before he drank the fatal hemlock old Socrates asked Simmias if he
would like to know what the things on the earth and under the heaven
were really like.
said Simmias, “we’d be glad to hear that story.”
earth, the philosopher explained, is said (I am not sure by whom) to
resemble one of those balls made of twelve pieces of leather, each of
a different colour, stitched together. The world is a multi-coloured
football, purple, golden white – many colours, but all these
colours are far more wonderful than the colours we see. This ball
floats in the heavens, perfectly balanced.
hard to find many ancient people who thought the earth was flat.
Socrates seems to have known it was a sphere. Anyone in the last two
millennia who had read Plato’s ‘Phaedo” will have had this
image in mind. In western Europe most of the works of Plato were lost
until the Renaissance, but his theories of nature and creation were
handed down at second and third hand. So Socrates (or was it Plato,
his biographer?) had a good clear idea of what the earth looked like
isn’t at all what Socrates was trying to explain. He was not
describing a planet, such as we would imagine, swimming in a space of
infinite distances and an unimaginably wide scattering of galaxies.
He was describing, in a poetic fantasy, what the “true earth” was
like, not this planet we actually know.
on to explain that this wonderfully beautiful and highly coloured
world is, indeed, the “true earth” but we live in a hollow, a
depression, Everything we see and know is only a world of duller
colours and shadow. His “true earth” is not this material globe
but the ideal world, the whole, harmonious and radiant world which we
are unable to see. It might be within our powers to see this reality
– if we are pure enough and can climb high enough to look into the
heavens and down at the harlequin football.
surprising image of the football, which is recognisable today (though
it would be nice if they were so gaily coloured) can be recognised as
something much more profound than it appears. Elsewhere, Plato
described the fundamental harmonies of creation in their geometric
forms, and this football, made of 12 five sided pieces of leather, is
a sort of rounded dodecahedron. Plato, in the Timaeus, says that this
geometric solid was used by “the god” to arrange the
constellations in the heavens.
parable of the football tells us about a world that exists but within
which we are not fully living. There are links between this idea and
the classical tradition of the Golden Age. Perhaps in a distant time,
in the age of Saturn, or in an ideal Arcadia, people lived in harmony
with nature. This Nature, though, was something more inclusive and
magical than our concept of nature. Nature, until modern times, meant
everything that existed in this “sublunary” world, the world of
Creation over which the planets had an influence. I feel our modern
idea that “nature” gets in the way of seeing the “true earth.”
People tend to see “nature” as somehow more real than other parts
of what we may or may not call Creation. Many people, when asked to
think of the things God made say “flowers” or “trees”. Why
not “my bowl of cornflakes”, or “my unexpectedly wet walk to
the shops”, or “LNER express locomotives”, or a particular
conversation, a feeling, a memory? Christians in the Creed say they
believe that God made “all things visible and invisible” and that
there is nothing that he did not make. If this is true we can’t
think of some things being more real or closer to God than others.
Nothing is less real because it is in the past or future. Nothing is
less real because it is “man-made”.
Franciscan writer Ilia Delio has pointed out in “The Franciscan
View of Creation”, Creation as a whole includes not just flowers
and birds, not just stones, but also stories. I am afraid there are
Franciscans who fall into the trap of seeing only those things in
that modern version of “nature” as of value. It’s a kind of
heresy and is not how Francis’s medieval mind could have seen the
world. In the medieval mind thee was a single complex organism,
infinitely varied. Running through every kind of thing were
harmonies, which were pictured as the planets. The ancient image of
the heavens derived from the discovery of the laws of harmony.
Everything was made of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. As C S Lewis would
strongly agree, that vision is still true. When St Francis wrote and
sang his “Canticle of the Creatures” he carefully included the
sun, moon and stars and the realms of the four elements. He was not
thinking, as he could not have done, of the sun, moon and stars as we
do, but as the visible signs of fundamental qualities in everything.
He is encouraging us to see everything, and that means EVERYTHING, as
our brothers and sisters.
17thc Anglican Thomas Traherne could hardly have been more Franciscan
in his often-quoted meditation:
never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your
veins, till you are crowned with the stars, and perceive yourself to
be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men
are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.” (Traherne,
“true earth”, then, is the total of all the things, from the
physical to the imaginary, mountains, poetry, music, and, most of
all, people living in harmony with all things.
legends of Arcadia and the Golden Age are of something that is lost
and possibly irrecoverable. However, Plato is not writing about
something lost. His “true earth” is eternal. It is the real
world. It exists but just beyond reach.
this seems to conflict with the quality of loss and nostalgia of
Arcadia it does seem that there is always an inescapable sense, in
the poetry and in the search for such a locus amoenus in the
landscape, that this more true and more real world is, somehow,
still there. It is not lost. It is not, even, quite out of sight.
Judaeo-Christian parallel is the multi-layered story of Eden,
Jerusalem and the Heavenly Jerusalem. Eden is, perhaps, the “true
earth” where everything is as it should be. Eden is lost but there
is a real or a heavenly Jerusalem which stands in its place,
literally in some stories. From Jerusalem, real or heavenly, the
waters of life flow. The New Testament version closely follows Old
Testament prophecy. Though the prophetic descriptions of the New
Jerusalem tend to speak of squareness, of cubicness, as a sign of its
unity, it is very curious that the City’s jewels are a close echo
of the wonderful gems Plato mentions in his “true earth.”
Platonism was an influence on Jewish and Christian thought from
before the beginning of the new Era. Or, as I am sure Socrates would
have said, both derived from common, more ancient, sources.
Christian tradition the story seems to be one of an Ideal City, which
is a model of the perfectly harmonised world (Jerusalem is a city in
unity with itself) and which is a promised destination after our
journey through this false and damaged world. At the same time,
though, there is always an alternative belief that this Heavenly
Kingdom is here and present. I suspect that this “realised
eschatology”, the belief that this Heavenly City is already here,
might be stronger when Platonic influence is at its strongest. Anyone
with a platonic leaning might have remembered that this ideal world
is out of reach because of our own blindness and can be, and should
phrase “Kingdom of God” is usually interpreted as meaning “God’s
reign”, the world under God’s guidance, rather than a place. This
does seem to be the implied meaning in the gospels, but there is an
attractive possibility that it can also refer to the “true earth”,
a reality that we can see once again with God’s grace. In the
apocryphal “Gospel of Thomas”, which is later than the New
Testament canon and has gnostic influences which were not compatible
with the orthodox church, Christ speaks of a Kingdom of God which is
“spread over the world but you do not see it.”
seems to be a very clear reference to Plato’s Football, a reality
which is just under, or over, the surface of the world but which we
do not see because we live in a shadowy depression on the surface of
the new task
any poet who pretends to be visioned
stand here in a real wind, and fix in his labour
as absolute truths, to a common world.
to construct great windows in the hills
show dim purple vistas of unexpected lands.” (Baker, The Third
vision is of a sphere, but the form of a perfect cosmos could easily
be imagined in two dimensions. From very ancient times there seems to
have been a desire to find that pattern on earth, or to establish
such a pattern to enchant (or could it be to control?) the landscape.
time ago, around 1980, I was interested in the idea of sacred
centres, the omphalos points that lay at the centre of a realm to act
as a navel, joining the earth to the heavens and defining the
surrounding geography. Delphi is the most famous of such places but
there seems to have been a tradition in many ancient societies of
finding a point which might touch the centre of the “true earth”.
There are suggestions of this in Celtic mythology. In the Mabinogion
Oxford appears to be such a place, defined by the flights of two
exploring my own local patch of ground in North Bedfordshire. It’s
a little known part of England with a quality of its own. The skies
are wide and clear. Though it is a long way from the sea there is no
high land between the Ouse valley and the East Coast. The distinctive
geographical feature is the river valley. Between Turvey and Bromham,
near Bedford, the River Ouse traces serpentine meanders, folding back
on itself and defining an area of land which it embraces, almost as
an island. The limestone villages that lie along its curves have fine
churches, several with spires. From some points it is possible to see
as many as five churches marking the turnings of the river.
to imagine that there was a point at the centre of this
serpent-guarded land which might have been a sanctuary in some
imaginary period. I would not claim there was anything remotely
historical about this, or suggest that anyone looks for
archaeological evidence of any ancient sacred occupancy. As it
happens, there are traces of “Celtic” or Romano-British
settlement in the area. Some fine bronze work has been found along
the valley, including a mirror, and there were ritual wells, with
votive deposits at Felmersham and Bromham.
river’s pattern could not help but make me think of the Python, the
serpent that lay beneath Delphi. It might also remind us of the
serpentine avenue at Avebury.
my fundamental principles, which I have had in mind as far back as my
school days, is, that if there are places which are intrinsically
sacred their effect, if they can be considered to have an effect on
people or the world around them, must be always present. They can be
associated with, or even perhaps attract, ideas or events or objects
in the present day as much as in the ancient past.
always hold as a principle that antiquity does not make something
sacred or meaningful. Something modern in that location, or something
associated with it, can have a value and a meaning.
thread of meaning associated with this Ouse Valley area which has
nothing to do with ancient Britons but which might have something to
do with the place itself, its Genius Loci, is Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s
Progress. Bunyan walked the riverside paths and baptised in the osier
beds at Pavenham. There are local traditions that he imagined his
dream journey in the real landscape. This might seem very fanciful
but it is an idea that has had an enormously powerful effect on me
since I read of it in Vera Brittain’s “In the footsteps of John
known that the ruined Houghton House, near Ampthill, was known as
“The House Beautiful” for much longer. This idea, that Bunyan’s
story could be imagined in a real geography, was, I think, the first
inspiration which drew me to search for meaning in the landscape.
is said to have dreamed his original dream in Stevington church. This
is the most extraordinary place in my sacred landscape of the Ouse
Valley. Below the church, at the foot of a high stone retaining wall
holding the church and churchyard above the river, is a holy well. It
may or may not be a “Celtic” well but it was certainly a place of
pilgrimage in the middle ages. Its water cures eye ailments. I have
tried. Symbols and ideas collide in this dark place where the water
flows out through middy beds of rhubarb-like weed. I forget their
name. The story runs, so says Vera Brittain, that this is the place
to which Christian’s burden rolls, having been freed from
Christian’s back at the village cross up the lane.
is clearly thinking of Christ’s tomb, but the connection has been
made. A further layer of this imagery, for me, is Vaughan Williams’
symphony. The composer specifically refers to this passage in The
Pilgrims Progress as a key to the meaning of the “Romanza” slow
movement. The music of the symphony is partly derived from his opera
of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
place itself, Bunyan, his story, and the music all come together.
This is, to me, a perfect example of the “true earth” at work. It
is a living thing. That dodecahedron of colour would be sparkling
with dancing lights and golden threads if we could see it from above
and weaving all kinds of images into its music. Stevington, in the
“true earth”, is not a patch of ground in Bedfordshire but a
multi-layered location in which all these aspects, as well as my own
personal experience, are equally valid and true. This is what the
world is like.
place attract meaning?
pilgrim is, of course, travelling to his version of the Holy City.
The New Jerusalem cannot be far away, though, to Bunyan, travelling
there entails the crossing of the great river. It is, in contrast,
possible to walk from Stevington to the centre of this area, this
island defined by the river, without crossing water.
is no visible ancient sanctuary at the centre it is impossible to
define exactly where the omphalos point may be. I like to think of it
as close to the road between Stevington and the abandoned plague
village of Chellington. (The fine church survives). This is the
highest point in the landscape. There is a curious sunken track
leading up to it from the river at
This might be an ancient trackway or it might be fairly modern
alternative route for farm traffic. At the high point there is a trig
point, always a good sign, and, more excitingly, an underground Royal
Observer Corps bunker from which observers would be able to look out
at the effects of nuclear war should such an event occur. It’s
is, of course, the Sanctuary. This has as much value as an ancient
Celtic grove in this game of the “true earth.” It is, indeed, a
sanctuary, but one on which those observers would sleep in military
iron beds, eat tinned fruit and Spam and occasionally look out to see
if anything was alive in the razed landscape. Yes, this is exacly
what I am trying to explain.
enormous influence on me, and on this ongoing adventure, was David
Rudkin’s 1975 TV film “Penda’s Fen”. This was a story of a
teenage boy, with various anxieties, who is obsessed with the
visionary nature of Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius.” The music is
woven into strange pagan goings-on in the Malvern Hills and hints of
sinister military activities underground. In spite of the dottiness
and simply wrong elements of the story this is an important work and
reflected so accurately my own interests at that time. I had first
got gto know the Elgar in a summer music school in 1973 and Elgar,
who is always stranger than we think, had already dug deep in my
imagination. But here, too, is this contemporary element. Modern
things, good or evil, serious or simply fun, can be equally mythic.
1981/2 I discovered that this Sanctuary did, in fact, make a
reasonable centre point for England. A circle drawn from it can
contain all of what is now England east of Offa’s Dyke, or the
Welsh Border, and south of the Humber. Even in the time of King Offa,
who claimed lordship of all England, this region north of the Humber
was somewhere other - Brigantia and, later, Yorkshire.
these ideas in my mind become embedded in poetry, stories, and even a
60 minute home movie, in the next few years. In 1991 I looked again
at the location of this omphalos and wrote to the doyen of ancient
mysteries and metrology John Michell. I sent him a map of my location
showing its central position in this part of the island. He replied
in October 1991 and I visited him soon after to talk about these
curiosities. He was a very affable character. We had honey and tea.
Michell had been investigating the siting of these ancient
sanctuaries. They were, he discovered, not placed at random but in
places which were geometrically central. This may seem a difficult
calculation for a very irregular island like ours, but Michell found
that these sites were defined by lines drawn between significant
headlands, extremities of the island or country that they served. I
am not clear how this could have been surveyed in the distant past,
but I suspect there were perfectly accurate and effective methods of
inland navigation a thousand or two thousand years ago. People did
travel great distances. The major sacred sites, such as Avebury and
Stonehenge, may have been centres for people from very far away. How
did people know where they lay? The civilisation of the Bronze Age
depended on the transport of the raw metal s from mines very far
apart, Cornwall and Great Orme. Did they use the stars to find their
way or to lay their roads?
tested his theory on the Isle of Man and found that lines from
extreme headlands intersected at the site of the first Tynwald
parliament. Such places could have both a symbolic and a practical
showed, on my own map, that the centre point in the Ouse valley area
was defined, just as the Isle of Man site was, by lines from
headlands. One ran from Spurn Head to St Catherine’s point on the
Isle of Wight and one linked North Foreland in Kent to the
exceptionally important Great Orme in North Wales, whose copper mines
made it absolutely vital to the bronze age civilisation. In fact,
this placing is more precise than that of Avebury and Stonehenge,
both positioned on only one accurate line. The Roman Centre at High
Cross on the A5 is also defined by two lines. The Roman site is the
centre of Roman Britain, including Wales. My Bedfordshire site
encloses England alone. There is a suggestion that, if these centres
are historically true, they can move according to changing political
situations. There is also a fascinating possibility that a realm
could have a public, official, centre and another that was more
authentic and kept secret because of its symbolic, or actual, power.
This doubling of centres can be seen in Ireland, with Tara as the
political centre and Uisneach as the sacred focus.
or not there is any historical reality to this theory the idea exists
and my omphalos is as valid as any.
placing of an omphalos is the key factor of a more complex system of
sacred geography investigated by Jean Richier in his “The Sacred
Geometry of the Ancient Greeks.” (Translated by Christine Rhone,
whom I briefly met at John Michell’s house.)
provides extremely complex and detailed evidence that the omphalos
point, most famously Delphi, with its temple of Apollo (and of
Dionysus) and its buried serpent, was the centre of an amphictyony, a
complete symbolic geography based on the 12 signs of the zodiac,
which set the shrine at the centre of the lands of 12 tribes who came
together for ritual purposes at this focal point. There is very
strong biblical parallel with the tradition of the twelve tribes of
Israel. An exceptional feature of the amphictyony in Exodus is that
the sanctuary is moving. It centred on the Ark of the Covenant as it
journeys to its resting place at the temple of Jerusalem. Once in its
sacred home, on that symbolically central hill, the symbolism of
Jerusalem, and the New Jerusalem in both its old and New Testament
versions becomes a clear parallel.
pattern of the twelve tribes radiating from a centre is, very
directly I think, a two dimensional model of Plato’s dodecahedron
football. The 12 faces of the solid become the twelve divisions of a
my central point might be the focus of 12 divisions of a circle
across England. Of course I drew a map, which set off all kinds of
other ideas. Is there a peculiar quality to the places on the borders
of the surrounding circle?
Michell’s method of establishing the position is very
straightforward and rational and the mythological background is very
strong. If so, these central points could be considered as symbols of
the central point of the whole “true earth” and the amphictyony
could be seen as an attempt to outline the ideal world on the
geography of the earth.
these omphaloi more than just symbols? Do they have a life of their
own? Do they do something? Delphi, with its complex mythology and
prophetic tradition, certainly had a life. Was there something about
the place itself that touched the life within the “true earth”?
Everything comes together at such a place. A centre is also
everywhere. A place of knowledge.
significant that the motto at the entrance to Delphi’s sanctuary
was “Know thyself”. Knowing thyself is also knowing all…
I wrote a book for my own amusement about a “true kingdom” in
which all these different symbols and myths had their place in the
villages of the Ouse Valley.
point I had never heard of Thomas Wright of Durham, though a long
bicycle ride following clues for the book took me to the
Northamptonshire village of Horton where I came across a temple folly
and also a fascinating secret military depot hidden in the woods of
Yardley Chase, with its own railway link. This appeared on no maps at
the time but now it has been decommissioned you can see the tracks of
the railway network and the many moated munitions stores.
was, I discovered a few years later, one of Wright’s landscapes and
the Menagerie, originally just that, a home for exotic animals, is
the only surviving habitable dwelling from his designs. I had tea
there in the ‘80s with its then owner Gervase Jackson-Stops. “Worth
a guinea a minute”, as Lucinda Lambton said of him in her TV film
about architecture for animals.
end of my 1981 book I imagined a tower from which a poet could watch
over the many dimensions of this true kingdom/true earth with a
camera obscura. The inspiration of the tower itself was Lord Berners’
folly at Faringdon, which was midway between my Ouse Valley sanctuary
and Glastonbury. I saw the tower’s proprietor in Victorian guise
rather than 18th
century, complete with smoking cap. I probably remembered this from
the 1968 Doctor Who story “The Mind Robber” in which a writer,
based on Frank Richards of the Billy Bunter stories, controls a land
of the imagination. This story must have been a major influence on
lens focuses through every station of the temple, through every time,
through the clear order of the stars to mythological scenes of nymphs
observing poet makes it clear that this vision is not an escape from
the world or an excuse for unworldly detachment.
must make others feel the magic everywhere, whether beautiful or
terrible, to go into places where the world’s nerves are bare and
let that life inspire us through love or terror. We must rediscover
the true world” (I really knew nothing about Plato’s football at
the time) “and awaken the magic. The master of the Grand Art should
‘know the threads that hold the universe together and mend them
when they break.’”
dangerous to look for too many coincidental connections but these
last words are a quote from a 1980 Doctor Who story, “Meglos”
which features a sacred dodecahedron as an object of worship and
power. Oh dear!
Wright of Durham was a tower builder. His tower at Byer’s Green,
Durham, was intended, I believe, as a terrestrial and celestial
are copies of manuscript charts in Durham University library which
show what he calls “region rhombs” radiating, like the
amphictyonies, from his tower, though these divide Europe into 16
areas based on compass points rather than the 12 zodiacal signs.
came across Wright when I moved to Staffordshire and lived in a
cottage that had belonged to the Shugborough Estate. Shugborough
opened up a whole world of symbolic geography and mythology. It is,
as much as anywhere, a mirror of Arcadia, and would be even without
the follies which Thomas Wright and his successor James “Athenian”
Stuart built. There is something about the place itself.
worked at Shugborough in 1748 at the same time as he was completing
his treatise “An Original Theory of the Universe.” Wright was a
cosmologist before he became a garden designer and architect. His
cosmology saw the entire universe as a centred on a supernatural
central focus, “The Eye of Providence”.
He struggled to explain
his vision in several versions throughout his life. In “An Original
Theory”, which incidentally gives the first explanation of the
Milky Way as being the effect of our view through a galaxy, he
describes , and illustrates, an infinity of universes which somehow
all share a common centre. In his later “Second Thoughts” he
imagines all these worlds as literally being inside each other. This
is a far less credible concept to the version in “An Original
Theory.” Wright suggests these many worlds are better or worse
depending on their nearness to the divine centre, and that we may be
reborn in a better or worse world instead of suffering eternal
is an eccentric and an original but he was clearly a very likable
man, spending his summers as tutor to aristocratic young ladies and
being a long term close friend of the very platonic and witty poet
Elizabeth Carter. In his early days in London he met supporters of
William Stukely who believed that the Druids had been the all-wise
priests who had built the ancient stone circles and who also managed
to be precursors of Anglican Christianity.
Wright surveyed Avebury
and Stonehenge with friends of Stukely and so his personal mythology
becomes filled with wise druids and a dream of ancient British
antiquity. (Wright may have been deluded by Stukely’s imaginary
history but in Ireland he made the first accurate surveys of ancient
Wright’s interests come together in a description of an ideal city,
Heliopolis, in an unpublished manuscript in Newcastle Library. Though
I have known this for nearly forty years I can find no trace of it
having been read or referred to at any time, even though interest in
Wright as a gardener has grown in recent years.
covered many pages with his description of The Fortunate Islands in
his almost illegible script. The chapter index shows that this fairly
incoherent text is fragment of an impossibly large project. His
islands are undoubtedly Britain, peopled by the descendants of
Hercules Ogmios, the inventor of writing.
the centre of the island upon a spacious hill, sheltered from the
south by green mountains rising above each other like a natural
theatre and overlooking the rest of the island is the City of
Heliopolis to which a double serpentine approach leads through the
woods and over the neighbouring mountains.”
very clearly inspired by Avebury’s avenues.
palace of Heliopolis is placed at the centre of the city, upon a
rising hill in the middle of a spacious plain, whose area is about
five miles diameter. The crown of this spherical mount is nearly one
mile over and connected in a circle, like a corona, are 12 superb
palaces, answering to the twelve seasons or subdivisions of the year,
which the Emperor alternately inhabits according to the sign of the
zodiac or month of the year, annually revolving in some degree with
the great celestial luminary.”
this circular concatenation of apartments there is one general
communication or circumambient, of about three miles in compass, but
divided by the rich triumphal arches leading to all the several
apartments, in which all the production of nature are represented,
and on the outside of the palace fronting this way is a most
magnificent terrace of 100 feet wide which overlooks the garden, and
likewise the whole city.”
representation of the products of nature is reminiscent of
Renaissance Memory Theatres.)
the outward verge of this walk, upon proper pedestals sculpted with
the natural produce of the year are 360 statues, all of Panean
marble, and dedicated to the phases of the year, and without them, in
their proper places other pedestals for the 12 signs of the zodiac,
all in Corinthian brass and set with gems to represent the stars
which form the constellations.
them, on the declivity of the hill, are many winding walks, little
lawns and grottoes, with several promontorial projections on which
are erected elegant temples of various constructions peculiar to the
most distinguished attributes of the Deity.”
other words, a very Wrightian landscape garden.)
all these and circumscribing the whole hill is a circular river of
limpid water, which rises out of an alabaster rock at about three
eighths of the ascent, and from thence winding in a spiral manner and
forming many and various cascades it leaves the imperial garden and
enters the city at a great cataract, little inferior to the lesser
ones of the Nile. I forgot to say that the spring head rushes out of
a golden urn at the upper end of a natural grotto or cave, richly
adorned with shells, 100 feet long and above fifty feet wide, in
which are compartments of exquisite design and invention, with the
river genius in reclining posture resting upon the urn which is
supported by a bed of amethyst. The waters of this fountain make
their first appearance in a cascade about thirty feet high, rushing
over and through the rocks.
the bottom of the hill is a beautiful circular lawn, planted with
open groves and impenetrable thickets in a most enchanting taste, in
which every kind of tree, shrub and flower, natural to the whole
world, and all species of plant cultivated to the utmost perfection,
for the climate here is so mild no artificial aids are wanted.
the centre of the palace area is the Temple of the Sun, or Solarium,
with lodgements for the priests, and grand apartments for their
Thearcons of which there are three, who are alternatively obliged to
be upon their sacred duty four moons of the year.
this most sacred building are groves and thickets of various covering
shrubs, and with a serpent of flowers that blows according to the
year and season of every flower, and is a sort of perpetual coronal
chaplet or wreath dedicated to Time and Nature.”
spectacularly ornate version of the amphyctyony scheme. The Palace is
heliocentric, with the sun at the focus, but this represents, I am
sure, Wright’s Spiritual sun at the centre of all his multiple
universes. The serpent of flowers around the central Solarium forms
an Ouroboros, the circular serpent with its tail in its mouth, which
Wright used on several designs. In this unread and unpublished text
Thomas Wright brings together the full range of traditions of the
sacred centre and merges it with his cosmology and his love of garden
have said, I knew nothing of Wright until 1983, and yet here he is, a
key figure in the development of my other personal locus amoenus,
Shugborough, stepping into the shoes of my poet/observer in his
tower. It seems odder now, looking back, than it did then. I really
don’t believe there is any value in coincidences – but…is this
the half-joking dance of the “true earth” threading beads of
meaning together and dangling them before our dazzled eyes?
HOUSES OF THE VISITATION
Panacea Society used to be known for their advertising campaigns
about Joanna Southcott’s Box. Southcott was a prophet at the end of
century who believed she was going to give birth to the second
coming. Her final prophecies are said to be sealed in a box which can
only be opened in the presence of an assembly of 24 bishops. The
Panacea Society was a Southcottian group originally and it claimed to
own the original box. Indeed the trustees of the Panacea Trust which
looks after the property of the Society still claim to have the box
in a safe place somewhere in Bedford. The Society itself faded
with the death of its last member only a few years ago.
Society’s beliefs were complicated. It began with a prophet, Mabel
Barltrop, known as Octavia, the eighth and last of a series of
English prophets, one of which was Southcott, and inheritor of
their tradition. Octavia attracted a following in the early years of
century and this grew during and after the First World War. It
particularly attracted women affected by the war, though there were a
few loyal men. As Octavia was a living prophet the society developed
and became increasingly complex in its beliefs as her automatic
writings poured out.
1920 Octavia began to speak, or write, on behalf of “the Divine
Mother”, who was also “Jerusalem”, the feminine aspect of God.
From this point all kinds of symbolism and mythology connected with
the idea of the Holy City and of Sacred Centres began to be absorbed
by the Society.
series of properties were bought close to the middle of Bedford.
These were originally known as “The Houses of the Visitation” but
after the advent of the Divine Mother the community was referred to
simply as “The Centre”. There was, and is, a house set aside for
the second coming, an enclosed garden and a small chapel where,
occasionally, the ladies would perform sacred dances.
Panacea itself, a cure for all ills, was sacred water, distributed in
the form of small pieces of cloth that had been dipped in the water
as a tincture. In some way this water was also the water of the River
of Life which flowed from the New Jerusalem.
knowledge of the mythology of Jerusalem was wide and eclectic. They
inevitably drew in William Blake. One of Octavia’s closest allies,
Rachel Fox, wrote a series of very detailed histories of the
development of the society one of which, not surprisingly, is called
“How we built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.”
It’s a pity they did know the more fantastic visions of Blake and
his feminine Jerusalmem. They did know the Sophianic feminine visions
of Jane Leade, the 17th
great aunt was a member of the Panacea Society and in her later years
lived in one of the “Houses of the Visitation” in Albany Road. I
grew up knowing that these old ladies, living in houses with uniform
dark green doors and windows, believed in a second coming. I knew
about Joanna Southcott, but it was only in 1990, thinking about an
idea for a novel in which a girl would find herself living in these
secret houses and looked after by old ladies who believed her to be a
new prophet, that I wrote to the society and ordered copies of Rachel
Fox’s books. They came wrapped in ancient brown paper and string.
was only then, ten years after my interest in the omphalos and my own
poetic fancies, that I discovered how much the Panacea Society had
shared this symbolism.
knew their Glastonbury. Rachel Fox’s books, bound in blue with gold
lettering, show the society symbol of a vesica piscis, a lenticular
shape which may be copied from the cover of Chalice Well. They had
offshoots of the Glastonbury thorn in their garden, as well as an ash
tree known as Yggdrasil, the tree that stands at the centre of the
world in Norse mythology.
Fox described an expedition to sprinkle and bless the churches which
lay around The Centre.
Nov. 1 (1925), well do I remember a little group of five of us
setting out to the churches allotted to us, taking the Blessed Water
to sprinkle on the gates, the porches and the doors. There was a
dense, wet fog, and we felt like conspirators, glad that we could
hardly be seen by each other or by the public.” (Fox, HWBJ, p 220)
sounds like a kind of magical act to cleanse the sacred centre, but
the full significance of the location of the Houses did not emerge
until April 23rd
St George’s Day, Octavia was studying a map of Great Britain
containing important towns but no county boundaries. She wondered
whether our headquarters were as central to the Kingdom as it would
seem they should be, being the pivot from which news of the Second
Coming was going to be spread to the world. She began to measure and
to her surprise she found that her town was practically equidistant
from the river Humber on the north, from the sea on the East, and
from the Welsh border on the West. She then found that the 26 Sees or
Bishoprics of the Province of Canterbury lay in this District, and
she saw that this would provide the 24 Bishops required for the
opening of Joanna Southcott’s Box.” (Fox, HWBJ, pp.384-5)
evening the Script from the Divine Mother confirmed the significance
have set before you your Kingdom of England proper, reduced in size
but more easy for you to visualise and to understand as a wheel of
which you now have the circumference.” (Fox, HWBJ, p. 385)
Centre is only about 8 miles from the high point in the Ouse Valley
and it may, though these things are never very accurate to my eyes,
lie on a line connecting High Cross, the Ouse Valley Centre and more
than one other traditional centre point.
is all disturbingly similar to the kind of things I was thinking
about around 1980. I do tend to feel that such coincidences are not
meaningful at all, but are jokes thrown up by the dance of the
cosmos. Oddly enough I had another attempt at the Panacea novel a few
years later (1998) and set the beginning in Sidmouth, as I was going
there on holiday. The heroine, who would be mistaken for a prophet,
was to be an artist exhibiting in that old fashioned seaside town.
When I got to Sidmouth I was surprised to find a plaque commemorating
Joanna Southcott, who, unknown to me, had been born there. I thought
I better abandon the book. It’s so easy to be drawn into a
suffocating web of delusion, though I did enjoy, while sitting by the
radiantly blue sea near Ravello, a very well argued academic book
that suggested there might be something in it after all. But, then, I
also remember reading Strindberg’s autobiography in which he wraps
himself up in a suffocating cloak of coincidental obsessions as he
wanders the nocturnal streets. I flinch when I hear the word
“God-incidences.” No, it’s safer for sanity to say that things
are significant if they are significant, not just because the same
number appears on a tram and a front door.
looking up these references in the series of volumes by Rachel Fox I
have found another detail which brings the Panacea Society even
closer to the symbolism of the sacred centre.
the garden at the Haven, the house set aside for the Second Coming,
was a curved seat, built of bricks reclaimed from building work on
the house, but with stone “facings and elbows” of 160 year old
Portland stone. They found there was exactly one brick too few to
complete the seat. Octavia found a single brick under a flower pot to
complete the bench.
decided there should be a Round Table to go with the seat. This would
have to be a stone table to suit the garden setting. Believing this
would be impossible to find, one of the members went to a stoneworks
where, miraculously, he found just such a table. But this table was
more than simply round, it was an ideal addition to the garden’s
was a hole in the centre for a fountain and there was a groove to
hold the water in its outward circumference, while it was divided
into twelve sections on each of which a small lion’s head was
carved. Out of the mouths of the twelve lions water was intended to
percolate.” (Fox, HWBJ, pp388-9)
met, on June 2nd
1927, twelve Panacea apostles, standing around the table, each with a
hand on a lion’s head.
“Word of the Lord” wrote:
table is the most symbolical thing possible – a fountain, a table,
in a garden, with the twelve divisions….”
If the table is still there this, without the more bizarre and less
attractive aspects of Octavia’s teachings, might be seen as a
sacred relic of the Society. It might be seen as Bedford’s answer
to Chalice Well. Why should it not be a holy place?
sacred centres are not places from which one can lay out regions to
allocate to the twelve tribes, or from which one can describe a
circle around a smaller and more convenient England. A true sacred
centre is a place which actually is, due to some undefinable effect
of geography or psychology, or acts as, a representation or symbol
of, a point which is the centre of "the true earth."
I do not
intend to devalue any historical or “invented” sacred centres.
Even my personal centre, the Ouse Valley and the stone table in the
Panacea garden have a “truth”, and their stories may even be
signs that “something is going on”, the inescapable feeling that
they are part of a Dance rather than a static pattern.
I do not
believe in the supernatural. I don’t think it’s necessary to
bring in anything from outside Nature to explain what the world is
like. I keep Occam’s Razor in mind. To me, the meaning of Plato’s
parable is not that there are other worlds, but that we do not see
the world as it really is. We tend to see only a narrow part of it.
narrow view can be the modern idea of nature – living things, green
things. The “true earth”, I feel, is the world seen as it really
is, in which past, present and future are all part of a whole, and in
which stories, art, imagination are equally a part, and in which
everyone’s individual interpretation or vision is equally real.
This “true earth”, then, is not a material object like the planet
we live on. It’s far more than that. As a map is to the landscape
we walk in, so is this landscape to the “true earth”. As a score
of a symphony is to the performance, so is that performance to the
music, the “work”, itself, as it lives in its hearers’
imaginations and draws in their feelings and memories.
this more complex Nature there may well be “works”, patterns,
forms which have an existence on levels or dimensions that are far
more complex than world we walk in. They may connect things in ways
we are not usually able to see. Imagine, if you will, that the “true
earth” is a sphere and that beautiful patters or works are threaded
through it in all manner of ways. Even if we have climbed out of
Plato’s hollows we are still living on a world which is just a thin
slice of that sphere. What are really golden threads appear to us as
tiny flashes of gold. Or, perhaps, imagine an excellent terrine in
which vegetables are laid. Our slice reveals a pattern of many
sections of multi-coloured carrots and beans from which we may not be
able to imagine the form of the whole vegetable. Or think of a slice
of Pork and Egg gala pie – with, to me, its associated dimension of
peaches and evaporated milk.
are aware of “works” that form a meaning by the association and
linking of many individual things, whether objects, events, words or
images. Just as a poem is a thread on which many different objects
hang, sounds, words, images and our own memory and feelings, so we
might think in terms of “works” that thread many individual
symbols, words, objects together through times and places – and
which we, moving about in one dimension, may only rarely glimpse as a
diagonal flash of meaning through the world.
seem, to me, common experience. It really does.
we could look down on the "true earth" with all its times,
memories, relationships, meanings, dances, we would see something
brilliantly coloured and beautiful, a patchwork of every colour. This
might be imagined as a dodecahedron football, or as the
pre-Copernican universe of the sphere of 12 fixed signs and the
moving planets. Amphyctyonies and round tables can only ever be
unsatisfactory ways of representing this in two dimensions.
modern world knows that the cosmos is not, physically, that shape.
The ancient vision of the cosmos is not a scientific diagram. It is a
vision of harmony. The spheres of the planets are mirrors of the
harmonic relationships of the musical tones or modes. Now we have
settled on equal temperament, at least in some musical traditions, we
can also see the circle of fifths as a parallel to the circle of the
representations of the harmonious structure of the cosmos assign
muses (and angels) to the musical scale as well as planets. The
musical scale rises from earth (the root, G, of the Gamut). Earth
must not be thought of as the planet, which, we know, is not
literally at the centre of the cosmos. This Earth is the realm of
Nature as a whole. Earth has no music of its own. Its muse is Thalia,
muse of comedy. We should never forget her! (She appears, with my
other muses, as a character in my “Ravello Dialogues”.) This is
“true” to me, as the whole system is “true”, because our
earth is not actually silent, quite the reverse. Earth is influenced
by all the muses and all the planets. The music of Earth is
infinitely varied. The “true earth” is a wonderful “divine
comedy” in which dance, sacred and earthly song, poetry and
learning of history or astronomy all have a part.
are lovely patterns and images but it is so easy to draw them on the
earth and impose designs rather than freeing ourselves to see the far
more vibrant and unpredictable reality. How can we, with our desire
to impose order, stop ourselves digging deeper into Plato’s
To me, one of the defining beginnings of
Christianity is the discovery of a new vision of the meaning of the
Temple and of Jerusalem. The Temple had been a physical centre to
which the tribes came and which stood in the place of Eden. At the
heart of this centre was the Holy of Holies, and within its curtain
or veil the Ark of the Covenant (which had once been the mobile
centre of the amphictyony of the 12 tribes in their wandering). At
each side of the Ark were carved golden cherubim.
of Holies is mirrored in Christ’s tomb. Mary Magdalen finds an
empty tomb and two angels, one at the head and one at the foot of the
place where the body had lain. These angels, very clearly, are the
two cherubim of the Holy of Holies. But "the veil of the temple
had been rent in twain". Christ, the incarnation of the word,
was not there but was risen. Mary finds him in the garden.
the symbolism of the Centre in mind this story becomes as clear as
Christian tradition the centre can be anywhere, is anywhere. In a
church we come to the centre in the Eucharist. A church may be a
spectacular representation of all creation, focussed on the altar and
the communion, but the church is a device that brings us to this
point of union and then sends us out into a new world.
has all the qualities of a sacred centre, but such a centre could
only find its full meaning if all the tribes of the world could have
a place there. This desire is present in the Old Testament but the
vision of inclusiveness that a sacred centre demands has never been
satisfied. We have a long way to climb to be able to see that
jewel-bedecked city as it is.
tradition has never quite decided whether the true earth or New
Jerusalem is within our grasp (if we can climb out of our depression
in the football), or whether it is only to be arrived at the end of
time. Both states can equally be true.
I feel a
more positive view of our world came about with the rediscovery of
the value of nature in the 12th century. In spite of some people
placing the blame on Plato for dividing matter from spirit and
demonising the material world, it was the revival of Platonism, in
the Christian and Islamic worlds, that led to a revaluing of Nature
in the middle-ages.
Franciscan tradition, in particular, saw
Nature (as a whole) as having value and meaning and as a revelation
of God. To Bonaventure, Nature is part of Scripture, God’s message,
and is to be read in all the ways written scripture should be read.
(Our idea of what literal means doesn't seem to have been part of the
medieval mind-set). In other words our reading of the Book of Nature,
with mind and imagination, is a way of seeing the true earth through
the surface of Nature. This does not devalue nature. We must see the
sacred in the natural. This affirmative spirituality, finding God in
the world, does not replace the older negative way in the Franciscan
tradition. The negative way asks us to strip away all thought of the
world and see only God in the “cloud of unknowing ". Both
paths are equally difficult and equally valid. Perhaps they are,
ultimately, equally affirming. The contemplative who reaches that
moment of knowing God will then return to everyday life with clearer
sight, seeing Creation as it truly is.
This reading of the
world is closely paralleled in Islam in the concept of Ta’wil in
which the divine writings and the Book of Creation are read as a
metaphor, or a window into a truer world. (See Tom Cheetham: “All
the World an Icon”)
order to read this Book, in whatever tradition we follow, we have to
be able to see the Book as a whole, not just the cover, or the nice
pictures, or the bits that affirm our own prejudices.
tough disciplines, hard work, or very clear souls, to discover this
have a liking for Pilgrimage and it is useful to have a structure for
a Journey. It can be a long and hard climb through this earthly
depression to an ultimate arrival at a sacred place which opens as a
door into to the colourful patches and jewels of the true earth.
Francis had another way. Once, when travelling with his brothers, he
came to a crossroads and didn't know which way to turn. Francis
suggested they spun him round to make him giddy and whichever way he
fell that way they should go.
Francis was already there
object in life seems to be to explore this “true kingdom” and to
do a few small things to reveal any glimpses I find to others.
no need of a map. The diagram of the “true earth” is the
fundamental pattern of music, of harmony, which is reflected in the
traditional structure of the cosmos. This structure runs through
every dimension of Creation, through music, and through our
psychology. (At least I like to think, following the American writer
Thomas Moore, that the musical modes are also rather like Jungian
archetypes. Are these archetypes in everything? Are the qualities in
the various archetypal places, Arcadia, Forest, the same fundamental
harmonies that live in our souls and in music?)
predict what the meaning of a place or an experience will be. I hope
I can wander about with a certain randomness like Francis, and find
what I find. The “places” I visit may include stories, art,
people, all of which are loci in the Dance of the “true earth.” I
feel I should not use a map of any sacred geography. The only valid
map is the diagram of harmonic relationships, the diagram of the
ideal cosmos. This the map of everything, seen from any angle. The
same harmonies pass through every aspect of Nature, or so I can
believe, as a working hypothesis at least.
there is a gift of some kind, though in that neatly circled England.
If taken as a playing field, or a board for a game, it might
encourage me to explore places I would not otherwise visit. Is it the
landscape of a truer England on which the poet’s camera obscura
focusses in his tower?
Where have I not yet been? Which segments
might hold secrets? That would give a form to the task. Another day I
might focus elsewhere. On Italy. Ravello. Or more closely. A house? A
library? As long as it’s a game. Remember Thalia.
study this diagram of musical latitude and longitude and learn more
of the modes and that I have avoided and need to know better. To be
able to travel with your own soul attuned to the music of the spheres
you need to explore all these harmonies in yourself. I can follow
this course of study, led by the muses, by exploring this world, or
my small part of it, and trying to find music to match it. This music
might try to express the Spirit of Place, or be a counterpoint to it,
or contradicts it to discover a new point of view. It might be a
prayer where a prayer is needed, or the music might try to heal.
are, we have to remember, not just observers, but healers and makers.
We are part of the world. And I must make no judgment of which
place, or story, or encounter, is sacred - everything is, and
especially, we have to remember, the comic.
I have a
neat format for this. I like the idea of pieces of music which are
four minutes long – one side of a 12” 78. It makes a frame and
encourages interesting forms. It’s a purely personal thing but I
like using the Renaissance modes, each belonging to a planet or muse,
to create different moods. This seems to work well for me, but using
modern harmonies to accentuate the effects, and combining and
contrasting colours to reflect Thalia’s world. So, exploring with a
camera, and words perhaps, and then searching for music to go with
the pictures. The views from my Camera Obscura. And so many places to
a rich tradition of Psychogeography. This tends to be a post-modern
exercise of wandering, usually in a city, following the wrong map, or
at random and creating an individual alternative reality. I would
have to say that such realities are of value. But what if the
wanderer believes there really is a meaning to be read in the
forgotten backstreets? I am sure this how Arthur Machen saw it in his
wanderings through London. He meant it when he said that there were
genuine visions to be found. London was a genuine theophany to him.
If this view of the world has any reality it must follow that any
wanderer may have valid visions, regardless of their beliefs or
by being here and observing, standing or walking we can re-unite the
earth which we think we live in with the harmonies of the cosmos.
can climb out of our Platonic depressions with the aid of whatever
religious, spiritual, or artistic disciple we have, and even more
with love, by far the toughest discipline to learn. We can walk in
the “true earth”.
Rhone wrote of the visionary act of walking in an article “Footseps
on the Threshold” in the journal “Alexandria 5”.
we walk in admiration, we walk in measure with foundation, and thus
we make our footsteps steps of light upon the threshold of a place
where the whole universe shines, undivided and unbroken.”