It was a ‘stream of consciousness moment’; one of those that acts like a time machine. The flash of memories cut right back to my childhood – seven or eight years old. It included the sight and texture of the old bricks of our primary school playground, the beginnings of art at school, and learning about that most romantic of things – ships, or, to be precise, that arcane institution: the Royal Navy, and its beginnings.

All this was prompted by the cardboard drawing of an Elizabethan ship… We needed a core image for the Jewel in the Claw workshop, something that would sit as a centrepiece on the threefold panel at the back of the room, the place of the mystical East.

I don’t often build ships – not even models, though my childhood bedroom ceiling had a wonderful assortment of Airfix and Frog model planes hanging from pieces of nylon fishing line so that they were arranged in a global dogfight that spanned space and time. Ships were slow and cumbersome… But then I met Elizabeth, the Tudor Queen, and saw them from within her eyes, and another world opened.

Queen Elizabeth I understood ships – as did her deadly enemies, the Spanish, owners of the Armada fleet.

The drawing on the cardboard is a picture of an Elizabethan ship under full sail. It took me the better part of an afternoon to measure the original (bottom right in the opening picture) and scale it onto the cardboard.  Such ships were a symbol of the emerging naval power of Elizabethan England, a beginning that would see the British Empire rise, literally, from the waves. That empire would go on to reach such a powerful peak that ‘the sun would never set’ upon it. And then, as all empires do, it will fade…

Back in Elizabethan time, the navy will become the cornerstone of its eventual global presence.

Royal Navy: playground… why?

A child born in 1954 will grow up to learn that ‘trading’ (at school) in cigarette packets skimmed in competition against the school walls was very cost effective if your parents smoked Senior Service. One packet of those was worth five, or even ten of the less expensive Woodbines. I apologise to those younger folk for whom these terms are meaningless. They were the basis for our playtimes when I was eight and nine years old. Agree terms, then skim one closest to the playground wall (thereby winning) and you collected a multiple of their worth. Potentially lucrative returns, if you are willing to gamble high stakes used cigarette packets like Senior Service… The first taste of the potential of risk and reward, perhaps?

Senior Service: the name for the British navy – to reinforce its longevity and status over the Army and Air Force. Different today, of course. But, in my parents’ youth, very fundamental to ‘Britishness’. One of my uncles was in the Navy. It didn’t mean much, back then.

On the 20th April, 2018, it will mean a lot, as Queen Elizabeth I watches the rest of the ‘actors’ rise and move across the giant chessboard to take their place in the drama that begins with the onset of Shakespeare’s death; then a clever but pushing-his-luck Christopher Marlowe calling out the cast of players from the shadows of the ‘tavern’ and making mischief… Until the Queen raises her head and begins to rise.

All of this started with Elizabeth I; our iconic sovereign who triumphed over expectation to find herself Queen at the age of twenty-five, inheriting a bankrupt kingdom laid waste by a a psychopath – her father, Henry VIII, whose only focus was a son and heir. And to hell with consequence.

So, back to the cardboard ship… the image that sparked the mental and emotional journey. Good theatre props are usually held together with smoke, mirrors and industrial tape. This one will be no exception. The simplified outline will be spray-painted white with white enamel paint – as many coats as it takes to give it a shell-like finish. This will be mounted onto a black cloth and the whole thing hung, like a picture, on the Eastern partition.

Hopefully, it will look good; and the black and white theme will complement the giant chessboard of the Queen’s Court Floor.  But the final touch, if it works, will give it a very special quality, indeed. We’ve sourced two lights that are designed to project a soothing reflection of ‘sunlight on sea’. We’ll be pointing one of these at the white ship… and hoping for the best. If it works it will be lovely… It’s a moving effect, and therefore quite difficult to photograph, but here’s an idea of how it will look – minus the animation. I’m only on the third coat of paint, so the ship has a way to go, yet.

Ship Bess smaller2

This is the kind of deeply-focused thing the three of us do in the Silent Eye’s run-up to our main event – the annual Spring workshop in the tiny hamlet of Great Hucklow, located in the heart of the Derbyshire hills. You only get one shot at that first impression of a Temple of the Mysteries…

The empty but flying Senior Service cigarette packet, the bricks of the primary school yard wall, the ocean waves of Britannia’s coming and the power of an English Queen to shape the history of a small but pivotal country combine and resolve themselves in a flash, as the last piece of cardboard falls away to reveal what will become the ship; seen entire in the mind, even though it is just brown card, yet, in the room.

On that Friday evening a mere two weeks away, the Queen will command silence with her will; overriding the mischief of Marlowe. As she rises to take control of the mysterious chequered chamber of transformation, she will pause for a second, looking across the Court Floor at the blue East.

Then, she will begin a slow walk to her throne, becoming bathed in the soft blue light of reflected waves as she approaches the place from which she will direct the next two and half days of purposeful and very human interaction…

And then it will have begun…

Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find the reality and essence of their existence via home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised.

His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at

You’ll find friends, poetry, literature and photography there…and some great guest posts on related topics.

©Stephen Tanham

3 Comments on “Esoteric shipbuilding

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