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.

 

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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 (2)

Rested, the group of pilgrims gathers on the Saturday morning beneath the vast presence of Bamburgh Castle. The castle was restored to its present glory by the 19th century munitions entrepreneur and inventor William Armstrong. Lord Armstrong bought it from the Crewe trustees in 1894 for the sum of £60,000 – a fortune then. He went on to spend a further one million pounds creating an iconic English castle which would be used as a convalescent home for ‘well educated people who had fallen on hard times’.

Armstrong’s descendants still own and use Bamburgh Castle, though they have other dwellings. too. They are very much a part of Northumberland’s life and social hierarchy.

The portrait above was painted in 1846 and hangs in the museum within the castle walls which is dedicated to his work.

But we are not here for history. We are here to engage with the now, in a way that invokes the surroundings as a metaphor of our ‘interior’ state.

Seen from the beach the previous evening, the castle was the embodiment of protection… but also, possibly, conformity and obedience. Its structure is heavy, fixed. Whatever ideas gave rise to its creation are reflected in its unyielding stonework. The way it has grown and evolved is an accurate parallel to how the egoic self arises and dominates.

On the Friday evening, In our minds, we created an image of a portcullis being raised, and a mental journey into the castle to locate a symbolic key that would epitomise our pilgrim’s journey from here to Lindisfarne. But we know that things will happen when we pass inside its walls…

Psychologically, we will be transformed from being free but vulnerable, outside; to being safe but caged, inside. It’s not a new dilemma. The very first cell of biological life created that polarisation – that duality. From then on, the vehicle of life – the final product of organic chemical organisation – would thrive, but only inside the container which allowed protection and persistence… The world of consciousness changed at that point- becoming dual: the in-here and the out-there.

Sea bacteria became plants. Plants became fish. Fish became land and sky animals and finally, mankind emerged. At each stage, nature built on the best of what had gone before, while still allowing diversity in all its glory. The castle supports and protects ‘the best’. The inheritance of its wealth and prestige mirrors the DNA that allows life to endure in a cellular world, but only in a material sense.

We pass through the heavy wooden door and are assimilated into the interior of the ancient building. From here, even as group leader, I cannot speak for any of my companion’s experiences. Each is here to experience for themselves; each will or won’t find a key emotional space within the castle.

The first of the two ‘small rooms’ is unimpressive. Weapons and paintings hang from plain, white walls. There is no connection here, no sense of a powerful emotion related to our weekend’s quest, no test for the pilgrim…. it is spartan in its ‘feel’.

It is only in the next room that I discover that these two ‘small rooms’ were once part of the kitchens, which explains their plainness.

The connecting corridors and staircases wind into the centre of the building. The ancient is mixed with the familiar and familial, such as this bronze of Lady Armstrong and her two children, crafted by sculptor and film maker David Rawnsley, who, earlier in his multi-talented career, had produced the famous wartime naval epic ‘In which we serve’. The film was based upon the life of Earl Mountbatten. A warship would make another good model of the egoic self, I think to myself…

And then the nature of the interior changes. It becomes obvious that we are approaching a different part of the castle; one with very different functions.

The stone is somehow grander. The lustre is the wood deeper. The final flight of stairs is steep and heralds a dramatic change of perspective as we emerge into the King’s Hall.

The roof of the great hall is what first catches your attention. The false hammer beam ceiling is made from Thai teak. The King of (then) Siam was a close friend of Lord Armstrong and is said to have personally helped with the intricate carving. The King’s hall has served as the main ballroom and function suite since Edwardian times. It contains a minstrel’s gallery to house the musicians.

The austerity of the previous two rooms is replaced by a physical and emotional warmth. This is a place you want to be. Though only the ‘best’ would get that right, of course. It is ours for a few minutes. Within that time we need to decide its significance in the scheme of the weekend.

‘I’ feel very at home here. The opulence speaks of a place evolved to suit the needs and the feelings of a ruling class. That is not how I feel about myself, of course, but I can appreciate the effort and skill that has gone into its design. There’s little here that is new; it’s all traditional – and of very good quality. The sheer height of the ceiling casts a sense of ‘freedom’ about the place. We who live in low-ceilinged, modern houses forget how special this feels.

And then it hits me: how far in mind I am from the spirit of the group on the beach, the previous evening; how I have indentified with the quality of the contents in the hall. And there, now plainly visible, is the slow undermining of the search for the real Self that such luxury promotes. It’s quite natural to want to be comfortable, to appreciate quality things, but the purpose of this weekend is to make visible the working of the egoic self and its (literally) trappings.

Smiling, I do a little nod to the power in the room and leave…

The two martial figures, devoid of real content, couldn’t be better placed. Their presence is almost threatening: “Look, we’ve tried it the nice way, but you’re being stubborn.” They seem to say. “Just turn around and embrace the opulence… forget the other nonsense…”

Seen with a ‘normal’ eye, it’s just dark humour. But we don’t do these things to see with normal eyes; we try to see differently. Here’s a classic case: the finding of a key, the resolution to ‘leave it behind’ and then the act of running straight into authority. That’s exactly what the ego does to us when we challenge its position at our centre. It has a scary counterpart in the ‘superego’ – an internal authority figure that mimics someone in your life – like your mother or father; someone whose standards you can never live up to.

But the suits of armour have another attribute that fits them well with our search for metaphor: they may look fearsome but they are empty… And, in particular, they have no centre of being. They are just a shell, grown in reaction to life to protect us. But what protects also imprisons…

Now, my time is nearly up and I’m on a mission to leave, to get out of there. I have one more thing I want to do, and that’s outside the main body of the castle. I walk quickly though the remainder of the rooms on the higher level, looking for the exit staircase to the lower corridor.

But, just before the staircase there is a well – a very ancient well, mentioned in the History of the Kings of England and dated 774 AD. It is nearly 44 metres deep and two metres wide, and was cut through hard rock to reach the water-bearing sandstone, below, giving the castle its life-sustaining water for over a thousand years.

Suddenly, my subjective day has a very special connection with the objective world ‘out there’ and my hand slides over the wooden cover in a gesture of gratitude as I take the staircase and leave the castle.

At the far end of the interior grounds of the castle is a raised platform on which sits the old windmill. From it, I know I will get a view of the whole structure – just like being on the beach. For long minutes I stand and look back, restoring the perspective of the evening before. Then, conscious that the others will be gathering outside the halls, I walk to join them.

Stuart, one of my fellow directors of the Silent Eye School is there, already. He is sitting in a reproduction of the ancient royal throne of Bamburgh, reconstructed from a fragment found on the site. Behind him, the companions of the weekend are gathering after their own interior experiences. Whenever we can, we open such moments to any kind of reading or spoken observations. Poetry or prose is a popular choice. Stuart has on his knee a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress…

We gather and listen… It’s surprisingly apt.

To be continued.

©️Stephen Tanham

Other parts of this series:

Part One,


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.

Castles of the Mind (2)

Castles of Mind new logo

Continued from Part One

As the group walk through the arched entranceway to the interior of the castle, a new feeling emerges: one of ‘being in it, together’. The transition from outer to inner space of the newly considered ‘organism’ of the castle brings with it other changes of perspective. One of these is that a process – that of the weekend, itself, has begun.

One of the weekend’s companions, new to what the Silent Eye does, asks a question:

“Is this – she points to the entire interior of the walled space – to be looked at as a representation of life, and the possibilities of spiritual work within that life?”

Warkworth tease of interior

The answer is unhesitating. “For the purposes of this weekend, we are using several of the Northumberland Castles to be exactly that.” He pauses, “So, this, as the beginning, is the place where the elements of that search, that quest, begin to work towards the goal.”

The new companion considers this. “So, what is our start point? What is the core idea that powers the rest?”

Castles of the Mind 2 tower and sun

Its a great question. The man looks around him, seeking, not inspiration, for he has begun such discussions many times, but the spirit of the moment. Then he smiles, as an image forms in his mind…

“This is a medieval castle; imagine a shield…”

The new companion is listening. Alert and as keyed into the moment as the group leader. She waits… silent and attentive.

“A shield that belongs to you – that has grown to defend you.” He uses his fingers to draw a circle in the air, and then lets the hand fall and draws it down towards the ground, describing an outline around the group that mirrors the interior shape of the castle.

“So the castle perimeter – the walls – is the shield?” asks the companion. “But why call it a shield. Wouldn’t ‘castle wall’ have been sufficient?”

Castles of the Mind 2 Outer walls

“It would,” the man answers. “but the image of a shield is more useful as a symbol of something that belongs to you.”

“My shield, then…”

“Exactly so. A deeply personal object, one you have crafted and groomed for all of your life.”

She’s getting into this. “A shield alone… I don’t have a matching sword?”

She smiles, as does he. “We’ll get to swords, later. One symbol at once – your shield, alone, took a very long time to make…”

“It defends me, this shield?”

“Look around you – don’t you feel defended? Or would have in the days when this was a functioning structure?”

“Yes,” she hesitates, clutching a the edge of a thought, an important one. “But it’s sad, too.”

“Why sad?” his eyes flash in the morning sun. The smile is one of deep encouragement.

“Because it cuts me off from all that beautiful world, outside…”

Castles of the Mind 2 Country beyond

Everyone in the group is silent – as though the words of a very important prayer or salutation have just been whispered.

“Yes,” he says, softly. “It does, but it keeps you alive…”

The sadness of her realisation has affected her voice. “Must it be that way?”

“No,” he says, running with the hidden wild horses in the moment. “Which is why the shield, your personal shield, has the most beautiful outer face.”

Not wanting to dwell on the sadness, she laughs. “Tell me?” she turns to see the smiling faces of the group. “Tell me…”

“The shield, your beautiful shield, has nine powerful jewels set into its face. They defend, too, but they can be something different.”

She is laughing now. “What can they do?”

“They can be a map back out into the beautiful world.”

Castles of the Mind 2 - staircase up

“Couldn’t I just turn round and make a run for it now?”

Now he is laughing. “You could… but you’d still be a servant. Wouldn’t you rather leave the castle as a King or a Queen?”

You can see she wasn’t expecting anything like this. “A King or a Queen? A shield has this power?”

“Not alone, but the jewels, and their arrangement do…”

Other parts of this series:

Part One, 

To be continued…

Castles of the Mind is the forthcoming September 2018 workshop of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching organisation that promotes and enables the investigation of our true self, using a combination of modern spiritual psychology and traditional magical symbolism. The workshop is open to all, not just existing Companions of the Silent Eye School.

The dates are 14-16 September. The workshop will be centred on the Northumberland town of Seahouses, but will involve travel to other locations along the coast.

The Silent Eye holds four workshops per year – in April, June, September and December, mirroring the major events of the solar cycle. The April event is the main one, and is always held in Derbyshire. The other three are ‘Living Land’ or ‘walk and talk’ events such as that described above, and are held in different locations each year. The administrative cost is £50.00 per person which does not include accommodation and meals. Meals are usually taken together, in a local pub, and the costs shared.

To register your interest, or for more details email us at rivingtide@gmail.com.

©Stephen Tanham

Castles of the Mind (1)

Castles of Mind new logo

Like the best of ideas, it begins with a partly-seen ghost, the glimmer of an edge of something that will work…. Ideas are great, but, unless something is practical and consistent on the day, its value is limited to fuelling a ‘greater’ idea that will be.

And then the right idea expands, filling out, not linearly, but with emotions that billow like a spinnaker on a sailing ship, catching a wind that is not of the individual creator’s making. If the goal is a spiritual one, then that catching of an inner wind has the taste of something that will have a shared effect on a group of people who have come to experience transformation.

The setting for the September 2018 weekend workshop ‘Castles of the Mind’ is the beautiful coastline of historic Northumberland, the border county between England and Scotland, the home of the terrible land-pirates known as the Reivers; and, before that, the place of skirmish, battle and blood between the Scots and the English.

Small wonder, then, that this beautiful coastline has more than its fair share of castles, whose use dates back over a thousand years. They provide the basis of a wonderful chain of historic visits, but their use in this coming Silent Eye weekend (14-16 September) is based on far more than their strong and ancient stone.

Castles of the Mind is based on how we think, feel, act and behave now...

Warkworth full wall

The weekend of 14-16 September will be a mixture of companionship, adventure and fun. We will begin on the afternoon of Friday 14th, assembling for an Italian coffee or English tea, in the lovely town of Warkworth, fifteen miles south of Bamburgh. This classic Northumbrian market town provides a pleasant venue for us to gather and discuss the structure of the weekend.

From there it is short walk (or drive) up the nearby hill to the car park of Warkworth Castle, our first site, and the basis for the rest. Warkworth castle is a unique medieval building. The castle was the favourite residence of the well-known Percy family – the Earls and Dukes of Northumberland. It was occupied by their family from the 14th to the 17th centuries.

Below, on the banks of the river Coquet, and often missed by those visiting, are the ruins of a hermitage, which was carved directly out of the rock.

As a group, we will consider the impact that this imposing castle has on our combined consciousness. We will look at the sheer mass of its presence, and consider the nature of authority and achievement… We may also reflect that, though the purpose of its design is still visible, it is a ruin…

Warkworth Gatehouse and wall

The functions of this mighty power were focussed on the gateway. Though the building’s primary purpose was defence, its real use – the exercise of the authority that security brought – came only when that structure allowed people in… or out.

Warkworth Gatehouse

In this, the castle mirrors the basic building-block of organic life: the cell. A cell’s function is to isolate its organic mechanisms from the ‘soup’ of the world around it. Only through this isolation can the processes of individual life take place. It is ironic that, here, in a world where the castle was one of the largest ‘things’ in the world, its function mirrored that of the smallest structure of life.

One of the ‘shocks’ on the path of mystical study is to discover how closely the physical processes of life are mirrored on a higher level within the structures of consciousness. We will discuss this as we peer through the ‘tunnel’ of the castle’s portcullis and gatehouse, beginning to perceive that, beyond the ‘wall that excludes’ there are internal stone structures that hint at a more sophisticated life in the interior – though only able to operate while the protection of the walls continue to operate.

Here, we will consider where fear fits into all this? Is it primal in its power; so deeply rooted that we cannot afford to go near it? Or have we forgotten that, once, it was layered over the foundational mechanisms of our lives… and is therefore a ‘man-made’ reaction?

Warkworth tease of interior

And then something remarkable will happen. We say this with confidence, since it always does. When a group intends to raise its ‘level’ of consciousness by working together, there occurs a moment – early in the event – when everything comes to a point of harmony and productive endeavour.

In the tunnel of the gatehouse, the constricted space that will lead to the essential nature of the weekend, we will ask each person to imagine they are being born into a vision of their own interior nature…

To be continued…

Castles of the Mind is the September 2018 workshop of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching organisation that promotes and enables the investigation of our true self, using a combination of modern consciousness methods and traditional magical symbolism. The workshop is open to all, not just Companions of the Silent Eye School.

The Silent Eye holds four workshops per year – in April, June, September and December, mirroring the major events of the solar cycle. The April event is the main one, and is always held in Derbyshire. The other three are ‘walk and talk’ events such as that described above, and are held in different locations each year. The administrative cost is £50.00 per person which does not include accommodation and meals. Meals are usually taken in local pubs and the costs shared.

For more details email us at:

rivingtide@gmail.com.

©Stephen Tanham

Dwellers in Towers

Minds in Towers2 - 2

A recent trip to the beautiful Northumbrian coast threw up a chance visit to Preston Tower, one of a type known as a ‘Pele Tower’ – a fortified place of refuge for well-to-do families, built during the times of the ‘Border Reivers’ – armed family gangs who took the law into their own hands in these often un-policed borderlands between England and Scotland.

In the famous Pevsner’s Guides to the architecture of the UK, the Northumberland guide describes this type of building:

“In the 14th Century Northumberland was almost permanently in a state of warfare, and in the 15th and 16th centuries the county was still so sorely harassed by armies, gangs and thieves that a tower house was the only possible insurance a man of sufficient property could take out.”
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In the entrance room is a model of how Preston Tower would have looked in the 14th century. Only half of it remains, but that is in very good condition and considered one of the finest examples in Britain.

Towers and their dwellers have always interested me, as they illustrate a particular set of human attributes: the needs for security and the power of fear – something whose controlling power we make reference to as a block to individual spiritual development in the Silent Eye’s three year self-exploration course, where one of the archetypes encountered is just that Dweller in the Tower.

Towers have featured often in spiritual literature. The famous Tarot Card of the “Blasted Tower” is a reference to the destruction by natural forces (lightning, in this case) of the upper levels of the Tower’s construction. To find the whole origin of the essence of the card we need to go back to the Bible, where, in Genesis, it tells that, in a land after the great flood, all ‘men’ spoke the same language. They decided to build a Tower to Heaven from the ‘slime’ of the earth. God confounded their plans by causing them all to speak a different language.

Blasted Tower
The ‘Blasted Tower’ from the Ryder-Waite Tarot Deck painted by Pamela Coleman-Smith. Wikkipedia Public Domain (source)

We might assume that a kindly God would be pleased at our attempts to build a tower to reach ‘him’, but the essence of the story is that the materials used were not those that would withstand a dialogue with so powerful a being; and hence that very force – or attempted dialogue – was the source of the destruction. A mystical interpretation is that a successful tower would have to be built from below and from above at the same time… But that is a topic for another post.

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Despite its apparent size, the interior space is minimal. The arrangement of the space is entirely geared to defence rather than comfortable living.

The Dweller in the Tower is secure but cut off from the world they fear. The fear is real, as is the perceived threat, but it may not be present.

The effect of separation from the surrounding landscape is a terrible price to pay. We might say that such an approach takes us away from the ‘flow’ of life – a flow that, if embraced openly, is the key to our personal evolution. This is not an easy step, and is counter intuitive. It is the kind of step we take only when we become convinced that our life (within the Tower) is no longer capable of providing any real sustenance.

Pele towers like Preston Tower were build by rich men. They subjected their families to terrible and cramped living conditions in the name of safety. Psychologically, we might say that our obsession with safety does much of the same, today…

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What would be attractive about life in a tower? One good thing might be the view. From a good height, we can see more… but not touch or feel or smell it. This suggests an isolation of the intellectual sense, that lives its life against a ‘picture’ of the world rather than the world, itself.

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The view from the roof of Preston Tower, near Bamburgh

From that height, using that view, I could see all around me. I could compile detailed maps of the world below, bringing all that knowledge back into my tower, like a spy might – but it would always be historical knowledge. My interaction with the world below could be minimal, or as slight as I wanted it. Whenever I felt the least bit threatened, I could close the thick doors and bolt them. Then, climbing the winding staircase, I could take myself farther and farther from what might hurt me… take myself farther and farther from life, itself, replaying only the bits I wanted.

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The Tower Dweller is not a complete human in the Silent Eye’s approach. He or she is an aspect of the personality, one formed from that part of the spectrum of ourselves which is associated with fear. The Pele towers were a very good model for one aspect of the modern personality, which feels itself under threat from things real – and many more, imaginary.

It takes targeted effort and a lot of self-honesty to see these deeply- rooted patterns in ourselves. The positive side of that coin is that they are fundamentals within our self. Any changes to these ‘magnetic poles’ in ourselves will alter the whole. If we simply concentrate on the Tower Dweller within us, then our self-work will be unbalanced. Far better to circumscribe ourselves so that we can see what other aspects hold the patterns of our vital energies prisoner.

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One day, we might climb to the roof for a different reason…

One day, we might climb to that roof and look at the view, all around, for a different reason. We might have come to a vision of the potential fullness of our real selves and want to take one last look at the landscape from above, before opening the door and venturing out into that world with a very different purpose. The map will still be useful, but limited, compared with being there.

As the first breaths of our new life enter the lungs, enriching neglected inner pathways with new life, we might look back at the soaring stonework and thank the Tower; thank it for keeping us safe until we grew confident enough in ourselves to make our destination the world and not its isolated heights.

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As the sun sets on the cold stone, we might find ourselves laughing and running into that forest, creeping up to shout ‘Boo!’ to the bogeyman who we once thought lived there…


Preston Tower details: http://www.prestontower.co.uk/


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, low-cost and supervised correspondence courses.

His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com

©Stephen Tanham, Silent Eye School of Consciousness.

Broken village

Etal et al - Castle reduced

The beautiful Northumberland village of Etal, one of a local twin, has a fine ruined castle; but this blog is not entirely about castles…

The picture above is the castle at Etal. It was constructed in the middle of the fourteenth century by Robert Manners, a Norman descendant. It consists of a residential tower in the ‘Pele’ style; a gatehouse and a corner tower of small proportions. The whole is protected by a curtain wall. The castle has a ‘bloody’ past, being close to Branxton, the nearest settlement to the site of the Battle of Flodden (September 1513), at which the English King Henry VIII’s forces under the Earl of Surrey prevailed, after a long and bloody battle, over those of James IV of Scotland.

A few days prior to the battle of Flodden, King James had stormed Etal castle and added it to the many others captured in the most audacious invasion of England ever undertaken by a Scottish army.

History judges the English King to be the primary aggressor, since the whole war was prompted by Henry tearing up the Treaty of Perpetual Peace which had previously been in place between the two countries, and with which the Scots were perfectly happy, since it recognised them as a nation.

James IV was killed at Flodden, which saw almost one-third of the 34,000 Scottish soldiers killed. Etal was a short-lived prize…

We have forgotten the emotional taste of ‘wholesale slaughter’. Like many words that are supposed to trigger a moral response, wholesale slaughter can now be rendered ‘over there’ by television. If the news is terrible we can change channel… the choice is ours. We think it’s an escape, but, really, it eats away at our collective soul… we feel we can do nothing, so we don’t try. We accept horror – real horror, as way of life. The cost is that we become farther from reality – and reality is true life…

Ten thousand Scottish men (and thousands of English soldiers, too). What does that number mean? If we asked them to come back from their dark, Northumbrian graves to help us understand this horror, and line up in rows of ten, how long would it take a firing squad to kill them again? Let’s assume that the modern firing squad uses machine guns that can kill ten men in a minute. It might take four more minutes to have them march to their positions and another five to clear the bodies away. That’s a rounded ten minutes per squad of dead men. To do this to ten thousand would take 10,000/10, which is a nice and easy one thousand minutes. There are sixty minutes in an hour, so the firing squad, with its modern automatic weapons, would be continuously active for nearly seventeen hours – most of a day, if you include the English soldiers too. Imagine being there, and watching all of it? We might get a new appreciation for ‘wholesale slaughter’, and this is a minor example…

Northumberland is full of castles. Castles and ‘Pele’ Towers: tall, fortified dwellings, less than luxurious, but safe – in which a besieged family could live for many months until help arrived. Wars, family and tribal conflicts helped create a very chequered past for this beautiful county, which holds the North East border with Scotland. When there weren’t wars between England and Scotland there were the reivers – bloodthirsty family gangs, ready to attack, plunder and kill in these historically un-policed borderlands.

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Border reivers at Gilnockie Tower, from an original drawing by G. Cattermole (Wikipedia Public Domain)

The Roman emperor Hadrian had found it difficult, too. So difficult that he had ordered the construction of a wall that ran coast to coast, from the Solway Firth, near Carlisle to Wallsend, near Newcastle. It has been described as the greatest engineering feat of the Roman world, but, as is the case with walls, it didn’t really work.

A different approach and smaller than a wall is the idea of keeping people in… Being inclusive, looking after them. It’s an idea seemingly at odds with our go-getting, every man and woman for themselves, pursuit of excellence, kill the bastard, commercial world.

The reivers just killed their enemies; and were killed in return. Vendettas, feuds, usual cycles of endless violence. It makes good television and rotten societies.

Caring requires that we believe in Good. Not just as an idea but as a force, an ideal, a state to be drawn on when we are pressed or outnumbered or in despair. The people who established modern Etal believed in good. They twinned it and the neighbouring village of Ford together, establishing a ‘Model Village’. This is not to be confused with a miniature village. An model village was a term coined by entrepreneurs like Robert Owen (who wrote ‘A New View of Society‘) and William Hesketh Lever (founder of what became Lever Brothers – Today’s Unilever). It was place where, alongside work, decent housing and education were provided on the basis that, if you looked after people, you could expect them to look after that which employed them.

The village of Etal is beautiful and has a presence not entirely due to the castle.

Etal main street reduced

The main street of Etal is clean and pretty, with a lovely Post Office cum tea room. Many of the buildings are thatched. This includes the Black Bull – centre in the picture above – the only thatched pub in Northumberland. The pub is being restored and is an example of what’s still very good about Etal and its nearby twin village of Ford. Nowadays, the twin villages are part of a managed country estate owned by the Joicey family. One striking thing about Etal and Ford is that no-one but the controlling family is allowed to own property. The houses, the shop and the Black Bull are only available to rent. Tenants are expected to look after their properties and everyone feels included. it’s a happy place and proud – you can feel it as you walk through on your way to the bloody castle.

About a half-hour’s drive away from Etal is the Bambrugh coast, a very beautiful place. We were staying a few miles away in a newly resurgent village with a great beach, and eating our evening meals in a local pub about a mile away, to which we walked, in the January darkness, enjoying the sound of the sea hitting the stone harbour in the inky darkness. Photography was well-nigh impossible but this shot illustrates the point I want to make:

Etal blog dark shore

It was only on our second journey back to our holiday cottage that I realised how dark the cove was – totally dark, in fact, apart from that one street lamp. The reason was simple: there was no-one living there. The most expensive properties in the village – facing the sea – were all empty on that week in January. They had been bought as holiday homes, busy during the summer, no doubt, but a dark and ominous shoreline in winter.

Etal is not the bustling village that the the poster below records it as being in 1820, but it’s not broken, either; not like that winter shoreline a few miles away.

Etal old poster history reduced

Of that list, there remains a church, a post office/excellent tea room, some well-kept and lovely houses, a caring landlord that ensures that everything fits; and, oh yes….a ruined castle.

Inclusion is everything…

The thought brought to mind something I read on a plaque within the gardens of San Jose University, many years ago. I didn’t write it down at the time and had to struggle to remember the gist of it, but it went something like this:

He drew a circle to keep me out

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout

But love and I had a plan to win

We drew a circle to keep him in

It’s a lot better than a dark shoreline and empty houses, or a line of doomed people seventeen hours long condemned to die by the actions of a psychopath…

We think of our world as much bigger than villages. But the villages of our communities need not, ever, be broken. We just have to be inclusive…


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 low-cost supervised correspondence courses.

His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com

©Stephen Tanham, Silent Eye School of Consciousness.