Jill Segger has an uncanny and disturbing experience in the crypt of St Cedd at Lastingham, a place where the veil between this world and the next is thin North Yorkshire is monastic country. Rievaulx, Mount Grace Priory and Ampleforth represent a continuing tradition while place names such as Oswaldkirk are a reminder of the monks who shaped the region's history. One of the earliest monastic foundations was established at Lastingham in the seventh century by St Cedd, a monk formed in the Celtic tradition at Lindisfarne. That tradition offers the intriguing concept of the "thin place" to describe sites where the veil between the temporal and the eternal is thin and where the other world may be perceived as being very close. The crypt of Lastingham church, where St Cedd is thought to be buried, appears to be such a place and even when accounts of ley lines, discarnate spirits and other New Age theories had been set aside, exercised sufficient pull to send me on the long journey to the North York Moors.,
Lastingham is a tiny settlement. Sheltering in a concealing dip on the edge of the moors, its red-roofed houses cluster around St Mary's church, which stands on a high mound in the centre of the village. There is nothing in this pleasing view to remind the modem observer of St Bede's description of the site as "better fitted for the haunts of robbers and the dens of wild beasts than for human habiation".
The present church, standing on the original monastb site, was extensively renovated in the 19th century by the architect John Loughborough Pearson and a lord physician, Sidney Ringer, but retains the solidity and simplicity of its Normal origins. However it is he crypt, built in the Ilth century by Stephen, Abbot of Whitby, which draws the visitor and captures the imagination.
To descend the 15 steps from church to crypt is to enter another age. The temperature falls, the light diminishes and the 21st century recedes. The crypt is small — maybe a cricket pitch in length from the door to the apsidal east end — and is unusual in taking the form of a miniature church with nave and side-aisles. Low barrel vaulting and massive pillars give a mysterious, almost oppressive character to the small space which they enclose and support. The rough stone floor is uneven and carvings of Viking and Saxon design bear witness to this having been a holy site centuries before the Norman arches sprang from their stout, squat columns.
Dull of spirit indeed would be one who felt no impact upon senses or imagination in such an ancient place of worship. And there, I told myself, as I sat down with a notebook, is the problem. It would be easy to be predisposed towards experiencing the odd manifestations which are reported to occur in Lastingham crypt.
One of those manifesta
tions is said to be the irregular behaviour of compass needles. But the solidly engineered instrument which I had brought with me behaved only as a well-conducted compass should.
A2efter sitting quietly for 0 minutes without nsing anything abnormal, I concluded that imagination must, perhaps understandably, have run away with the authors of many reports. But just as 1 was gathering up compass, notebook and camera, an unmistakeable change occurred in the atmosphere. I realised that I could no longer hear the distant cooing of doves which had hitherto been the only sound. A slight but troubling vibration began in my ears, the temperature rose and the air around my face seemed to thicken. I held my nose, swallowed hard and tried to fan the closeness away. The sensations persisted and a sense of a presence became very strong.
1 will own to being rather frightened. Prayer seemed the obvious course, and without consciously willing it, my mind formed the words: "St Cedd, pray for me and mine." The response was prompt and rather odd. I had a sense of communication, attended
by irritation as though the saint's attention was occupied elsewhere: "Why else would you be here?" was conveyed to me. It seemed to be enough. The ambience slowly returned to normal and I ascended to the daylight, already trying to convince myself that I had imagined it all.
A conversation with Alistair Ferguson, the vicar of Lastingham, helped me to make some sense of what had occurred. Dr Ferguson, though courteously and prudently reticent about any experiences he may have had, showed no surprise at mine and was entirely recep tive to the notion of "thin places". He told me that David Hope, when Archbishop of York, had described the crypt as a "powerful place".
We agreed that powerful places were not always soothing. He spoke of "turbulent energy" which reliable witnesses have experienced in the crypt and reminded me that Bede records St Cedd as having fasted for 40 days to "cleanse the site of its crimes". The words "spiritual conflict in high places" came into my mind and a concordance directed me to St Paul's warning of the struggle against those powers "who originate the darkness in this world".
Lastingham crypt is a holy place. It is beautiful but it is disturbing and I am glad enough to have been disturbed. Maybe it is the function of "thin places" to remind us that religion is not always comfortable, nor does it necessarily deliver peace on demand. There is a sense of unfinished business at Lastingham. The modem predilection for religion-Ike may make it harder to acknowledge that such busi ness concerns us all.