I went to Carlisle looking for proof of the claim it was the capital of Rheged and thus the seat of Urien Rheged where Taliesin sang his praises. I was also curious about whether I’d find any traces of Gwyn ap Nudd in the context of my research into his forgotten connections with the Old North.
I didn’t find what I expected and I found many things I didn’t expect. Such is the way of the world when you venerate a god of strange dogs…
When I got to the entrance of the grounds of Carlisle cathedral I was stopped dead in my tracks by a stunning black-backed gull with a blush of red on his yellow beak, red star-studded rims around yellow eyes and black tail feathers spotted white. It wasn’t just his colouring. I felt like I recognised him.
However, there was a man eating a burger on the bench beside me. It wasn’t a time for talking to gulls. I looked around the ruins of the chapter house, the fratry, the friar’s tower, and St Cuthbert’s church then approached the doors of the cathedral.
On either side were sculptures of dogs. One was thickset, heavy-jowled, mouth open as if to speak an order or breathe out a blast of wind. The other was smaller, crouched, leaner, ready to pounce with an intriguing serpent-like fork at the end of her tail. Guard dogs. They let me pass.
Inside were chapels to St Wilfrid and St Michael, statues of bishops sleeping like corpses on their tombs. In the treasury a beautiful Roman glass bowl, stones engraved with early Christian art, collections of chalices, platens, jewellery. I was most impressed by the high star-studded ceiling and the ornate artwork on the misericords.
Misericord means ‘mercy seat’. The monks stood for their seven daily sets of prayers hence their seats folded down. However for the elderly and infirm a small shelf was created for support. This is the origin of some wonderful art: wyverns, man-headed lions, a siren with a mirror, a woman beating a man, St Margaret of Antioch being swallowed by a dragon and eaten by a boar*. In a world where neither prayer nor craftsmanship are valued, the time and effort put into carvings to support the backsides of praying monks seem undreamable.
There was no mention anywhere of Urien Rheged or Taliesin. When I got out, the gull was waiting at the entrance. I sat on the wall and shared some crumbs from my sandwich. An old woman approached, remarked on the proximity of my ‘friend’ and told me there had not been black-backed gulls in the area until a pair nested on one of the roofs. Everyone was terrified the little grey chicks would tumble out. Yet they’re alive and well and it looks like they’re staying.
Like the Cathedral, Carlisle Castle was built (in stone) in the early 12th century but was founded on an earlier site. This was known in the Romano-British period as Luguvalium ‘Strong in Lugus’ and as the capital of Civitas Carvetiorum: the territory of the Carvetii tribe (‘the deer people’). A Roman fort which housed 1000 men was built there in 73AD then another called Petriana facing it on the north bank of the Eden.
Due to its powerful defensive position near the confluence of the rivers Eden and Caldew and to Hadrian’s Wall plus its earlier status as a tribal centre (which may have become one of Nennius’ 26 cities: Cair Ligualid) scholars have conjectured it may have been the capital of Rheged.
I walked the walls, descended into the half-moon crescent, found the well, and the tower where Mary Queen of Scots had been kept. Descending into the basement of the keep, once a storehouse and dungeon, I read how the thirsty prisoners had been forced to lick the stones for moisture.
In that inner cell I spotted grooves in the stone, a wet glint. Water? I touched it and my finger came away damp. Like a tongue. I felt the crush of bodies, the walls closing in, said a quick prayer for those who had been imprisoned, and rushed back to the light.
On the first floor the Great Hall with its expansive fireplace was the kind of place you could imagine a poet performing for a King. However, once again neither Urien nor Taliesin were mentioned. Up another flight of stairs a pair of walls decorated by bored 14th C guards with drawings from coats of arms and oral tales. Engraved on the door: a huntsman and his dogs.
The Eden and Caldew
I walked from the castle down to the river Eden, noting the path that runs along the line of Hadrian’s Wall. The Eden would have felt peaceful if it wasn’t for policemen searching for something in snorkels which set me slightly on edge. At the spot where the Eden and Caldew meet I touched the water and saw a shoal of tiny newly hatched fish.
Up the Caldew jackdaws flocked between the trees. As I walked back through the woods I felt like I was surrounded by them every way I turned: a fairytale moment, a jackdaw on every branch, in every ear. I don’t see jackdaws in Penwortham and was enchanted by their roguish presence. At the end of the wood I found a freshly fallen feather.
Curse and Counter
Walking through the subway between the castle and city centre I came across the infamous Cursing Stone. Designed by Gordon Young and made by Andy Altman it was set in place in 2001. It is inscribed with the Curse of Carlisle, which was used against the Border Reivers by the Archbishop of Glasgow in 1525. The curse is 1069 words long. It begins:
“I curse their head and all the hairs of their head; I curse their face, their brain (innermost thoughts), their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their forehead, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their leggs, their hands, their feet and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the soles of their feet, before and behind, within and without.”
The Cursing Stone has caused controversy because since its instalment Carlisle has suffered from a spate of bad luck including foot-and-mouth disease, floods, rising crime and unemployment and the relegation from the league of Carlise United football team.
Christians have campaigned to have it removed. I noticed behind the stone was a door engraved with a Christian prayer and a cross saying ‘blessing’: an attempt to redress the negativity of the curse? Ensuingly someone less high-minded had written beside ‘honourable’ ‘just’ ‘pure’ in permanent marker, ‘Ha ha your God is dead.’
Tullie House Museum
You could spend days in the Tullie House Museum learning about the history of Carlisle (from a hand-axe dating to 10,000BC to the modern-day) and looking at the art-work. I had only a couple of hours left so had to keep my focus on finding something relating to Urien and Taliesin.
The bottom floor was entirely dedicated to Roman Britain and included statues and altars to the Roman deities and interactive spaces where you could enter a tent or try on jewellery. I noticed a brooch featuring a hunting dog then upstairs a dog statuette from the Romano-British period. Both put me in mind of the votive hounds offered to Gwyn’s father, Nudd/Nodens.
To my surprise I found numerous sculptures of Celtic deities: a Celtic wheel-god (Taranis?), three sets of Genii Cucullati, three sculptures of the Mother Goddesses and a dedication, a Celtic horned god, the eye-catching ram-horned head from Netherby with his deep, sunken eyes and fathomless expression. There were also altars to Hueteris, Belatucadrus, and Mars Cocidius.
I’d seen many sketched in Anne Ross’s Pagan Celtic Britain and wasn’t prepared to see them all together at once. It was overwhelming and rather peculiar seeing them packed into four cabinets; some headless, limbless, or defaced. I managed to get my act together and speak their names, those I knew, those I didn’t. Images of deities sculptured 2,000 years ago, revered, now viewed in a entirely different context.
The most surprising find was a cauldron. I’ve been researching the stories of the broken cauldron in British mythology for the past two years yet this was the first time I’d seen a cauldron in real life. The Bewcastle Cauldron was found during peat cutting at Black Moss, was missing its handles and coincidentally had been repaired five times by patching. Most astonishingly it was surrounded by orange lights; in ritual, I place candles around my cauldron in the same manner! Once again there was no sign of Urien or Taliesin.
A Wild Dog Chase
If I’d seen a goose I might have been able to say I’d been on a wild goose chase. However, I found myself led along my journey by a variety of strange dogs, birds (but no geese), and other bizarre creatures to the cabinet of the gods and the ‘grail’ itself: the handle-less patchwork cauldron.
A strange day out and in the non-logic of it this ‘wild dog chase’ I sense the presence of my Annuvian deity…
*I found out the correct identities of the carvings on the misericords from an obscure pamphlet called Cry Pure, Cry Pagan by Thirlie Grundy which a friend coincidentally happened to own.