The Stone and the Pilgrim (5)

We stumbled upon the Preston Pele Tower, fifteen miles south-west of Bamburgh, back in February, 2018. My wife and I had seen a reference to it on a noticeboard in a cafe some distance to the north. It’s quite hard to find; tucked away down a tiny country lane not far from the A1 – the main road through Northumberland to Edinburgh. We’d never heard of a Pele Tower, either… We got out of the car and stared at it, never having seen anything quite like it. Was it a castle – or the remains of one? The location suggested not. It looked purpose-built, yet somehow incomplete….

Right up to the time the Castles of the Mind group approached the building, I didn’t know what part of the ‘self’ we could use it to describe. I entered the (to me) familiar building and trusted that the answer would reveal itself. Either way, and even at the end of a long day of adventure, the Companions of the trip were not disappointed, and seemed to be having the same ‘look at that!’ experience that we had enjoyed in early February.

The famous architectural historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, described Preston Pele Tower as ‘amongst the most spectacular pieces of medieval masonry in England’. Its stone walls are seven feet thick and carry the same mason’s marks as those of the evocative Warkworth Castle twenty miles south. Sadly, we did not have enough time in our short weekend to visit the latter… another trip methinks!

It was never a castle, but it is incomplete; what you see in the top photo is only a half of what was built, originally. So, imagine that the two vertical towers are reflected back on themselves and you have it as it was created in 1392 (pic above): a four section Pele Tower.

How to pronounce Pele Tower? Probably because of the famous Brazilian footballer, it’s natural to call it a ‘Pel ay’ tower – and some of the locals we spoke to did just that. But Sue, who’s a fluent French speaker, says it’s probably derived from a French word and should be ‘Peel’ – that the final ‘e’ is there to turn the ‘eh’ in the middle to an ‘ee’.

It matters little; but there were a lot of them – nearly eighty, in fact. So they were rather important in this part of the world… The hand drawing from the Tower’s museum shows the location of the fortified dwellings in Northumberland, most of which were towers. The original of this chart was drawn up by Henry V, just prior to his departure for France and the victorious battle of Agincourt.

Many of the fortified towers were constructed during the frequent wars between England and Scotland, which ended with the Act of Union in 1603 – after James I came to the English throne.  In the sixteenth century, while the rest of England enjoyed relative peace, Northumberland – the eastern border county with Scotland – remained on a state of alert due to a scourge called the Border Reivers, and the towers saw a second lifetime as an essential way for the landed gentry to protect their people, servants and livestock.

Reivers were lawless gangs, both sides of the border, who would steal, murder and rape their way across whole swathes of an undefended Northumberland and its disputed border with Southern Scotland.

One of the Preston Tower’s celebrated features is a combined great bell and clock. The bell is approximately four feet in diameter and weighs 500 kg. The mechanism for the bell, which strikes on the hour, is linked to the twin clocks on both sides of the Tower faces. The power is provided by a set of two giant stone weights whose ropes run most of the height of the building.

The clock mechanism on the second floor drives the twin clock faces on the north and south faces of the tower, and is based on the same mechanical design that powers Big Ben in London. The clock was added in the nineteenth century, which shows that the Preston Tower continued to be a place of historical interest for a long time.

AAPele Clock Mech

As part of its function as a museum, Preston Pele Tower contains rooms which are furnished as they would have been at the time of its construction in the 14th century. The recreated interior spaces are sparse, and, to us, feel very basic. Being safe during a time of great insecurity was their central function.

AAPeleBedroom

The basic cooking facilities are shown in the second of the two rooms.

AAPelePot Room on Fire

The staircase is a simple wooden structure that runs all the way to the roof on the east side of the internal wall.

AApeleStaircase alone

Once on the roof, the view of the countryside around is commanding.

AAPele rooftop 1 to sea

Standing on the roof, in the last few minutes of our visit, the key I was looking for came to mind: Hope

The Pele Tower was not a basis for aggression; its purpose was to defend the home and hearth, the family and those who worked for them, including the animals.

An image came to mind: that of the householder standing watch under the stars, scanning the horizon for reivers. The dawn is beginning in the east, but the sky is still filled with the strange darkness of the pre-dawn. He nods his head towards the coming light, then opens the door to descend to the chambers in which his family are sleeping, safe within the thick stone walls.

He pauses by the thin window, a defensive structure so narrow that a man could not pass through it. The shutters have not been drawn on this single light and he stops to consider the pale light, one final time. In that moment, I catch his thoughts in a line of poetry, a gift from the now that places such as these are so good at bestowing…

Through these thin lights, now so forlorn

Will one day stream a different dawn

It will take another hundred years – a time during which the rest of Tudor England will undergo transformation to modernity. But in this liminal zone of Northumberland, the change will be slower, as borders and reivers are set to rights.

But that day will come… and that fervent hope in my ghostly host’s eyes will empower it… And there is something very spiritual about that…

We left the Pele Tower quietly. Others had felt its unique personality. We were all tired, and the dinner booked at a nearby pub was very welcome.

Our mental and emotional preparation was complete. We had been witness to the internal architecture of the self as seen in these vast and very different structures of stone.

The sun would rise on a day dedicated to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne… and its ancient mysteries; the Companion Pilgrims were coming home…

The Preston Pele Tower is a privately-owned museum. It charges a very reasonable £2.00 admission and has car parking and toilets on site.

To be continued.

©️Stephen Tanham

Other parts of this series:

Part One, Part Two,  Part Three, Part Four,


Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

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

 

The Stone and the Pilgrim (4)

“It’s as though… there’s something wrong with the horizon…”

Barbara was speaking softly, giving voice to one of the defining thoughts of the day. Something wrong with the horizon, how true. Craster’s harbour was disappearing behind us, but the cut-up horizon was still far away. There is no other way to reach Dunstanburgh Castle than on foot; though, back in history, distinguished visitors could arrive by sea – into it’s private harbour – as well. You had to be very wealthy to build a castle with its own private harbour, and the Earl of Lancaster was very wealthy. He was cousin to the King, Henry II, but, more significantly, he was the nephew of a man he considered to have been a much greater king – Henry I.

The dark, jagged vision grows as we walk. Back in the winter, when Bernie and I had come this way to explore the possible sites for the weekend, I could find no words to express that distant starkness. Now, one of the Companions did: “It’s as though it was deliberately punished, in such a visible way that no-one could ever forget…” History shows that, actually, it wasn’t. The ravages of time, neglect and a life on a Northumbrian cliff did that. But, emotionally, it looks exactly like a ‘punished place’, and that serves our ‘psychological’ purpose, here. The nature of the illusion lies in the mystery of the shapes used in its architecture…

Emotions are important on this, Day 2 of the Castles of the Mind weekend. We are hunting them, and encouraging them when they arise, naturally, like on this long walk over the headland. Emotions may not be as reliable as the more mundane reason, but they manifest immediately, and, if we learn their language, and know when to combine them with the mind’s discrimination, we can get much closer to the ‘soul’ – the essence of ourselves, using their energy. The external natural essence we’re tapping into in the land at Dunstanburgh is a strange one… beauty and the beast, almost.

Here, we have to have a little history to appreciate what we’re looking at; for the jagged horizon takes us back to the later years of the Medieval era, a time of battle and romance – or so the popular view suggests. 1313 is the date on which work on Dunstanburgh Castle began – just one year after the unholy alliance of the French king and the Pope ‘dissolved’ the Knights Templar.

It is hard to imagine taking a landscape so beautiful and ending up with a place scarred in such a lasting way. Yet, Dunstanburgh Castle is just that – at least emotionally. And that was what swung it into the short list of places for our weekend; what could be visited in the few short days that a Silent Eye weekend has available to it. There’s nothing logical about declaring that we are ‘pilgrims of the heart and mind’ travelling between the splendour of Bamburgh and the noble simplicity of Lindisfarne – and then making a detour fifteen miles south…

But once we had seen it on that dark horizon, it had to be part of the itinerary. It had to follow Bamburgh Castle because a human existence energised and brought back to ‘life’ by examination and a restless dissatisfaction with ordinary living must face up to a critical stage before it can move on.

The spectre growing in the near distance was the best example we had ever met of the word ‘ruin’. You don’t need to see your life as a ruin to make life-enhancing changes to it. What has been hard-won in life can serve what follows without destruction, only the captain of the ship needs to change. Yet, as Shakespeare understood so well, to tell a story that involves ruin challenges us to examine ourselves; in ruin lies a compelling set of emotions; emotions that energise change.

‘There was a powerful man who had a favourite nephew’. It could be the opening to one of the Bard’s plays, but, instead, it’s our own history – part of the story of how the English came to be. The powerful man was King Edward I; the young nephew became Thomas, earl of Lancaster, and he built Dunstanburgh Castle. It may seem odd for the powerful house of Lancaster to have estates so far away from the north-west, but it was normal for the Lancaster and York houses to have far-flung estates, in places of military importance. Both were, essentially, southern-based houses of power and the Wars of the Roses were yet to start, though they were not far away in time.

The Earl of Lancaster seems to have been an accomplished but arrogant man. He inherited the barony of Embleton from his father; Edmund ‘Crouchback’, who was the younger brother of King Edward I. King Edward was a major castle-builder, and created many of the spectacular castles that we visit in Wales, today. Previous lords of Embleton included the famous rebel Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, on whose life Lancaster may well have modelled his own.

Another, and more negative force forged Thomas, earl of Lancaster’s life: he hated his cousin the King, Edward II.

King Edward II was homosexual. His outspoken lover, Piers Gaveston, was despised by the barons, who plotted to ambush and kill him. The picture, above, photographed from the English Heritage guide book, shows the presentation of his head to the earls of Warwick, Lancaster (centre) and Hereford in 1312.

Edward bided his time in exacting his revenge. Cooler-thinking that the hothead Lancaster, he initially pardoned the earls who had kidnapped and murdered his lover (on Lancaster land). But history showed he was awaiting his opportunity.

With an eye on his own future security, Thomas decided that he would do something with the property he had inherited near Embleton, and he began work on Dunstanburgh, work that included the construction of not only one of the most ambitious castles of its day, but freshwater lakes surrounding it, and a stone harbour that brought important visitors and guests face to face with the twin stone towers, modelled on those used in his uncle’s Welsh masterpieces – a style lacking in anything build by his cousin, the King.

I hadn’t noticed it on our preparatory visit, but, facing it now with the knowledge of why it was constructed, it was such an obvious statement of intent…

Thomas, earl of Lancaster, was beheaded by the sword in 1322, after mounting a further unsuccessful rebellion against his patient king. His retreat to the finished castle at Dunstanburgh – designed to withstand any siege – was cut off by a party of the King’s troops. Lancaster was later unofficially venerated as a victim of royal murder, like his namesake St Thomas Becket.

We were all strangely silent in the interior of Dunstanburgh. Lost, probably, in our own histories and their triumphs and disasters…

It had been a long day, already, but, prior to a well-earned dinner in a country pub, we had a final surprise in store for the Companion pilgrims…

To be continued.

©️Stephen Tanham

Other parts of this series:

Part One, Part Two,  Part Three,


Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

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

The Stone and the Pilgrim (3)

“It’s all about tea-rooms, with you, isn’t it!”

It was said some years ago, and there was anger in it – just a bit – but she was right. We both collapsed in a heap of laughter on each other’s shoulder a second later.

There has to be humour in these weekends. They can be very intense – not by imposition, but by personal choice. When those attending, particularly for the first time, see the effect of a group of fellow adventurers working with the landscape, it can become infectious. We’re not just here as tourists, though that’s great fun and part of it, we’re here to experiment with consciousness – in a loving and lovely way. If that doesn’t harmonise a group, nothing will.

It is all about tea-rooms, but that’s a generic term… A charming gastropub on a rocky promontory just outside the harbour of one of the most charming of Northumberland’s seaside villages will do just as well… especially when one of their specialities is crab soup. It’s not a chowder (I love chowder). It’s better than that….

Saturday lunch time 15th September, 2018, the middle of the second day of the Silent Eye’s ‘Castles of the Mind’ workshop. Some of those attending are still quiet from the intensity of being in Bamburgh Castle with rather different motives than most tourists, though our respect for the place was not in doubt.

There is a degree of mystery about why we’re here, in the Jolly Fisherman, Craster. Everyone remembers the dramatic opening to the weekend on the beach, under a fabulous leaden sky. The guide pointing north across the white fringed, green-blue sea to the distant but clear image of Lindisfarne – our eventual destination, and the conditioning force behind us becoming pilgrims for these few days.

The line between Bamburgh and Lindisfarne does not include Craster; this tiny harbour village, famous for its picture-postcard harbour, smokery and one of Northumberland’s most famous coastal walks is some distance south.

The crab soup arrives, complete with a huge chunk of granary bread; the whole thing served on a wooden platter. I’m in heaven. The aroma, alone, tells me that my memory of the planning trip some months ago was accurate…it really is that good. I’m one of the drivers, so a weak lager shandy has to accompany it. It’s quite enough. We arrived in separate cars. One of the Companions suggest he had done an impromptu magical invocation on arrival at the over-full car park (the only one in Craster). It must have worked, because three cars left as we rounded, somewhat desperately, the last corner of the parking places. I think he’s serious…

We eat. Minds come back to the simple and connective process of the body’s food…and we begin to talk. Those present sense the exact nature of the location and its place in the planning of this rather intense day.

“We’re in search of something, aren’t we?” The car park magician asks.

We are, indeed…

Having examined, in the most perfect evening light I can remember, the splendour of Bamburgh Castle as seen from the beach; to venturing into its depths and its splendour in the morning just finished, we have begun a process of individual alchemy. We used the landscape to ‘cheat’ the ego from the beach, visualising the whole of it from the outside. The portcullis visualisation allowed us to ‘steal’ into that egoic lower self and seek (or at least request) the finding of an emotional ‘key’ – different for each of us. Entering the castle this morning allowed us to fulfil that part of the the quest: to venture inside the stone that we cast as hard and defensive shell of ourselves – grown in reaction to our lives, just as the castle grew in response to the need for organised defence of its existence.

Those within it become ‘royal’ in the process, just as our reactive self claims royalty over our lives. Tearing ourselves free of the castle’s comforts – because the call of the Pilgrim was greater – we find ourselves having crab soup and bread in a haven above a rocky and black shoreline…

What’s going on?

Well, the path outside that’s waiting for us is not just a journey along this savage but beautiful shoreline. Halfway to Embleton’s golden beach it passes something that haunts everyone who sees it…

The clock is ticking… That something, that ghost on the headland, and its significance in the Silent Eye’s weekend is where we’re going. And the soup is finished….

To be continued.

©️Stephen Tanham

Other parts of this series:

Part One, Part Two,


Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

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