Writer's retreat

Writer's retreat

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.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Imbolc story from "The Wheel of the Year"

Kiera was hunting for firewood on the edge of the forest when she came across the first snowdrop. The white bell nodded in the breeze like a tiny snowflake left behind from the latest thaw. Kiera touched it gently with her finger, marvelling at the pale green line edging the petal as if someone had come in the night and painted it whilst no-one was looking.

"I found snowdrops by the thorn trees this afternoon, Gramma," she said as she carried the carefully chopped logs and placed them in the box by the fire.

The older woman smiled, the light from the oil lamp casting soft shadows on her face and making her young again. "I've always loved snowdrops. They bring promise of spring and show that winter cannot last all year long."

"I saw the men building the Imbolc roundhouse when I was searching for wood earlier. Will I be allowed to join the celebrations this year?" Kiera's eyes were wistful. Ever since she was a little girl she had asked if she could be allowed to take part in the ritual.

It was her favourite part of the year, when young lambs were born and creamy milk from the ewes given to the children to make them strong. Usually she sat with the other children on piles of straw playing with the lambs and joining in the singing and dancing as gifts were offered to the Goddess - new ploughshares forged by the blacksmith, strange smelling potions from the healers and songs and poetry from the bards. All these to honour the fire Goddess, Brigid, who inspired all these different crafts.

"What makes you think this year should be different for you, Kiera?" her Grandmother asked as she did every year when Kiera made her request. The girl looked into the fire and thought for several long moments.

"I'm different this year, Gramma." and her eyes as she searched her Grandmother's face were wide and open in the firelight. "This will be the nearest rite since I saw first blood and I should dearly love to be allowed to honour the Maiden. She is the one who is breathing life into all things in preparation for Spring.

"I've not really noticed it before, but this year it is as if I can sense the days becoming longer and when I'm out in the woods there's a humming under my feet as if the roots of all the trees are waking. I've watched the leaf buds change from brown to green and thicken on the twigs and branches and all the birds are singing to mark their territory and find their mate." Her voice dropped almost to a whisper.

"Sometimes, Gramma, if I go to the woods in the fog, it seems as if the whole world is waiting for the God to appear, as if the fog is his silent caress to the earth. Everything is so quiet, so breathless....."

Her Grandmother nodded. "And what have you created that might be a gift for the Goddess?"

"I've made Her a song, Grandmother! May I sing it to you?" and when she saw the other's assent she began to sing in a clear, sweet voice,

"A lamb for the Goddess I bring to you
Here's snowdrops for welcome and crocuses too
The green of the ivy for life ever new
These gifts do I bring to you

Some milk for the Goddess I bring to you
Here's cheese from the shepherd and wool from the ewe
The brown of the soil where young shoots will grow
These gifts do we bring to you

Some wine for the Goddess we bring to you
Here's fish from the river and salt crystals too
The blue of the goblet reflecting the sky
These gifts do we bring to you

Our love for the Goddess we bring to you
Here's garlands of evergreen woven anew
Our hearts ever joyful to welcome the Spring
These gifts do we bring to you."

"That's a lovely song, Kiera!" Her Grandfather stooped as he entered the room, his head almost touching the thatch as he stood up. "Shall you be singing it when the full moon rises in two days time?"

Kiera looked at her Grandmother. "I think so, Ranulph. She's shown that she can listen as well as speak and she uses her eyes to watch for the hidden secrets as well as the obvious mysteries. She's aware now of the waxing powers of the sun over winter's darkness. I think it's time for her to wear the yellow cloak and sweep the roundhouse clean before we begin."

"Oh Gramma, thank you! thank you!" Kiera flung her arms around the older woman's neck and hugged her tightly.

"You've got a lot to do in these two days, Kiera." Her Grandmother told her. "Imbolc is a time for purification, for cleansing both mind and body of winter's sloth and despair, ready for doing what must be done in the coming year. You must use this time to plan your spirit's journey through this passage of the wheel, to wonder at the marvels of the earth and to explore the gifts that the Goddess and the God have made manifest to you."

She went to the linen chest and took out the yellow woollen robe and placed it in Kiera's arms. "Go home and tell you parents everything I've said now, dear."

"Yes, Gramma and thank you again!" Kiera kissed her warmly on her cheek and rushed out to find her family and tell them the wonderful news.

"You've made a very happy lass, Guytha!" her husband said, enfolding her in his long arms and drawing her to him. "I can remember when you wore the yellow cloak for the first time and sang for the Goddess. I knew then you were the girl I wanted by my side so we could serve the God and Goddess together through the Wheel of the Year."

Guytha rubbed his cheek with the back of her hand. "It's not been easy, Ranulph, all these years, seeing to both the physical and spiritual needs of our people."

"That's why Imbolc is a special time for us as well, love, for it's a time to celebrate all soul midwives, those like you who assist our spiritual paths towards the light. I, for one would have been in darkness far longer if you hadn't been around to light my fire."

"Ranulph!" Guytha buffeted his arm in mock reproof. "Trust you to say something like that when I thought you were being so solemn!"

"But it's true, Guytha!" and he swept her up into his arms as if she were still his young bride and not his loving wife of forty years. "Now is the time to celebrate and what better way to honour the God and Goddess than by lighting the fire of our love so that it can burn long and merrily until spring returns again!"