A Dorset Weekend With The Silent Eye – Part Four

As the seasons tumble from summer into autumn, the fields turning to gold, I realise that it’s already October and I still haven’t finished writing up my account of The Silent Eye weekend I attended in June. I suppose I’ve been on a blog break (I’ve been doing a lot but have little to report as yet; however, stay posted), so I guess that’s one excuse.

But I also think that Maiden Castle, which was the next stop on our weekend, is somewhere that I’m still processing, the echoes of our visit there ringing through my mind. It was massive, in so many ways. Sue had warned me, the previous afternoon, as we were making our mad time-twisting dash between churches. ‘I want to see your expression,’ she said, ‘when you first see it.’

I hope it was suitably awed – I know I felt it. I can still remember the gut punch of that moment – the first glimpse of giant ramparts crowning an ancient hill, the whole almost too big to take in at once. The nearby burial mounds, rising dark against the flat green of the summerlands, and the rumpled earthworks that marked the maze leading you into the castle itself. It was quite something, and that was before we’d even left the carpark…

‘Do you feel as though you’re about to be tested?’ My companion nodded. She did, she said. I said that I did, too, looking up at the high green walls of the castle. It was an excited, rather than anxious, feeling, but definitely there, a weight of expectation, that somehow I was about to be challenged and would emerge changed by the experience…

It was a very strange feeling, but one that was inescapable. Perhaps a fitting culmination to a weekend where I had felt power building, the land moving towards the solstice. We took the pathway leading up to the entrance, tall grasses and wildflowers waving either side of us. Once these hills had been chalk-white, the grass now covering them removed. Even now, clothed in green and weathered by millennia, the scale was still impressive. Archaeological surveys have discovered that the hilltop was first enclosed during Neolithic times, about 6,000 years ago, and by the Iron Age (around 800BC) it was the pre-eminent settlement in the area, with the labyrinthine entrances and towering banks and ditches in place. The fort remained occupied until the arrival of the Romans in 43AD, a time when most local hill-forts were no longer used, further reinforcing the significance of the site. Even now, it is one of the largest and most complex hill forts in Europe. However, once the Romans settled the nearby time of Durnovaria (now Dorchester), the fort finally fell out of use, other than as a site for a Roman temple (more on that later in this post).

Apparently, there had been activities planned by our guides (sorry, Sue!) but my companion and I, both driven by the same inescapable urge, headed into the labyrinth, leaving the group behind. We each took a different path, meeting at the entrance to the fort where, once again, we felt we had to take opposite paths. My companion headed one way along the ramparts while I took the other…

… and all at once I was wearing leather and furs, shield and sword and bow strapped to me, strong and confident as I patrolled the edge. I knew my focus needed to be outwards, that inside the walls was fire and warmth and welcome, and that it was my job to make sure it was protected…

I stumbled, my hair flying in my face, as I reached a part when the ramparts dipped down. I remember feeling annoyed, as though this section was difficult to defend, a weak spot. However, I picked up the pace again, continuing around to the other entrance to the fort. There is nothing left now of the roundhouses that used to dot the interior, but there are remnants of more recent inhabitants. And that was where I knew I needed to go.

The Roman temple at Maiden Castle sits on what is thought to have been an earlier, pre-Christian temple on the site, as there is evidence it sits within the remains of a roundhouse. It actually consisted of several buildings, although only fragments of wall remain. Roman artefacts, including a hoard of coins, have been found in the temple and at other sites on the hilltop, suggesting that the Romans, while they may not have occupied the site, certainly made use of it.

When I reached the remains of the temple my companion wasn’t there, and I felt a vague sense of disappointment. However, I decided to stay and investigate the ruins, something compelling me to walk anti-clockwise around the outer circle, then the inner one, before standing at the centre, where a small depression was in the earth. I had an overwhelming urge to kneel, and did so…

… all became still, the wind that rushed around me ceasing, warmth descending. I felt a hand upon my shoulder and bowed my head, my weapons to one side, my hood pulled back from my hair. It felt like reassurance, that I was in the right place, doing the right thing, and that I was protected…

Then modern-day me took over and I felt a bit silly, kneeling there with head bowed. I silently gave thanks and got to my feet…

… laughter. ‘You are always in such a hurry. You’re leaving too early, but that’s all right. Off you go…’

I paused, unsure for a moment. Then I shook off the feeling and started back towards the ramparts, hoping to meet up with some of the others. However, before I reached them something made me turn… to see the companion I’d hoped to meet walking into the temple.

‘Oh!’ Overjoyed, I made my way back to meet her. ‘I knew I was supposed to meet you here!’ I said, as I drew closer.

‘I’ve been here already,’ she replied. ‘And I left, then something made me come back.’

‘And I left too early,’ I said. ‘I knew I had, and they told me I had, too!’

We laughed about it, and I made a silent vow to trust myself a little more, to listen more.

The rest of the group joined us and we sat for a while, happy to rest. There was some discussion as we considered the history of the place, Sue painting a vivid picture of what things might have been like when it was new…

… I stood, high above the labyrinth, waiting with sword and flame. There was no light other than the moon, which silvered the curves of earth, lined the dark form of the initiate who walked the path blindfolded. The mark on my hip was the same as that borne by the others who waited with me, our hearts in our mouths, for the initiate to pass their final test. I watched him walk between the hills, disappearing then reappearing, each time a breath blown out. The flame in my hand was held low so as not to give him any clue, my sword edge sharp, waiting for his arrival…

And then it was time to go. Rain was threatening, the wind lifting, and everyone had places they needed to be, including me. I finished my circuit, and started through the (already familiar) labyrinth to the pathway that led down to the car park…

… I felt sorrow to be leaving the safety of home and hearth, yet excited to see the world and all that it had to offer beyond the confines of the castle…

It was strange, as though I walked two paths at the same time – one that of a warrior leaving their home and all that was familiar, the other a more prosaic reality, lunch to be eaten and a train to catch. I could still feel the weight of leather and sword, my hair wild from the wind. Even as we sat in a bright café, it wasn’t until food had been consumed that I started to feel anything like myself.

And there was still one more place to go…

This is part four of my account of a weekend in Dorset with The Silent Eye. Please click here for part one, part two and part three.

A Dorset Weekend With The Silent Eye – Part Three

This is part three of my account of a recent weekend in Dorset with The Silent Eye. Click here for Part 1 & Part 2.

After lunch, we were to visit seven churches in the course of the afternoon, starting with Cerne Abbas. This, despite the fact we only had a few hours to accomplish it, seemed completely reasonable. Time was already starting to play tricks on me, stretching and slowing, and the afternoon was to prove even more challenging in that regard…

We started in the lovely parish church at the centre of Cerne Abbas, adorned with carving both outside and in. it was a pleasant church, one that hummed with activity and felt much more alive than the strangely vacant church at Cadbury the evening before.

There was a man painting icons at a table and several of our group spent time in conversation with him. I wandered the aisles, photographing the remnants of medieval wall paintings, the carved screen and ornate pulpit, and a shape painted on the wall near the altar. Known as a Consecration Cross, the shape probably predates Christianity, and was to figure prominently as the day progressed.

Once everyone had had a look around, we met in the small garden to one side of the church, sitting within an enclosure created by espaliered fruit trees. There was a brief discussion about the places we were going to visit, and then we were each invited to choose a coin and a piece of paper. My coin was Aries, and on the piece of paper I chose was the Sun….

…It was time to start the dance…

I hopped in the car with Sue and Stuart, who, very kindly, had ferried me around all weekend, and we hit the road. And this is where things got a bit strange. Sue has written up all the churches we visited in great detail here (Churches one, two, three, four, five and six) if you’re interested. I do remember visiting them all – the problem, however, was keeping them straight in my head. The landscape seemed to flow around me, the curving roads between high hedges feeling like a labyrinth as we arrived at first one lych gate, then another, driving past ancient cottages and old stone walls, tantalising glimpses of hills  appearing before the road twisted again, exposing another view. There were roses and tiny lilies, green grass and tilting tombstones, each telling a story of their own. Even now, it’s tough for me to comprehend how it was we managed to visit all seven churches before dinner time, and my impressions of each are images of light and colour and stained glass and stone…

… a flash of orange light through a high window, gilding each one of us in turn… a strange figure, older than the building it adorned, echoes of a distant past… a church set in a meadow next to an ancient country house, deconsecrated yet still, in its own way, holding power… another church set on the side of a hill, which had a cool clear feeling, like the far more ancient stone altars we’d seen in Scotland the year before… strangely phallic carvings flanked by curving shapes seen on an ancient tithe box… the jewel-like gleam of stained glass… swallows darting inside a stone vestibule… carved wood and stone… a hillside rising, rich with flowers and green grass… a dance of planets, fire and water, sun and moon… the feeling that we were in a place far older, with roots that ran far deeper, than the churches that stood there…

That night, at dinner, there wasn’t much conversation, all of us needing time, it seemed, to process the day. We did discuss the churches, and it was then that confusion set in, for me at least.

‘But wasn’t that the third church we went to?’

‘The fifth.’

‘Really?’ Mind spinning, trying to remember.

‘Earth energy does that to people.’

‘It does?’

I looked around at the table. Two of our companions had left already, pleading exhaustion. The others, while still smiling, were quiet, and we were all waiting for dinner to arrive. The churches spun in my head, as though on a wheel. Or a cross, perhaps – the consecration cross, which we’d ended up seeing in several of the churches we visited, as well as a six-pointed star carving, each with a centre point. And we’d visited seven churches…

I gave up trying to figure it out and ate my meal, marvelling quietly once more at how time seems to become elastic on these weekends, every moment filled with meaning, something to be savoured and considered later.

Now, when I look back at that afternoon, my impression is one of breathlessness. Not because I felt rushed, or was running a lot – rather, I was breathless from being caught in a force larger than I was. There were some lovely moments of clarity, many to do with water, as though taking a moment to look in a font or stream helped me to refocus. And I took hardly any photos, which is strange – certainly almost none of the church buildings themselves. Rather, I focused on details and oddities, as though I was only able to take everything in as fragments. It was wonderful, in the best sense of the word.

But the place we were to visit the next day would dwarf any other we had already seen, in just about every way possible…


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Wednesday Wander – Casa Batllo, Barcelona

I know, I know. You thought I was going to continue with my epic trip from last month. And, I am, definitely. There’s still so much to see in New York, from Rockefeller Plaza to the Chrysler building, Central Park to the Art Deco architecture of Fifth Avenue. Plus all the other places we visited…

But this week my mind has wandered to Barcelona, and an architectural masterpiece by one of my favourite architects, Antoni Gaudi.

I was last in Barcelona a couple of years ago. The weather was lovely while we were there, not too hot and perfect for walking around the city, which we did every day. I made sure to go and see as much of Gaudi’s work as I could, as I’d missed some on my previous visit, so we took the train up to Parc Guell, marvelled at the twisted spires of Sagrada Familia, and pondered the construction complexities of Casa Mila.

Not far from Casa Mila, on the Passeig de Gracia, is Casa Batllo or, as the locals call it, Casa Del Ossos, the house of bones. Looking at the extraordinarily intricate facade, one can see why – vaguely skeletal pillars hold curving window frames, while balconies look like the skulls of some strange sea creature, dried out in the sun.

Gaudi worked with colour and fantastical form, and I think this house is probably one of the best examples of his particular genius. The humped roof with scaled tiles was designed to evoke the idea of a dragon, with scaled tiles and a knobbly spine. There is a theory that the turret signifies the lance of St George, the patron saint of Catalonia, plunged into the back of the dragon.

The house was created in 1904 for the Batllo family, who commissioned Gaudi to design and build a new home for them. However, Gaudi convinced them that the existing building on the site, built in 1877, could simply be renovated instead. The Batllo family lived there until the 1950s, when the house was purchased by an insurance company and used as offices. It has since been renovated and restored, and is now open to the public (through ticket purchase) for tours and private event hire.

It was a thrill for me to see the house – what a joy it must have been to live there, in this wonderful ornate city where even the pavements are etched with flowers. Barcelona is one of my favourite places, and the art and architecture are a big part of the reason why.

Thanks for coming on another Wednesday Wander with me – see you next week, when we head back to America again…


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Wednesday Wander – Ellis Island, New York

There is something quite magical, even on a cold and snowy day, about sailing the narrow strip of water past the Statue of Liberty to Ellis Island, with Manhattan in all its glory to the right. It must have been an incredibly exciting, emotional sight for the more than twelve million immigrants who arrived in New York City between 1892 and 1954. However, their journey wasn’t quite over – they still had to pass through immigration which, in those days, meant stopping at nearby Ellis Island.

Ellis Island, named for its eighteenth century owner, Samuel Ellis, was for 62 years the entry point for migrants coming across the Atlantic to the United States. After voyages that could, in some cases, take months, each weary traveller had to carry their possessions through the echoing halls, be examined and questioned and sorted before being allowed access to the tantalisingly close mainland. It must have been heartbreaking for those who had travelled all that distance, leaving all they loved behind, to be turned away almost at the gates, so to speak, the glittering city so close by denying them entry for whatever reason they deemed fair. Yet for all that, Ellis Island was not the haunted place I imagined it to be before I visited – rather, the story there seems to be one of success, of the countless migrants who chose to chase the American dream, many of them finding success and prosperity enough to send for their extended families.

The current buildings on Ellis Island were opened in 1900, after a fire destroyed the original timber buildings in 1897, only five years after they’d been built. Immigration records dating back to 1855 were also lost in the fire, and for several years, while the new buildings were being constructed, the Barge Office at nearby Battery Park was used as the processing station for new arrivals. Once the new buildings were in place, immigrants once again had to stop at the island before being allowed entry to the United States. New arrivals were asked 29 questions by officials, including their name, occupation, and how much money they had, as they were expected to have enough to support themselves. Anyone with visible illnesses or poor health was sent home or held in the nearby hospital, even if the rest of their family had been approved to enter the United States.

In the vaulted Great Hall, migrants were checked for a variety of conditions (including one harrowing check which involved scraping the eyeball with a metal hook!), then sorted into sections to be sent their separate ways. On the day we visited, the hall was almost deserted – it was hard to imagine how noisy it must have been when full, or how many different languages once echoed beneath its lofty ceiling.

In some ways, the Hall itself was a symbol of the American dream. Our guide told us that the beautiful tiles lining the ceiling and floors were made by a family who had passed through the hall themselves only a few years earlier, bringing their expertise in tilemaking from the old world to the new, and finding such success that their products were soon in demand across the country, making them millionaires.

Across the water from the arrivals hall are the hospital and quarantine buildings, which have not yet been restored. It is possible to tour them, though, arranged through prior booking and while wearing a hard hat. We chose not to do so, instead following our guide out to where a curving wall of steel bore the names of all those recorded as having passed through the island to a new life in America.

The city gleamed in the distance, Liberty holding her torch to guide weary travellers with her promise of freedom and justice for all. It was an extraordinary place, with stories enough to fill several libraries, I would imagine. I’m glad I got to see it.

Thank you for coming on another Wednesday Wander with me! See you all next time…


Enjoyed this post? Want to read more? Find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, Under Stone (Ambeth Chronicles #4), is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

And don’t forget to get your Bloggers Bash tickets – follow this link to join the fun 🙂

The Annual Bloggers Bash – The Details

via THE ANNUAL BLOGGERS BASH – STUFF YOU NEED TO KNOW

Are you wondering about the upcoming Blogger’s Bash? Still considering getting a ticket and coming along? Or perhaps you already have a ticket and are wondering about the all-important details about the venue and getting there?

Well, wonder no longer. Geoff has put together a comprehensive post detailing everything you need to know about the day (but if we missed anything, please don’t hesitate to ask!)

Read on for more…

Beltane…

It is May 1st, or Beltane in the old calendar. Sue’s heartfelt post and wonderful photos seem like the perfect way to celebrate. Happy Beltane, all!

Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

The ancient festival of Beltane has always been special to me. As I child, I was caught by its magic when my grandfather first read me the story of ‘Borrobil‘, where two children walk between the Beltane fires and are whisked away into a land of myth, magic and the obligatory dragon.

For years afterwards, every time the number seventy-seven bus passed the conical hill on the way to town, we would talk about Beltane. I learned its legends and traditions, and more than any other of the festivals of the turning of the year, this one is close to my heart, rooted, as it is, in fond memories.

Over the years, I have celebrated Beltane in many ways and in many places. I have danced around a Maypole, weaving the ribbons in the pattern of life. Joined a spiral dance in the streets of Oxford.  Seen…

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Breaking the rules…

A wonderful post from Sue, thought-provoking and insightful (as is usually the case with Sue’s posts). An added bonus: photography from her talented son, Nick Verron. Read and enjoy 🙂

Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

leading

Leading by Nick Verron

My son spoke of his intention to portray the imperfections of the apparently perfect. The conversation moved from the technical side of the photograph to the art of it… the vision of the artist as opposed to the unwritten rules about what does, or does not make a good picture. The image in question is good by any standard, in my opinion, but everyone reacts differently to any artistic interpretation. It may, or may not, be to someone’s taste. It may speak to something deep within, but what it says is a personal thing and may be different from the intent of the artist.

Those with skill of their own in the same art form… real or perceived… may appreciate, offer advice in the form of constructive criticism… or simply criticise, saying how they would have done it differently. They may even go on to state…

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