Twenty-five or so years ago, Sir Edwin Lutyens was at or near the head of my “Top Ten Architects in History” list. Truth be told, he’s always been there, a bucket list of sorts, though we didn’t call it that at the time. So Lutyens was among several well-known names—Michelangelo, Hawksmoor, Furness, Sullivan, Wright—and many lesser lights such as Barry Byrne, Josef Plecnik, Burnham Hoyt, or Paul Schweikher. [Count on me for the obscure and abstruse.] During the summer—precisely which summer I can’t say—I happened to be in England, traveling alone and intent on seeing Castle Drogo, one of Lutyens’ large late country homes.
Devonshire is a rural county in the southwest of England, famous for an extreme landscape called Dartmore, a dramatic windy wasteland worthy of the Brontë’s but actually used by Arthur Conan Doyle as setting for “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Devonshire is also an ancient county, littered with dolmens, menhirs and other enduring evidence of Stone Age spirituality. Lutyens’ house would be in good company. Indeed, he conjured his own “menhir”—London’s Cenotaph—as memorial to the First World War, the Great War, the War to End War.
Taking the train to Exeter—I recall the British Rail station being some distance from the city center—I found that a bus would get me close enough to Drogo. The driver let me off at an unmarked crossroad and gestured to the left. “The castle is down that lane,” he said and drove off. It was one of those Ektachrome days, a metaphor lost on anyone whose photography is purely digital, so the prospect of walking several kilometers was a welcome change from London’s hurly-burly. The road was a wide single track, a typically British experience where the etiquette of two oncoming vehicles requires that one of them reverse direction to a spot suitably wide for passing. For half an hour at least, I had the road to myself—absent cars, farm vehicles, signs, power poles, or any sound more intrusive than chattering birds. There I was, alone with myself.
Ten minutes into the trek, William Blake came to mind—not the Blake of “Red Dragon” and Hannibal Lecter but the Blake of “Jerusalem,” an anthem set to music by Sir Hubert Parry and made (in)famous by Monty Python:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land
But it was Pugin’s imagery that these words brought to mind, not Blake’s.
Accompanied by a chorus of crickets and wind-blown crops, I broke into a solo Sunday-morning service worthy of Sabine Baring-Gould. [Ask me some time about him and the first Episcopal church service in Lisbon, Dakota Territory in the spring of 1884.] My baritone is respectable but that day beneath that sky, with a vista little changed in three hundred years, I bellowed Blake’s words and Parry’s tune as best I could remember them. And then a Kyrie I’ve set to the chorus in Bela Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” What was missing from this ad hoc service? Looking back, this may have been the most sanctifying communion of my experience before or since, but I also suspect it was more Celtic than Christian.
The state legislatures of Alabama and Oklahoma are unlikely to agree with my assessment of that afternoon: its holiness, its spiritual buoyancy. That three- or four-mile walk to Castle Drogo stands out as a cleansing moment so vivid I can relive it even today, twenty-five years later and several thousand miles away.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about religion lately, not the least reason being the wedding I’ll officiate next August. What right have I to celebrate the union of two friends, other than that they asked me?