The Archetypal Appeal of the Vista

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These are two images of the Syon Vista – one of the three great vistas in Kew Gardens which together form a triangle between Pagoda, Palm House and riverside viewpoint. And as I stood there a few days ago, I was reminded of why we love a long, straight vista. The vista, or avenue, draws the spectator forwards along it, to the central vanishing point. It represents our dearest wish: that life may be like that. And perhaps it may be – in our dreams. Instead, in reality, our lives twist and turn and diverge and backtrack. The path has many confusing cul-de-sacs. We fall down potholes. The path leads through marshy ground, and we nearly sink beneath the surface. The path may be a perilous mountain track, or it may be piled with jagged boulders.

But a grand vista is none of these things. Instead, it progresses smoothly into a secure, warm, welcoming future.  We find it comforting, reassuring, uplifiting. Avenues represent human control over the landscape, imposing order on a chaotic world. And since imposing control on the landscape is a major, expensive task, the grand avenue is the province of the wealthy and the powerful. Capability Brown  demonstrated his ability to create dreams from landscape – at a cost. His clients found the grand vista a perfect way to reassure themselves of their status.

Windsor Great Park boasts a vista – the Long Walk, first set out by Charles II. And as it was developed in time, it became an ideal route for ceremonial rides. George IV reaped the benefit of the vista, however, not merely by public display although he was indeed very fond of that. No – in addition he had between 20 and 30 miles of neatly planted avenues to ride along, from which the public was wholly excluded.

I suggest that a vista means many things to us – and foremost among them, hope, dreams, clarity, destiny, goals, the future, focus, direction, drive, ambition, vision. All those things we either long for, or are told we must have, or we aspire to.

On the straight vista through life there are no snakes, no ladders, no forks, no bogs, no potholes, no detours. The goal, our destiny, is always in sight; and we are always progressing smoothly towards it. Nevertheless, alongside our love of grand avenues and vistas, we also respond to great stories full of twists and turns. And the reason, I suspect, is that  both play their part in our understanding of life. Dreams and reality intermingle; the ideal and the real guide each other.

SC Skillman

Favour, privilege, and royal fairy dust

My son mentioned to me that he had learned from Newsround that Garry Barlow of Take That had asked Prince Harry to sing a line in one of their songs. And that Harry had (so far) refused. This led to thoughts about royal power and privilege; especially as I later watched the excellent TV programme “She-Wolves” presented by Helen Castor, the author of a book of the same name. Only a cursory study of the Plantaganets is needed to remind us that the history of the English monarchy is bloody and turbulent. It is inconceivable these days that a royal figure (in this country) would dare to be seen favouring someone for their personal benefit. And then I arrived at the most interesting element of this:  that we have developed a culture which incentivises royalty to behave in this way.  Royal fairy dust cannot be seen to create personal privilege. Our royal family is truly accountable to the people.

In former times wealth, power and success was in the gift of the monarch. If you fought for the right person, and he won, and got his hands on the throne, you could benefit richly from it – perhaps an estate or a substantial parcel of land, or a magnificent property… And thus we have the stately homes that scatter this country, to our enjoyment, many of which have fallen safely into the care of the National Trust: the fruits of royal privilege, returned to the people.

And so back to the question whether Prince Harry will agree to make a musical contribution to Gary Barlow’s Diamond Jubilee song… who knows? But I suspect the answer will remain a courteous and good-humoured “No.”

Water, Rock, Moon and Ancient Stone

Morton Bagot Church, Warwickshire
Morton Bagot Church, Warwickshire

Imagine the Warwickshire countryside in silence and darkness. A rabbit running from the headlights. Imagine a radiant moon and bright stars. The fresh rich smell of silage in the night. A tiny ancient church on a hill, lit only by candles within. Imagine rocks, water, Celtic prayers and songs – and you’ll know what I was doing last night.

Within the church with its rough stone walls are tall candlesticks and centuries-old choir stalls and pews. And a small group of people  with torches.

We were there with our leader, Annie Heppenstall , to commemorate the life of St Non, Celtic saint – the mother of St David, patron saint of Wales. St David’s Day is 1st March, and St Non’s Day is 3rd March. To celebrate the highlights of the Celtic calendar in a special place like the church at Morton Bagot recalls the Celtic idea of “a thin place” – a place where the veil between heaven and earth is thin. I’ve written of this before in my blog post about Sacred Spaces. Many of us can name special places throughout the British Isles which we have felt to be “a thin place.” And this tiny church on the hill is one of them.

St Non of Wales presents, in common with many saints, an example of a life which encountered trauma yet overcame. She was an educated woman who chose to devote herself to life as a nun; raped by a prince of the region, she gave birth alone  on a clifftop in a raging storm. When the child she bore grew old enough she entrusted him to the church for his upbringing as many did in those days and resumed her life as a nun. Her son grew to become a holy man himself, and we know him as St David.

For us today, the example of St Non is one of a woman who suffered, lived through trauma and crisis, and triumphed over a bad situation,  coming out the other side, working faithfully with her changed circumstances and then courageously taking up her path again. On the site in Pembrokeshire where Non gave birth, to this day, a pure spring of water flows out from the bedrock where many have come to pray for healing.

SC Skillman

Elizabeth, Dudley and Happy Times in Ruined Castles

A view of Kenilworth Castle
Kenilworth Castle

Castles always make me happy. I’m lucky to live within a short distance of two of the country’s greatest – Kenilworth and Warwick.

I’ve visited both many times but it’s Kenilworth that most captures my imagination. Is this because it lies in ruins whereas Warwick is still intact and has a Tussauds exhibition in it? When I consider Kenilworth, from the time Geoffrey de Clinton built the Keep with Henry I’s money in the 1120’s, right through to when Colonel Joseph Hawkesworth blasted it after the English Civil War and then moved into Leicester’s Gatehouse and set up home there, I think of the castle’s history blended with all the happy times I’ve spent in it.

As I wander round Kenilworth Castle I wish I had a virtual reality CGI device that I could hold up to the ruined chambers and see superimposed over them exactly how this room looked in the castle’s days of glory. Instead I have my imagination.

With it, I can see John of Gaunt’s great hall in its prime, the walls covered with vibrant tapestries, blazing logs set in the grand fireplace, and the table regularly laden with banquets. I can experience the kitchens as they were, full of heat and  toiling cooks and servants, when Leicester’s Building was used to accommodate Elizabeth I and Sir Robert Dudley’s party of guests in 1575 . I can visualise the great mere that surrounded the castle, and picture the tiltyard when it was in full operation. I can replace the floor of the great hall in the Keep, and restore it to how it was when Edward II was forced to abdicate in it. 

As for the Elizabethan garden, I imagine it seductive, scented, densely-planted with shrubs in full bloom, with its four obelisks and central marble fountain, and a gemstone-studded aviary filled with lovebirds – for that is how it would have been when Sir Robert Dudley ushered Elizabeth I into it, hoping to persuade her to marry him (she still refused, but I’m sure she enjoyed herself there).

Castles make me happy – to the extent that I only have to glimpse battlements above trees to feel that surge of joy. Why, I wonder? Castles are associated with prisoners thrown in dungeons to die; massive social inequality and injustice, arrogant lords feasting in their halls wth the social elite of the land while the masses labour and starve; wars, battles, sieges, boiling oil, death-holes, trebuchets loaded with rotting animal carcasses… and yet castles make me happy. I suggest this is because they are all bound up with story, and story is all about meaning, and we value meaning above all.

SC Skillman

Sacred Places of Other Religions and Thin Places in Celtic Spirituality

Today Ezine Articles have published my article on “What can we learn from the sacred places of other religions?” (see below). I wrote this after a visit to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in Central Australia, back in 2009.  The thoughts expressed in this article feed into the content of my new novel “A Passionate Spirit”. I am working on this now, and it is a sequel to my first published novel “Mystical Circles”.

I am particularly fascinated by the relationship between spirituality and place.  Last night I was reading “The Spiral – Crop Circle News” published by the Wiltshire Crop Circle Study Group. What stood out for me was the crop circle enthusiasts’ idea of places “where the Otherworld prevails and the veils are thin.” This connects to the awareness of the Celtic Christians that some places are “thin places” where the veil between this world and the spiritual world is thin. This applies to all sorts of places which have numinous quality e.g. Lindisfarne/Holy Island, or Iona, or St Cuthbert’s tomb in Durham Cathedral, or Cheddar Gorge, or Wells Cathedral, and there are many other examples that readers of this may already be well aware of.

I am reminded of something Rabbi Lionel Blue wrote: “Eternity is all around us. Part of us inhabits it already.”

Read my article on Uluru here:

http://ezinearticles.com/?What-Do-the-Sacred-Places-of-Other-Religions-Have-to-Teach-Us?&id=5746009