We are just back from Bavaria where we were inspired by King Ludwig II’s castles,
delighted by glorious mountain views, enjoyed delicious apple strudels
and slipped into Austria where we had a lot of fun on the Sound of Music Tour in Salzburg.
But the most outstanding feature of our holiday was our discovery of a truly intriguing character: King Ludwig II. Ludwig was a dreamer and visionary whose image is now ever-present in Bavaria.
Whilst visiting his three castles – the castle on an island in a lake, Herrenchiemzee, the fairy-tale like apparition high on a mountain crag, Neuschwanstein, and the exquisite vision in a valley, Linderhof, I was fascinated by his romantic idealism, his passionate devotion to the idea of being “an absolute king” dwelling in Castle Perilous, his love of immensely rich and precious interior decoration, his total disregard of the practical implications of his various passions, and his intense relationship with the great composer Richard Wagner. His story was often tragic, and his end terribly sad – he was declared mad and killed – yet Bavaria thrives on his legacy today.
There were several aspects of Ludwig which inspired me for a major character in my WIP. So this visit to Bavaria came at just the right time as I’m about to embark on the second draft. With such a complex character, I cannot be entirely sure whether his passion, intensity and commitment to a world of the imagination will infuse my villain, hero or anti-hero. That is yet to be determined…
A visit to a medieval castle cannot help remind you that this great pile represents in stone the major themes in human nature: war, power, wealth, moral and economic hierarchies, social injustice and religion.
Of course what we choose to focus on when we visit a castle is conditioned by the story we attach to it; and when I visit my nearest EH castle at Kenilworth my mind is usually full of the intriguing romance between Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, because that’s the angle English Heritage love to take.
However at Goodrich Castle, several different images whirled around my mind: a chapel in a gatehouse with arrow slits in it, murder holes, double portcullis, double gates, two drawbridges, luxury accommodation and all the contemporary mod cons for the aristocratic family and their friends, and the reminder that the 200 servants would have just dossed down anywhere they could find that was as warm and comfortable as possible.
I found myself thinking about three things:
First, social justice.
We’re very conscious of it now in our society, only because our eyes have been opened to it; perceptions have changed. To modern Christian eyes social justice has always been at the heart of the gospel. But has it? For many centuries the most dedicated Christians were oblivious to it. So has it always been there, and they were just wilfully blind? Or is it only there because we’ve formed a political agenda for it?
Second, religion and violence.
They were pious Christians with rich Chapels and they had all the arrangements in place to hurl boiling oil on people and shoot arrows at them through slits in the walls of their chapel even as they were worshipping. But can we ever judge those who lived in a different age by our own values and standards in very different times? Many who oppose the Christian faith now cite its history as evidence that it is sheer folly. To what extent can we judge the truth of a system of thought/ a religion/philosophy/worldview by its human history?
Third, human nature.
In church recently someone said to me, “He who expects nothing is never disappointed. My view is that human nature is fatally flawed. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think there could be some improvement.” This reminded me that the teachings of Jesus go against human nature. You cannot actually follow through the logical implications of Jesus’ teaching without battling human nature.
What is human nature anyway? With the benefit of hindsight we see the behaviour of medieval castle inhabitants as folly, and it all seems very black and white to us. Future generations looking back will see and think exactly the same about our behaviour now, in 2017, down in our very own microcosm.
Many of our own “dreams” are foolish, vain things – “wishful thinking, ” “pipe dreams”, “castles in the air”. They are not worthy of being fulfilled and are not designed to be fulfilled, but are destined to dissipate in the desert air.
All we can do is take little steps forward according to what seems right, or helpful, or appropriate to us at the time.
We always have to see our “dreams” in this context, of failed, fatally flawed, human nature. And to realise that we’re down here in the microcosm and can onlysee through a glass darkly, notwithstanding all our little dreams and visions.
As the mother of a son with autism, I have throughout his life acted as an advocate, carer, companion, supporter. One of his difficulties is taking unfamiliar journeys alone. Now aged 18, he has just started a new course in Horticulture at Pershore College in Worcestershire.
Yesterday we met what was, for both of us, a challenge: we navigated the minefield of getting from Warwick to Pershore College by 9.30 am (a three hour journey by public transport). It was a challenge for me because, as a car-owner, I’m used to driving everywhere and am unfamiliar with public transport, especially in rural areas. Having recently been involved in a car accident, I’m currently without a car. So we both set out, expecting to find the buses arriving and departing according to the timetables, and I ended up with feelings of frustration, anger and even betrayal from the difficulties and unexpected events we encountered (all of them caused by human error). I thought to myself, ‘I must write about this…. if I was a satirical novelist, I’d write a brilliantly comic piece about it.’ Even as I raged impotently against the bus companies of Warwickshire and Worcestershire, the infuriating details of this journey struck me as perfect material for a comic novelist’s take on life.
Having delivered my son an hour late at the college (slightly relieved by the discovery that several of the other students had also had trouble with public transport this morning, and were late, or still hadn’t arrived – so my son wasn’t alone, and hadn’t missed anything important) – I walked into Pershore to explore the town before returning to the college later in the day.
I was thinking to myself, “this is a lovely place” but my nerves were still so jangled by our recent journey, and the thought that he’d have to go through this 3 days a week for the next academic year. I found myself reflecting on how so many people in our society seem to operate by keeping one area of information separate from others, and they don’t coalesce, responding flexibly in relation to other facts. It reminded me of a recent comment on Facebook I had read by a fellow-writer, observing that she regarded the world as largely insane, as a matter of course.
Then I found Pershore Abbey.
First of all I walked all around the exterior of the Abbey.
Then I walked in through the west door, and this was the sight that met my eyes.
Immediately, I thought: Sanity. It was as if I had been trapped in a stifling, enclosed cell and now entered a place where there was fresh air, living water, and a vision of life that transcended all I had been experiencing for the last few hours. I felt released, opened up, by the beauty of this space.
And this is the purpose of great religious buildings, and the goal of all truly noble architecture – to draw you in and welcome you as you enter, to make you feel that you are accepted, whoever you are, and whatever state you’re in, and to live your eyes upwards, so that you may transcend the troubles of this world, and indeed, see this life in divine perspective.
A family trip to the Tower of London at the weekend reminded me once again of how much I love visiting English castles.
at the Tower of London (photo credit SC Skillman)
I was trying to account for this in one of my previous posts, but a fellow-writer put it beautifully; when you go round these places you are reassured about the meaningfulness of our lives through the power of story.
No matter how grisly and macabre the behaviour of our predecessors was, we thrill to these historical sites. Everyone of all ages can enjoy them, both adults and children – whether or not the latter are currently studying medieval castles at school! And the Tower of London is immensely photogenic. You cannot move a step without itching to capture another angle, another story-filled view.
The red poppy installation at the Tower – in which the moat has been filled with 888,246 ceramic poppies in commemoration of the 1st World War – is an awe-inspiring, beautiful and moving sight.
As I am constantly learning more about the Tudors, I feel that the Tower has a tremendous emotional poignancy. I cannot look at the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula without thinking of the account I have read of Anne Boleyn’s ladies-in-waiting carrying her body to the chapel for burial, and having to wait several hours for space to be prepared for her beneath the altar pavement – because nobody had actually expected her to be executed; many believed a last-minute reprieve would arrive from Henry VIII.
But it didn’t. And Anne Boleyn’s legacy is a very special place in English history – as the chief person that springs to our minds in the same breath as The Tower of London.
Now English Heritage have completed new staircases and viewing platforms allowing visitors to ascend to the different floors of Leicester’s Tower for the first time in 350 years. I’ve visited the Building and climbed those staircases twice recently.
A poignant story surrounds this tower. Built by Sir Robert Dudley especially to house Queen Elizabeth I and her courtiers, it represents a huge and extravagant investment, not only of his personal wealth (which was vast) but of his hopes and dreams. They were doomed not to be fulfilled. Queen Elizabeth stayed here 19 days in 1575, the longest of her 4 visits to Kenilworth to be entertained by Sir Robert, her favourite courtier. He hoped this time to win her hand in marriage. But it was not to be.
Many historians have speculated on Elizabeth’s reasons, for there is strong evidence she loved him. Her reasons would have been political, psychological, emotional – historian and novelist Alison Weir will soon be visiting Warwick Words, our local literary festival, to speak on The Marriage Game; and I will certainly be in the audience, for I share Alison Weir’s fascination with this subject.
The truth is, Sir Robert abandoned all hope of marrying the Queen after she left in 1575. The building was little used thereafter. 80 years later its owner stripped it and left it in ruins.
ON all my previous visits over the past couple of decades, you could only look up inside the empty shell. But now you can ascend to each level, and read the story about each floor, and gaze through the windows at the views its former users would have admired, and imagine how it must have been during those 19 days in which Sir Robert’s greatest hopes and longings were invested.
All you need is a physical object, and a great story. And here now, on these viewing platforms, as I gaze at the walls where rich tapestries would have hung, I feel as if I am recapturing something of what Elizabeth and her courtiers experienced when they used these rooms.
The former empty shell has gained a new life. You can see the whole story again in a new light, feeling almost as if you are entering Sir Robert and Elizabeth’s psychic space.
I visited a National Trust property a few days ago – Lyveden New Bield near Oundle in the heart of the Northamptonshire countryside.
This is an unusual property in that it was build by an Elizabethan gentleman who left it unfinished. And it hasn’t fallen down, or been looted, or demolished, or built over, in the intervening centuries – but has just remained as it is.
There is something haunting and eerie about properties like this. The only similar one I can think of is Chastleton House near Moreton-in-Marsh, which has been left exactly as it was 400 years ago….. It hasn’t been specially prepared or restored by the National Trust to look as it would when at the height of its glory. It has just been left, like Sleeping Beauty’s Palace. There is a faintly sinister air as you explore its rooms and passages. You get the feeling that those who lived there have just vanished and it has remained suspended in time. A curious melancholy hangs in the air.
In the case of Lieveden New Bield, the designer and developer of this grand garden lodge, Sir Thomas Tresham, a wealthy and ardent Catholic, died before it could be completed. And his son Francis, instead of completing it and fulfilling his father’s dream, made a fatal error: he became implicated in the Gunpowder Plot, got arrested, confessed, and lost the entire family fortune.
Touring this unfinished, roofless property with all its elaborate Catholic symbolism, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Sir Thomas and all his hopes and dreams. As I walked around, and listened to the audio-tour, I wasn’t thinking of the massive differences between ourselves in our modern world, and those in the early seventeenth century, with all the passions and concerns of the beleagured Catholics. I was thinking of the things I shared – which many of us share – with Sir Thomas. A grand scheme, a big dream, starting to come into reality…
In Sir Thomas’s case it was cruelly cut short. Yet he died with all his ardent Catholic faith and hopes intact. And all the elements of his original design for his garden and lodge are now being rediscovered, and might even be realised in the future: who knows.
To me, this is the value of visiting historical properties – enabling us to enter imaginatively into the deeply personal stories of those who lived centuries ago, and feeling not the things that separate us but the things we may have in common.
What could be more poignant than a formerly grand mansion, standing on a cliff, now partially demolished, abandoned and desolate?
Gaping staircases you cannot climb; stone balconies you long to stand on to gaze at the view; empty windows you feel sure a shadowy figure should flit past.
Just such a gaunt mansion is Guy’s Cliffe House, our local romantic ruin, perched atop a cliff above the River Avon, catching the imagination of all who pass by on the other side of the river.
Gothic stone tracery, an ornate balcony, evidence of a flambuoyant builder, remain to tantalize you.
For one of those who occupied the house embellished it with Roman, classical, mediaeval and Gothic elements.
Guy’s Cliffe House so caught my own imagination during the past few years that I occasionally wished that, if I was hugely wealthy, I could pay for it to be restored to its former glory.
In reality, I’d like it to be made safe for people to enter and explore, and for new timber staircases and walkways to be constructed, so we could climb to those balconies and gaze at the view.
And I’d like all the original formal gardens to be restored so people can wander around in them and enjoy the romantic setting.
I feel that Guy’s Cliffe is a poignant illustration of what happens when wealthy property owners do not successfully pass on their property to an equally rich and prudent and competent heir.
One developer/house-breaker deliberately demolished part of the Guy’s Cliffe House, then all the contents were auctioned off, and and accidental fire and neglect did the rest.
We all find it difficult to understand how such a grand property gets damaged, ransacked and neglected like that.
8 foot tall bamboo now crowds close to the cave in the cliff, where Guy of Warwick, in the tenth century, returned from the Holy Land and mysteriously chose to live for two years, rather than reuniting with his wife and child in the house above.
I’ve written before about sacred spaces. In that article, I looked at some renowned locations in England where people have felt they’re in touch with something bigger than themselves – a sense of the numinous.
All of these places work symbolically or metaphorically to express a place where we may be or a situation we may encounter in this life, that we recognise from our own experience.
And one such renowned location is Stonehenge – which I visited a few days ago with family members.
To walk slowly and attentively around Stonehenge, using the audio guide provided by English Heritage, is to experience something numinous, much bigger than ourselves.
The stones arrived here some time just before 2500 BC, to begin transforming the previously existing simple enclosure to something much different. And as we considered the huge effort that our ancestors put into moving the stones 19 miles from the Marlborough Downs in north Wiltshire, and 150 miles from the Preseli Hills in Wales, to this location, in order to construct this massive circle, we were drawn in to the wonder and the mystery.
Those who accept the theory of ley lines know that Stonehenge stands on the Old Sarum Ley which is aligned with Salisbury Cathedral, among other sacred places.
As the English Heritage guidebook points out, Stonehenge can perhaps be seen as the prehistoric equivalent of a great cathedral like that at nearby Salisbury, built for worship and as a place where believers could come to find healing and hope and where important people can be buried.
Salisbury Cathedral, described as Britain’s finest 13th Century Cathedral, is another inspirational place.
From its glorious chancel roof
The chancel roof of Salisbury Cathedral (photo credit Jamie Robinson)
to the stunningly beautiful lapis lazuli of the Prisoners of Conscience windows,
this is a place to move and uplift and fill you with awe.
Here, the hearts and minds of all those who enter, for worship or just to visit, may be lifted up to a bigger and clearer understanding of God.
Or, perhaps, they may receive fresh glimpses of eternity, in much the same way, perhaps, as the hearts and minds of those who built and used Stonehenge over the course of 1,400 years.
So says Chaucer’s Knight, towards the end of his tale as recounted by Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales.
Gloomy those words may be, but they totally belie the racy, colourful and much-loved tales told by the Wife of Bath, the Miller, the Nun’s Priest and many others.
And they all made their pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. So did my husband David and I make the pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral last Tuesday – by steam train!
Steam Dreams operate the Cathedrals Express. The locomotive pulling our train was The Tornado, a lovingly built A1 Steam Locomotive. It took part in the BBC Top Gear Race with Jeremy Clarkson, and had its own very own programme made for the BBC, a documentary called ‘Absolutely chuffed’.
I was very impressed with the speeds it achieved, as as it journeyed from Newbury to Canterbury.
Only when you travel by steam do you experience the pleasure and delight of seeing many different people waiting alongside the railway embankment, or in back gardens, keen to wave at you as you pass by, or standing in fields with cameras. Steam engines evoke great affection, excitement and notalgia and of course can now not be thought of apart from the Thomas the Tank Engine stories.
And at the end of the journey – Canterbury Cathedral.
Few things in this life can compare to the awe and wonder that a great cathedral can inspire; and at its centre, a shrine to a martyr; in this case, Archbishop Thomas Becket, who was murdered there in 1170 by four of Henry II’s knights in response to the king’s exclamation: Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?
The sight of the single candle burning in the great space which once held Thomas Becket’s shrine, before it was destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII, was very moving. So too was the chapel where great saints and martyrs of the twentieth century are commemorated, including such people as Dietrich Boenhoffer, Martin Luther King, and Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered while he celebrated Holy Communion.
Spiritual energy is concentrated at the sites of these places of pilgrimage – and I was very conscious of this as I lit a candle at the votive light stand, at the entrance to the chapel in the Cathedral which is now called The Martyrdom.
The number of people visiting British Cathedrals has risen by 30% in this millennium.
St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral are again among the top visitor attractions in the UK, according to the latest statistics from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (AVLA). The 4,500,000 visitors to those three famous churches are only part of the numbers visiting more than 16,000 Church of England buildings across England.
I’ve visited all three of those attractions in the past couple of years. And from all of these, together with my latest visit, to Canterbury Cathedral, I clearly see the reason for the trend noted in the paragraph above: a cathedral is a place where we may make contact with the numinous, our sense of the holy. It is a place which fills us with awe and lifts our hearts and minds to something much greater than ourselves.
And pilgrimage now is more important than ever, by whatever means we choose to travel.
A – You can in some way identify with it; you recognise it as relating to your own life experience.
And this doesn’t mean you need to have experienced exactly the same events that the novel describes: simply thatyou recognise the truth in the story from your own life.
And that goes for all genres, even fantasy or escapist fiction. Somewhere in the structure of that story you recognise Truth.
Such is Tom Di Giovanni’s debut novel “Home”.
I first met Tom at our Church (St Mark’s in Leamington Spa) where he plays guitar and occasionally leads the music group. His love of music and in particular the guitar is demonstrated in this novel.
Tom wrote “Home” during National Novel Writing Month 2007, then worked on it in between the demands of a full time job.
Edited by Tom’s father (editor, translator and author Norman Thomas Di Giovanni), the novel has now been issued in a limited edition of 35 for the author’s family and friends. I was privileged to receive a copy, and I’ve now read it.
In simple, graceful, lucid prose, Tom tells a touching story with which many would identify, a story that shows how life offers second chances, with an essentially optimistic message, that affirms we can make the right choice when life gives us a second chance.
Tom took the novel “Persuasion” and based his story on Jane Austen’s – taking it from the male point of view.
28-year-old Martin, an architect, returns to his home town (in England’s West Country) and meets again the girl who broke off their relationship 10 years before. Daisy was persuaded by friends to reject him for being younger than her. But Martin then meets 17-year-old Claire, a talented young singer-songwriter, who has a job in the local guitar shop. Tom’s description of their unfolding relationship is drawn with subtlety and a sure and delicate touch.
Though Tom set the novel in a West Country town he used elements of our own local town Leamington Spa. In particular one scene is set in “The Dell”, a local park, where he saw a girl sitting alone playing the guitar, which inspired him for his novel.
When I read the novel I felt I was reading something that was:
1. Well crafted;
2) Had a water-tight structure;
3) Had integrity in and of itself;
4) Pointed me to a universal truth I could verify from my own experience.
They say a book must have “wow!” factor to succeed. The “wow” factor of this novel lay in its power to move, its scrupulous attention to detail, and its truthfulness.
The message of the novel is:
That which you believed lost, you can later return to and find again: but only if you meet the challenges the new situation sets; and only if you apply the new insights and discernment you have gained in the intervening years. You will be tested again, and past issues may arise once more in a new disguise.
Tom hopes to find a publisher soon to take on the novel. So watch out for him!