documenting the menagerie of strange creatures carved in the stonework. Even then I didn’t realise what was to come… or just how many photographs I would have to take… and not even scratch the surface of the artistry and history within.

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Legends say that the site has always been sacred. Long ago, so the tales tell, a Druid Grove stood upon this site. Then a Roman Temple to Apollo, followed by a Roman Basilica dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, possibly when Christianity became the official religion of Rome in the 4th Century.

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Our interest, however, really begins in the 7th Century with the church that was founded in 660AD by King Wilfhere, about the time when King Penda, the last pagan king ruled the kingdom of Mercia. We have written of this era throughout the Doomsday series and the legends associated with the place have been entwined with our research and stories.

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In its time the Cathedral has been ecclesiastical college and Abbey. It was once was part of a Benedictine monastery dedicated to St Werburgh, granddaughter of our King Penda, and her remains were brought to Chester in 875AD to protect them from the Viking attacks. A church was established by King Alfred’s daughter, Queen Ethelfelda …‘The Lady of The Mercians’… and the relics enshrined in 907AD. The church was restored by Lady Godiva… she who is said to have ridden naked through the streets of Coventry… and her husband Earl Leofric of Mercia, but in 1090 this church was razed to the ground.

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In 1092AD a new monastery was founded by Hugh Lupus, ‘The Wolf’, a nephew of William the Conqueror. Work continued for centuries, building and remodelling, right up until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1540. Unlike many such buildings, however, Chester escaped destruction and King Henry established the Anglican Cathedral of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary in the abbey in 1541; the last abbot became the first Dean and the senior monks were made Canons.

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The building is incredible. Traceries of lace carved in stone, sculpted wood, stained glass and mosaics… geometric floors and painted ceilings… and a very loud and modern alarm system that can … apparently… be tripped by errant photographers trying to get a shot of a particular ceiling boss. They were very nice about that, I have to say, under the circumstances…

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In fact, the whole place has a friendly feel… very warm and welcoming unlike many of the cathedrals where secular power has vied for supremacy with spiritual strength. Schoolchildren in monastic habits were being shown around the building, learning about the lives of their forefathers… the very stone seems to exude peace in the intricately vaulted cloisters. There was just so much … there is no way I can show it to you all at once…

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Discovering Albion- Day 3: Breakfast in Chester

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Chester city walls

What with the late night snow and ice it was with a sense of relief that I drew the curtains on a dark and dingy morning. Not too bad, I thought, all things considered. The ice on the car would need a serious scraping, but on the other hand the roads were clear for the first real day of our adventure.

Chester in black and white

Chester in black and white

We were heading for Chester, an old haunt of my companion and a place I hadn’t visited in decades. In fact, I had only ever really seen the Roman amphitheatre, so I was looking forward to visiting the town and the main reason we were going there… the medieval Cathedral.

Layer upon layer

Layer upon layer

Although we don’t really ‘do’ the cathedrals as a rule, they are so closely woven with the stories we write and the history of our land that we do have to visit them occasionally… and there are so many legends and tales about Chester and its founders that we would have had no excuse. Then too, my companion knew it well and it was a pleasure to start our journey in a place of which he had fond memories.

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The wings of night

We arrived in Chester before the place had woken. The streets were almost empty as we followed the river to a gate in the city walls. A sliver of moon still hung in the sky as we climbed up onto the ancient walkway. The walls of Chester have encircled the city, in some form or another for almost two thousand years. The defences were first built by the Roman invaders to protect their legionary fortress and town of Deva Victrix as they called the place, then maintained and improved throughout history.


“1571 AD”

It is always an odd feeling to step back so tangibly in time. Outside the walls you feel the ordinary life of a waking town. There are still Georgian and Tudor buildings rubbing shoulders with the glass and steel of modernism on both sides of the curtain of stone, but inside it is different.

The market Cross marks the historic centre of Chester

The Market Cross marks the historic centre of Chester

The sense of being within an enclosure seems to resonate with some primal understanding of security, perhaps; time seems to slow, centuries blend into one another and the ghosts of Roman soldiers and medieval monks make way for the ethereal forms of Regency dandies and Victorian ladies. History animates the images imprinted in the stone.

Distant snow from the Roman walls

Distant snow from the Roman walls

We walked the walls for a while, looking out across the chimneypots towards the snow covered mountains of Wales, before heading through the narrow, cobbled streets towards the town centre and breakfast. Every period of architecture seems represented here. Many buildings carry a date… 1571, 1508… and while their shop windows may speak to the modern consumer, their very fabric breathes the quiet passing of centuries.

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Ani gets everywhere…

The four main streets are lined with the medieval Rows… covered walkways above street level now house shops with several floors above and crypts and undercrofts below. The Rows are truly unique, nothing else exists quite like them anywhere in the world. They date back to the 13th century, though of course the original buildings are now broken by more recent constructions. Today they are preserved and protected.

Another visitor to the Rows


We walked down to the old market cross in the centre of the town. From here many of the buildings are Victorian restorations in the Jacobean half-timbered style that harmonises well with the original character of the place. You can tell the older places though; the weathered stone and higgledy piggledy warping of the wood mark them out from the crisper lines of the later works.

Modern bronze

Modern bronze

High on a wall a carved crest carries an ancient motto associated with the royal houses of Britain as well as with the legends of Albion… the Green Knight and the Round Table. Above one of the gates in the walls an ornate clock commemorates the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. Roman pillars stand in the town centre opposite a bronze baby elephant… Everywhere you look are traces of the distant past, hand in hand with the evolving life of a modern city.

The Jubilee Clock

The Jubilee Clock

The camera was working overtime… far too many pictures to post! I would regret that later in the day, after the cathedral and the hillfort… I can’t recall the last time the battery didn’t make it through the day! But the day had brightened, the skies had cleared to blue and it promised to be a glorious day. And it was still early…the cathedral wasn’t even open yet… and we still needed breakfast.

Sunlight on the res sandstone of the cathedral

Sunlight on the res sandstone of the cathedral

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Discovering Albion- Day 2: Merry meetings and Manchester airport

Great Hucklow and the Derbyshire hills

Great Hucklow and the Derbyshire hills

Friday was a good day. We had a late and leisurely start after a fair amount of talking and a little wine…note the restrained understatement on both those counts… The car was packed and ready to go… we would not be back for some time… but first there was School business to attend to; the directors of the Silent Eye converged on the little village of Great Hucklow and the Queen Anne for a meeting. The 17th century pub is a place we know well, as it is here we often meet and here many spend convivial evenings during our annual workshop weekend in April.

April in Great Hucklow

April in Great Hucklow

While plans for the workshop were undoubtedly the first priority, two of our number had a belated Christmas gift to offer to the third. Do not think for a minute that those who work within a spiritual school are dry in any sense… certainly not… Four bottles of well-labelled ale spelled out a well-crafted message to their recipient…and thus the meeting began with laughter.

The director's cut?

The director’s cut?

It also began to snow. Quite heavily.

Over lunch we discussed the unfolding story of the workshop … set in the Temple of Isis in ancient Egypt the tale that will unfold is both exciting and deeply symbolic of the journey of the human soul. We talked and listened, laying plans. These months in the run-up to the workshop are intense. Everything has to be written from scratch, thought of, planned and made so that the experience runs seamlessly and effortlessly for all those who attend, leaving plenty of time for relaxing, friendship and laughter. And the odd pint of Stowford’s at the Queen Anne, of course.

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Spring, Great Hucklow

Five ritual dramas tell the story, a handful of knowledge sessions that are both informative and fun explain the spiritual principles behind them, two further rituals add a unique touch to the weekend… and no matter how much work we put into it, the weekend only works because of the people who attend. Once again we have companions flying in from the States and from Europe to join us, as well as from across the UK…old friends and new faces… it is going to be fun.

Old mounting block, Disley

Old mounting block, Disley

Deciding discretion was the better part of valour we departed sooner than we would have liked. Great Hucklow nestles high in the Derbyshire hills. The landscape is beautiful, but when the snow falls, it can fall thick and fast. The evening would need to see us all in Stockport for the monthly gathering. We descended upon the Ram’s Head in Disley for tea, another 17th century inn, but rather grander than the homely warmth of the Queen Anne  … Disley being rather closer to our destination and with a better chance of clear roads.

Two of us had tea...

Two of us had tea…

The gathering was as warm and full of friendship as always and the evening went well, though ended in good time as Steve had the long drive back to Cumbria ahead, whilst Stuart and I needed to find a hotel for the night. Between the uncertain health of the car and the even more uncertain weather, we had not booked in advance, so we set off in the general direction of Chester in the snow, with temperatures plummeting. We felt Chester, at least, was attainable, even if Scotland became an impossibility. Steve’s report of the northern roads was not good. It didn’t look promising and we were half expecting to have to return to Sheffield and abandon the trip. If, that is, we could get back across the hills.

They do sell tea too...

They do sell tea too…

The roads were getting dodgy so we checked into the first place we found… right under the landing path for Manchester airport. What little snow had fallen there had frozen and the paths were treacherous… all we could do was wait and see what the morning would bring…

Expecting snow?

Expecting snow?

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Discovering Albion- Day 1: Deer and stone

p1050675How long does a two and a half hour journey actually take? Well, three and a half if you go the back way and get a clear run. Four if you stop somewhere… Five if you find a good church or two… Yet I still seemed to have an hour or so left before our rendezvous… Granted, I had left in good time, but I had been to work first too. Even so, I dawdled along towards the crossroads above Baslow thinking I had plenty of time to wander over the top there and drink in the hills…

It had been a good run. There had been hawks, kestrels, kites and buzzards… I’d lost count somewhere back in Leicestershire…mostly perched watching, apart from the kites which like to swoop low over the road.

scotland trip jan 15 135I nearly lost the car as I came round the bend, astonished at what I saw. I had seen deer close to this spot once before… a magical encounter at dawn last August, where I had been blessed to watch a small family in the bracken. But not a whole herd… not mid-afternoon on a January Thursday just outside Sheffield! I couldn’t believe my eyes. And I couldn’t stop either. They probably weren’t deer anyway. More likely a dark coloured flock of sheep. Fra more likely.

Up the road… find a place to turn… come back. Yep. Definitely deer! Still nowhere to stop and watch. Find a side road… too narrow to turn or park… gnaw fingernails and turn anyway… bear in mind these are tiny country lanes …

scotland trip jan 15 151I finally find a farm gate about half a field away where I can hide behind a wall and just watch. I must have stood there for half an hour watching them play in the stream and graze. I lost count of how many and gave up trying… ‘lots’ of them… somewhere between thirty and fifty… They were just too far for really good pics… and just too many to get them all in!

Time was beginning to get on and the light on the western horizon was already showing the first gold of sunset. Reluctantly I bade the deer goodbye, grateful to have watched them and met they eyes of their watchers. As happens so often with these gifts it seemed as if they were invisible to everyone else on the road. Cars drove past without a pause… no-one stopped or slowed in all the time I was there, and the main road is a busy one. Perhaps it is a question of attention… maybe people are too busy concentrating on what is in front of them… or perhaps not everyone feels that sense of wonder when the natural world opens and invites you in. I don’t know.

scotland trip jan 15 141We have seen red kites with sharp talons and wingspans wider than I am high, swooping down right beside an oblivious mother with a toddler small enough to be prey… we have stood gawping at huge birds too big to miss that were…it seems…invisible to everyone around us. I don’t understand it….but I won’t question the gift of their presence. I am simply grateful. Such moments carry with them a sense of reverence for the life around us of which we are a part.

scotland trip jan 15 166It was with that lingering awe that I rejoined the road. I had no desire to face the city roads quite yet, and there was still time before our meeting to take the long road over the moor behind Barbrook. Unable to park where I had intended, I found myself close to a hillfort we have yet to climb. Carl Wark waits for slightly warmer weather; looming over the moorland, an enigma yet to be unravelled. It is an intriguing spot and has begun to call lately… its age and purpose are unclear to archaeologists, though it seems to have been in use by the Iron Age, so it has three thousand years of human history to share.

I parked across the valley and watched as the sun began to sink… seeing strange, unearthly rocks against the skyline carved by ice and erosion, we are told, in ages even deeper in the past; listening to the beck chatter in the valley… or perhaps I was hearing whispers of stories yet untold. Finally, I turned the car towards Sheffield and dinner with my friend.

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Dear Wen XIII

Sue Vincent:

Response to “Dear Don” ….

Originally posted on Stuart France:

Dear Wen,

Ah yes, the infamous Cephalophores… which I am assuming means ‘head-bearer’, odd how the job-lot of them are depicted carrying the head in the centre of the chest rather than under the arm, like the horseman…

5 Pickering (18)

The rape thing is all a bit unfortunate… but symbolically, perhaps, the ‘descent’ of the Divine could be regarded as a ‘rape’ of sorts… Is the conscious mind raped by the subconscious when dreaming? I expect we are straying into ‘Dionysian’ or ‘Bacchic’ areas with that one.

It does seem strange that these types of tales were adopted by the church, and in some cases actively encouraged… or was it more a case of the ‘voice of the people’…

5 Pickering (3)

I am definitely not getting into the water if it is one of ‘your’ wells.

I shall probably be transformed into something hideous, and black… and smelly… which dribbles…

Can’t we just translate…

View original 85 more words

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Russet, gold and green These are the colours of home Until the heather…

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Discovering Albion- Day 1: Living History

Salvator Mundi: stained glass by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris.

Salvator Mundi: stained glass by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris.

Back to the car for the final stretch of the drive to Yorkshire. We were not meeting till five, so I had plenty of time left to explore. It is amazing how elastic time can be. When the days are full of must-do timescales they rush by; we dance to the manic cadence of a necessity that devours our lifespans unnoticed, bracketed between the trilling of the alarm clock and lights out. When we step back and breathe, when we open our eyes and look around in full awareness, the hours seem to open and possibility pours in, expanding time itself.

Chancel: All Saints, Youlgreave

Chancel: All Saints, Youlgreave

I, however, was driving through a timeless landscape, passing the ancient stone circle of Arbor Low that has marked a sacred space for my people for over four and a half thousand years. My people… I feel that, somehow. There is a kinship that passes beyond time and which recognises no border. The people who walk this land are my people, no matter where… or when.

Early stone head piscina

Early stone head piscina

On impulse I turned towards Youlgreave, a village close to Bakewell in the Derbyshire Dales. It had to have a church to explore… Even from the outside it seemed of opulent proportions for such a small place. Evidently Youlgreave had been a settlement of some standing in its heyday. It had been listed in the Domesday Book of 1086AD as belonging to Henry de Ferrers, a Norman soldier who had fought with William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Now it is one of those sturdy, comfortable places built of old stone and resilience.

Mosaic of fragments of medieval glass

Mosaic of fragments of medieval glass

Outside the church worn stones showed the placement of an ancient cross. I wondered what had happened to this one… their fates have been varied and fragments come to light in strange places. Now the plinth held only an obscure chunk of architecture. Inside the building, however, I was to find treasures carved in stone and alabaster and unlooked for jewels in glass as I read a history carved in stone. This is one of the reasons I love these old churches… they tell the story of a community and of the lives of its people, great and small.

12th century pilgrm

12th century carving of a pilgrm

The church itself dates back to around 1150 AD, though it is thought there was an earlier, Saxon church on the site. The present building was restored with the usual Victorian zeal, but the Norman pillars, Tudor windows and the carved ceiling were preserved. Some of the bosses, hidden deep in the shadows of the ancient wood of trees felled five hundred years ago and more, represent strange beasts and ruff-wearing devils with cloven hooves. Set into the walls are carvings eight hundred years old… and one that looks several centuries older may even have watched the worshippers in that older, Saxon building.

The Salamader curls around the font

The Salamader curls around the font

I seldom start at the altar end of a church, so I found the Norman font straight away… a lovely old thing, simply carved from a single block of pink sandstone. It is unusual as it has a stoup for holy water carved from the same block of stone. But it wasn’t until I looked closer that I saw the salamander, a symbol of rebirth and baptism, curling round the base of the font and holding the stoup in its jaws. Eight hundred years ago it had stood in Elton church, now it rests in Youlgreave and still children are baptised with water from the salamander’s teeth.

...and holds the Holy Water stoup in its teeth.

…and holds the Holy Water stoup in its teeth.

A twelfth century pilgrim watches from the wall of the nave. A 13th century knight holds a heart to his breast, his feet crossed in what was once believed to be a symbol of the crusader or Knight Templar. There are many Templar connections in the area, so here at least it is possible. Opposite the main door, at the end of the north aisle, is a dedication to Charles I ‘King and Martyr’. I wonder how this survived as Charles was beheaded in 1649 with the weight of politics behind the execution. He had been born in Dunfermline Palace… we were going to be heading that way with a little luck and good weather.

A Knight from the 13th century holds a heart to his breast

A Knight from the 13th century holds a heart to his breast

Tudor tombs elaborately decorated, grace the walls, but perhaps the two most striking are the alabaster memorials; one in the centre of the chancel and one that forms the reredos of the Lady Chapel.

Tudor memorial to Sir Roger Rooe and his wife, with effigies of their eight children.

Tudor memorial to Sir Roger Rooe and his wife, with effigies of their eight children.

The first thing that strikes you about the tomb of Thomas Cokayne is the size… a lifelike effigy that is far too small for life-size. Apparently the gentleman died in 1488, in a fight with Thomas Burdett over a marriage settlement. The small stature of the effigy is because although he was a man with children of his own, he had died before his father. It seems strange to look at such a lifelike face and know his story after so many years. Around his neck is a collar with the symbols of the Sun and the Rose which mark his Yorkist sympathies. On his crest a cockerel, a pun on his family name.

Thomas Cokayne, who died in a fight over a marriage settlemet

Thomas Cokayne, who died in a fight over a marriage settlement

In the Lady Chapel the reredos is a memorial to Robert Gylbert and his wife, Joan. Robert died in 1492, the year Columbus landed in the New World. Robert had evidently led a productive life; the Virgin and Child stand at the centre of the stone, Robert stands on one side with seven sons, Joan on the other with ten daughters.

Reredos, depicting the Virgin and Child and the large family of Robert and Joan Gylbert.

Reredos, depicting the Virgin and Child and the large family of Robert and Joan Gylbert.

The windows glowed with the afternoon sun striking through them. Mosaic panels made from fragments of medieval glass, salvaged perhaps from the destruction of Cromwell’s parliamentarian troops, rest between simple geometries that speak of love and glorious Pre-Raphaelite designs from Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris’ workshop.

Pre-Raphaelite stained glass from Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris

Pre-Raphaelite stained glass from Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris

A village mine disaster is remembered; many were killed by carbon monoxide after an explosion in the Mawstone lead mine in 1932. The roll of honour lists the men and women of the village who lost their lives in the Great Wars. Many of the families represented in the church still live in the area today; some names are known to history through their discoveries and inventions, others are the quiet folk who work the land and serve their community.

Pre-Raphaelite stained glass from Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris

Pre-Raphaelite stained glass from Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris

There are many great cathedrals in Britain… some of which we were to visit over the next few days. Within them are wondrous works of art and craft and the tombs of those whose names are remembered in the annals of history. But for me it is here, in the parish churches, where the thread of life can be traced back, far back, to lives not so very different from our own, that I find what speaks to me of my kin. My people.

How long has he watched... and who is he?

How long has he watched… and who is he…or she?

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Discovering Albion– day 1 – The Road

scotland trip jan 15 004A perfect spring morning; the sky a clear and sunny blue above the vibrant green of the fields. Catkins dance on the hazel trees and snowdrops blaze purity at their roots. The south of England basks in sunlight as I drive its winding roads. I could have taken the quicker route up the motorway, but I have time and I prefer these gentler ways. The aggression of time-constrained travel does not apply here. Time, for once, is my own to spend as I choose… and I choose to meander.

scotland trip jan 15 014A distant tree seems in early leaf… until the leaves rise as a huge plume of feathered smoke. Hawks greet me, perched overhead or swooping down as if to peer into the car to gaze at the lunatic within who is leaving this pleasant morning behind and heading for the north, where reports of snow, rain and ice remind me that it is, after all, only January.

scotland trip jan 15 005The counties go by beneath the wheels; Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire… each with their own distinctive character, it seems. Buzzards replace the kites in the air; Osiris looks down; a hawk perched on a wire looking exactly like the Egyptian painting on the card I had been sent. I am skirting borders… dipping my toes in Warwickshire, Staffordshire… then finally the one that welcomes me to a place that feels like home; Derbyshire.

scotland trip kiteI was asked, “Where does south become north?” There is no true answer to that of course, as all is relative to where you are in space. In time too, perhaps, where memory and the heart’s longing shapes the world according to the yearning. For me, on this road, the north begins in the market town of Ashbourne which marks the beginning of the hills of home; the first slopes that soon become the moorlands I love. It is here I see the first trace of snow, clinging to the shadows of a cliff face. The only trace of snow I will see too, although the grass wears that dark, watered green that tells of its recent presence.

scotland trip jan 15 038With every mile the shoulders and forehead relax. I can feel it, as if the miles turn back the clock towards a younger day. It is strange how accustomed we become to everyday stress. We don’t even notice it is there until it is not. I seldom ‘get stressed’ in any visible way… or so I fondly like to tell myself… but as I drive north I am leaving the daily cares behind. They do not go away; they do, however, recede.

scotland trip jan 15 040Here, I cannot change a thing, whatever happens will happen without me. I let them go. Their insistent voice is silenced, the power that they have is diminished by a distance counted in more than miles… a power that I know, after all, I alone give to these things when I let them close in around me. I recall the words attributed to Shantideva, “Why worry if you can do something about it; and why worry if you cannot do anything about it.”

scotland trip jan 15 009I don’t think I worry a great deal any more. The acceptance that ‘this too shall pass’ sank in a long time ago and trust in the rightness of the journey took the place of anxiety. What cannot be changed can be lived through and learned from, and for that the responsibility and choice lies squarely within ourselves. Even so, I can feel my muscles soften and relax, proving just how physical stress can be, even when we cease to be aware of its habitual presence.

scotland trip jan 15 026The silence of the car, a moving shell around me casting a window on a changing world, lends itself to musing and my thoughts continue to chase through the dark, cobwebby corners of realisation. Undiscovered gems hide in the darkness along with those sticky globs of things unidentifiable upon which the probing fingers of the mind alight. Driving is good for the soul.

scotland trip jan 15 032I turn into a lane signed for ‘Biggin’. There is a church there, I recall, that may be worth a visit if it is open. Parking beneath a tree I throw a shawl around my shoulders… which proves totally inadequate for the icy blast that greets me. Yet at my feet the first daffodils raise their spears defiantly to the winter chill. On the horizon an oddly shaped hill catches my eye and I smile as I raise the camera. The bricks and mortar are a hundred miles and more behind me. It doesn’t matter. I am where I will be for the next ten days… beneath a northern sky… I am home.

scotland trip jan 15 028

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Gift of winter gold Glowing sheltered from the storm UnexpectedlyThis little rose was in bloom mid January in Scotland, its fragile petals warm against the stone of an old church by the seashore.

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scotland trip jan 15 395

Chilling in winter
White winds on distant mountains
Why fret for summer?

Ronovan’s Haiku Challenge

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