Thursday, 28 March 2013

The consolation of a shrine

What is a shrine? English is one of the few languages that has a term for this specific kind of holy place. In other languages you need to describe it by using a general word such as tomb, sanctuary, chapel or church and elaborate from there.

Our language gives us a head start when it comes to marking out somewhere special. In this week’s episode of Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain’s Holiest Places we take a tour round some of the most surprising examples of shrines to be found in this country. The programme is broadcast at 8.30pm on BBC Four, and will be available on iPlayer for some weeks after.

Our somewhat unexpected starting point is the roadside shrine to Marc Bolan, the musician killed in a road crash in Barnes in 1977. I went to school near this colourful memorial, which continues to attract flowers, messages and visitors in great number, honouring the memory of a modern-day star.

It may seem a far cry from the scenes of medieval devotion that shaped this country’s landscape, centres of pilgrimage that dominated our spiritual and cultural life for centuries. And yet our programme contains interviews with two of the country’s leading churchmen, who both describe the witness of saints and their shrines in strikingly human terms.

The Very Reverend Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans Cathedral (pictured above), gives an eloquent explanation of the desire to remember a loved one, an instinct that anyone can understand. “The main thing is that it’s a physical connection with the saint. We do this kind of thing in ordinary life… people sometimes keep a piece of jewellery from a loved one who has departed, or even a lock of hair.”

The Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, leader of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales (pictured above), also describes shrines as a testimony to human love for the departed. “There’s if you like not just a memory of the relationship but a living relationship with saints. I think it is sometimes a misunderstanding that we worship saints. We don’t. We offer them our love and we ask for their prayers.”

Archbishop Nichols goes on to describe the public outpouring of grief for Princess Diana after her death in 1997 as an authentic example of such reverence. This moment, he suggests, makes a return by the English to older ways of thinking about loved ones who have died, an end to the Reformation. It's a thought-provoking comment, as the Daily Telegraph has picked up among other commentators, but one that helps explain the restoration of shrines in British cathedrals and churches in the past two decades. 

Our programme ends at a place as far removed from the mighty cathedrals and grand shrines of Britain as it is possible to be. The remote church at Pennant Melangell in north-east Wales was filmed on a bright winter’s day, golden sunshine on freshly fallen snow that looks a vision more of heaven than earth. It contains the shrine of someone whose witness is mainly remembered as nothing more complicated than a love for the land and the wildlife that kept St Melganell company as a hermit in the 7th century.

She is often shown in the company of hares, in memory of the time she saved an animal from a hunter’s dogs. There is no city-centre cathedral to honour her memory: the valley remains as unspoiled as it was when she called it home. It is a place to commune with the elements. St Melganell’s emotional connection to the natural world somehow endures unaltered.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

A pagan and a pilgrim

This week BBC Four is showing a beautifully filmed programme looking at the lingering holiness to be found amid trees and mountains, the third part in the TV series based on my book. It contains some surprises and fascinating insights into the way Britain became a Christian country, as presenter Ifor ap Glyn (pictured above at Roche chapel in Cornwall) continues his journey.

The BBC decided to call its series Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain’s Holiest Places, and this week we do actually get to meet a pagan at last, Philip Carr-Gomm. He is a druid and author whose extensive list of books bears an uncanny similarity to my own smaller list of works. Philip’s input proves worthy of being honoured in the programme’s title, an intelligent and sympathetic account of the way Christianity adapted itself to Britain’s sacred landscape.

When 6th century missionaries arrived in England from Rome, there were pagan temples across the country, with henges, sacred trees, mountain crags and holy springs that had long been revered by the people of Britain. The word ‘pagan’ was originally a term used to describe country people, rustic believers rather than sophisticated thinkers from the cities. Another term for paganism would be ‘folk religion’.

Such local spiritual expression found a rather more sympathetic hearing from the new religion of Christianity than one might expect. The most striking example I encountered while researching my book is one we visit in the programme, a mysterious henge church at Knowlton in Dorset. Philip and I are pictured at Knowlton above.

Some beautiful aerial shots – beyond my means as a humble guidebook writer – demonstrate the spiritual continuity of this alluring sacred site. Knowlton is a pre-Christian earthwork henge with the remnants of a grove of ancient yew trees at one end, just visible beside my left ear in the photo above. This is a sacred site from pagan times where unknown ceremonies were conducted.

And in the middle of the sweeping henge circle stands a church, now fallen into ruin. Two of our country's main religions have been and gone here, yet a sense of them still lingers strongly, a story of continuity etched rather deeper in the landscape than we might credit.

At the end of our programme, presenter Ifor ap Glyn visits Pendle Hill, where the inspirational Christian leader George Fox had a founding vision of the Quaker movement in the 17th century. Ifor reflects on the sometimes troubled relationship between Christianity and the remnants of pagan spirituality to be found in our landscape.

George Fox’s antipathy towards traces of pagan superstition is now commonplace in Christian thinking. Yet it wasn’t always like this.

Rather than abandon our pagan holy places, Britain’s early missionaries were instructed on no less an authority than the Pope himself to assimilate them into Christian places of worship, destroying only the idols contained within. Such a deeply held sense of belonging, of place, of community and of continuity with the past are the cornerstones of any religion. They satisfy a human need and remain almost universally appealing to people of any faith and none.

Yet such witness is almost never heard in the language expressed by the church today. Are we richer or poorer for withdrawing from Britain’s outdoor holy places, abandoning these spaces to the National Trust and English Heritage to interpret?

As always, I would encourage people to look, to visit, to experience… and make up their own minds. Our landscape is broad enough and old enough to provoke any number of opinions and reactions.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Time to take a dip: 14 March on BBC Four

Some nice comments on Twitter about the first episode of Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain's Holiest Places, the new BBC Four series based in part on my book. I was a bit surprised the programme lingered so long over Dracula and the Twilight series at Whitby, but I am still fairly certain the remaining five episodes will have even more food for thought. And more spiritual content too... We live in hope!

The viewing figures were excellent, double the usual BBC Four numbers, following an extensive PR campaign in advance of transmission.

Anyway next week's episode is already in the diary and a preview clip is online at the programme website. It shows the presenter Ifor ap Glyn taking a sacred dip in the freezing waters at Holywell in North Wales. He was game enough to give it a go in November, though with most holy wells the water emerges from the ground at the same temperature all year round.

I appear earlier in the same episode at a holy well in Northumberland, at a place called Holystone. We were planning to perform a full-on Roman baptism ritual there but a health and safety notice from the National Trust thwarted our plans! The pool itself is an amazing place, set in a grove amid open fields, with a curious apse shape at one end that seems to reflect conventional Roman design for ceremonial architecture. There was once a Roman road that ran directly alongside the pool edge too, now lost in fields but confirmed recently by archaeologists.

Holystone is an evocative place to contemplate the experience of joining the early church, an elemental rite that would greatly surprise most modern Christians if seen in all its glory. I have written about the early ritual in a previous blog. Holystone might have seen use as just such a baptismal pool in this early church era, making it a rare artefact of early devotion not only in British terms but around the world. Ifor and I sat up the night before filming attempting to track down Latin text of the Roman baptismal creed, and ended up cobbling together our own notes. Even the internet has its limits.

In addition to such early immersion rituals, the programme more generally investigates our ongoing attachment to water as an aid for healing and health. Christian immersion itself is now very limited, yet we still buy natural spring water in great quantities, continue to visit spas and pools, and when we get our few weeks of annual holiday each year most of us head to the sea. When it comes to rest, recuperation and revival, water has no equal.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Standing amid the ruins

Where more evocative to start our BBC Four series than among the country's most magnificent ruins? These are icons of the British landscape, fixed in our collective imagination and capable of reaching out and inspiring anybody with the slightest interest in our island's history and heritage.

'Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain's Holiest Places' begins on Thursday 7 March at 8.30pm on BBC Four. We visit six of our grandest and most thought-provoking ruins in episode one, which are:

• Wimpole Hall's folly, Cambridgeshire
• Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire
• Caerwent Roman town remains, Monmouthshire
• St Andrews Cathedral, Fife
• Coventry Cathedral, Warwickshire
• Strata Florida Abbey, Ceredigion

Neglect, wind and the rain, and the hammers of angry reformers alike have failed to eradicate these beautiful and thought-provoking places from our affections. It is ironic that these buildings are at the same time our most ruinous and also our most carefully preserved. Legal protection for historic monuments is the nation's way of saying that their history matters to us.

The first episode looks at how this apparently modern interest in heritage is part of a long story: even our nostalgia is nothing new. We visit the amazing Roman ruins at Caerwent, among the most substantial in northern Europe, and hear how the earliest Christian missionaries sought out such relics from a bygone empire as a building site for their humbler churches. Presenter Ifor ap Glyn is pictured above beside the remains of Caerwent's defensive walls.

And at Whitby Abbey the power of ruins to haunt our imagination is graphically illustrated by the tale of a writer who came in the 19th century and generated an entirely new genre of literature: Bram Stoker and his book Dracula.

While Coventry Cathedral's innovative combination of modern architecture with the shell of its medieval predecessor demonstrates that devotional use of a holy site can survive even the second world war's most intensive bombing raids.

Ruins might also feel to some like a particularly apt place to reflect on some of the current difficulties facing the churches in Britain. Consolation that the story continues despite modern-day controversies, and a reminder that decline and renewal are part of the lifecycle.