In spite of the rainbow that had greeted our arrival in Cumbria, the skies looked none too promising as we gathered beneath the shelter of the park gate in Penrith. The chill winds of December had brought showers, but at least, for the first afternoon, there would be a little cover. We could only hope that the following day would bring better weather. Not that rain would stop us. Since the downpour we had encountered in Scotland, we had accepted that rain was a natural benediction… a blessing and a cleansing beyond the gift of Man and, therefore, a perfect way to start a weekend of spiritual exploration.
We had chosen to begin at Penrith Castle, built between 1399 and 1470, probably on the site of a much earlier Roman encampment, as part of the defences against raiders from Scotland. Once thought to have been first built by William Strickland, who later become Bishop of Carlisle, it is now thought that the most likely builder was Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury. The castle’s main claim to fame, though, is that in 1471, it became a home for Richard, Duke of Gloucester who would go down in history as King Richard III of England, and it was this concept of ‘home’ that was to play such a large part in our weekend.
First off, we would need to think about what the concept of ‘home’ might mean. The obvious answer might be a brick-and mortar-structure, or the people within it. Could a castle be a home? Even in this dilapidated state, we found enough reminders of our own homes; kitchens, hearths and wide windows designed, not for defence, but for comfort.
Like everything that we take for granted, though, there are layers of meaning and, even such a simple idea as ‘home’ might mean a multitude of things, from the land upon which we walk to a more abstract concept of the source of being. We gathered, in part, to seek our own answers to such questions.
We had chosen the castle not just for its history or its almost alien homeliness, but for another reason too. It is one of those places that ‘jumps out’ at you when you see it for the first time. We were to visit several sites that had that surprising ‘wow’ factor that goes beyond physical appearance alone, a phenomenon we have variously referred to as a ‘psychic shock’, a ‘kick’, and, as one of our Companions put it, a ‘gut-punch’. Almost impossible to describe, it is equally impossible to mistake or ignore when it happens.
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