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Stonehenge, Lindisfarne and a holy well

This is a transcript of episode 25 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, Very Reverend Dr David Ison, Dr Joe Flatman, Remona Aly, Hazel Southam and Susan Greaney as we begin our journey through the history of faith and belief in England.

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Welcome to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places. I'm Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, a historian from the University of Roehampton. In this series we explore the amazing places that have helped make England the country it is today. So how does it work? Ten categories, ten expert judges and thousands of your nominations will lead us to a list of 100 places that together tell England's story.

If you're enjoying the series, don't forget to subscribe so you don't miss an episode. And if you're listening on iTunes, please rate this podcast and leave a review.

So far in the series we have heard about the places that have witnessed sporting triumphs, nation shaping moments of loss, destruction and conservation. And we've taken a tour around some of our best homes and gardens. Today we begin our journey into the Faith & Belief category, where we will explore the diverse story of belief in England.

I'm joined in the studio by Historic England's Dr Joe Flatman, and journalists Remona Aly and Hazel Southam.

Hazel, you have been reporting on religious affairs across the world in the course of your career. So, what do you think about England's religious story that makes it particularly exciting and distinctive?

Hazel Southam:
I think because it's so long and because we live in it now, you feel the sense of the people who went before you. Now, if that's where I live, I live in a city called Winchester and I can almost reach out and touch the people who lived and worshipped there before me. That sense of being part of a continuum is really important to me.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Remona, your focus is on modern day faith and identity, but I see that you also have a Masters in Medieval Studies. So, you're in your element in this category!

Remona Aly:
I love history. My mum always say I was born in the wrong century, so I feel very much connected to all types of histories from different cultures and traditions. British history just absorbs so many of those, so it is a fascinating landscape for us to explore.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And Joe, your very job is protecting heritage sites. So, this is very much your day to day, your bread and butter, isn't it?

Joe Flatman:
Absolutely!

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Our category judge for this is the Very Reverend Dr David Ison, the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, and we'll be hearing his comments throughout the programme. Our first location takes us to a very important place in England: we're about to step back more than four and a half thousand years, to the foundation a world famous pre-historic monument. It is of course Stonehenge in the Wiltshire countryside. David explained why this has the honour of opening our Faith & Belief category.

David Ison:
It was the main pre-historic site in England, the one that is best known and internationally known, and it represents that tradition of how we interact with our landscape. So when you think about early man coming to this country, largely covered in woodland, nothing there, how do you make sense of the place, not only as somewhere to live, but also somewhere where you encounter what you believe in and how you express it?

In the same way that with farming we shape the landscape, so with religion and belief we have shaped the landscape and Stonehenge is a very good example of a huge amount of effort that has been put in to create something human and manmade but put into a wider landscape setting, which together with the constructions speak of the beliefs, hopes and aspirations of those people.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Stonehenge is surely best known for its impressive stone circle, which has been a place of significance in spirituality to humans for thousands of years. But as David said, the famous stone circle is just one part of a huge and ancient ceremonial landscape which was fundamental to the religious life of our ancestors. Even to this day, people come to Stone Henge for spiritual purposes and to connect with a place steeped in diverse mystery and meaning. We thought we'd head along to experience it for ourselves.

Susan Greaney:
I'm Susan Greaney and I'm a senior historian at English Heritage. We are at Stonehenge, at the visitor's centre, and we're standing in one of the reconstructed Neolithic houses that we have built here. If we just step outside we can have a little look at what that landscape looks like. You can see it's this really wide open grassy landscape: it is quite unique and it's quite different. It is very typical of Wiltshire.

In this landscape we've got a huge number of pre-historic monuments. There's Stonehenge, obviously, right in the middle of the landscape; we've got some earth work monuments from the early Neolithic period, so that's before Stonehenge was built, and we've also got some burial mounds (round barrows) from after Stonehenge was built. So there's about 2000 years of pre-historic activity preserved in this landscape.

We have an option for our visitors here: they can either get on our bus or they can walk across the landscape. From here you can walk out through some field gates, along the road a little way and you can walk across this landscape along the line of the ancient Cursus monument, which is a really early monument in this landscape. But today we are going to take the bus.

We're standing right at the entrance to Stonehenge, where we can see the most regular sarsen stones, they're the really big stones, and we can also see the lintels on top that join them together. On this side we've got three preserved lintels still in their original position, so it gives you a good impression of what the stone circle would have looked like when it was completed back in pre-history.

Looking around us here we can see the rolling downland of the chalk landscape and we can see, spotted around in the landscape on some of the ridges around us, some low bumps, some low hills, and they're round barrows- they were built in the early Bronze Age and they cover the burials of people from that period.

The thing I notice about Stonehenge is that it's very different at different times of year and different times of day. So if you're here at dawn on a frosty morning you get a completely different sense than if you're here in a rainstorm, or here in mid-summer when it's really hot and the parched grasslands are all around you. The stones look different in different lights: sometimes they look very dark and silhouetted against the sky; other times they are bright, white and really shining; other times they pick up the orange of the sun. It's one of those sites that repays several visits to see it in different lights and seasons.

The entrance faces north east and that's where the Heal Stone is, this outlying stone. That's the direction of the mid-summer sunrise, so on the 21st of June if you stand in the middle and you look in that direction, you will see the sunrise in exactly that direction. Conversely, on the 21st of December, on the shortest day of the year, if you turn 180 degrees and look out through the stones, in pre-history you have seen the sun setting between the two tallest stones of the great trilithon, the head of the horseshoe.

We have very few clues about what people were doing here in pre-history and what kinds of ceremonies and rituals might have been carried out. But what we do know is how the stones are arranged and that shows us that the Solstice axis is really, really important. There are not many finds here: there isn't lots of pottery or animal bones or feasting debris, so it suggests it's kept clean and sacred and perhaps separate from everyday life.

At the beginning of the 20th century Druids first started to come to Stonehenge and at the time these were actually Christian friendly societies who were taking their name from the ancient druids, who had been recorded by classical authors, and they used Stonehenge for ceremonies. But over the 20th century that has become its own religion and there's loads of different facets of these modern religions. In general, it's about a sense of connection with the British past, with the countryside, the landscape, with our ancestors.

People come at all times of year to conduct ceremonies. People who are just generally spiritual like to come to Stonehenge and soak up the atmosphere. It has always been place that people have come to and stood and wondered about the past. I think it will be for a very long time to come.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Fascinating to hear people visit this monument today for so many reasons! It makes you realise that location and landscape and belief have a lot to do with each other.

Today we think about religious buildings and our relationship with worship, but of course in this period it would have been the landscape itself that held special significance. Joe, what do know about the landscape before Stonehenge was constructed?

Joe Flatman:
We've undertaken really extensive surveys over many years in this area. Of course, nowadays everyone experiences it as this very open grassland landscape and it does need to be emphasised that sense of it being quite an unusual space, with a lot of heavy woodland nearby, you've got the river not far away, completely different from the kind of place you go to these days.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Joe, apart from the stone circle we know, what else is there?

Joe Flatman:
You've got a fantastic array of sites dotted all over the landscape: you've got the stone circle, but then you've got the avenue leading right off it, aligned with the sunrise and sunset at the Solstices, which is when an awful lot of visitors go and have that special experience twice a year. Some people have always thought that perhaps it is to do with some sort of measuring time, a celestial clock. It's much more about that sense of identity with the landscape, the seasons, the cycle, the pace of life.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Remona, this connection between religious sites and the natural world is something that has been important throughout history, hasn't it?

Remona Aly:
Yes and you feel it when you're at Stonehenge. You feel the other worldliness, the mystery, the wonder of it all. The connection to the sun and the environment is something that really speaks to me as well in my own faith tradition because the sun tells me when to pray and we're also connected to the moon, the lunar cycle, it measures our time. We're so disconnected these days from our natural surroundings, so going to Stonehenge really brings that back, that connection back to nature and the natural way of living.

That was something that really had a huge impact on me when I went there.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
The striking thing about Stonehenge of course is that it is an area that has clues to human life and settlement thousands of years ago- it's just being uncovered. But it was also, of course, a place of burial. Hazel, why do you think burial sites and traditions are so important in the history of faith?

Hazel Southam:
Where you bury your dead and how you bury them is incredibly personal and important. It is important for you as a bereaved family and it is important for the person who is going on to the next world. It represents not only how you feel about them, but also what you hope for them for the future. At Stonehenge, it is actually pre-dated by a ditch, a structure, and in that they have found all kinds of things that show that there were burials there, both burials and cremations. The burials there were incredibly important: it's the biggest Neolithic burial site in the UK.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
It's an important ritual and I suppose that focus on the afterlife, which is the focus of much spiritual belief, is crucial.

Hazel Southam:
I think in a time of grief you need a ritual: you need a form and a way of doing it that helps you get through it, so you can cope with what is happening.

Remona Aly:
You almost feel that they are speaking to you when you are, you can hear the ancestors…I don't know if that was the audio guide, but I did feel very palpable!

(laughter)

Suzannah Lipscomb:
There is something about that though. There's something tangible - I always think this with historic houses - you go into them and they are places where only time and not space separates you from the people of the past. A million people or more visit Stonehenge every year- do you think there's about that tangibility, that physical visiting of a place that is very important?

Hazel Southam:
I think what Remona said about, that it connects you with the landscape and with the natural world is so important. I'm sure a lot of people must get that out of it because here we all are- we've got our phones and our iPads, and every other bit of technology, but often we don't look up and see the sky or the stars, or know exactly where the sun is rising or where it is setting. We're not growing our own food generally and we're completely disconnected. And in that disconnect you get disconnected from spirituality. So, going to a place that is so very physical reconnects you with that.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
There is something really extraordinarily awesome about standing in front of these and it gives you that sense of connection to the natural and spiritual world.

Joe Flatman:
My personal advice is if anyone goes they should walk it because it is that sense of gradually coming up to the stones through the environment - it might be a hot summer's day, it might be a cold winter's day - getting closer and closer, ideally making sure you are there at one of the times you can actually go inside the circle and be there. Personally, I actually like it when there are more people there. Some people like the idea of being there on their own but I like that sense of it being a bit bustling, a bit crowded, almost pilgrimage-like in that sense.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
When you're with all those people, it gives you a sense of how small a human is compared to these stones - four metres high, 25 tonnes - you get a human next to that and they look so arresting and impressive.

Now, from the south west of England, up to the north east, we're now off to the outer edges of the country, relatively close to the Scottish border in fact. One mile off the Northumberland coast, you'll find the wonderful island of Lindisfarne. It's tiny- its four miles by 1.5 miles, connected to the mainland by a spit that is only revealed at certain tide times.

While it may be small, it is a very special place, so the Reverend Dr David Ison explained why Lindisfarne made his top ten.

David Ison:
Lindisfarne represents a whole of Christian faith and belief which we call Celtic. It's also interesting here that Celtic spirituality is being revived in a modern and slightly different form, there's this ongoing sense of what it means. If you are from the north of England, you will be very aware of the saints from the early Christian period who came over Ireland or from Scotland, and who evangelised the north of country and down the east side of the country.

That tradition is summed up in Lindisfarne as a place. It's been a consistent place of monastic occupation and prayer for a long period. It also indicates the way in which special places like islands - places on the edge - so, it's both an island and part of the mainland as the tide ebbs and flows. And it's an intriguing place that is sometimes one thing, sometimes another, which is also an image of our religious experience: sometimes you're in the middle of ordinary life and something touches you or changes you and you have a spiritual experience in the midst of life.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
It is an excellent choice. Lindisfarne is the Anglo-Saxon name for a community otherwise known as Holy Island, and for good reason. The Priory and Monastery here were highly influential in the shaping of English Christianity. The Priory was founded here around 634 when Irish monks settled on the island. But the island is most famous for the Lindisfarne Gospels, which were written here in the late 7th or early 8th century.

They are beautiful, strikingly illuminated, or illustrated, manuscripts. They make up some of the finest pieces of medieval art and religious writing still in existence. They are now kept at the British Library in London. Lindisfarne has had a turbulent past. In 793, in the century after the Lindisfarne Gospels were produced, it faced an early Viking invasion and later its 12th century monastic building became one of the first to be dissolved under Henry VIII's 1536 Act for the Dissolution of the Monasteries. After that a modest castle was built here using the stones from the Priory.

As well as being a place intrinsically associated with Christianity in England, this is also a well-loved area of outstanding natural beauty. The dune lands and beaches are popular with bird watchers in both autumn and winter, as it is a great spot to watch the migrating flocks. You can also spot grey seals lolling on the shore here. It is a truly beautiful place.

So, let's start at the beginning, how did an Irish monk ended up on this little island off the coast of England?

Remona Aly:
Well, there wasn't Ryanair, so he didn't come that way. We're talking about a monk called Aidan who comes over from Iona, from the Scottish coast, at the invitation of the local King. And that's a good thing because if you are wanting to establish in an area you want to be at the seat of power, and Aidan was. He comes in 634, or 635 - sounds like a long time ago - and sets up on what we now know as Holy Island.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Was he the most important monk associated with Lindisfarne?

Hazel Southam:
There is a whole string of really impressive people and the next one is Cuthbert, who was a soldier and then became a monk. He comes to Lindisfarne in 670, so 35 years later, and he comes at the invitation of the King and he becomes known as, not just a great leader, but somebody who really embodies the Christian faith. So he is humble, he lives a life of simplicity but with great empathy, and he exhibits great tolerance. At his death, there is a coffin in the church in the Priory on Lindisfarne and 11 years later - I don't know why - somebody comes up with a great idea, "let's open the coffin and see how he is doing".

So, they open the coffin and low and behold, Cuthbert's remains had not deteriorated and this was taken as a sign of his great sanctity. Instantly you get that this is a place of pilgrimage.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
He could have just been sealed in lead…I don't mean to be disparaging! Catherine Parr's remains were opened in the 18th century and she was still in tact as well and I don't think she's a saint.

Hazel Southam:
That was probably it but there we are!

Suzannah Lipscomb:
The Lindisfarne gospels however, if any listeners haven't seen them you really must when the opportunity arises.

How were these produced, tell me about them Joe?

Joe Flatman:
Yeah…just quietly working away. And remember we're talking about there being no artificial light whatsoever, except maybe for some candles which were probably not good enough. You're talking about daylight hours in the summertime there of what 13, 14 hours? Winter time, five or not at all?

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Yes and somewhere that if you wanted to go outside to get the best light you're probably facing the problems of the weather?

Joe Flatman:
Pretty windy! I mean, I love it up on Lindisfarne, it's one of my favourite places in the whole of the country but it is never very calm weather up there.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
It was a man called Bishop Eadfrith who did the work and it pre-dates the history that we have by the Venerable Bede, about the English church. We're talking about something really precious and they're such a beautiful artefact these Lindisfarne Gospels aren't they?

Joe Flatman:
Incredible things to look at to this day! When they were first produced the colours would have been so incredibly rich and bright. This thing would have been the most colourful, extraordinary thing anyone would have seen in their lifetime.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
There is a real movement by campaigners in the north east, understandably, to have them moved back home. But why do they have such an important place in the history of English faith?

Hazel Southam:
They are one man's life's work and why did he dedicate his life to this? Because this was the most important message that he could get over to anybody.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And there's something in that- the production of the gospels or of the buildings that we're talking about…the painstaking work, the energy, the labour that has gone into creating them and the tiny details of effort that someone has put in shows such dedication to faith in a way that we don't perhaps see all the time these days.

At the time of their creation, Northumbria was a real melting pot of beliefs. It's not for certain that Christianity, originally introduced by the Romans, would be the dominant faith in England. Instead non-Christian Saxons, Vikings and Angles would all tussle for dominance in the as yet unrecognisable Britain. In short, you can trace modern Christianity in England back to turning points like this, where decisions were taken on the practices of English Christianity and where one monk chose to record religious history.

Our third and final location for this episode sees us staying in the north east of England, near the village of Holystone, a name which gives you some place about the place we're about to visit. The Very Reverend Dr David Ison selected Lady's Well, which is a very atmospheric, peaceful spot, steeped in religious tradition. The well is fed by a natural spring that supplies the nearby village with water.

You can visit the well yourself by following a footpath to a quiet pool that sits amongst a grove of trees. At the eastern end of the well is a flat stone, once thought to be used for baptisms, which gave Holystone village its name. This is what our judge had to say.

David Ison:
Holy wells go back millennia. In terms of the life-giving nature of wells and springs they were hugely important to people as a means of survival and therefore a way into spiritual experience, of saying we receive this water as a gift, you can't take it for granted, it might dry up some day. But also there is something very generative about this and in the same way that the crops grow in spring, the leaves on the trees come out, there is something about the cycle of nature that says water is really important.

The holiness of places where water comes to the surface, again living on the edge of things where two different worlds collide, is a place where there is more access to the spiritual. And it shows the continuity of that tradition, of holy places around water, which have continued to our own day- people still throw money into springs and wells!

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Let's talk about the holy heritage of this well. Back in the 12th century a Priory existed in Holystone and was home to eight Augustinian canonesses. They gave the site its name, Lady's Well. Is this the earliest reference we have to Lady's Well, Joe?

Joe Flatman:
We've got Roman references as well and - I'm going to throw this one out there - my personal view is that a site like this has almost certainly got pre-historic origins. So many of these sites up and down the country have been in use, just as David said earlier…millennia of use. Perhaps we can't prove a pre-historic link but you look at the landscape- fresh water is one of those places which becomes venerated early on.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Hazel, these springs have a history of baptism associated with them, tell us about that.

Hazel Southam:
That's right, back in the 5th century, a Celtic missionary called St Ninian is said to have baptised people in this pool. But I think Joe's right, it could have been before that, and certainly after that. So, you get a confluence of physical refreshment and spiritual refreshment coming together.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
We have from the 7th century another saint, St Paulinus, who is said to have baptised 3000 Christians over the Easter week leaning on the stone that is now the holy stone we mentioned earlier.

Hazel Southam:
3000 Christians is so many people!

Suzannah Lipscomb:
It's going to take a while, isn't it?

Remona Aly:
Yes, it's going to take a while and allegedly it took a week. But it's so many people! That's probably all the people form the surrounding area and further, it's not just a small town, it's just vast.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
You're right- if you think how early it is in the history of Christianity in this country, it's a real step change. 30 years after Augustine comes to Canterbury, it's actually pretty important in terms of the changing nature of faith in the country.

Remona Aly:
You can imagine if there was an event like that where you lived and everybody from the surrounding area was baptised- that changes everything. That's changes everything you believe, everything that you are, how you relate to each other, how you see where you live.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
I think there is something interesting about how this has meant something for generations as well, because there is a 15th century statue of St Paulinus on a stone at Lady's Well and there's also a monument, which is a cross and a Celtic star from the Victorian period which was put in the pool. So there's a sense that people have made their mark and this had meant something to generation after generation.

Remona Aly:
Water is sacred to practically every religion and tradition. You have Lady's Well, you have Lourdes, you have the Ganges in India. There's the sense that water is a miracle, it is life giving, it is sacred, it is purifying. There's an interesting connection as well between women and water: so you have the Canonesses at Lady's Well and from my own Islamic tradition, there's story of the miracle of the Zum Zum spring that sprung up in the desert and that is connected with Hagar, Abrahams' wife. And that is part of the rituals of the Islamic pilgrimage- millions of pilgrims will re-enact her steps looking for the water when she was rushing between the hills to give water to her baby. And pilgrims will drink it to this day so there is a very important connection with women and water and how they have nurtured religious practices.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
That's really interesting and the other thing I was really struck by, Joe was the sense that David talked about- the kind of liminality, or being on the edge of things, that you're in a place betwixt and between at somewhere like Lady's Well and that those are particularly good places to engage with spirituality. Can you think of any other comparisons?

Joe Flatman:
So many of these holy wells are often in these quite secretive spaces: the topography lends itself to it, with water creating little hollows with the trees clustering around them, particularly in places like bits of the north east of the country where you do have this warp and weave of the landscape. You can go to other places like Walsingham, the famous pilgrimage site in Norfolk, where there on that very wet, flat landscape you have a real sense of routeways on these kinds of places, of millennia of people moving through a landscape, following the same routes, following the same signs.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And we all need refreshment like that from time to time. That's it for now, thank you Hazel, Remona and Joe for taking us through three intriguing places that tell us about England's story of faith and belief.

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