The Church of The Sculls

St. John’s Kirkyard, Gamrie, Banffshire.
The view from the cliffs of the kirkyard, overlooking Gardenstown.

High on the cliffs above the small fishing town of Gardenstoun, or Gamrie as the locals still call it, sits the ruins of a kirkyard that was built on the site of The Battle of the Bloody Pits of 1004 where Norse raiders were slaughtered by the Scots. Like most parts of this coast, it is a place of sweeping beauty. We happened upon it out of curiousity– seeing the walls of the ruins from the town below.  Climbing up the lumpy path from the single track gravel road, I felt an eeire disquiet in this remote place, even before I learned more of it.

We know so little of these “raiders”. Christian historians have often distorted their history, reducing the Norse folk during the Viking age to cartoonish berserkers. We know that they are part of us– through recent DNA testing and before that, the fragments of language that have adhered to places– the the churchyard itself or “kirkyard”. Kirk, meaning church, is borrowed from Old Norse. That we have so little left of that time when the Norse people ruled an age of world-changing seafaring expertise, artistic and spiritual vision, will remain one of our great mysteries.

St. John’s Kirkyard commemorates the annihilation of a Viking party– built and rebuilt over centuries after the battle. Legend has it the Scottish general promised to build a church on the site if the Christian God could just prove that he was on their side. The church was built at the foot of the “Bloody Pits” where the Norsemen’s bodies where piled after the battle. This area earned its name from the carnage, and the scavengers who fed on the bodies. History records them as cattle raiders who were surrounded as they waited for a fair wind to aid them away. Skulls of the vanquished were displayed in the walls of the church behind the pulpit even into the 19th century, hence the its other name: The Church of the Sculls.

Angel or departing spirit on a grave in St. John’s Kirkyard.

One wonders what happened to the skulls of the Norsemen that were once on display. The surrounding area could be said to be one very large, unquiet grave, but the graves inside the walled yard are something else– some of the most fascinating examples of 18th century momento mori that I have seen are here, often coupled with the crossed femur bones, an hourglass and bell. The path I walked to get to the yard may have been an ancient corpse road, and was no doubt used by parishioners for 800 years who trekked over miles to worship there through all weather from the surrounding villages.

What a hard life is a fisherman’s. Standing in the ruins I thought of the sermon on Jonah from Moby Dick, where the pastor seems to be “praying at the bottom of the sea” and his voice was “like the continual tolling of a bell in a ship that is foundering at sea in a fog–”

“In black distress, I called my God/When I could scarce believe him mine/He bowed his ear to my complaints-/No more the whale did me confine.
“With speed he flew to my relief,/As on a radiant dolphin borne;/Awful, yet bright, as lightning shone/The face of my Deliverer God.”

The congregation sings, drowning out the howling storm outside the church.

And, here now, I feel a bristling in the wind from the hillock above. Without a familiar song to guide them, the other bones in their shallow pits turn.

Momento Mori in St. John’s Kirkyard.

Transmissions from the Hill of Odin

Photo of Roseberry topping taken by me, edited using Afterlight and Snapseed
Photo of Roseberry topping taken by me, edited using Afterlight and Snapseed

Many places I have been on this island feel forlorn, secret or forgotten. This is not the case with the incongruously named Roseberry Topping, a hill on the Eastern edge of North Yorkshire.  It was originally thought to be the highest hill on the North Yorkshire moors until Urra Moor was found to be higher. It is cared for by the National Trust and on the day we were there lovers, families and packs of teenagers climbed its steep height.  I got a sense this was a shared place, much loved still, and to climb it was a rite of passage of sorts.

The name shift from Odin’s Rock to Roseberry Topping is a slow linguistic morphing.  It’s thought that hill was sacred to Scandinavian dwellers who inhabited this place during the Viking Age, and that its name was Othenesburg.  Othenes slowly, weirdly became Roseberry and Topping is an old Yorkshire dialect for hill.

The scramble down Odin's Rock
The scramble down Odin’s Rock

But there is something mysterious about this place– at its summit there was once a sacred spring and its waters were used as a cure for sore eyes. (Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs by Edna Whelan). Odin had one eye– having sacrificed the other in a shamanic bargain at Mimir’s Well of Urd, the waters of transcendent wisdom.

There was also said to be a hermit’s cave at the top, also lost, with a hole beside it called Wilfrid’s Needle, named after the 8th century Bishop.To crawl through such a place was a rite. The pagan past is not so distant– the Viking Age coming after the needle’s namesake’s reign of power came to an end.  The Scandinavian settlers left little evidence of who they were while they were here and its perhaps in residual Norse names and words (and their genetic code!) that their presence can really be felt.

All these structures are vanished now, with the top of the hill having caved in a mining collapse, burying these sacred spots. But the people of this place still hold it dear– I like to think the eye of Odin looks up through well buried in the ruins and sees the little girls climbing in their pink sandals, the teenagers, the lovers huddled in the crevices of the paths, and the dogs hurrying past their masters, all the way to the top.

More fascinating history can be found on the Yorkshire Holy Wells Website.

The triad design of these earrings was inspired by the Odin’s knot.

triskele_ear-5

Julian’s Bower, Imbolc, 2014

Julien's Bower, Lincolnshire
Julien’s Bower, Lincolnshire

This weekend I celebrated Imbolc (Some say this word has derived from Old Irish, meaning “in the belly”) referring to gestating pregnancies of ewes, but I like to think of it as a special holiday for belly dancers.  Having just begun to teach an American Tribal Style Belly Dance class in York, this “In the Belly” felt most auspicious.

Imbolc corresponds with the Christian candlemas– I left a candle lit all day during this festival of light which has always brought aspects of my creative life together.

Chartres Labyrinth Necklace, available in my online shop.
Chartres Labyrinth Necklace, available in my online shop.

For those of us who may be following a Heathen path, this is also the “Charming of the Plough” where the tools of our livlihoods are put on our altar to be blessed so that we may be creative and fruitful in the new year.  All my tools were laid out– the mandrels, cutters, pliers and bail makers, the files and hammers.

Brigid has been my patron goddess for many years– I went from earning my (extremely small) crust as a poet to working in metals. Brigid is the goddess of the poet and the blacksmith– the two workings are alike in many ways. Poetry is made from words formed in the heat of the will, and the cold forged designs I make have their own rhythms, rhymes and meters.

This Charming of the Plough is a Dísablót, a celebrating of the dísir, or female ancestors. I cooked a meal for my female ancestors and poured them some good beer, and the day was done.

julians_bower3The next day, M and I drove to Lincolnshire to visit Julian’s Bower, a turf labyrinth that is most likely medieval, though the first written record of it dating from the 17th century claims it’s Roman. Someone had left three fresh pink roses in the centre– three pale norns– covered there by the muddy edges of the turf so that they were only visible once you had walked the full circuit. On a clear day you can see the York Minster from this place. These Northern turf mazes share much in common in naming and structure to Scandinavian turf mazes, and one would like to think these may date from the Viking Age, or perhaps they are a remnant of ancestral memory from that time.

Mike and Me, Julian's Bower, Lincolnshire, Imbolc, 2014
Mike and Me, Julian’s Bower, Lincolnshire, Imbolc, 2014

Visiting the Troy Town Turf Maze

City of Troy Turf Maze
City of Troy Turf Maze near Dalby, North Yorkshire

Last weekend we visited the smallest turf maze in Europe, The City of Troy. A Classic “seeded” labyrinth, it’s about the size of a very small sitting room, situated right off the road. There’s a plaque and bench nearby for musing on this tiny, sacred structure. This maze is very well cared for and visible. It may not be very old, perhaps only Victorian. According to Labyrinthos.net, this maze was moved in 1900 and probably dates from the mid-19th century, but the intention of the thing is quite ancient. So much of English folklore is fuelled by just such mysterious whimsy.  The plaque suggests this is a waiting place for lost souls who may be consulted at the centre!  This is an echo of older belief amongst diverse cultures which sees the labyrinth as a path to the ancestors or itself an ancestor.

The labyrinth is also known as Troy Town, and the sign beside it says the origins may come from a the Scandinavian Bronze-age Trojaborg Labyrinth which is made of stones. Much of the landscape here is wedded, linguistically and otherwise, to our Viking ancestors.  Sometimes these labyrinths are called Maiden’s Dance, which is a shadow of what was perhaps a symbol of the Goddess, particularly Ariadne, keeper of Labyrinths and goddess of dance.

Mazes and dancing: there’s a connection. Once, Kimberly MacKoy, one of my dance teachers, said when we were doing a particularly difficult drill, “Welcome to the labyrinth of your body.”  (Talk about a goddess!) This “classic” labyrinth style is found all over the world, and is thousands of years old. It has seven circuits which correspond to many sacred sevens, including the “spinning wheels” or chakras of the body.  “Caerdroia” is a Welsh name for labyrinth, translates to “castle of turns”, which brings to mind Arianrhod, the goddess of the “silver wheel” of the moon and her spinning castle.

It is easy to draw a classic labyrinth, as you can see below. It looks almost like those old fashioned dance diagrams.

how to draw a labyrinth
How to draw a seeded labyrinth, from the Labyrinth Nework Resources for Children

Some say a dance is at the root of this drawing of the labyrinth, and Jacques Hébert has proposed a choreography here.

Though the plaque by the City of Troy states this is a “game”- it is more often used as a meditative device as it is a metaphor for the journey of life.  I have a dear friend who has a tattoo of this maze on her shoulder. She is a dancer, too. I can imagine her dancing the maze, this “castle of turns” with the new yellow wheat all round, just as it was on this summer day, like the hair of so many maidens, lush and waving atop the Howardian Hills.

Chartres Labyrinth Necklace, by Feral Strumpet. For more labyrinth-inspired designs, go to my shop.
Chartres Labyrinth Necklace, by Feral Strumpet. For more labyrinth-inspired designs, go to my shop.

The Druid’s Well

Beltane fires were burned upon the crags here in bygone centuries.

The Northern Antiquarian.

Last weekend M hiked to the Druid’s Well in Bingley and took many wonderful photos of this holy well.  The photos reveal a lush Seelie Court. It is a place of historic fairy sightings and where the destroying angel mushroom grows.

The Druid’s Spring, Bingley, West Yorkshire

The companion well, The Altar Well, seems now buried but the Druid’s Well still swells from the earth in a sandy bed, fern-draped and lush with lichen. Also called the Druid’s Spring or Hollin (Holy) Well.  M washed his face there.

Perhaps I can visit one day– though the way is quite steep and my dodgy foot often will not allow me such daring.

Beltane Bride Set, inspired by the lichen of the Druid’s Temple in Ilton, West Yorkshire. For more jewellery inspired by fairy landscapes, please visit my Etsy shop.

 

Northumberlandia

Northumberlandia, or the Lady of the North.

A Goddess from a disused coal mine, Northumberlandia is a massive public sculpture in Cramlington, Northumbria. She is 100 feet high and over a quarter of a mile long. Like ancient earth works before her, she can only be seen all at once from an arial view. But you can walk around the spiralling, twisting paths that traverse her body.

We went the week after the sculpture had opened to the public in September. Two helpful volunteers greeted us, and there were a few walkers with their dogs and one family on the many footpaths that wind over the sculpture. They pushed a relative in a wheelchair around the ramping paths; almost all of the sculpture is accessible, and the grades of the paths marked at the outset. The site builders worked with Disability North to make sure the site could be used by visitors of differing abilities.

Image of Northumberlandia taken from Pro Landscaper Magazine

The first time I saw a photograph, sent to us by my father in law, I was profoundly moved but the idea of her. M and I decided immediately to go and check it out when it opened. Walking the sculpture, one catches glimpses of the working mines surrounding her, giant yellow machines toiling away in their Mordor. The information in the press release claims that coal mining has made this sculpture possible– ah, paradoxes, big money moving around. The permission to build this was granted along with permission to open the largest surface mine in England, and the sculpture itself was made from the by products of this mine.

Despite my mixed emotions about this, there is something visionary about bringing life and beauty to the blighted landscape. No one seems to know about it, and the press features mostly a shrugging public.  The Daily Mail and even the BBC snickeringly called it a “naked lady” and locals call her “Slag Alice”.  She is the green giant in the land of the “Page Three Girl” and she is sublime, subversive, even.

Comparisons to Gormley’s Angel of the North have been made– she has been referred to as the Lady of the North.  While Gormley’s rusted messenger has always seemed too hard, forlorn and defensive, this piece luxuriates in the history and landscape of the North.

She is the giant goddess in the sky, brought down to earth. The American landscape sculptor Charles Jenks clearly designed her to reference many neolithic sites like the Thornborough henge and Silbury Hill, among others. Many neolithic structures were positioned to give a vantage point to the heavens or to a body-like silhouette in a distant landscape. This sculpture is a wonderful mediation on the ancient temple building which honoured the connection between the earth, sky and our own bodies. A statement from Jenks,

To see the world in a Grain of Sand, the poetic insight of William Blake, is to find relationships between the big and small, science and spirituality, the universe and the landscape. This cosmic setting provides the narrative for my content-driven work, the writing and design. I explore metaphors that underlie both growing nature and the laws of nature, parallels that root us personally in the cosmos as firmly as a plant, even while our mind escapes this home.

You can walk into her forehead. She even has a third eye, marked the “eye of the universe”. One hand points to the two spirals in her earth-sky, the other points to her feet– in the pagan blessing– as above, so below.

Plaque at the forehead of the Lady of the North.
For jewellery inspired by pagan landscapes, please visit my Etsy shop.

 

Impatient Ores

Blacksmith helped by a fox spirit
Blacksmith helped by a fox spirit

I just got back from a walk on the canal to clear my head.  A story’s been riding me like my very own kitsunetsuki— fox possession.  I can’t think of anything but, and it’s disturbingly demanding trying to get it down, so full of kitsune-be, fox-fire, that it won’t let itself be forgot.

You can go two ways on the canal.  One way you walk by unloved River Brent, sacred to Brigid, the old goddess of this place, the patron of poets and blacksmiths.  The river is named after her and pays tribute to the mighty Thames in nearby ancient Brentford.  The road outside the renovated church where I live was a Roman crossing and it now marks the place where the river and canal become one in the same.

I went the other way, wanting to avoid walking past the Hanwell asylum wall as I was already raw from my imaginings.  I followed the river south, where the blackberry bushes, also sacred to Brigid, are in flower.

For much of the walk I was completely alone save the coots and swans (also sacred– Brigid is everywhere) and a couple of pensioners out on their canal boats, working the locks.  The fetid green water moved along invisibly, clotted with vegetation and garish plastics that will outlive us.

The cranesbills flower in the folds of rusted fencing. The willow over the rivulet broods beside the path which undoubtedly leads to the ghost of Lady Boston, murdered by her husband, pacing over her unmarked grave in the park beside the Boston Manor tube station.  There’s a small pond haunted by a suicide there, not far off.  Indeed the only company the poor ghosts have now are a few Polish men living rough, leaving their lager cans and ashes behind.

I can’t say I will miss this place, despite its green mercies.  In many ways it’s hemmed me in, not unlike my spectral neighbors doing their obsessive rounds alone.

Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?
Then crouch within the door–
Red–is the Fire’s common tint–
But when the vivid Ore
Has vanquished Flame’s conditions,
It quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the light
Of unanointed Blaze.
Least Village has its Blacksmith
Whose Anvil’s even ring
Stands symbol for the finer Forge
That soundless tugs–within–
Refining these impatient Ores
With Hammer, and with Blaze
Until the Designated Light
Repudiate the Forge–

–Emily Dickinson