Imagine a tiny village, just a few miles from a major Derbyshire town, yet unknown to most people passing by on the busy road between Bakewell and Matlock. The village contains an ancient mound of boulders of millstone grit layered on the underlying limestone base – typical of this part of the White Peak.
Aside from its geology, the intricate and serpentine rocks hold a deeper mystery. They show signs of being used for initiatory purposes for at least the past six thousand years.
Initiation is a process whereby an experience is arranged for an incoming person who has proved themselves worthy of a higher, and life-changing, viewpoint. The selected person(s) is led through a series of strange encounters in order to ‘open’ their being to higher spiritual truths. If successful, the arranged and symbolic nature of what is experienced will trigger a different relationship with the world for that person. Although the deliberate arrangement of circumstance is ‘contrived’ the internal experience of those going through such initiations is not…
Welcome to Rowtor Rocks, Birchover, a tiny dot on the map between Bakewell and Youlgreave… with a very mysterious past. Let us explore it, together…
We look up at the mound of rocks, which have that unique shape characteristic of the weathered gritstone formations in this part of Britain. Many of them are covered in lichen and mosses which shines bright green in the December sunshine. Prompted by our guides, Stuart and Sue, we begin to climb in silence. Even at the lower levels of the mound there are caves – caves which show substantial evidence of workings. Regardless of its isolation, this place has been the centre of something intense and historically ancient… Carved in the stones here are rings and ‘cup-marks’ from the neolithic era – thousands of years ago.
Our guides stop us beside a font, clearly carved out of the rocks and beautifully symmetrical. The vessel is filled with rainwater. In our mind’s eye a young figure dressed in white skins is led to the water and ritually cleansed of his or her past. There is silence on more than just the physical dimension. The candidate – or to use an more appropriate word, the initiand, enters a world between two worlds, aware that their past is slipping away and that they cannot know what lies ahead – the unknowing is the essence of the process that will elevate…
Our role is to witness. We watch as the initiand is led to the base of the cliff face and shown the narrow and treacherous path by which they must ascend to the level of the chambers, above. They turn, one last time, and look at us. We remember the nature of the feeling behind those eyes, but turn away. The spiritual process must work its magic, and aloneness is part of it. Their experience must be real or the psychological and spiritual ‘opening’ will not occur. We hear the unsure scrambling of able feet as the one whose fate we guard comes to terms with the physically difficult start of their solo journey up the rocks.
At the level of the first of the transition chambers we gather in silence. Our path here has been easy, the initiand’s is hard. We close our eyes and say a silent prayer that the very real danger faced is mastered, and inner readiness achieved. They cannot yet know the intensity of that holding that emanates from above them.
The temple chamber awaits us. The initiand emerges, breathless and wide-eyed from the climb, passes, tested into the sacred space, coming face to face with the twin pillars – simple-looking but the result of months of work during the seventeenth century. The initiand is given time to consider the significance; these rocks, set in place forever by nature, need no buttressing… the pillars represent the mastering and use of the polarities of life by human beings, the generation of goodness in the face of adversity… many other things that they will come to understand in the years of growing wisdom ahead. No explanations are given – they will come later, from within and without.
For now, they are simply brought into the presence…
It shocks them when the cloth binding is placed over their eyes. Initially, they can see nothing, but, as we gather around them and light the flames, tiny flashes of light penetrate their darkness. Figures come and go, gently brushing against their immobile form; eventually settling into a pattern of eight sides. Our One purpose now has eight faces.
The Elder, whose purpose has been to block the light from the entrance, moves out onto the ledge. We withdraw from the partially-sighted one, but not before lighting the aromatic herbs whose smoke will fill the chamber.
No words are given. They must draw, now, on their own resources – including intuition. Outside, arranged in a curve that will greet and embrace them, we wait. We can picture the scene within: the swirling, sweet-smelling mists, the bright light creating a half image. We picture their progress as groping hands feel for the chamber’s wall; then the shock as a gentle hand takes their arm. The message of that moment will never be forgotten: In the fearful darkness you were not alone…
The gentle hands take the fingers from the harsh rock and guide the trembling figure towards the vertical eye of light. At the first sight of the hands emerging, the gathered group let out a sigh and reach for the stumbling one, taking the wrapped cloth from the eyes and head.
The glory of the new view of an old landscape is forever burned, with joy, into the newly-opened eyes. No words have been spoken, but much has been conveyed.
The respite is brief. The initiand is shown a narrow cleft leading back into the central rock and then upwards. The steps are steep and awkward. There is not room for both feet, and yet the ascent cannot begin until the body and its weight are committed to the climb. It is a paradox made physical. To get it wrong risks a painful fall onto hard stone, but there is no other way. Empowered by the emergence from the dark cave, the initiand throws his weight upon an upwardly-stretched leg and propels himself higher. The first step is everything; get that right and the momentum lets the legs return to normal function and the ascent is made.
A new figure waits at the top of the flight. He takes the emergent one to a higher ledge where there sits a huge rock. Words are finally spoken. “Move the rock.” As witness, you watch the body stiffen, feel the habitual response: “How… It’s a heavy rock.” These are not voiced. no-one says this, but you can hear the mind’s words of doubt… always doubt.
The wise eyes nod in encouragement, indicating another sentiment: “Try, give no home to doubt…”
You watch as the initiand’s hesitant hands reach out to touch and then push the rock. You know what will happen, but the gentle hands do not. The Rocking Stone is one of many on the ancient mound. They are all miraculously balanced about a single point. With very little effort their entire mass can be pivoted and moved, falling back to their previous state when released. You watch the wonder in the eyes of the initiand. The message is clear: right knowledge can move the world…
From the gullies, caves and paths they emerge, now – the others; the ones who were candidates for this rite in the past. They embrace the initiate; their heat is the clothing of love, of respect…most of all, of belonging
But such knowledge carries responsibility. The new initiate is taken around another spiral in the rocks. They are pointed at the highest point which is just ahead. It is pillar, a pillar that has been constructed half-broken… Or is it half-finished? Alone on the the top of the whole edifice, it points at the sky. The initiate is shown the faint path over the climbing rocks. The ascent is difficult and brings them back to look down at where you are gathered, below. There is nowhere else to go, now…
When the questing feet can go no further, the pillar remains a few feet out of reach. The initiate looks around for another way, but there is none. He cannot continue his quest.
Then there comes the sound of skilled footfalls on the rock. Before the initiate can react the thighs are grasped and hoisted. “Reach!” Comes the command as the body slaps flat to the topmost rock surface. Stretched fingers clutch at space, anguished that, still, the final few inches cannot be crossed…
“So it is for us all,” says the kind voice of the Elder, “but the presence of the Companion always takes us closer…”
The initiate is led down from the top rock. The embraces are warm and knowing. All watching have stood here. It is finished… for now. Everyone takes a final look at the high pillar, knowing the meaning, knowing the quest that will fire the life that follows: to take your world closer to the sky… to share the Work with others. Eventually, when the skills are many, to become an elder in the tribe, and one day complete the initiation of another young soul.
The initiatic reconstruction fills us all with wonder. We cannot know the exact details, but we know, without doubt, that we have sensed the heart of it.
Far below, next to a popular pub called the Druid Inn – the actual meeting point of the Ancient Order of Druids, a friendly society founded in 1781 – is the Church of St Michael, created in 1717 by Thomas Eyre, the owner of the lands around Birchover.
There is historical evidence of intermarriage between the families of the Eyres and the Foljambes, and the land here once belonged to the Templars…
To be here, is to feel that history.
One part of the wall of the church contains ancient stones which must have been recovered from the site. Something ancient has been at work, here, for a very long time…
These researches belong to the work of Sue Vincent and Stuart France. We were lucky enough to be the recipient of this very special weekend, an event that brought together, in a beautiful and living landscape, the fruit of their well-researched thoughts.
End Part Two.
Other parts in this series of blogs:
© Copyright Stephen Tanham