Writer's retreat

Writer's retreat

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Holly and the Ivy Part 2

The public bar of the The Plough was quiet when Granny entered. Two travellers ate bar meals in front of the large TV. Granny nodded towards the Landlord, who was washing glasses behind the bar as she made her way to the back room where Anvil’s Wood Folk were holding their weekly gathering.

She opened the door, a fog of sound enveloping her. Thirty men of various ages ranging from gangly teenagers to white haired grandfathers were lustily singing an ancient carol to the accompaniment of a melodeon, fiddle and two guitars.

Granny did not stand still for longer than it took her to open and close the door. She wove in between singers like an exotic dancer, greeting some with a touch to the hand, but most with a kiss. By the end of the last verse she reached the front of the room and the small space where the musicians sat. A loud roar of approval for their playing rose up as the song ended. Granny kissed the melodeon player on the cheek, then went to kiss the fiddle player, a tall, thin youth in jeans and a thick cotton shirt. He blushed as her lips touched his, then grinned.

“Don’t I get a kiss from my own wife?” asked Zeb as he replaced his guitar on its stand.

“Not this year, love. I need you for other things.”

“And we all know what those are,” came a deep voice behind her as Anvil appeared from the middle of the crowd.

Granny was serious for a moment. “You took note of those I kissed?”

Anvil nodded. “Fewer this year, I reckon. There’ll be some long faces tonight.”

“And sighs of relief from others. It’s not me who picks, Anvil, nor will I do the choosing. You know that.”

Anvil clapped his huge hands together twice and the buzz of conversation slowly died.

“It’s that time of year again, lads. We need to gather holly from the copse to make wreaths for all the front doors in the village. We’ve booked the village hall for Saturday afternoon, but we can’t go in until the tap class finishes at 3 o’clock.

“The women are bringing ivy and dried fruit for us to use, but I need volunteers from amongst those of you who aren’t seeking holly to cut some withy fronds from Fletcher’s Brook – we’ll need at least fifty if we’re to cover the new estate as well as the rest of the village. We’ll also need bracken from the bridle path near Cooper’s Way. It would be best if we can all meet at the forge on Saturday morning. Will ten o’clock suit everyone?”

There was a general murmur of agreement.

“Now don’t forget to bring your knives. They have to be your own. I can’t lend you a knife and anyone who tries to use secuteurs will be sent home. Does anyone have any questions?”

“What if we don’t have a knife?” A slight young man standing at the back of the room looked at Anvil with a somewhat defiant gaze.

“Then you’ll have to use your hands, won’t you, Colin. Maybe you’d like to think again about making your own. The forge door is always open.”

“How are we supposed to get enough bracken back to the hall? Fifty wreaths are going to take a helluva lot, Anvil.” The speaker was a middle aged man sitting to one side of the room.

“You can take Robin’s pony with you, Andy. I finished making the panniers last week. They should hold enough and you won’t have to carry anything.”

“I’ll cut the withies, “ Zeb offered. “Paul and Martin will go with me. “

“Thanks, Zeb. Leave them at the vicarage. Andrea will take them across when she goes.”

“She can’t carry them, “ Zeb protested, “It’s as much as she can do to carry herself these days.”

“Maggie and I will be with her and I dare say the Vicar will lend a hand. “ Granny’s tone brooked no dissention and the room grew eerily quiet. When she spoke again, her voice was so soft, anyone would have thought she talked only to the person next to her, yet every man felt she spoke to him alone, her words piercing their way into his heart.

“It’s a special year, this year. I feel it and I know Anvil does too. The new Madron bears a solstice child. The Lady Well has a new Keeper, old enough to know the traditions, yet young enough to ensure they are kept throughout the village. These changes don’t go unnoticed. There have been ripples in the women’s side; Anvil senses something approaching for you too.

“Some of you are disappointed not to be kissed tonight. This is not a game where you can win or lose. Only one of the gatherers will be chosen on Saturday. Only one of you will go before the Holly when snow falls and fall it will this year. Anvil says we have two weeks. It’s not long. Every one of you should think what you can do to support both the gatherers and the chosen. He may act alone, but he acts for us all.”

No-one spoke as Granny turned to kiss Anvil on the cheek, then made her way through the crowd and left the room. Zeb picked up his guitar, tuned it thoughtfully for a few moments, then began to sing the Battle of the Holly and the Ivy. Before long, others joined in and soon the room was alive with song once more.

Nay, Ivy, nay, it shall not be, I wis,
Let Holly have the mastery as the manner is.

Holly standeth in the hall fair to behold,
Ivy stands without the door; she is full sore a cold.
Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

Holly and his merry men, they dancen1 and they sing;
Ivy and her maidens, they weepen1 and they wring.
Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

Ivy hath a lybe, she caught it with the cold,
So may they all have, that with Ivy hold.
Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

Holly hath berries, as red as any rose,
The foresters, the hunters, keep them from the does.
Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

Ivy hath berries as black as any sloe,
There come the owl and eat them as she go.
Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

Holly hath birds a full fair flock,
The nightingale, the poppinjay, the gentle laverock.
Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

Good Ivy, [good Ivy,] what birds hast thou,
None but the owlet that cries How! How!
Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.


Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The Holly and the Ivy Part 1

An ivy stem flapped against the parlour window.

“Wind’s strong tonight,” said Maggie, placing another block on the fire.

Granny nodded but did not look up from the stitches she was counting. A complex woollen lace creation tumbled over her lap from sturdy needles.

“Mull some cider, will you, Maggie? He’ll be here soon.”

The younger woman got up to place the poker into the flames, then fetched a bottle of cider from the pantry, returning with three tankards which she placed beside the hearth.

As she set them down, they both heard the knocker sound.

“Strange he should use the front door, “ Maggie murmured as she went to welcome the visitor.

Granny rolled up her knitting. “Formal business warrants formal entry. Don’t you know anything, girl?”

Opposite her rocking chair, in the ancient, brick-backed fireplace, flames flickered in the draught caused by the open front door. Granny heard a medley of voices;

Maggie’s soft soprano compared with Anvil’s rumbling bass and another greeting from the kitchen where Granny’s husband was keeping himself busy. Then she heard the clump of heavy boots along the thinly carpeted hallway and sudden shadow as he entered the parlour.

Granny stood to greet him.

“Good evening, Granny.”

“Good evening, Anvil.”

The tall man fixed his gaze on the bright, birdlike eyes of the woman in front of him.

“I went to the woods today and the holly berries are ripe.”

“Many berries this year?”

“The most I’ve seen this twelveyear.”

“So there’ll be snow.”

“I reckon so.”

“Soon?”

He shook his head. “The wind still smells of rain rather than frost. Three weeks maybe.”

Granny nodded, resuming her seat and gesturing he should take the comfortable chair in front of the fire. When both were seated, Maggie hastened to pour cider and spices into the tankards. She felt them watch her as she grabbed a padded cloth to wrap around the poker before pulling it out of the fire, shaking it free from ash before she plunged it into each drink in turn.

The cider hissed and sizzled in response to the intense heat. Carefully, Maggie returned the ironwork to the stand before she picked up two tankards, presenting the first to Granny and the second to Anvil. Grasping the third, she slid back into her cushioned seat on the inglenook settle, breathing in the heady spiced fumes before she dared to try her first sip.

“You’ll check on the chapel tomorrow.” Granny’s words were more statement than question. Anvil swallowed a mouthful of hot cider before nodding. “Take the pony to carry spare thatching. We don’t want wheel tracks on Bowsen Path if we can help it. Wouldn’t do for strangers to visit there until it’s all over.”

“One of the shutters is loose on the far window,” Maggie said, “and we’ll need more wood for the brazier and full lamps. I don’t really want to take blankets up there beforehand if they’ll only get cold and damp.”

Anvil grasped his flagon in both hands, his thick fingers locked together as if drawing comfort from the warmth.

“There weren’t enough length in Upper Barn ground straw this year after the drought. Not for thatching. Rob Taylor and his nipper went off for a long weekend to the Broads at Michaelmass. He said there were enough reed beds to thatch the whole village, so he traded some rabbit skins to bring back reeds for the chapel. He said we might not need them this year, but it were best to be on the safe side, just in case.”

Granny unrolled her knitting and picked up the pattern where she’d left off before Anvil’s arrival. The tension in the room began to dissipate as her needles clicked in time with the fire’s quiet crackles.

“Rob’s turning out to be a real forward thinker since he was chosen.”

Anvil smiled. “It does that to a man, being chosen. Good to have the chapel sound, just in case. Do you need anything else done, Maggie?”

The younger woman thought for a moment. “I don’t think so. We cleaned out the well just a week ago. I had to wait until the Rowan’s leaves were all dropped. She was late this year. Lots of berries though, just like the holly.”

“You made any rowan jelly? I’ll drop you and Tom a pheasant next time I’m passing. We took a good dozen last Saturday when we walked Badger Drift.”

Maggie held out a small jar to him and he stuffed it into his jacket pocket. “That’s from the first batch. It’s from the Guardian Rowan, so it’s really bitter. I’ll be making some more with berries from the copse together with our windfalls this week. You’re welcome to some of that too. Granny said you liked the bitter jelly.”

“I do when bitter’s called for.” His face creased into his usual smile. “There’s times for sweetness too.”

Anvil drained his tankard and stood up. “I’d best be going before the rain sets in. You’ll be there Tuesday night, Granny?”

“You still meeting upstairs at The Plough?”

“No, Old George moved us to the back room last week. Seems the Bridge Club needs more space these days. Four more couples from Edgecombe Close have joined including Samantha Brierley.”

Granny chuckled. “I think her husband will be looking for a new bridge partner soon. She’s agreed to come to the Knitting and Worship Circle next Thursday.”

“I thought she might. Her Granda was a Ravenswick, just like the vicar’s wife. Can’t see her sticking to the four suits when there’s studying and knittin’ to be done. Let me know when you want me to make her a set of needles.”

Maggie accompanied him to the front door. Granny heard her sliding the heavy bolts home after shutting it behind him. When she returned to the parlour, she was already dressed in her coat.

“I’ll be off too, Granny. “ She bent to kiss the older woman’s soft cheek, surprised when Granny grasped her arm firmly.

“No scrying now, Maggie Tulliver. You may be the Keeper of the Well, but it don’t give you the right to see who might come your way.”

“Granny, I wouldn’t!” Maggie’s face was shocked.

“I know you wouldn’t mean to, but I’ve seen your black saucer filled with well water sitting on the windowsill. You might just be tempted. Throw it away when you get home, there’s a good girl.”

“But what if Tom….”

“What ifs butter no parsnips. What will be will be as you know very well.”

“Yes, Granny.”

Maggie wrapped her scarf around her head and left the cottage through the back door. Granny carried on with her knitting.

“You’re too hard on that girl, Amy.” Zeb came in from the kitchen where he’d been mending a long case clock for the vicar.

“She’s got to learn, otherwise there’ll only be heartache.

Zeb settled himself down in the armchair recently vacated by Anvil and picked up the paper. “I seem to remember another young woman scrying for Holly’s chosen one not so many years ago.”

Granny sniffed, “That weren’t scrying, that were just a bit of preparation. Just in case.”

“Granny Blackwell didn’t see it like that.”

Granny cast off six stitches with great concentration. “Me and Granny Blackwell didn’t agree on many things before she died. Doesn’t make it wrong.”

Zeb hid himself behind the open paper so she wouldn’t see him smile.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The walled garden, Trewince Manor, Cornwall

Last week's exercise was to write a monologue or conversation piece regarding a wall. I immediately thought of Willy Russell's wonderful conversations with the wall in Shirley Valentine, but I could not think of a house wall I wished to include in a similar fashion.

Eventually I decided upon a walled garden. One I know well, having visited it almost every year for the past twenty two years, until I made a deliberate decision not to go near it. The deliberate destruction of fertile land always upsets me. Maybe I shouldn't concern myself and concentrate instead on the land I have influence over.

I wasn't able to read this at Solihull Writer's Workshop as I was feeling too ill to attend. So it's being posted here instead.

********************************************************

You might call me, “coward” if you could speak. Twenty years ago I stood outside your bothy washing dishes, lifting my gaze to the pristine gold of cut wheat on the headland. Watching moon rise over the sea and catching glimpses of bats flitting around branches.

You transmuted sound then; happy children’s laughter as they played within your domain, soft murmurs of conversation as parents sat beside you in folding chairs.

Even when the campers left, you still welcomed us. I could sit on green grass, imagining footfalls of Victorian gardeners; the crunch of wooden wheels from wooden barrows rolling up and down paths between beds of vegetables and flowers. Warm sun-ripening fruit on espaliers, grapes turning green and black inside glass enclosures. Sore backs from digging barren beds, adding compost from the farm next door, then planting a second crop of greens before frostfall.

Outside your main gate, white dust wafts with remembered carriage wheels. The Captain taking his daily drive along the lane then down the steep track lined with buddleia and blackberries. Stopping to sip tea in his natural amphitheatre overlooking the estuary below. Only dog walkers follow his steps today or sailors travelling to or from their boats moored in the tiny harbour opposite St Mawes.

They walk beside you ignorant of your past. Your gates and arched doorways are boarded now, your bothy destroyed. Keep Out! Danger! Notices scream at wouldbe trespassers. We are not wanted here. Briars fasten themselves across your openings, denying access.

Many years you have been left to decay, the owners wishing there was no preservation order on your bricks, welcoming their success in gaining permission to build three more wooden houses within your domain. Their only thoughts;the profit to be gained rather than their responsibility in stewarding the land.

I have done nothing to save you; to return your original purpose. I have smiled when your owners talked, unwilling to share my views, my anger, my disgust at their greed. There were so many other possibilities in your future if they had considered partnerships instead of profit.

How little would it cost to restore your original purpose, reinvigorate your soil, offer activities and employment within your garden? One hundred years you produced food for the Windy Farmhouse before being sold as holiday lets. Your vegetables disappeared and you grew caravans and palm trees instead.

It could be so again, but not in my life time. New people will buy a viewless holiday home, relish the peace and quiet and proximity to the sea. Maybe their children will play games and laugh without noticing the sunset, their parents drinking champagne on twisted iron verandahs.

I shall not know or see. I cannot bear to visit you again, to run my fingers over coloured stones marking your age, grieving over what could have been. Even had I screwed my courage to the sticking point and spoken before, my words would have fallen on deaf ears, blind minds and frozen hearts. You will still stand, still enclose, still remember no matter what is done around you.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Inspiration from a picture

During the fifteen years I have been a member of Solihull Writers Workshop, we have always met in the Margaret Wharam room in Solihull Methodist church next to the railway station and bus depot. The room is named after a woman I knew as a teacher from Dorridge, whose junior school choir would accompany the Chandos choir during our Christmas concerts. The room was named in her memory after her death.

On the wall behind the Chairman's table hangs a faded green and brown print of a road/trackway leading up and over an English hillside in winter time, flanked by three leafless trees. It always reminds me of the 3 miles of Icknield Street between Condicote and our farm.

Our theme for last Wednesday's meeting of the Writer's Workshop was to write something inspired by the picture. There was a wide selection of poetry and prose at the usual high and thought proving standard from Mark's version of "My Last Duchess" to Alex's varied soliloquay.

The following story was my contribution. Although the details are taken from my own memories, I have yet to walk the three miles again. Something to put on next year's "to do" list!

********************************************

Sophie parked her car on the wet grass verge. Her closing door startled a black cloud of rooks in the nearby sycamore tree, which flew off scolding both herself and each other.

The tree was larger than she remembered. The air was chill but autumn sun warmed her face. She could see the path winding off up into the distant horizon. For a few moment she stood listening for sounds of sheep and lambs, but wind rustling in the grass was all she could hear.

No-one would be driving sheep today. The flock existed only in her memory. How many times had she walked in front along the three miles of neglected Roman Road on their way to the sheep dip on her uncle’s farm.

There was no point in trying to dip them at home. With only thirty broken mouthed ewes and their lambs it made no sense to dig a large enough hole to immerse them when family would be filling their trough with treated fluid for the large flock of Suffolks and Kerry Hills.

Summers were always hot in Sophie’s childhood. She remembered the thrill of watching the sheep moving through the holding pen towards the dip. Her father and uncle standing either side as the animals swam across or leaped on each other’s back, using their friends as stepping stones in an attempt to escape the noxious liquid.

They never did. Both men held shepherd’s crooks, the curved handle capturing each errant sheep and pushing it firmly under the water. Sophie worried sometimes the animal would drown, only reassure when they climbed out the other side coughing and shaking their whole bodies to remove as much of the fluid as possible.

It was for their own good. Sophie had never known their flock catch any of the dreadful diseased the dip protected them against – sheep scab and others. No-one knew then about the dreadful neurological harm caused to humans by the dipping liquid. No-one wore protective clothing or masks or rushed to wash off any ovine induced splashes. Thankfully, no-one suffered any damage that they could tell.

Sophie looked again at the track in front of her. Was she going to explore further or remain walking down memory’s lane? She locked the car, took a deep breath and set off up the hill.

It was steeper this way. She could only remember walking downhill before. Three miles was enough for small legs. The return journey was usually done by car with her mother and sister, racing to reach the crossroads to stop any traffic as the flock approached.

The fields were empty on both sides of the track. She looked in vain for her great uncle’s wild, long horned cattle. She could not remember the year he passed away, dying alone in a foreign institution, away from his land and his beasts. A stranger owned the farm now. One field lay brown with recently ploughed stubble, the other pale green cropped short by hungry mouths.

The track was rough under her feet. On either side deep ditches dug by Roman soldiers with short axes still remained. Hedgerow trees of hawthorn and blackthorn lined stone walls, their branches now red with hips and haws, purple sloes hiding in shadows.

It was difficult to say which barriers grew of their own accord and which placed deliberately either as boundary fencing or after the enclosures act. Whatever their origin, they respected the line of the road, even though modern authorities left it to crumble away, preferring later roads defined by Norman rulers.

Sophie plodded upwards, eventually reaching the crest of the hill where a roadman's hut lay derelict on her right hand side. When they first moved to the farm and local councils still employed men to mend the roads, this hut served as a resting point to keep tools and brew dark mugs of workman’s tea. In summer months, smoke could sometimes be seen rising from the chimney in the evening showing the presence of a nocturnal visitor.

The local tramp was well known and tolerated in the area. Sophie didn’t know if this gentleman of the road was the same man who survived sleeping under their own barn outbuilding, woken by falling rubble as the roof collapsed. The neighbouring farmer removed the stone from the barn before her family bought the land. She remembered hearing about the tramp staying in the roadmenders' hut, but never saw him. She was always too afraid of disturbing him to look through the window when they walked past.

The road drew straight for a short while before beginning its descent to the next valley where it would meet up with another Roman road. If she looked hard along the opposite hill, she could see puffs of steam rising in her mind’s eye.

“Look at the ghost train, Sophie,” her parents said, directing her six year old gaze into the distance. The small goods train was too far away to be heard and within a year or so Beacham cut the line. Someone decided the large viaduct was too expensive to maintain and it, too was destroyed, ensuring the railway would never return to this quiet place.

So many different lives and buildings decaying, Sophie thought. The weight of her memories was too much. She turned and made her way back down the track to her waiting car. She could travel to another life, another world. Maybe she would return and remember more another day.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Perils of Poetry Competitions

My poetry writing is very spasmodic. If I'm not emotionally wraught, I don't write! The exception is the Solihull Writer's Workshop annual poetry competition, when I try to create something.

The judge was a performance poet - very skilled, very interesting and a fantastic performer. She gave us useful tips on creating mature poetry, meaningful and enjoyable to the reader. The advice was very simple and applies to other areas of writing - edit ruthlessly, don't spoonfeed the reader, allow them to find their own meaning in your words rather than spelling it out for them too heavily.

She didn't like my poem. She said there were two many images. She also presumed the line "We stand beside hops and mugwort discussing flavourings for ale" related to a group of men, rather than the actual crowd of 7 women and one man who were there in reality. All the images I used, were sights I'd seen during 19 June, apart from the fox with the pheasant in her mouth. My father saw her a few days before and told me about her.

I shall be reading the poem at the Celebrating Herbs Festival near Stow on the Wold this weekend, along with other poems relating to Springfield Sanctuary. I hope the audience like it. See what you think!

Summer Solstice
Mid way between winters two meadows grace a Cotswold hill
Their boundaries set for centuries in stone
Summer sun shows skylarks guarding nests with song
Tall grasses ripple stippled wind-born waves
While rose briars quiver in the breeze
Blush-kissed petals surrounding yellow pools where insects drink.

Beside a wall, a stately pheasant peruses his domain
Red circle bobbing between the rye
Across the field flying formations rise up
Then disappear into a surfeit of seeds
Silent now their quest
Unlike the hearty chorus in the hazel tree at dawn.

Half way to the valley floor, a spring-birthed stream flows clear
We stand beside hops and mugwort discussing flavourings for ale
A half-grown rabbit scampers between legs to prickled sanctuary
Startled, those with sharper eyes notice a weasel
His long neck extended towards our voices
A chance hunt thwarted by our invasion

Later, a vixen trots, jaws filled with pheasant
Ruler of the grass deposed
Her fealty to growing cubs, deep in the badger’s sett
Careless, she leaps up and over one wall,
Runs across the field then leaps again
Safe home to fill bellies as feathers fly.

Colours fade as light succumbs to dark
A half-circled moon shines from blackened sky
White clouds drifting serenely across her face
I lean through my open window consuming silence
Waiting through this shortest night
For the promised dawn.

Monday, 19 July 2010

A complement of poems

Occassionally I have written a poem which has then sparked others to draw on their own creativity. Here are a selection.

Good Friday at Temple Guiting 2003
I saw you watching from the edge of the thicket
Waving your antlered head in acknowledgement of my thoughts
Were you drawn perhaps by music?
The sense of worship?
Wondering at the need for sacrifice
Forgetting the new life bursting all around
Certain within their own containment
Thick walls, Templar built
Sunk into ground
Marking their territory
Defining their own need for glory
Whilst forgetting yours.

Only I whispered blessings to the spirits of place
Honouring years of worship
Travelling back to a Saxon wattle church
To the open sacred place beside the stream
Beheld you standing there, watching
The faint smile on your lips bestowing certainty
Knowledge that all things return to you
Given time, space and opportunity
Then, as we journeyed homewards,
A deer sprang across our path
Sure-footed, not distracted by our man-made lights
Secure in the twilight to complete the journey
A message confirming my own misgivings
You saw me there.

SJH

The Green Man Preys
Be still,
If you wish to be passed by.
It is the motion in you
That invigorates my eye.
It makes me dream again
Of the patterns in the scents,
Your movement holds me
While I taste the air’s intent

I see you now
Through the forest weave
Where branches break the light apart
And my breathing thrills the leaves
You lie down gently
In my petal-smattered glade
While my creatures dance and sing for me
Of the beauty of my prey

“She... there...”
Calls out the jeering crow.
As songbirds praise the prettiness
Of the stagman on his doe,
The fox’s jaded smile
Invites the willing of a wish,
And writhing slow against my arm
My serpent friend insists.

But only I know
That already it’s begun
Or perhaps you feel my heat
As you unfurl in the sun,
Perhaps
You taste the spice of an over-friendly breeze
That billows under hem
And lifts it over knee...

Perhaps anticipation
Has brought you to this place
To revel in warm shivers
As you anticipate this chase,
Perhaps your smile is shaped
By a promise from the past
That has brought you to this sacred ground
To make the offering at last.

And perhaps it does not matter
Why this time has come
Only that the rain must fall
And the river has to run
Reasons are for other worlds
And now that you are here
Let instinct find the light and heat
Let passion trample fear.

A thigh among the bracken
A foot upon the loam
A forehead lashed with brambles
Struck by lightning antler bones
Nostrils fan a spark
From dark imagination
And my eyes roll back delighted
At the prospect of creation.

And now my shadow straddles
The valley of your lap
A horned man has risen
With the budding of the sap
It would only take my will
For your limbs to form a nest
I only have to want it
You only have to rest.

Uncurl your wrapped petals
So I can see that time has passed
Drape yourself with moistures
Like the dew bejewelled grass
Let the weight of your endeavours
Be lifted from your heart
And feel the weight of pleasure
As it prises you apart

I hunted you forever
To bring you this escape
I caught you like a glimpse
Under shadowed forest cape
I’ll save you from your blood
By ravaging your flesh
I am ancient and unstoppable
I am innocent and fresh.

Yes reach for life and press yourself
Fill yourself with breath
Stretch out for some small pleasure
And receive my little death
Make a barrow for this seed
In the dark warm of your mound
And release yourself, increase yourself
Upon the altar of the ground.

So now your eyes are open
I can smell your deep belief
Your spirit is unbroken
Yet you wallow in relief
Because you know me don’t you?
You know my ways of life
You knew that I was coming
And you made your sacrifice.

Provoked by a weather forecast
In the midst of rain
I offer you sunshine
Bringing you light and heat
To envelop you with warmth
To nurture you
In joy and peace
 
Together we can watch the raindrops
Cascading down windows
Or track the path of a single glistening jewel
Caught in the shelter of a leaf
Lodging in safety
Until it slides contentedly to earth
Crystal on green
 
You are my leaf
Moulding yourself to catch me
Shelter me
Holding me to yourself
As I seep silently through your pores
Until breeze stirs your form
Encouraging me to dance away
Into the air.
 
SJH

The leaf replies
Glowing, growing green.
I feel your cool touch as you nestle
Held for a while by some magic that is not magic
 
Where you move over my skin
You leave a kiss, a blessing
Some small trace of you
Mine forever
 
And when the wind wins
We part company
For you to nourish another leaf
Another root, another life.

SCC

These next few are from a "work in progress" called The House of Rohke which allows a glimpse into a world of shapechanging humano-cats where females are dominant and males serve. In their world, the great houses keep spare males to offer to any high status visiting females. One of the stories tells of a chance meeting between such a "lown male" called Roehve and a young alpha, Oruleah. I will leave you to guess the author of each poem. (Hint: there are two authors)

The Lone Male’s Hope
Perhaps this evening
I may catch her scent
And my heart will hammer
Suddenly
 
Perhaps tonight
She will seek diversion
And send for someone
Discreetly
 
Perhaps tomorrow
I will wake
Ravaged and used
Taken and torn
Bitten and clawed
Aching and sighing
 
Happily

Two Voices

Oruleah
I give you no mark because you are not mine
I give you no collar because I do not own you
But you have swallowed my musk
My scent covers you
My ambre stains your maw
You know the secrets of my glands
You have submitted your sex to my tongue
You have offered your throat to my teeth and your flesh to my claws
You have covered me
Your seed coats my womb
Your musk runs for me
I hold your pattern in my soul
You are mine.

Roehve
Lady,
Before tonight
I served
I groomed
I nudged
I licked
I moved
I responded
I sought to please

Tonight,
You walked through my mind
Leaving prints
You do not follow tracks
You make your own path
Wherever you walk
I cannot seek you
I cannot ask to know Your will
I cannot ask to serve You
I bear your mark upon my soul
You are here.

Oruleah
Kitten curled
Pounding heart soothed
Slow, steady beats
Whiskers washed
Ears flat
Eyes closed
No dreams to chase tonight
Warm, soft body
Relaxed
Around
At peace

Roehve
Lady,
Wake,
For dawn breaks
On morning,
Crisp and clear

Open your eyes
To snow-dusted hills
Pink, pale,
Soft sky
Muted blue to rosy taupe
From a birthing sun.

Come
Let me groom
Your sleek sides
Feed you morsels
Clothe your stretching limbs
Against a prying world

Let me worship
The scent of your footfall
The soft whisper of your tail
Remembering
The warm glow of your ambre
Biting my tongue

Allow me
To breath your presence
As you slip
Into the world
Alone.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

A story for Midsummer

The grass of the glade was cool under their feet after the long dusty path down from the stone circle. They had woken in the black night, lit by the waning moon and climbed the steep slope to where the stones stood silhouetted against the sky. A cool breeze wafted the scent of the heather towards them. They had no words, as they sat huddled together waiting for the dawn.

Theirs was the silence of watchers, unsure of the future and with little experience of the past to guide them. They had come on a whim, a chance desire to do something for the first time. Neither of them had seen the sun rise on midsummer morn before. Sunrises, yes there had been many, but caught after a night of revelry on the way to sleep, rather than woken and anticipated with the dawn.

Although the circle was high on the moor, silver birch trees encircled the stones. Three ancient pines and a stunted oak tree stood over to one side, as if watching too. Their branches shivered in the wind, sighing. How many sunrises had they waited for, the girl wondered - hundreds, thousands, singing their songs of welcome with the wind whether or not others chose to join them in their rite.

Her mate nudged her as the first signs of grey crept across the sky.

"We need to be over there, " he said, pointing to a spot behind the tall stone standing alone outside the circle. "When the sun rises, it will hit the marker stone so that the shadow enters the circle and covers the Goddess stone."

"Not another fertility symbol," the girl groaned and saw her mate grin mischievously.

"Of course! The God enters the Goddess and their issue ensures a plentiful harvest for the earth."

"But I thought we did all that at Beltane," the girl complained.

"We did, " the boy draped a long arm across her shoulder and held her close, "but you can't have too much fertility if the earth is to provide all our needs."

The girl leaned her head against his shoulder, hugging her secret to her. She'd not told him yet that their Beltane loving had been successful. She wasn't sure if he was ready to leave his youth behind and take up the responsibilities of fatherhood. He was a loving soul, but bold and impetuous, seizing each opportunity and wringing it dry with enjoyment. How would he cope with the need to hold and nurture another life, providing a safe environment for them all to grow within?

The sky began to pale and colours crept back into the world. From the paleness of a blue/grey sky, tiny wisps of clouds floated across, tossed by an unseen breeze.

As the light brightened, they scrambled to their feet and stood apart, the time of waiting almost over. It seemed as if they blinked and there was the golden orb spilling across the horizon, it's first rays hitting the marker stone. The shadow grew, stretching along the grass until it touched the Goddess stone. The girl drew in a short, sharp breath as if the God had indeed entered her and sought to fill her soul with the love that he bore for the land.

Too soon, it was over and the sun had risen, the early warmth giving rise to the promise of heat within the day. The girl picked leaves from the oak tree and wove them into the boy's long hair. He whooped and sang, leading the girl in an intricate spiral dance around the stones. Together they celebrated life and love and joy and it seemed as if all the creatures and birds joined in their chorus of praise.

They slept for a while amongst the stones, but the fierce heat of the sun drove them to seek the coolness of the glade below. A stream ran amongst the trees and they could hear the water gushing over the rocks, long before they came to it.

The girl sat down on the bank and dangled her bare feet in the cool water, but the boy seemed troubled. He searched along the stream bed until he came to a place that was deep enough for swimming. Casting off his clothes, he jumped in and swam towards the dark bottom of the pool. The sound of the water filled his ears but as he neared the pebbled floor he began to hear singing and the flashes of reflected sunlight appeared as stars twinkling in the depths. A white shadow shimmered above a circle of smooth stone and as he blinked, it took the form of a beautiful woman, her curves enhanced by the unborn child she carried.

The Lady bad him welcome and he stood before her.

"You know what I seek of you this day?" she asked

The boy grinned, "You have so many moods, I know not which cloud I am supposed to part to see the sunshine, Lady, but I am, as always, at your service." and he swept her a low bow.

The Lady nodded, a slight smile on her lips rewarding him for his impetuousness before her. "Will you seek my cauldron willingly, Angus Og, King of the Oak? Will you renounce your claim upon the earth, give up your youth and your crown to the Holly King, that he may rule for the next half of the Wheel?"

"'Tis your time, Lady," he replied, "you are my Lady, all that I am is yours."

"Aye, all time is my time, all then and now and tomorrow and I seek you to be with me, my son, my lover and my consort that we two may be balanced within the circle.

"As you wish, Lady, " his voice was sober now, ""It will be as it has been since the beginning of time, our dance through the seasons."

"Will you enter the cauldron willingly, of your own volition, to be born again?"

"Always, beloved, and again and again."

The darkness within the pebble circle rippled, like the surface of a boiling cauldron. The lady held out her hand "The only way to me is through the cauldron." he heard her say, "I will be with you through the darkness of the cauldron's waters and back into the light."

The boy stretched out his fingers and as he felt the touch of her hand, he was suddenly dropped into the dark waters. They swirled around him and he had no idea which direction was which and where he should go. After a moment of panic, he relaxed and allowed the water to lead him.

Soon he saw again the light of reflected stars shining behind the lady's head and there was her hand held out to him. He grasped it and felt her draw him out of the cauldron. She set him up by the side of her and greeted him with a kiss.

"Welcome to you, Holly King. Come, take your place at my side, beloved." She offered him honey cake from a golden platter, saying "Eat, that your body be nourished and that you may never hunger," and they shared it until not a crumb remained.

Then she handed him a steaming goblet, "Drink, my love, that your body be warmed and that you may never thirst." and again they shared the mead until the goblet was empty. When they had finished, the Lady took his hand and placed it on her belly. "Feel the fruits of our love and the abundance of the earth. Go now and return to the world as the man that you are, knowing that love sustains all in the fullness of time."

He smiled at her and nodded, kissing her first upon the cheek, then upon her hand and lastly on the soft curves of her womb. Then he sprang up and shot like an arrow to the surface of the pool, droplets of water of water flying off in a crystalline arc from the mane of his hair.

He found the girl asleep in the shade of the trees. Quietly, he lay down beside her, watching the way her eyelashes curled against her cheeks. Her hand rested protectively across her growing stomach and he realised then that it had not been by chance the Goddess had sought him out to make the change from Oak King to Holly King.

The girl's eyes opened and she was surprised by the gentle way he looked at her.

"Come and see what I found," she said, leading him along the trees until they came upon a young holly, hidden behind an ancient crab apple. She pulled down the green branch until he could see the white flower petals bent back to make a globe that would turn green and then red as the year progressed.

"Aren't they beautiful!"

"Yes," the man agreed, "and so are you and so is the world on this Midsummer Day" and the trees echoed his joy as he bent and kissed her.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Making a story your own: The solder, the inn and the axe

Background
This is a tale my mother told me as a very young child. It is one of the series of stories about a soldier returning from the war. Others include The Magic Tinder Box and Stone Soup, which is my favourite.

Who was the soldier and which war was he trudging home from? He never has a name and his age varies from young enough to marry a princess after making his fortune from the Magic Tinder Box or show his cunning in Walter De La Mere’s Twelve Dancing Princesses or old enough to be weary of all the fighting as in Stone Soup and this story. Which war had he been fighting? Again, we never know, but the story has a feel of Middle European and perhaps Napoleonic when soldiers were press ganged into taking the King’s shilling and many folk songs tell the stories of the time such as Sweet Polly Oliver, By the Banks of the Sweet Dundee, The Blue (or white) Cockade.

It might also be helpful to consider the difference between an inn and a public house. The latter is merely a building within a village where ale/beer and other alcoholic beverages can be bought and consumed. An inn is different with much older origins.

An inn is a building set beside a road expressly for meeting the needs of travellers. Rooms were always available for hire and food was offered. Often spare horses would be stabled there for use of the public coaches which came past, but stabling and provisions for private carriages or single riders would also be available.

Ordinary people mostly travelled on foot and would not have been able to afford the luxury of a bed in which to sleep. Indeed most people, unless they plied a trade which involved travelling such as tinkers, tailors, weavers and drovers would never have set foot outside their own village or small market town. Travellers were seen as outsiders and feared.

The Story
A soldier was returning from the war. He had been walking a long way through the forest and he was tired. His clothes were covered in dust. It was the end of summer, when all the moisture had been drawn from the soil but the winter rains had not yet arrived.

The soldier’s throat was dry. His water skin, filled from the last stream he passed within the forest, was nearly empty. Before him came the light of a clearing and within the clearing stood an inn.

The soldier’s mood lightened. He felt in his pocket for the few remaining coins. There was enough for a drink and maybe he could trade his strength – what there was left of it after months of fighting and walking – for a hot meal if his luck held. He stamped his feet and brushed the worst of the dust from his clothes with his hat before clasping the iron latch on the heavy wooden door and walking in.

The main room of the inn was dark after the brightness of the sun outside. The soldier looked around, but saw no other travellers beside himself. The large, burly innkeeper was wiping a row of pewter mugs laid out on the bar before hanging them up on hooks on a low beam.

“Be welcome!” The innkeeper’s voice boomed through the still room.

The soldier nodded, finding himself a table on which to place his hat and sword in full view of his host.

“A pint of your best ale, landlord, if you will.” The soldier laid the small group of coins on the bar and the innkeeper nodded

“Take the weight off your feet, soldier. No doubt you’ve come a long way.”

The solder looked at his dusty boots.

“Yes and many more miles to go before I reach my home.”

He took a seat just as the innkeeper’s beautiful daughter came into the room. Her hair was the colour of golden straw. Her face shone with the brightness of her smile and her body flowed with the promise of youth. The soldier drank in her presence with his eyes as she took up her father’s cloth and began to wash and dry more tankards.

The innkeeper dried his hands on his apron.

“I won’t be but a minute. The barrel of ale is finished and I must go down to the cellar and fetch a new one.” He opened a door beside him and disappeared from view.

The soldier wanted his drink, but he was used to waiting. Fighting the enemy taught you many things, most of all patience. Besides, the innkeeper’s absence gave him an opportunity to talk to the daughter.

He asked her simple questions about herself, her life and her family. She answered him well enough, her fair cheek blushing at his compliments, but she never left her side of the bar, no matter he offered to show her the trinkets he had picked up during his travels.

Time passed, but the innkeeper did not return. His wife came out of the kitchen, the aroma of boiled cabbages lingering on her apron.

“Where’s your father?” she asked the girl. “He was supposed to bring me turnips from the garden an hour ago.”

“He went to fetch a new barrel of ale,” the young girl told her. “I don’t know what is keeping him.”

“I’ll go and see,” the old woman grumbled, opening the cellar door. They heard the sound of her boot nails clanking on the stone steps gradually fade and then stop.

“Get a lot of trade, do you?” asked the soldier. “Your father has a large cellar?”

“We do enough,” the girl replied, but her face was worried. The long case clock on the wall ticked and tocked, but still her parents did not return. “I’d better go and look for them,” she said at last. “They might need my help.”

The soldier nodded and smiled, but his throat was dry and the smell of ale from the slops behind the bar was making his thirst increase. He buckled on his sword and went to investigate the cellar.

He counted five steps until the staircase turned a corner. The sound of weeping filled the air. The soldier drew his sword, wondering what massacre would greet his eyes when he came into the light below.

There, sitting on the bottom steps were the innkeeper, his wife and his daughter; all of them crying as if their hearts would break.

“Whatever is the matter?” The soldier asked, scanning the darkness with wary eyes for hidden danger.

“Look,” sobbed the innkeeper’s daughter, “look at the axe!”

There above the iron sconce holding the torch was a large axe.

“What about the axe?”

The innkeeper’s wife spoke first.

“Oh Sir, when I came down the cellar steps, I found my husband sitting here, crying as if his heart would break. When I asked him what was the matter, he told me he was walking down the cellar steps when he noticed the axe as if for the first time. He thought what a terrible thing it would have been if he had asked our daughter to fetch the cask of ale and the axe had come loose from the wall and fallen on her head and killed her. Our beautiful daughter, killed by the axe.

“When I heard his tale, I felt tears come to my own eyes, for what if the axe had killed not our beautiful daughter, but my husband instead? How could I continue living here as a widow with all the hard work entailed in looking after the inn. My daughter and I would be forced to leave, to become beggars until the wild dogs attacked and killed us in the forest.”

“Oh Sir, it’s true,” the innkeeper’s daughter sobbed. “When I came down here to see what had happened, I found both my parents weeping and wailing. They told me about the axe and I thought how terrible it would be if the axe fell down on their heads and killed them leaving me an orphan, with no-one in the world to love me and care for me. So I sat down beside them and joined them in their sorrow.”

The soldier, by this time, was losing patience. He took his sword and cut through the fastenings holding the axe to the wall so it clattered safely down into the cellar.

“There!” he cried, pointing to the fallen axe. “There is your axe. It is quite safe on the floor. It can never fall and kill any of you. Now, please can I have my ale?”

The ending
There are two endings to this tale and you may choose the one which pleases you the most. There are some who say the soldier was so enraged by the stupidity of the innkeeper and his family that he slew them all with the axe and took over the inn thereby ensuring his future prosperity.

There are others who say he returned to the inn’s main room and waited for his ale. He was rewarded for his actions with the offer of a job and a place to stay and in time, he grew close to the innkeeper’s daughter and married her. When her parents became too old to do the heavy work around the inn, they took over. They were lucky, too, for the King adopted the road through the forest and it became a safe route to travel so trade was brisk and the inn prospered.

And the axe, you ask me? What happened to the axe? Well it’s over there in a glass case above the fireplace for everyone to see.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

A story for Beltane

"I'm going to be Queen of the May, Queen of the May!" Merilla crowed, dancing around the kitchen holding the special white dress high above her head.

"You're just angling for a roll in the hay with young Rob Jenkins," her older sister retorted as she tried to clear the table for lunch before her father returned.

"You're just jealous, because I was chosen to lead the procession and you weren't, even though you're the oldest girl of the Wise Woman and the Blacksmith." Merilla stuck out her tongue. "The Elders must feel that that the Goddess smiles on me more than she does on you, Nessa!"

Nessa said nothing and went to fetch the butter from the dairy. Privately she thought that the Elder's choice had far more to do with the fact that Merilla fitted the dress lovingly created two years ago by Libby Proudfoot's mother than any affinity she might have with the Goddess, but she recognised that such a spiteful thought probably was tinged with jealousy and sighed. She stopped on her way to smell the blossom on the cherry tree and almost lost her balance as the heady sweetness drew her senses deep within the tree and the promise of the summer fruit to come. She put out her arm to steady herself on the tree trunk and caught her father's apprentice, Tobyn, a resounding blow to his chest as he walked past her.

"Hey, what was that for, Nessa? I ain't done nothing to you!"

Nessa felt her face turn scarlet and her throat seize up as it always did when any of the young men of the village addressed her. With wild eyes she picked up her skirts and ran to the dairy, glad of the coolness to try and regain her composure.

What was happening to her? Normally this was her favourite time of year, with all the plants growing and the leaves coming upon the trees and the new born calves in the fields with their mothers. This year she felt so strange - as if the sap rising in the trees was rising in her too, bringing a unity with all growing things. When she turned over the earth to plant the seedlings she had grown so carefully during the Spring months, she wanted to plunge her hand deep into the soil and feel the earthworms moving around her fingers. When she listened to the birdsong at dusk, she could almost hear each separate note and without thinking whistled a response as if she were another of their kind, marking out her territory.

"What's the matter, Nessa?" the soft voice of her father's oldest journeyman broke in upon her thoughts. "Tobyn said you just hit him!" Jeran stood in the doorway, his solid bulk blotting out the light and casting deep shadows upon the bowls set out for the cream to rise.

"None of your business!" Nessa shouted, "If you come here asking questions, you'll get no answers from me!" and she picked up the pat of butter wrapped in leaves and pushed past him, diving out into the sunshine and running as fast as she could back to the house. The entire household seemed to look at her with a disapproving air as they sat around the huge kitchen table while her mother ladled stew into bowls.

"It's not my fault!" she wanted to scream, but the words stuck in her throat once more and all she could do was drop the butter on the table and run.

"Nessa?" her mother called out, but the errant daughter was soon out of earshot, heading out of the village, across the green where the maypole stood with its virgin ribbons flapping in the breeze and on towards the sacred grove and its stream.

Her mother exchanged worried glances with her father, but when he rose to go after her, Jeran stopped him.

"I'll go," he said. "I know the paths of the grove and it's me she must answer to now."

The blacksmith nodded and his wife put her hand on Jeran's arm. "Go gently with her, Jeran, she's not felt the calling before and it's always hard on those who feel the earth."

Jeran bent and kissed the Wise Woman's cheek, "Don't worry, little Mother, I'll not hurt her. I've loved her far too long to harm her now. It will be as the Lord and Lady wills, if we are chosen!"

"But I'm the chosen one!" Merilla protested. "The Elders said so! I'm Queen of the May!"

"Yes, dear, " her mother soothed her ruffled feelings, " and a very beautiful Queen you'll be for the whole village! But sometimes the Goddess choses someone else to light the need fire on Beltane night and jump the flames to ensure the crops will flourish. The Lord has spoken to Jeran and we can only wait and see what happens." and with that Merilla had to be content. She grumbled into her stew but everyone else was too full of excitement for the morrow's celebration she could not stay cross for long. She was the one who would wear the crown of blossoms in her hair and lead the ribbon dancing and everyone would look at her and glory in her gift to the Maiden.

Nessa didn't look where she was going. until she came across the maypole on the village green. She wished she were going to be one of the ribbon dancers the next day, but she was too old now. Things had been so simple when she was a child, but now - she didn't understand the bands of energy coursing through her, making each part of her body feel more alive than she had ever felt and the only thing she could do was to run, run, run away. Away from the looks of her family, away from the idle chatter of her sister and the footsteps she heard running after her.

The trees! The trees would hide her, no-one would find her in the glade. She stopped for a moment and whispered words of petition to the Elder mother guarding the entrance. When her leaves shivered in the still air, she ventured further towards the Oak father, placing her hands on his trunk and feeling the energy rising towards her, leaving patches of warmth on the bark where her hands had been.

Again she heard the footsteps and recognised Jeran's shadow on the grass. He would not take her back! Quickly she glanced around and darted towards the maze, deep in the heart of the glade, seeking to lose him in the twists and turns of the hedgerows.

Once inside, she slowed to a walk, the still air warm on her face. She noticed how the hedges were grown from different trees, the bright green of the hazel, the white blossom of the blackthorn and the glossy evergreen holly that pricked her hand as she leant against it.

Then, as she turned a corner, there was Jeran, standing in front of her, the branches of the willow rising up behind him like the antlers of a young stag!

"Why have you followed me here?" she challenged him.

"Because I love you, " his voice was young and deep in the still air.

"How can you love me? " she teased him, "when you can't even catch me!" and she ran off again, darting along the paths as if she had always known their secrets.

"No matter how long you run, I will always find you!" Jeran's voice rang in her ears. "Though the moon shall wax and wane o'er the ocean and the sun rise and set amongst the mountains, still I will follow you, for my love is endless and together we shall encompass the earth!"

The blood pounded in her ears as still she ran, twisting and turning until she came to the centre of the maze, the sacred place, the grass covered mound from whose depths a tiny spring rose. A place honoured by the ancients with a single monolith, cup marks gouged from its side, and there, leaning against it stood Jeran.

He stood quite still as if a living part of the stone. She went towards him, as if drawn by the stone's power, her chest rising and falling from the chase, but the need to run in her finally sated.

He held out his hand and when she took it, his palm was cool and dry but so large that it engulfed her tiny hand. They looked at each other for long moments.

"I have come to thee, my love, because the Lord has bid me find thee, his Lady. Will you have me to join you, now and for enternity as the wheel of the year and of life itself, turns?"

"Yes, beloved, for the Earth has called me to her, to be kissed by the sun and washed by the rain and infused by the sweet air we breathe. I am your Lady, now and for all time as the wheel turns."

Then he took her in his arms and laid her upon the sweet grass and together they honoured the earth and the air and the sun and the stream, that all things might prosper in the time ahead.

When they awoke, the sky was dark and a million stars twinkled above them. They heard the sounds of the villagers coming towards the grove to set up the need fire, that every household could light their torch and so rekindle their hearths.

Jeran led his love from the maze and they stood before the people.

"Is it done?" the blacksmith asked, his voice echoing off the trees.

"It is done," Jeran replied, "The Lord has found his Lady and together they have ensured the land will prosper!

A huge roar went up from the crowd, marking their approval.

"It is your place then to light the needfire, " the blacksmith said, handing him the flint and box of tinder. Jeran knelt and struck the flint until sparks began to rain upon the tinder. Then Nessa blew upon the sparks as the tinder began to curl and flame and they pushed the tiny fire under the need fire, watching it catch the fronds of dried bracken and then the twigs and then the kindling until the fire was strong and bright.

One by one the women of the village brought their cauldrons to take the flame back to their hearth and then the men lit their torches and when everyone had what they needed, they went back to the village singing and rejoicing that summer had come!

"I shall still be Queen of the May tomorrow, " Merilla objected when Nessa brushed out her long black hair that night before she slept.

"Of course you will, dearest, " Nessa assured her, "You are the Maiden and it is Her we honour."

"Can I still honour the Maiden," Jeran asked as Nessa slipped into bed beside him.

"As many times as you like, my love, " she replied. "How else will I pass from Maiden to Mother if you don't?" and she laughed as she blew out the light.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Dolores : Writing from a given sentence

Without pausing in her stride, Dolores eased her jacket off her shoulders, dropped it into a skip as she passed and headed for the station. It was never one of her favourites and the blood stains on the cuffs refused to budge, no matter what she did with them. It was better off in the skip. She wouldn’t have to concern herself with it any more.

The warm, summer wind blew along the platform as she waited for her train. She felt the subtle caress against her skin through her thin, cotton blouse. She smiled, remembering the rough feel of the towel underneath her back earlier when she lay sunbathing by Mr Robinson’s pool.

He preferred her to sunbathe topless. He said it gave him pleasure to watch her pale skin turn pink in the gentle heat. Who was she to deny an old man a simple pleasure? It wasn’t as if he had many pleasures these days, confined to his wheelchair since the end of the war.

He was a sweet old man and he paid her well for visiting him twice a week to take down his memoirs. They would spend an hour or so “working” in the morning. He would tell stories and she would record them in her shorthand notebook.

Then Mrs Martin, the housekeeper, would bring in their coffee served in Royal Albert china coffee cups. Crisp, brown sugar lumps nestled in their bowl, while silver tongs waited for her touch, her gentle squeeze as she picked them up, one by one and held them on the side of the cup until they slid silently into the smooth brown liquid.

“Will you be mother, Dolores?” Mr Robinson asked hopefully each morning.

“One lump or two?”

His eyes twinkled, “You know I need three to keep up with a sweet thing like you, my dear.”

It was his little joke and she didn’t mind pleasing him with her smile as she handed him the cup and saucer, watching to make sure he didn’t spill anything as he negotiated the space between his wheelchair and the small table by his side.

He would doze after his coffee, lulled into slumber by the rhythmic clatter of the typewriter keys as she transferred his stories onto the printed page. She read them through when she was checking for mistakes, inspired by the strength of the pictures he painted with his words.

She knew he wanted to publish them one day. It was sad he wouldn’t live long enough to see his dream come true.

As the grandfather clock in the corner struck one, Mrs Martin would enter and lay the table for their lunch. She was an excellent cook, always surprising them with imaginative dainties and fresh, seasonal produce.

Nothing fancy, mind you, Mr Robinson didn’t approve of anything “fancy”, but somehow Mrs Martin managed to indulge her love of Italy and France, disguising it with vegetables and herbs grown in the garden and meat from young Mr Robinson’s farm. If it were home grown, it couldn’t possibly be anything “foreign”!

If the weather was nice, they would eat outside, lingering over their coffee to “aid digestion”. Sometimes Mr Robinson would persuade her to sunbathe for him, finishing off with a short dip in his magnificent pool.

The afternoon would take the same pattern as the morning - stories until 3.30pm when Mrs Martin would serve afternoon tea, more typing and then she would collect her things together and bid him farewell.

“Don’t speak to any strange men, Dolores,” he would tell her, his eyes crinkling at the edges. “It’s a dangerous world out there and I’m not as young as I was to be able to protect you.”

“Don’t worry, Mr Robinson,” she would reassure him, planting a single kiss on the top of his bald patch as she made her farewells. “No-one is going to trouble me – not when I tell them I have a black belt in karate.”

He would smile and let her go, patting her hand as she said goodbye.




“Dolores! Dolores!”

A young man rushed up the platform towards her waving her jacket.

“I saw your jacket in the skip and thought you must have dropped it by mistake.”

She shook her head.

“I’m not Dolores, Mr Robinson, my name is Sophie. Your father insisted on calling me Dolores and I didn’t like to make a fuss. I’m afraid you’re mistaken about the jacket. I don’t need it any more. Classic Fifties Haute Couture isn’t really necessary in modern offices. It helped your father to remember, which is why I wore them.”

“Oh.” The young man was at a loss for words. “You’re not coming back any more?”

“What would I do, now your father’s not there?”

“Tuesdays and Thursdays won’t be the same without you.” His strong hands scrunched the collar of her jacket as he twisted them together.

She smiled sadly. He looked so like his father, she wanted to take him in her arms and tell him everything would be alright.

“Look, how about if I wanted a secretary to type up my stories?”

“How much would you pay me?”

“How much do you charge?”

“£30,000 a year plus three paid holidays to Europe and the Far East for two people.”

“Two people?”

“You don’t think I want to go on my own, do you?”

“Oh err no, I suppose you don’t.” He blushed.

“When would you like me to start?”

“Would next Tuesday be acceptable?”

“Very,” she said, smiling at him.

Just then her train pulled into the station and she got in, jostling against other evening commuters. She saw him standing on the platform, still holding her jacket. She waved and saw him straighten to wave back.

She would enjoy working for young Mr Robinson. It was all part of his father’s plan. His youngest son needed someone sensible to look after him and she’d agreed, just before the final heart attack took him, the light slowly fading from his eyes as she screamed for help. He’d fallen against the glass table, cutting his head, his blood spattering the arm of her jacket.

She’d never really liked that jacket and now she would never have to wear it ever again.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Waking the Young God

It was a long winter. Despite the promise of snowdrops and celandine, rain fell almost continually. Fields were waterlogged . Ploughing oxen strained against their yokes but it was almost too much for a pair to drag the single-ploughshare through drenched clods of earth. Boys, whose job it was to lead the teams, came home crying with wet and cold and aching limbs. The men were little better. Their pain showed in their eyes, pausing at the hearth only to shuck their mud-encrusted trews, shovelling food into mouths too tired to chew or swallow, falling asleep where they sat.

Food was scarce. Soon the last of the grain would be gone and none dared breach the sacks destined for seed. Salt fish and meat clung to the bottom of the barrels stiff with brine. Though women foraged for fresh greens, there was little to find and small children began to wail with empty bellies.

“We must wake the God,” the old women grumbled. “He has slept too long this winter. We must go to him with drums and shakers and loud cries, forcing him to rise and strengthen the sun, so the fields will dry out and we can plant grain for the summer.”

It was agreed. On the day most auspicious for waking the God, when hours of darkness equalled the hours of light, the whole village met on the edge of the wood and began to dance. Their feet pounded on the bare earth. Men brought huge drums made from hollowed logs and covered in skins. They beat them with sticks, their deep booms resonating against the trees. Children shook rattles and shouted – glad to be free of winter houses where everyone told them to be quiet and still. They ran around chasing playmates. Older boys and girls ventured into the edges of the forest, whooping and shrieking, calling out to the God to join them in their games.

When they could leap and shout no more, the villagers gathered their drums and children, making ready to trudge back to the village and once more tend their flocks and cattle.

Gilda was troubled. It did not seem right to wake the Young God without waiting to see how he fared. She knew what young folk were like, with three lively children of her own including two year old, Tomaz, who should really be weaned, but there was little else to give him other than a thin gruel.

“You take him for me,” she said to her mother, lifting the child onto Ella’s back. “I’m going into the wood to forage. There may be some patches of greens I’ve missed. I’ll be home before dark.”

The old women regarded her daughter through narrowed eyes. Gilda’s words were simple enough and goodness knew they needed whatever she could find, but it was only half the story. It was not like Gilda to put anything or anyone else before her man and her children, but now was not the time to ask questions. Ella called the other two children to her and they began to pick their way carefully along the muddy track back to the village.

Gilda stood watching them until the path curled away down the hill out of sight. The sky was clear now. More rain had fallen during the night, but the pale blue canopy held only white clouds high above, moving fast in the freshening wind. Far away on the horizon, Gilda could see the sparkle of sunshine on a quiet sea. If no more storms came, the men could go fishing and everyone could eat.

Gilda sighed. It was not in her nature to deceive her mother. Petros, the children’s father was long gone, busy moving sows into their farrowing pens before they dropped their litters amongst the other pigs where newborn piglets could be killed before anyone could save them.

She turned towards the wood, taking the higher path deep into the heart of the forest where deer lived and wolves roamed. On the other side of the hills there were said to be huge caves where bears slept during the winter. Gilda’s grandmother used to tell stories of the day when a huge black bear with two cubs were seen fishing on the sea shore when her grandfather was a boy, but no-one had seen them since that time, so it may be hunters killed all there were or maybe they moved to another cave on another hillside, frightened by the noise of the fishermen and their dogs.

Gilda was not a good hunter. Though she could set traps for hare and wove fine nets for fishing, her eyes and arms did not move well enough together to allow her success in the hunt with bow and arrow or spear or even sling shot. She practiced with her peers as a child, but everyone else could hit the target when she still missed. In the end, her father said it was a waste of good arrows to make them for her and showed her how to weave gathering baskets from grasses and young hazel or willow shoots. When others went hunting, she stayed behind to mind children or took her baskets with the elders when they went gathering.

Gilda walked steadily upwards. Although huge trees grew all around her, it was still light within the forest. No green canopy grew to shut out the sun. Everywhere she looked branches were bare. Even when she pressed her head against their thick bark to listen for sap rising, she could hear nothing.

Until she came towards a less densely wooded glade. Here were carpets of bluebells and wild garlic. Primroses painted a yellow path of colour around the edges of the clearing, drawing her forward towards a low, sheltered rock covered in green moss. As she drew near, the moss shimmered in the sunshine and seemed to move. Long limbs stretched and a lithe figure sat up from the soft bed where he had been lying.

He sat, blinking in the sunlight as she approached. His dark brown hair was a wreath of curls around his head, but Gilda could see antler buds pushing their way above his crown. His skin was pale, as one who has been too long away from the sun and his legs were covered in fine brown hair, smooth as silk

He yawned and stretched again. “You woke me,” he said, fixing Gilda with deep brown eyes, like a fawn’s eyes, but older than the earth itself.

Gilda felt her insides churn. She was no shaman, used to travelling to the spirit world to talk with Gods and Spirits. Yet she knew he would need someone with him when he woke, to remind him of his duties, to guide him into a new world to do what must be done.

“We need you,” she said. “The winter has been long and wet. If you do not wake and grow strong, we cannot till the soil and plant our grain. There will be no grass for our cattle and sheep, no blossom on our trees, no plants to grow and feed my children and my man.

“If you do not mature, who will catch the maiden and sow your seed. The Mother will be barren, we shall starve and wither away.”

He blinked again. “What is that to me?”

“Without your strength, we cannot tend the earth the Mother provides for us. Without us, you are forgotten and the earth is bare, blowing away as dust upon the wind. No-one will manage your forests and the trees will die. The deer will over graze the young trees and the stags will kill each other in their fight to gather enough hinds around them in the rut.”

He shook his head, then slipped off the rock and stood on the ground, his feet pawing at the earth like a young stag. His head went back and his call echoed around the glade. It was not the deep roar of the mature stag, but rather the young male who stands on the cusp between childhood and maturity.

Gilda shivered. It seemed a lifetime ago since she stood on the edge of the forest at Beltane after dancing around the maypole with all the other young men and women. When the ribbons were all intertwined they climbed the path to the woods, laughing and giggling, wondering who would meet with the God amongst the trees. One by one the others fell behind, hiding in pairs behind bushes and brambles to play adult games with adolescent bodies.

Gilda found herself alone on the path until she heard the God calling. She did not remember going to him, nor what befell her that night. Petros found her wandering amongst the trees in the half-light of dawn, her dress torn and muddy. He took her back to the fire coaxing and soothing her until they leapt the flames together and the elders agreed their union.

They never spoke of that night again. The children she bore him were hale and hearty. If her eldest girl sometimes talked to unseen friends, they put it down to her age and knew she would grow out of it once her childhood passed.

Hearing the young God call brought back so many memories, but Gilda was no longer that maid, she was a woman, a mother. He needed someone to care for him and guide him.

He looked towards her. “I’m hungry.”

Gilda thought quickly. “The only food I have is my milk. It is yours if you wish it.”

He smiled at her, his brown eyes twinkling. Taking her hand, he led her around the stone where grass and moss together made a soft seat. He sat her down, lounging beside her as she loosened the lacings at her breast. Even though her youngest child was near weaning, his call had made her milk let down, dark wet patches, staining her blouse.

His fingers stroked her, drawing the material away from her breast. He traced the dark blue veins of milk down to her nipples, circling the aureoles, then catching the pale, blue/grey drops of milk on his fingertips. He raised it to his mouth, his long, pink tongue catching the drops and taking them inside his mouth.

He smiled again, nodding, as if to signify the taste pleased him. Then he draped himself across her, resting his head in the crux of her arm as he drew her nipple into his mouth and drank.

She felt the long, slow pulses of his tongue against the roof of his mouth and the streams of milk leaving her. She felt him swallow, each draught of milk filling his need and feeding his body. When that breast was dry, he turned himself, latching on to her with skilful ease. She stroked his head, rubbing the tiny antlers as they twisted through his hair, crooning the same lullabies she sang to her own children. She could not wonder how her milk should be so plentiful, only that he wished to feed and she could serve him.

When he was full, he lay in her arms and slept; the sun warming them both on the soft grass.

When he woke, he looked up at her, his dark eyes warm and loving.

“I will not forget,” he said. “Those who come to me without fear, without conditions, offering themselves alone, those I allow to serve me. This is your second time. Come to me again at Beltaine and I will quicken you. Your voice will mark my harvest and you will help the Mother bring me forth again at Yule.

“Go now. Follow the left hand path to the edge of the forest. Beside the rowan tree you will see a rock shaped like an eagle’s beak, under it flows a spring. Around the pool fed by the spring you will find ample greens for your children. Gather only what you need each day and it will keep both you and them until the grass grows again and other plants can feed you.” He kissed her cheek. When she moved to thank him, he was gone.

Gilda got to her feet and set off down the hillside, following the left hand track through the trees. When she reached the edge of the forest, she saw a single rowan tree standing beside a stone. As she drew closer, she could see the stone did indeed resemble an eagle’s beak, with clear water running from it. She was tired after her long walk, so she stopped and gathered the water into her hands and drank. It tasted cool and sweet.

The spring ran down into a tiny stream, which then flowed into a small pond. Just as the Young God said, around the edges of the pond grew thick, lush watercress, bright green and tasting hot in the late afternoon sunshine. Gilda filled her carrybasket, offering her thanks to Young God and the spirits of place who allowed her such bounty with which to feed her family.

“The Gods must favour you,” Petros said later, his mouth full of watercress. Gilda said nothing. Her milk was gone now. Tomaz was weaned, but he would not starve. Her thoughts turned towards Beltane and she smiled.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

A Story for Ostara

It had been a long, hard winter. Although the snow had come and gone, frosts and freezing rain had taken their toll on the people and the land. Constant rains had turned the fields to mud baths and those cattle and sheep that were not in barns found little to forage.

Snowdrops had come and violets too in sheltered woodland; sticky buds hung on the trees and catkins had been swinging amongst the branches of hazel trees for weeks, but still there was no letup from the constant rain. Signs from the west showed there should be more snow.

"How can there be snow?" wondered the boy to his mother as he watched her pound the last of the grain for their evening meal.

"How should I know?" his mother sighed. "Such knowledge is not given to me. Go away and play, Joschin, I am very tired."

So the boy went and sat amongst the empty sacks, thinking of a time when snow only fell at wintertime. When Ostara came, the promise of Imbolc was fulfilled and the weather grew warm again

"It's not fair!" he grumbled to himself. "Things have never been right since Emmy went to be with the ancestors. If she were here, Spring would come again, Mother would not be so tired and Father might smile once in awhile"

Suddenly he stood up and said to himself, "I'm going to find her! She should know she is needed here with us, not amongst the darkness with the ancestors. She is young and beautiful and her laughter is like birdsong in the dawn. I want her back with us...now!"

The boy found his cloak and his walking stick and set off into the rain to find his sister. After a while, the rain stopped, but the wind blew against him, freezing his cheeks.

He thought he heard tiny voices crying in the wind. Turning around, he cried aloud, "Stop buffeting me, wind! I am going to find my sister. She is sleeping with the ancestors in the darkness; do you know where I might find her?"

The voices in the wind did not answer him, but a huge grey owl took off from the branches of a nearby tree. It flew across the path in front of the boy and then up towards the nearest hill.

He took it as a sign that he should follow the owl and started to climb towards the summit. When he reached the top, he stopped for a moment to get his breath. He shielded his eyes with his hand, trying to see an entrance to the world of the ancestors.

Just at that moment, the clouds parted and the sun shone through leading a beam of light into the valley below.

"Follow the river," he heard a quiet voice say. The boy could not see a river, but he knew that little streams were often found on the valley floor, so he set off once more and strode down the other side of the hill until he came to a glade of trees.

"Is this the way to the world of the ancestors?" he asked politely as he entered the glade. The bare branches of the trees rustled in the wind and tall green ferns shook their fronds at him.

"Follow the river." He heard the voice again and this time he caught the sound of water tinkling along a stream bed. He walked towards the sound and there, sure enough, was a stream merrily tripping over large stones as it made its way down the valley.

The boy followed the stream for many hours, but it never reached the entrance to the world of the ancestors.

"What am I going to do?" the boy asked.

He knew that the ancestors lived underground in huge caverns; that was where they had taken Emmy the previous autumn, when the leaves had turned golden and brown and had fallen from the trees. The Shaman had told him that the Lord of the Underworld would cherish her and she would return to them again one springtime when the flowers bloomed.

If he could not find the entrance to the underground caverns, how could Emmy return? He began to despair he would not find her and Spring would never come again.

Just then he heard a great splash! When he looked towards the sound he saw an enormous salmon leaping out of the water. He ran forward and threw himself down on the rocks beside the stream to see where the salmon had gone, but all he saw was a shimmering whirlpool with clear water going round and round in tight circles.

"Follow the river!" Once again the voice came in his head.

"Follow the river where?" the boy wondered, but at the back of his mind the thought came to him that the world of the ancestors was underground and the whirlpool was also going down into a secret place. Maybe if he dived into the whirlpool, it would take him to the entrance he sought.

Without another thought, he threw off his cloak and his shoes and dived headfirst into the swirling water. He found himself floating down a huge shaft of blue grey stone. The air was warm and silky smooth and somehow he was gently lowered into the entrance of an enormous cave. The place was lit by huge, flickering torches and light danced on the cave walls, revealing giant paintings of many different animals.

The boy walked towards the middle of the cave, awestruck as he watched the animals run and jump in the torchlight around him. First he saw a chestnut horse run across the plains, kicking its legs in the long grasses. Then a lion rose from its hiding place and ran after the horse, but it could not catch the flying hooves. As the boy watched, the lion turned into a running sheep and then into a goat with curled horns that were almost as big as its body.

The goat began to stand on its hind legs and grew larger and larger until it filled the whole cave. Its coat hung down in long woolen ringlets and between the horns there was a face - forbidding yet kind, dark and yet surrounded by the light from the golden wool.

The boy fell to the ground in front of the huge beast.

"Please, my Lord, "he begged, "I have come to fetch Emmy, my sister. She has spent long enough amongst the darkness of the ancestors. We need her laughter and her smiles to coax back the Spring or Winter will never leave us!"

The huge figure was silent and the boy wondered if he had said too much, but when he looked up again into the creature's face, the cave was empty. The boy rose slowly to his feet wondering what he should do now. As he turned around, he caught sight of another glow of light in a further hidden part of the cave.

As he ventured towards it, he heard someone talking.

"You'll like it in the light, my little friend," a soft voice said. When he peeped around the rock, there was his sister, sitting on a stone, feeding lettuce to a tortoise.

"Emmy!" he cried, rushing towards her and taking her in his arms.

"Hello Joschin," she smiled, "I've been waiting for you to come and find me. Has Spring returned to the world yet?"

"No Emmy, it's waiting for you," he told her. "Will you come back with me and teach us to sing again?"

His sister smiled at him and stood up, taking his hand.

"We must take my friend with us," she said, pointing towards the tortoise, "he's been asleep too and now he's awake and wants to walk in the sunshine."

Joschin picked up the tortoise and held him under his arm, but as he turned, he found their way barred by the Lord of the Underworld.

"Would you take away that which is mine?" Cernunnos demanded.

"But, Sir," the boy said. "They belong to us both. Once light equals darkness, you cannot keep them here underground when they need to be with us amongst the trees and flowers. What would we do if the light did not grow brighter and crops did not grow and trees did not bear fruit?"

The Lord of Beasts growled softly in his throat. "If light truly equals darkness, then I cannot keep her here, but know you that when the tortoise sleeps again, she must return to me"

The boy looked at his sister and a great sadness grew in his throat, but he swallowed hard and nodded. "It shall be so, my Lord" he said, bowing his head. "When the tortoise sleeps, I will bring her back myself."

The creature nodded and opened his arms towards the girl and she ran to him, giving him one last embrace before she returned to her brother and once more tucked her hand into his.

The boy wondered how they would find their way back to the land of men, but as he blinked, he found himself once more in the woodland glade. Emmy ran forward laughing, reaching down to pick the primroses growing on the edge of the field. The rain had stopped and the sun was shining above them while an enormous rainbow arched from the sky to the land.

As they walked back up the hill they could see lambs in the fields with their mothers and birds sang in the trees as they passed. When they reached the village, all the people came out to greet them. Everyone wanted to touch the girl who had returned to them from the world of the ancestors and Joschin was taken up and rode high on the shoulders of the tallest men, for he had found her.

After the feast that night, when Emmy was asleep in her little bed, Joschin went to his mother and said quietly, "We cannot have her back for ever, Mother,"

"I know, Joscin, I know." his mother said, stroking his hair, "but you did well to bring her back when you did. Even though she must return to the Lord of the Underworld, she is not lost to us, only sleeping until Spring sees her back with us once more."

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Stone Circle Hunting in Winter

When an opportunity arose to greet the sunrise at Stonehenge, I jumped at it. Never an early riser, the winter months appeared to give ample time to welcome the light at a reasonable hour. As the date grew closer, a welcoming bed and breakfast was booked in Salisbury and we began to think of where else we wanted to visit either side of our morning access to Stonehenge. Avebury and Glastonbury came to mind, with the possibility of local Iron Age hillforts if weather and time allowed.

We sought the less travelled route of the Fosse Way, following it down through Cirencester and then heading to Swindon and finally Avebury, where we stopped for a late lunch.

The village of Avebury lies within a circular earthwork, 400 m wide, with a deep external ditch whose circumference is over 1200 metres. Inside is a 400-metre diameter circle of immense standing stones, and inside that there are two more stone circles each 100 metres in diameter. The village clusters inside the circle. To reach the impressive sandstone sarcens you have to go into four different fields and cross the busy road – not an easy task in the Wiltshire rush hour!

Wandering inside the circle, our thoughts turned to the original function of Avebury. The stones were quarried from the Avebury hills some 2-3 km eastwards and were first brought to the site from about 2800BCE. It is thought all the stone circles, earthworks and stone avenues were constructed during the following five thousand years.

We reasoned such a project would not have been achieved merely for religious reasons but for the entirety of people’s lives. The circles may well have housed temples and the avenues led to burial chambers and places of inner devotion at the sanctuary. The stone’s alignments gave people access to calendars and weather reporting and other knowledge necessary for successful agricultural pursuits which in turn provided means of sustenance for the people. The stones also offered meeting places and opportunities for trade and exchange not only of goods and services but knowledge and training, as well as the sharing of joy and sorrow throughout the wheel of both the year and of life itself.

Light was fading fast, so we left Avebury and drove out to West Kennet Long Barrow. The five-chambered long barrow is one of my favourite places, but I have always visited it in summer when the corn is high and the barrow seemingly enclosed within fields. It was a revelation to visit in winter, reaching the summit to look out from the barrow over the surrounding countryside.

Inside the barrow, five chambers lead off from a central gallery, all built from huge sarsen stones. It is thought the barrow was first used as a burial chamber around 3700-3600 BCE and was closed about 1200 years later. At the time of sealing the barrow, a row of huge sarsens was placed immediately in front of the entrance in the manner of blocking stones.

The majority of the barrow was damaged by grave robbers and local farmers hunting for stone, so it is difficult to imagine how the entire barrow would have looked during the time it was in constant use. Sketches in the Avebury museum suggest that skeletal bones from the barrow would have been paraded during major ceremonies. The theory is that such bones would have been carried around the boundaries of a tribe’s land to show ownership and also to connect the tribal chieftain with the ancestors and provide him with a valid base for leadership.

Next morning began before 7am with the realisation the sun had risen without us and was shining with a rose tinted light on the walled garden whilst we ate breakfast. We reached Stonehenge just after 8 am, along with eighteen other foreign nationals who had come to visit the most publicised stone circle in Britain.

There is no doubt of the impressive and imposing nature of Stonehenge. Viewed from the hilltop overlooking the site, you could imagine the awe and fear struck into the hearts and minds of tribespeople coming towards the open plain. The inspiration and fortitude of the original architects and builders was quite incredible – to achieve such a construction by bringing stones from Wales to mount upon Salisbury plain is truly amazing.

All I felt, was cold. Not just the freezing, biting wind of winter blowing through our clothes and chilling our bodies, but the dearth of laughter and joy throughout the circle. This was not a place of commerce and sharing, but of power and fear. I sensed death within the circle, not something I have felt in any other stone circle I have visited.

There was something about the straight, worked stones which felt very different from the roughly hewed cones and lozenges of other circles. There was nothing personal here, nothing to link the individual with the energy of the stones, it was a place to fall and cover your face as the sun touched the tip of a stone, bathing it in orange light.

We did not seek to remain longer than our allotted hour. We were chilled through and through. It took quite a while to stop shivering and draw in the heat from the car as we turned towards Glastonbury, away from the plain.

At Longleat, we met cars covered in snow. Nearby Cley Hill was also sugar coated in the morning sunlight, accentuating the steps of the iron age enclosure with hut circle settlement and hillfort with mediaeval strip lynchets around the side. At the top there is another round barrow, but it was far too cold to consider climbing up to see it!

The trip to Glastonbury took us over an hour, but the sight of the Tor as we came into the town along the river was truly impressive. We also passed lots of mistletoe balls hanging from bare branches, something I had not seen since visiting Oregon. It was good to know it was growing somewhere in England, as I have never been able to successfully promote growth from berries in my trees, either apple or oak.

A dark cloud was just starting to cover the sun when we girded our loins, changed our shoes and set off to walk up to the top of the Tor. The steepness of the slope and the biting wind made us stop at frequent intervals to admire the view. Even the inside of the tower on top of the Tor afforded no refuge from what now had become snow flurries, but we eventually found shelter against the south west face. Here we watched the rooks trying to take off against the wind and failing. Eventually, we walked down to the Chalice Well, drawing comfort from the peaceful gardens, before returning to the car on quivering legs, exhilarated by our short pilgrimage.

We were sad to leave the ancient city on Saturday morning, but broke our journey at the Rollright stones not far from Long Compton in Oxfordshire. These are my “local” stone circle, but I had never visited the Whispering Knights, a collapsed Neolithic Dolmen (single chambered burial mound) before. The circle is built from local Cotswold stone and is showing the pockmarked signs of age as a consequence. The stones (The King’s men) are much smaller than the other circles we had seen, but no less impressive in their own way.

The Rollrights is the circle furthest south on the trade route from Axe Mountain in Cumbria. Swinside and Castlerigg stone circles are two others built in the same manner. Neolithic stone axes have been found in several circles, suggesting they were places to store and trade goods in very early times.

The stones have many local legends. It was said someone wishing to become King of all England was on his way to London when he chanced to meet the local witch, Mother Shipton. Of course his plans came to nothing, with the man being turned into the King Stone, his men into the stone circle and his Knights into the Dolmen. It is also said her spell is released at midnight, when the men come to life again and dance in a ring and the Knights go down to a spring at Little Rollright Spinney to drink.

This latter part of the legend echoes the one of the Whittlestone in Lower Swell, another sarson guarding a roundbarrow, which goes down to the Lady Well to drink when Stow on the Wold clock strikes twelve. It is interesting two such similar stories should be attached to stones not ten miles from each other!

Too soon, our brief excursion into a different world was over. We returned to our respective responsibilities refreshed by our experiences hunting stone circles in winter.