Who taught the teacher?
For some time now, our Saros Roots research group has been searching for the identity of Glyn Davies’s teacher. Glyn was one of the original founders of the Soho Group, and the first person to introduce many of us to Kabbalah in later groups. He wouldn’t say much about his own sources, but he did tell us that his original teacher of Kabbalah lived near Hull, and that he had met this man while serving in the RAF. Glyn described him as a farmer, though it’s possible the man in question had also been in the RAF himself at some point. His name was John Smith. We may never know whether Glyn chose this as a pseudonym for him, or whether it was a delightful cosmic joke that the man’s name would protect him from discovery. There are certainly plenty of John Smiths in Yorkshire! JS (as I’ll call him) was described by Glyn as an ‘unremarkable’ type of man to the outside eye, but tough, even ferocious to those he taught. JS passed on his teaching to possibly no more than two or three pupils, as the heir of a line of Kabbalah which is said to have come to the UK from the Low Countries after WWI.
Glyn and Alan were both still in their twenties when they set up the Soho Group. Although each of them already had some kind of ‘contact’ with the Work and Cabbala, they were too young to have been ‘wise masters’ at this stage. (Glyn himself always preferred to avoid the title of ‘teacher’, though it is in fact how a number of us refer to him.) So what sources did they use to launch the group, and help keep it on track? Alan Bain, the overt leader of the group, had experienced a particular kind of spontaneous initiation which led to his interest in Kabbalah and spiritual matters (you can find a link to his account below). And the essential reading for all group members was Dion Fortune’s Mystical Qabala, which gave a standpoint to work with, and filled in a multitude of details about the Tree of Life. However, in regard to a person-to-person teaching line, the main ‘living source’ would have been Glyn’s own teacher, as formulated by Glyn and mostly delivered by him from the sidelines, according to accounts of his role there. So it’s of great importance in the Soho Tree line of work, and has remained a subject for speculation ever since.
Glyn Davies – background
Glyn’s career in the RAF stretched from 1947 to 1957. In 1949, according to his service records, he was posted to RAF Patrington in East Yorkshire, where he worked in radar operations for six months. According to snippets that he told some of us, this was where he met his teacher, John Smith the Yorkshire farmer. Later postings such as those to Staxton Wold Radar Station, near Scarborough, in 1953 and 1954, would have also given him opportunities to visit John Smith over the next decade.
Glyn’s contact with his teacher continued for about thirty years. Although he divulged very little, I do know that Glyn visited him around 1974, as he stopped by at our house in Cambridge on his way home. He told us he had hitch-hiked his way ‘to see a man about a dog’ near Hull. He did also reveal that this was his former teacher, and even gave us some idea about the discussions they’d just had.
But soon afterwards, division arose between them as JS opposed Glyn’s intentions to open out the teaching to more people, and in a broader context. JS thought that it should only be passed on individually, whereas Glyn felt that we were entering an era when there was a greater need to share this knowledge. The Saros Seminars, public events with notable speakers, aimed at addressing some of the ‘big questions’ of our era, were an example of this. Although not specifically esoteric, they encompassed both scientific and spiritual issues affecting the modern world.
After Glyn died in 2007, there was a surge of interest among those who’d worked with him to understand more about this line and its origins. Glyn was always ready to point us to historical sources which had probably acted as channels for this branch of Cabbalistic teaching: Hieronymous Bosch, Robert Fludd, the Royal Society and so on. Very often his indications seemed far-fetched on a first hearing, but if you examined the material closely, it seemed he could be right! The mystery of John Smith still intrigued the Saros Roots group, however: who was he? What was his connection to the line? Did he also have an interest in something like Freemasonry, or the Golden Dawn? Or was he more a man of the soil, who had somehow come into contact with this teaching which, as already mentioned, was said to have been brought over from the Low Countries after World War One? Perhaps he had been a military veteran, who had had an interesting wartime encounter in Holland or Belgium?
We homed in as closely as we could to find the identity of John Smith through genealogical research We assume that he was born around 1900-1910, and that going on Glyn’s information, he probably died in the 1980s. But looking for the right John Smith in Yorkshire is a tricky challenge! Our extensive search has not yet thrown up a suitable candidate. And we also still have to bear in mind that this could be a pseudonym.
However, we decided that a trip to the area would be interesting in its own right; it’s always worthwhile to explore the physical terrain, just as Rod Thorn and I did in treading the streets of Soho and Clerkenwell to look at old meeting places of the Group, as recorded here (blog link). So it was that in July 2018, Rod Thorn, Jack Dawson and I met up in the Patrington area.
Big skies, wild sea
Patrington is situated on the Holderness peninsula, some twenty miles from the city of Hull and close to the River Humber. It is a landscape of big skies, large cornfields, old villages and hedgerows. Nearer to the North Sea, the land becomes completely flat, crossed by ‘channels’ to drain water from marshy soil. Once you reach the coast, the elemental nature of the setting hits you – winds whip across in winter, and even on a high, hot summer’s day when we visited, the wind blew across grey foam-fringed waves of the sea, receding to eerie skylines of windfarms and gas terminals. Migratory birds gather at Spurn Point, where the land tails away into a three mile sandbar, shaped like a comma, and only a few metres wide in places. On one side of it is the freshwater estuary, on the other the uncompromising wash of the North Sea.
Patrington’s history is firmly associated with this estuary, and the town had its own docks in the nearby village of Patrington Haven, once the most important port in Yorkshire. These were abandoned when they finally silted up in the 19th century, and the sea now lies a couple of miles further away. Patrington itself also shows signs of its former glory, with a magnificent church, often called ‘The Queen of Holderness’, which has a tall and graceful spire rising in the landscape like the mast of a galleon. It is filled with glorious carvings, created by stone masons who also worked on York Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. The town itself is now a small and sleepy place.
The site of the RAF camp where Glyn Davies was stationed is at Patrington Haven, a mile or so away; it’s now a leisure camp, but substitute RAF huts for static caravans in your mind’s eye, and you can easily imagine how it once looked. Some buildings remain intact, including the Guard House at the entrance. It played an important role as a listening post, protecting the country during the war. However, in the mid-1950s, the RAF base was moved to Holmpton, a few miles away, which was better suited for Cold War era operations, and for accommodating more servicemen. These included the new National Service recruits, some of whom in Patrington had to be billeted with families in the village, due to lack of space. The Cold War bunker at Holmpton is now a visitor attraction.
Below: Views of the Happidrome Radar Station below, as it survives today
Our visit also extended beyond Patrington itself; Rod and I had explored Beverley the day before, including delving into local records at the appropriately-named ‘Treasure House’ in the town’s museum and library. And also, as it happens, gate-crashing a Masonic Lodge in the little town of Pocklington, to see its ceiling painted with starry constellations, which had also been mentioned to us by Glyn. All this could have been part of Glyn’s patch, but it was the terrain of Holderness which affected us most deeply.
‘My impressions of the landscape are centred on the yellow fields of ripe wheat in the flat land. Spurn Head and the Sunk Island area made a big impression - how the land rises from the sea, where in other places it is sinking back into it. I was aware of the sea links in the area, and our tradition coming over the sea from Holland.’ (Rod Thorn)
Jack Dawson’s account below has been slightly edited and shortened from the original. I have added a few comments in brackets in the write-up which follows, which conveys something of the spirit of the day, and what it means to be on a ‘search for the source’.
Trip to Patrington – Jack Dawson
I joined Cherry and Rod on the third day of the Roots Group Field trip to the area in and around the village of Patrington. Here, according to one of our number in the Saros network, was the village cited by Glyn Davies to have been the residence of his teacher John Smith.
I had no particular expectations as to what we might or might not discover, it now being almost 70 years ago since Glyn had encountered either his teacher, or the person who introduced him to his teacher at the RAF Radar and Signalling station at Patrington in the East Riding of Yorkshire in 1949.
The M62 upon which I had spent most of the previous hour and a half travelling had changed almost imperceptibly into the A58 until finally morphing into the more leisurely A1033. As I approached the village I remember commenting to myself, just how far beyond the port of Hull the land extended. I, like most people, had always considered Hull to be the final destination point before one sailed across the North Sea to mainland Europe…..this was at least one pre-conception demolished!
I have travelled extensively throughout Britain, and some of the flatter counties including Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire are to a large extent featureless, often made up of a wide expanse of cash crops and dykes, punctuated by the odd church steeple. As I approached the village of Patrington I noted the land in this part of the East Riding to be equally flat, but possessing much more in the way of interesting phenomena to catch the attention, both natural and man-made.
Towering above everything and standing out like a beacon was the spire of St Patricks Church in the centre of Patrington village, visible for miles around. I was taken by its high grandeur set amongst the fields of wheat that swept down to the oddly yet appropriately named Sunk Island opposite to Spurn Head.
The landscape itself was bathed in the warm morning sunshine and held a sort of golden quality. The horizon towards the East seemed difficult to discern, which I put down to the largescale expansiveness of the skies one often finds where the land is predominantly flat. It struck me this would make excellent country for wide awareness exercises, which no doubt Mr Smith would have set Glyn in the early years of his training.
St Patricks Church
Having met up with Cherry and Rod, we proceeded to enter the Church of St Patricks (an interesting name for an Anglican church one might think!) Immediately upon entering the space I was struck by two things; the brightness and the scale. It was light, airy and had the dimensions of a small cathedral. Like most old churches, it contained a number of historical artefacts: a twelve-sided font which was probably one of the oldest pieces of stonework in the building, along with two mediaeval coffin lids emblazoned with Tree of Life crosses. The remnants of a Lady Chapel still retained a stillness of a kind, and for me had a resonance with the Lady Chapel at Ely.
Visit to Patrington Haven
After leaving the Church we headed for the adjacent village of Patrington Haven. This was where the airmen and women of RAF Patrington were billeted. Today a holiday camp, we passed through exactly the same entrance that the air personnel would have done 70 years before, marked by a four-sided guardhouse type building that had somehow survived from that time. As we drove around the beautifully maintained camp we caught sight of a sculpture of an airman depicted in the form of an angel.
Feeling in need of refreshment, we parked at the main leisure centre and sat outside with a coffee. This was the spot where the buildings that housed the Airforce personnel lived, ate and slept.
Being so close to the bed above which Glyn first saw the glyph of the Tree of Life hanging set up a resonance within me, a moment where a connection to something was first made… For a few moments there was a quiet reflection around the table before we amused ourselves with the idea that Glyn would probably have thought that we were a bunch of silly idiots searching for a very small needle in a very large haystack!
Exiting the former air-base we turned right out of the camp and almost immediately passed by the Burns Head Inn (ironically a John Smith’s house!). [John Smith being a leading Yorkshire brewery] This no doubt would have been a bolthole for the people in the camp, but as to whether Glyn and Smith ever drank there together, we will probably never know?
From here we followed the road down to the Happidrome, the name given to a group of derelict buildings that made up the actual Radar station where Glyn had worked. Here the landscape began to open out with fields of golden wheat surrounding the old Station and the big expansive skies gave the place an air of remoteness; in fact, a house on the other side of the road was called Bleak House. Once again, one couldn’t help walking in Glyn’s shoes, looking out as he must have done over the vista he too would have experienced.
Sunk Island and East Bank
Our researches had unearthed several people with surnames that end with Smith so the next part of our journey involved a drive around the area in which a number of them either once lived, or are possibly still living. Our first stop off was at the Church and churchyard at the place called Sunk Island. An unusual brick-built construction, quite possibly unique. Although an interesting place, it did not yield much in the way of additional information.
We then moved onto East Bank where at number 29 our research suggests that a branch of the Smith family may still be living. After a few false alarms we came across it, a modern brick-build semi-detached. For me it didn’t have any specific resonance, but this area seems to be adept at concealing its secrets, so who knows?
[Jack’s full account then includes the visit to RAF Holmpton, which took over from RAF Patrington RAF after Glyn’s time there.]
From RAF Holmpton we then went to check out more branches of the Smith family…the ‘Winestead’ Smiths who had once lived on Bydales Lane just outside the village centre of Patrington.
We parked up and made our way down the road, towards the first house cited by Rod and Cherry. Jasmine House had been owned by Rupert Alec-Smith, a military man and conservationist, [apparently no relation to our ‘Smith’]. We then noticed a smaller cottage further along the road which had clearly seen better days. The house it seems was under offer and a quick look on the internet had showed it was on the market for 120k. Here Cherry noticed that, just visible, and poking through the grass behind the gatepost, was a small hand-carved sculpture of what looked like a female deity. Although simple and rustic in design it held enough potency to make an impression.
After walking a little further along the lane we chanced upon a gentleman working in his garden who, it seems, after we had engaged him in conversation, was the son of the local historian of the village. Although he couldn’t really add anything to our knowledge we thought it might be useful to take his contact details.
Our next stop off in this location was just around the corner at the well-kept Fir Tree Farm, sitting on the junction of the main road to Patrington and Winestead Lane. This is the house of a local farmer, and here we got to meet an actual living breathing member of a branch of the Smith family within a stone’s throw of Patrington. The person in question turned out to be the farmer’s wife and wasn’t actually a Smith by birth. She told us that her husband’s uncle was called John Smith and was about 80, which would have made him quite a bit younger than Glyn therefore not our man. She suggested that the uncle in question would probably be the person to ask as he was quite knowledgeable about the area. It seems there have been at least two Smith families in Winestead, along with the Alec-Smiths (who a couple of generations back were plain ‘Smiths’!)
St Germain’s Church
Our final visit of the day took us to the churchyard of St Germain with its ‘blink and you’d miss it’ entrance, Rod reversed into the driveway, and from there we walked up to the entrance to this oddly located little church in a spinney in the field. After looking around for a little while my heart gave a momentary leap when I read on a gravestone ‘John William Smith’ died 1986 aged 54. By quick mental arithmetic I worked out that this John Smith would have been born in 1932, unfortunately some 3 years after Glyn’s birth, which of course ruled him out, as we are almost certain that Smith was an older man.
As I said at the beginning, I came along with an open mind as to what we might discover. In many ways the visit to the RAF camp at Patrington Haven was particularly evocative for the reasons I have previously outlined. There is just something about being so close to the place where it all began. When Glyn made contact with the Line, it generated consequences for all of us. If the paths of Glyn and Smith had never crossed, who knows how the lives of each and every one of us would have unfolded…if at all! This visit may well be the closest we get to the origin of our line. We may never find out who the mysterious John Smith was, or how Glyn came across him, but I am now not too sure that really matters…. if it is meant to be, so be it, if not, at least we tried!
Being in the physical location of such a momentous meeting, for me a connection was made through the mind, outside of time and space, which in the moment seemed very close and very real.
Aftermath - Cherry Gilchrist
I returned to collect this abandoned sculpture the next day. When I finally reached home after this trip, with the ‘female deity’ carefully wrapped up in the boot, I saw that on the doorstep the postman had left a package of books, copies of the new edition of my ‘Circle of Nine’ about feminine archetypes. It seemed a fitting match. The figure we now think is the top half of a small mermaid statue – not valuable in its own right, but of pleasing significance to me, and a meaningful token of our day’s quest. It now lives among the flowers of Devon in our back garden.
Overall, although we didn’t discover many hard facts, we did gain a huge amount from immersing ourselves in the terrain, and absorbing the atmosphere related to that period of history when Glyn was stationed at Patrington. We ruled out some John Smiths, placed a question mark over others, and turned dry records into living history; there were other individuals and families with whom Rod and I talked, not included here for reasons of length, but who all added to our general impressions of the area.
Prior to this trip as well, we researched other lines of esoteric teaching in Yorkshire, which didn’t throw up any specific connections, in terms of the elusive John Smith, but proved interesting in their own right, and may still yield a link to his own line at some point. We hope to write a report on these at a future date.
The Ted Hughes Connection
Just before we visited Yorkshire, a possible connection came to light with the well-known poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998) who spent most of his National Service in radar operations at Patrington, the same as Glyn Davies. His dates were very close indeed to Glyn’s own dates, though at the moment it seems that Glyn was only there until August 1949, and Hughes arrived early in 1950. I have had a fascinating correspondence with Dr Ann Skea, a leading Hughes scholar, whose work focuses in particular on Ted Hughes’ interest in Kabbalah, Tarot and astrology. (see Refs) She too thinks there could be a connection, but despite much digging on both sides, we can’t prove that they knew each other. Steve Ely, another Hughes scholar, has also taken an interest in this possible link, and provided us with the full details of Hughes’ service records.
So is this just a coincidence? Glyn said to several of us individually in the Saros network, that John Smith did have at least one other pupil, and maybe two or three altogether. But he kept the identity of Smith’s other student(s) confidential, as was part of the teaching entrusted to him. Could one of them have been Ted Hughes? Glyn mentioned in conversation that he had once had a friend who was a poet, implying that he was a professional or at least a very good one. (Though of course, Soho was also a mixing ground for writers and artists, so this is no proof in itself.) Might Ted after all have overlapped with Glyn, serving at Patrington – or might Ted too have encountered John Smith in the pub, independently from Glyn, and been tested and trained in the same tradition? Could Glyn and Ted therefore have known each other as fellow students, and worked together at times when Glyn came back to visit his teacher in Patrington? Hughes was a private, but dedicated student of Kabbalah, Tarot and astrology. He wasn’t a ‘joiner’, according to Dr Skea, so he definitely wasn’t a part of the London Soho set-up, or its offshoots. But from the glimpses he gave of his involvement, his version of Kabbalah and magic seems close to what we are familiar with. Perhaps one day our research will discover more. Certainly, on this whole question of John Smith and his influence, ‘there is always further to go’.
History of the Masonic Beacon Lodge in Pocklington
Facebook page with photos of Sunk Island scenery
Patrington Facebook page
Notes on the life of Rupert Alec-Smith, Winestead
St Patrick’s Church, Patrington
Journey through the Yorkshire Wolds, with sections on Patrington and the surrounding area
Life and work of Ted Hughes
Essay by Ann Skea on Ted Hughes and his magical interests
Ann Skea's homepage on Hughes and Plath, plus their association with Tarot etc
Articles are mostly written by Cherry and Rod, with some guest posts. See the bottom of the About page for more.
A guide to all previously-posted blogs and their topics on Soho Tree: