Saturday, 31 May 2014

Spring Fair '14

It was my fifth Swanvale Halt Church Spring Fair at the start of the month. This year the new committee has really got its teeth into the organisation of the Fair and was rewarded with the first consistently bright and sunny day for the event for some years. Last year I sat disconsolately in the Town Council's hall looking out at torrential rain pouring down on the field outside, and on the church stalls, vowing to myself that it would be the last; then my resolve was dissolved by conversations with ordinary people over the rest of the day, telling me how much they valued the Fair and enjoyed it. Oh all right, I thought, we'll do it again, then.

This year we'd bought a lot of our own kit (urns and a barbeque) so we didn't have the stress of hiring and transporting someone else's, and bright, attractive signage to replace the hand-painted signs which already looked old-fashioned in 1983 when they were first made. It makes the whole thing feel more fun and worthwhile, although it's still a colossal amount of hard work on the part of a lot of people, and rather more people than was the case a couple of years ago.

From somewhere we found the energy to have a 'wash-up' meeting this week and when I did the minutes I found we'd listed over forty separate ideas and points for improvement. I suppose that's enthusiasm, if nothing else!

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Grotto Opening

On the Bank Holiday a couple of weeks ago I had a bit of a party and decided to use the occasion formally to open the Grotto. The Grotto's apparently tiny dimensions are an illusion of the photograph - it is, to be sure, not huge, but you can get in it without too much discomfort!

Any Christian content seemed entirely inappropriate for dedicating this sort of ornament, so instead I read a small extract from Horace Walpole's account of a damp and uncomfortable evening's entertainment at the Grotto in Stowe Gardens, and scattered a little Pimms over the stonework. Mad but fun.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The White Goddess, by Robert Graves (1961)

The White Goddess has sat on my bookshelves for years. For many of those years I congratulated myself that I'd at least read more of it than most of the pagans and romantics who quoted it appeared to have done, but I must admit that still wasn't very much of its great five-hundred-page bulk. I have now done so, although even now I must confess a lot of that reading was fairly cursory. I wonder what it may have added to my life, rather than subtracted from the amount of time I have left to devote to more worthwhile topics. It's hard to exaggerate the influence The White Goddess had, even if it was an influence exercised by reputation rather than its actual content; together with Margaret Murray's The Witch Cult in Western Europe it generated the mid-twentieth century consensus that there had been a consistent, coherent cult of a goddess stretching across the ancient world and surviving in folklore and superstition and even, occasionally and covertly, practice, a belief which still lingers in certain quarters of the eco-pagan world. In a sense this doesn't do justice to what Graves was driving at: a thesis that related specifically to the writing of poetry and the mission of poets, built up painstakingly through the amassing of details from disparate ancient mythologies. It's massively learned and impressive, this collection of bits and pieces beaten and battered until they fit into a coherent argument, but at its heart it's a confidence trick: the usual insistence that you can draw fragments of evidence from utterly disparate languages, cultures and histories and make them mean something they do not naturally mean at all. And occasionally you catch Graves in a mistake so egregious you wonder about the reliability of the bits you have no direct knowledge of. If nobody really talks about The White Goddess much now, it's no great loss.

Friday, 23 May 2014

St Mylor's Well, Linkinhorne

I don't get to see many holy wells that are new to me these days. It would have been a great shame to go to Cornwall and not get one in, however, and just round the corner from where we were staying at Whiteford Temple was Linkinhorne with its well of St Mylor. It's one of Cornwall's and therefore Britain's nicest, a beautiful and genuinely old-looking well-house at the bottom of a field south of the village. Despite having directions from a variety of books and the well being marked very clearly on the map, we still went into the wrong field looking for it and I had to hop over a fence and plunge into a patch of gorse and trees to find it.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Screaming Skulls at Launceston

One should always drop in at local museums, and so during our Cornish escapade while on an excursion to Launceston that was what we did. Launceston's is a slightly chaotic sort of wunderkammer with no sense of an overall scheme, but it is a rare museum indeed that furnishes nothing interesting, and, sure enough, here the visitor is provided with the Descent of the Top Hat, ranges of eccentric books, and rows of antique vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers.

She is also treated to a sight of an age-browned portion of cranium in a display case with the caption, 'THE SCREAMING SKULL OF TRESMARROW'. And that's it. No explanation, no context, no idea of what or where Tresmarrow might be, whose skull it was, or why it might have screamed. I didn't photograph it because there's not a lot to see, really.

Being a Dorsetman I am familiar with the Screaming Skull of Bettiscombe Manor any attempt to move which results in dire manifestations, and I'm aware there are others round about the country, but had never heard of the one at Tresmarrow. It turns out that the tale comes from the 1913 Book of Folklore from the pen of that redoubtable collector and storyteller, Sabine Baring-Gould :

Near Launceston is the ancient house of Tresmarrow that belonged to Sir Hugh Piper, Governor of Launceston Castle under Charles I. By the marriage of Philippa, daughter and heiress of Sir Hugh, the house and property passed into the Vyvyan family; then it passed to a Dr Luke, whose wife was a Miss Vyvyan. He sold it to an old yeoman farmer of the name of Dawe, and it remained in the Dawe family till about five years ago, when it was again sold.

Now, in a niche in the old buildings for centuries was to be seen a human skull. All recollection of whose it was had passed away. One of the Dawes, disliking its presence, had it buried, but thereupon ensued such an uproar, such mighty disturbances, that it was on the morrow dug up again and replaced in its recess. The Dawe family, when they sold Tresmarrow, migrated to Canada, and have taken the skull with them.

Fr Baring-Gould was not one ever to let the facts get in the way of a good story, and it's remarkable that the legend seems only to be recorded by him: but odder far is what the skull is doing in a case at Launceston Museum if the Dawes took it to Canada. I wonder if it still screams, or even mutters in irritation at its current confinement.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The Witchcraft Museum, Boscastle

It is decades since I visited the Witchcraft Museum at Boscastle and the impressions I had in my mind were pouring rain outside and inside a range of bottles queasily containing two-headed piglets and that kind of thing. The Museum has changed rather a lot since being flooded out and virtually reconstructed in 2003 - and the reconstruction is rather impressive. Simply in terms of museum display terms this shows how you can fabricate an entire megalithic circle out of just a couple of stones and two mirrors.

The first bit of the museum has a delightful display of witchy images used in advertising, and then moves on to deal with traditional witchcraft, if it can be called such merging as it does into village wart-curing and love-charming. In one of the displays there are examples of some of the hate mail and death threats received from Christians by Cecil Williamson when he set the museum up: 'I just can't stand bigoted people like that', I heard one museum visitor say. There is one nicely cheeky display on 'The Magic of Christianity' not only pointing out that Christian religious practice has traditionally included many elements that aren't at all far from what might be described as 'magic', but also that most of the people down the centuries accused by the Church authorities of malign witchcraft would have considered themselves perfectly ordinary Christians.

It's upstairs that I began to feel thoroughly uncomfortable. Here is where the cursing items are displayed, little dolls or 'poppets' treated in various ways to bring harm to individuals. Some of the labels are direct copies of Cecil Williamson's original captions and they make this helpfully clear. He made no apologies for magical cursing, seeing in it a form of 'natural justice' resorted to by people who had no other recourse against bullies and harmful individuals. That makes it sound almost reasonable. But the violence of these objects is astonishing. What feelings can make someone fashion a rag doll of someone they hate and then drive a meat skewer through its head and eye? Cecil Williamson's captions, too, are not only unapologetic but take a lipsmacking delight in pointing out when bad fortune did befall the person cursed.

The section on 'Ritual Magic' is where the nastiness and violence of the cursing display is given a consecrated form. There is something about this liturgical kit, painted in weird, bright primary colours and with its bizarre occult syncretism, that makes it a sort of window into a realm of madness. You can see how a certain sort of intellect can get so caught up in this stuff in which there is no anchoring of reason that they risk falling into an insanity lurking behind it (a danger in all religion, of course). Further round the corner are images of the Devil which, I know, for most visitors will be nothing more than historical curios but which for me are at the very least emblems of the malign spiritual forces which wait to take advantage of madness and unreason. That bit culminates with Baphomet, that strange icon which mingles male and female, human and animal, divine and bestial, and seems the very image of chaos and insanity.

After all this horribleness I found it something of a relief to leave. It was something of a relief even to come downstairs, where in contrast to skewered poppets and strange gods you come across nothing more threatening and occult than Gerald Gardner's hat.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

St Nectan's Kieve

One of our earlier stops on the Cornwall trip was St Nectan's Kieve. It was 1986, I think, that I first made a visit to St Piran's Well at the entrance to the Kieve but have never walked up the valley itself. I knew about the waterfall, but wasn't completely prepared for what we found there. St Piran's Well has recently been tidied up and isn't the ivy-choked ruin that relatively recent writers have described, which is good.

As for the Kieve, you must be able to drive to the tea room and complex at the top, but we picked our way up the gorge through the woods, crossing wooden bridges and clambering around stones and tree roots. As always with these things you wonder how long it's going to take but the journey does increase the sense of anticipation and separation from the world outside. You arrive at the shop, where, if you're lucky (the staff seem reluctant to linger in one place very long) you will be greeted, given tickets, and offered a pair of wellington boots. You then pass through a gate and down slippery steps to make the descent to the waterfall.

And the waterfall does not disappoint! With your wellies you can wade into the stream and gaze up at the classic view you may have seen from books, with the water thundering down past the rocky cliffs and under that unlikely stone arch into the pool beneath, the air thronged with drops of water. It's exhilarating.

But the Kieve is more than an interesting natural feature: it's become a pagan shrine. This was certainly not the case some thirty-odd years ago so it would have been interesting to have some more information available about the history of the place, but this doesn't seem to be available. Nevertheless, as you cross the stream and look about you can see how important this place is to people: the walls of the gorge are full of little mementoes of visitors and their loved ones, and in the stream itself are artful piles of stones which are apparently known as 'fairy stacks', not something I've seen anywhere else.

Back at the top of the steps you can also visit St Nectan's Cell, a tiny room underneath the shop complex which has the reputation of being the place where Nectan lived as a hermit in the sixth century. Alternatively it may be no older than the 18th century and the identification as the hermitage ascribable to Fr Hawker of Morwenstow's very active historical imagination, but that doesn't matter as it is now a pagan cult room festooned with ribbons, strings of beads, figurines, interesting pebbles, and records of loved ones and relationships which have the same moving quality that they have in Christian shrines, or indeed those of any other religion. The instinct to commemorate such an immaterial element as love, to turn it into something physical and (at least semi-) permanent, is as strong in this context as it is anywhere else, and carries the same sensation of reverence and sympathy. What, from his now-heavenly perspective, St Nectan makes of it is a different matter.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Whiteford Temple, April-May 2014

A couple of weeks ago - and how remote it seems now! - we made our way along the southwest peninsula to east Cornwall, and specifically to Whiteford Temple, a little Landmark between Callington and Launceston. Its history is a little obscure but it was related to a now-vanished big house down at the bottom of the hill and probably dates to the very late 1700s or early 1800s. When Landmark took it on in 1997 it had been used as a cattle shed and was ruinous; the way it appears now is, more than usual, a rather imaginative reconstruction of what Landmark's architects think it may have been intended to look like.

The Temple sits at the end of a rough track from the lane negotiating which is a diverting experience, and has its own little turf temenos which had just been strimmed before we arrived meaning that you couldn't venture outside without your shoes being instantly and irretrievably coated in grass clippings. The building occupies the brow of a hill and the wind and rain sweeps across it, given that this is Cornwall, most of the time. It did clear up occasionally, though.

Inside the building has an appropriately Georgian elegance. The logbooks contain regular complaints about the cold, the difficulties lighting the fire, and the blue tinge to the water, none of which we had any problem with at all!

Monday, 12 May 2014

Moving On

My hope is that things are going to get back to something approaching normal. Rick left the village on Friday saying that a friend had offered to put him up for a while, though Joe tells me a slightly different story. I saw him back again on Saturday, though perfectly sober and not asking for anything, maintaining his un-girlfriend had asked to see him, and yesterday he was absent entirely so I hope he may indeed have found, at any rate, 'alternative arrangements'. It's been an exhausting little episode and I wonder what I should do about it. I suspect I must be very clear with myself what I can and can't do for people in difficult circumstances. The words of Peter in Acts kept coming back to me, 'gold and silver have I none yet what I have I give you' - but even offering spiritual support to people living disturbed lives is hard, because you can never be clear where the truth lies in what you're being told. Dealing with Rick and his partner's entanglements led to a landscape of shifting falsehoods in which truth is impossible to discern. And though people in my situation may need to set firm boundaries for the sake of self-preservation, I still have the niggling feeling that setting such boundaries runs the risk of walling your heart around from the kind of challenge and change that can lead you closer to God.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Not My Place

Rick the homeless man did turn up again, and seemed bemused that anyone should have worried about where he was. Over the time since I and other people in the parish have dealt with him a lot, and the network of 'support' has included a gentleman from the local King's Church as well as us. Rick had a tempestuous time with his girlfriend who had problems of her own, and eventually they separated. He has managed to find Joe, who lives nearby in sheltered housing and tends to sit smoking at the bus stop, and Irish Alan who has one of the almshouses on the other side of the main road, one of our local alcoholics. People with disrupted lives tend to attract one another. I've disbursed a not inconsiderable amount of money in buying food and meals for Rob, and subsidising Joe's chain-smoking, prompted by stories about gaps in benefit provision and spending too much cash on the phone talking to errant girlfriends.  The coup de grace the other day was Mad Trevor phoning me up and saying he'd broken the seat of his car and so couldn't drive it, so could I get him some groceries for the Bank Holiday weekend?

I tend to get a bit resentful, I'm afraid, that I am the one publicly identifiable as the source of charity and unable to escape being targeted as such, especially when I'm completely unqualified actually to help people in any very useful way. I'm a priest, not a social worker, debt counsellor or housing advisor.  There have been mornings when I've come down the hill to say Morning Prayer and as soon as I turn the corner either Rick or Joe has got up from the bus stop seat to come and ask me for money. The sad fact is that I'm not in a position to expend time working out what is or isn't true or justified in their stories, and haven't got the expertise or space available to help such individuals sort themselves out, if they were indeed capable of doing so. All I can do is put a cap on it and say, No, sorry, I've given out enough this week.

Yesterday all three, Rick, Joe and Irish Alan, were sat on the sofa at the back of church while we said Evening Prayer, so the Offices have become not so much a time of quiet meeting with God as one of somewhat anxiously waiting the next encounter with need, which is something I have to get used to. I made myself remember that the church is not my house, but God's, and he delights in the company of the lost and disrupted, no matter how difficult I may find it.