Monthly Archives: January 2010

words, words, words

31st January

Making the most of a precious window of opportunity (a window amidst the marking) I’ve been working flat out finishing off my screenplay this week  – and sent it off yesterday. Can’t say more than that!

I have other play projects in the pipeline as well…

My novel class on Tuesdays is going well – I look forward to resuming work on mine this May when I’m writer-in-resident at El Gouna, Egypt. Starting a raft of new classes for Wiltshire College from next week. Along with my work for the Open University and the Community Learning Service, I’m a busy bunny.

All work and no play can make Jack a dull boy, so this weekend I was determined to have some fun. Went to a fabulous event at the Chapel last night – Coco Boudoir. Since my friend Svanur has taken over running the venue it has really blossomed – and, by the looks of the place yesterday evening, has turned into the place to be  – full house, great atmosphere. There was a swish crowd there, dressed in their glad rags. Top hats and corsets. Outstanding!

Looking forward to the next Garden of Awen, next Sunday 7th Feb, Chapel Arts Centre, Bath, where I’ll be launching my new collection, The Immanent Moment. The theme is ‘The Thorny Rose’, love, and we have superb line-up including Matt Sage, singer-song-writer from Oxford; Bristol slam-winner Rosemary Dun; Wayland the Skald, mighty smith of words; Widsith & Deor, story theatre; Saravian, the girl with the voice from the other side; and Jack Dean, the new Bard of Bath.

Walking along the Kennet and Avon today, saw not snowdrops – but, can you believe it, daffodils!

Here’s to Spring – bring it on!

PS if you hungering for the sun as well, you might want to check out the Skyros blog – where I’ll be running writing workshops late summer http://theskyrosblog.blogspot.com/

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Brean Down

Brean Down

24th January

Hawthorn on Brean Down

A sunny Sunday is not to be wasted by staying in and working. After weeks of bad weather, I had itchy wheels, and so leapt at the opportunity of going on my first rideout of the year. I packed some lunch, togged up and set off … after a false start. I was hoping to take the Legend out on its first spin of O Ten, but the battery in the Triumph was flat after nearly two months sitting on my drive, and so I fired up the Zuki, fresh from its MOT.

It felt great to finally escape the city, to turn the wheel and blow away those cobwebs! The run to Brean is very picturesque, if windy, along the A368 via Chew Valley. Parts of it, with chocolate box villages nestled amidst steep wooded hills remind me of ‘little Switzerland’. With all the hairy bends its slow riding so you are forced to enjoy the view.

Leaving the Mendip range, you then have to negotiate the big sheds of Weston Super Mare – dreary, but you soon pass these, heading south. The turn to Brean is easy to miss – and the ride is frankly, bizarre, zigzagging back and forth without any clear reason – and disconcertingly heading away from Brean towards Brent Knoll. Finally, it hits the coast road that takes you past caravan parks and crazy golf type places. But it’s all worth while in the end – the headland of Brean Down looms into sight, looking stunning on a sunny winter’s day. I park up and grab a much needed cuppa, as my head had gone numb!

The sunlight on the sea was dazzling – it was so good to see the coast. Brean is the nearest decent stretch for me in Bath. I climbed the steep steps, sweating in my leathers, but the view was worth it. Spectacular panorama over the Severn Estuary, looking glorious today in the sun. I sat and ate a sandwich – just as well, as my rumbling stomach must have been audible from Wales – 2.30pm being a bit late for lunch for me. A ‘boost’ on the way stopped my blood sugar levels from completely crashing.

I walked along the south side, topping up on Vitamin D in the sunlight. A notice in the cafe mentioned someone had lost an engagement ring on the Down, and so I couldn’t help but scan the grass. It would’ve been nice to have found it for them. Imagine!

It gave the place a certain numinosity to know I was walking where Violet Firth, aka Glastonbury mystic author Dion Fortune, had walked. And also where they shot scenes for the Shekhar Kapur movie ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age’, Brean Down providing an unlikely stand-in for the White Cliffs of Dover. To think of the delectable Cate Blanchett riding here, in full armour with a false leg (so she could appear to be riding side-saddle), surrounded by hundreds of extras, cap-a-pie, also gave the place a certain layering of weird glamour.

Brean Down – a long finger of carboniferous limestone pointing out into the Severn – is a like a 3-D history lesson. From the 300 million rock (cousin of Gower Peninsular, on the Welsh side), forced up into its present ridge 230 million years ago; to the remains of animals from the end of the last Ice Age (auroch, giant deer, reindeer, Arctic Fox, bison, mammoth, wolves and lemmings), 14 to 10 thousand years back – and the first signs of human habitation; a worked giant deer antler from 10,000 BC; to Iron Age settlement – a hill fort from 300BC; to a Roman temple 370AD (which must have inspired occult writer Dion Fortune, who based the temple in her 1930s novel The Sea Priestess there); to the Napoleonic fort, Victorian follies and WW2 gun battery and secret weapons testing; right up to the National Trust primping of the present day. An amazing place.

Yet despite millennia of human activity on the headland, it still feels like nature’s own, a wild place, if not true wilderness, with an impressive array of plants (include the lovely named White Rock Rose, growing in its most northerly location); butterflies; birds and animals. A sign on the way up said ‘Beware Steep Cliffs and Goats’. I didn’t see any today, but their were plenty of walkers out enjoying the sun, and I did meet a couple of young ‘rock monkeys’, who started chatting to me as I stood on the site of the Roman temple, having a moment’s connection with my personal spirituality.

I felt an edifying sense of peace and space. We get so hemmed in by life, and forget to look outside of our respective boxes. Visiting a place like Brean Down gives you a perspective on things. The stoic longevity of such a place helps one to endure, to keep going, to weather all that life throws at you. You leave feeling ‘lighter’.

I descended for a final coffee before I hit the road. I sat on the sea wall and watched a man trying to get his dog, a young Alsatian, to come back. The dog clearly wanted to keep on playing, gamely leaping back, head down to front paws, dropping a ball in front as if to say ‘come play, the sun is out, it is a good day to be alive – work can wait.’ This dog wanted to have its day. Alas, the chain awaits and we all get called back, eventually – but it was worth bearing the cold to blast away the winter blues.

Such an excursion – a walk somewhere beautiful – makes one feel like the end of the week has been ‘marked’ in some way, providing a break from the routine of the week. Stepping off the wheel briefly, creating a sense of hiatus. Sacred time, before the mundanity of Monday kicks in again.

I enjoyed the fast ride home – taking the A38 and A4 – through the lengthening shadows and low golden light. Hitting the traffic lights of Bristol, the night swiftly fell and the temperature dropped. I was glad to get back. It is one of the pleasures of such an experience to return home to a long soak, warm fire, a big mug of Earl Grey, hot buttered crumpets with cinnamon, and a peaceful mind as one slides into Sunday night, with a good book or good film to ease the brain into blissful oblivion.

Wassail!

Here We Come a-Wassailing

17th January

midwinter wassail

Anything that helps us connect with the Earth, its seasons and cycles, and show appreciation for the bounty it generously give us every year has got to be a good thing, in my book.

This weekend all over Somerset, a county renowned for its cider, it is traditional for the wassailing of orchards to take place – this particular manifestation of the custom (a cousin of the door-to-door and hearthside wassailing that occurs across Yuletide) involves the honouring of a chosen apple tree, the ‘apple tree man’, who receives a libation of cider, poured onto its roots; followed by offerings of bread usually soaked in the wassail bowl, impaled on the bare branches of its pollarded crown – literally ‘toasting the tree’, activities both intended to welcome in the good spirits, and the making of a din (indeed, in Carhampton, the firing of shotguns). Wassail carols are sung and much mulled cider and apple juice is drunk. As a custom that takes place in the dead of winter, it often takes place in the darkest nights of the year – and so there’s often a bonfire and lanterns – which light up the gloom and connects it symbolically with many of the ‘bringing back the light’ customs of winter, such as the Up Helly Aa festival in Shetland, which takes place on 26th January and involves hordes of vikings wielding torches, with which they burn a long ship every year. Wassails are smaller, fluffier affairs – a charming custom that takes place quietly and without much fanfare in pockets of ‘orchard affection’ across the West Country. It’s easy to blink and miss, and indeed the two wassails I intended to go to this weekend I managed to miss – Chepstow’s Mari Lwyd, which has a wassail element, took place on Saturday 16 January this year, but the forecast for heavy showers – and because of the recent ice and snow – most of the events had been forced indoors or cancelled altogether. The second is happening right now, in deepest Somerset – the wassail at Carhampton. This isn’t the time of year to be travelling far, especially at night in bad weather, and so most of these events are attended by locals and die-hards like Doc Rowe, a legendary, almost folkloric figure in his own right (by dint of sheer tenacity and track record) whose been recording such customs for over nigh-on half a of century, from his first inspiring visit to Padstow’s May Day celebration in 1963 onwards.

Last night’s experience proved that. I went to the Weston Mummers wassail with my friends Marko and Miranda. After waiting for a bus that failed to materialise (I suspect M had read the timetable wrong) we got a taxi from Bath Abbey – it whisked us along to the far end of Weston, a darkened lane on a drizzly night. After a week of snow it had finally cleared up this afternoon – but had decided to rain in time for the wassail. The place had hardly any street lighting – we could see no signs of life at first, until we spotted a poster on a railing. We followed a track along and came to a park where a small gazebo was set up – chiefly to protect the musicians and the refreshments stall – but by now it had started raining hard, as forecast in Chepstow – and so we took cover underneath. Marko knew the main musician – a fiddle player – and chatted amicably. A crowd of about fifty gathered – headtorches beaming like daleks – mostly families with young kids. We were handed song sheets and the fiddler explained what was to happen. We’d sing the songs and then do the wassail. This was only the second year it had taken place, as it turned out, and to be honest it showed. The weather didn’t help – holding a flimsy photocopy in the rain, trying to read the lyrics in the dark, wasn’t easy. The three different wassail songs (Belly; Stocklinch; and Gloucestershire – the most complex and the one with the best tune) started to sound pretty familiar after the umpteenth chorus of ‘and it’s your wassail…’ Next the fiddler-player/caller explained we had to process in a clockwise direction around the tree while chanting the first part of the Somerset Wassail Carol, ‘Old apple tree, we wassail thee…’ Then back the other way, before repeating the chorus – asking for abundance (‘hatfuls, capfuls, three bushel bagfuls, and a litte heap under the stairs’), before ending with three traditional ‘hip hip hoorays’. All well and good, except it was pitch black down by the apple tree, the rain had made a soggy mess of my songsheet by then, and many of the kids decided to join along with pots and pans, making hearing the melody pretty impossible. It was a debacle, but good natured, and mad when you think about it – what people do in the rain in the middle of winter! A solitary slice of toast was placed on a branch (this seemed to have been forgotten in the briefing). A queue quickly formed for the steaming ‘cauldrons’ of apple-juice, fermented and non-fermented. The first thing I did was pour some cider on the roots. The mulled cider was so sweet it stuck to my mouth, but it helped stave off the encroaching damp, or made you oblivious to it, at least. Suitably galvanised, we set off in search of the nearest pub – we were given directions through the park, over a small footbridge and along a darkened lane. I didn’t have the foggiest where we were, but we were in good spirits. Marko was taking his time – he has a difficulty walking far or fast – but steeped in about four cups of cider, he said he was ‘having a grand time’. The carrot of another pint helped to keep him moving and eventually we saw street lights ahead and … civilisation … well, Weston. Still, it was a relief to see the shops. The first pub we came to was shut – not a good sign – but fortunately the King’s Head was open, and, as it turned out, in full swing. A bluegrass band was playing, Swamp Donkey, and the atmosphere was wonderfully hic. Talk about the Wild West. Marko and I, in our black hats, might have just swaggered in from a dusty high street, saloon doors swinging. A fiftieth birthday party in the backroom – packed with merry Beryl Cook types – might have been served for a brothel for lonesome cowboys! It was great fun, but it was also a relief to leave – I was keen not to miss the bus – and escape Weston, a ‘frontier town’ of the one-horse variety!

The next day I held my annual wassail – postponed from Twelfth Night (5th January) until Old Twelfth Night (17th January). The fortnight wait made all the difference – the snows had melted and it felt like Spring today. I spotted new shoots in my garden – the first glimmers of the snowdrops soon to bring their light into the world. I prepared a cauldron of mulled cider and baked pomme de terre – apples of the earth, potatoes – plus various fillings. Folk slowly arrived – Sunday slothfulness – and around two we did the wassail in the garden. I rapped on the trunk of my apple tree with a knobbly stick made ‘from a Gloucestershire wodwose’, a gift from Geoffrey Breeze, dealer in antique canes. Then I poured cider on the roots and got the company to placed bread on the branches, soaked in the wassail bowl. Then we chanted the old wassail carol – ending with personal toasts. Then Richard led us in some wassail songs. Sheila song her own beautiful version. We ended by firing party poppers into the trees – and our neighbours were probably glad when we went back inside! Then it was time for the first reading of my new play set in a cider orchard on Old Twelfth Night, ‘Wassailing Avalon’. Roles were alocatted – there was only eight of us, and twelve roles, so some had to double up. But most of the casting seemed spot on. We ran through it – it was great to hear the laughter! Afterwards, we shared more poems and discussed related issues – community and environmental initiatives. There was plenty of grub and grog – and it was a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. This was about the tenth time I had done this, and it is always an agreeable gathering – small and beautiful. Unable to make it to Carhampton or Chepstow, I had brought the wassailing tradition to my own home and garden. It feels like a blessing on the place – and on each of the participants. May we all have a fruitful year. Wassail!

Snow Flakes

13th January

time waits for snowman

As a nation Britain doesn’t cope very well with snow. A few flakes and everything grinds to a halt. We react like headless chickens. My Finnish and Icelandic friends think its rather amusing. Their countries regularly cope with subzero temperatures – sometimes as low as -30 or 40, yet they get by. Humans have for millennia. Our neolithic ancestors coped with such climate better than we can, here in the Twenty First Century, with all our technology – and lack of wisdom. I believe its largely an attitude thing – we get into a ‘chicken little’ state of mind. Of course, cold weather can bring hardship to the weak, the old, the vulnerable. It can make any journey risky. It can have a devastating effect on wildlife (remember to feed the birds!). When you’re freezing in a flat that you can’t afford to heat, or can’t get to the shops to by more food, or haven’t even a roof over your head it’s no laughing matter. Snow can bring tragedy as well as beauty. It gives us unexpected time-off, to play in the snow, to spend with loved ones, to be as children again – but it can prevent us from earning money, from making a living. In a time of Recession many peoples’ incomes are on a knife-edge as it is. A couple of weeks lost work could be the straw that breaks the camels back.

This last week or two I’ve had my nose to the grindstone – marking papers, running my tutor groups, planning the year and attending to the minutiae of life – but at least I can work from home (okay until you have a burst pipe or a power cut – I’ve had both).

Last night I started my new novel writing class – it was scheduled to be held at Bath Central Library from 6pm. I had booked the meeting room. I had 8 students make it. But then the staff at reception informed the library was closing early – all B&NES staff had been told to go home early. This was rather annoying – I had rung earlier in the day and checked: I was informed that a member of staff would be there until the end of our session. I suggested we decamp to the Green Tree, for at least a chat – but then a partner of one of the students kindly offered a spare room. Our workshop was back on! We left the library and made our way through the ‘blizzard’ – it wasn’t even snowing at that point. See what I mean by ‘headless chickens’? The new venue turned out to be the basement of a bookshop – I had run courses there before as it turned out – perfect! The session went well – a good group. I wish them all well on the writer’s journey – they have taken the brave step of embarking on writing a novel, which I liken to walking across antarctic.

On Monday, there was the first meeting of the Imagineers – artists interested in creative responses to the twin challenges of Peak Oil and Climate Change. It came about after a workshop by eco-poet and fellow Bard of Bath, Helen Moore’s workshop of the same name at The Big Transition Bath Event, last autumn at BRLSI. We decided to meet up and share our thoughts and initiatives. All we can do is keep creating. Apathy leads to oblivion.

Smallcombe in the snow - early Jan '10 KM

Here’s my poem – composed on 7th January – inspired by a walk in the snow.

The Sound of Snow

falling on snow.

A deepening silence.

The city is still,

platforms empty,

roads unburdened

of their incessant freight.

Trees, shuddering in the wind,

exfoliate ice blossom.

There’s probably a word,

in a culture accustomed

and observant of its nuances,

for this kind of snow.

Powdered crystal

over softer layers –

a cake of ground glass –

impossible to roll

into a snow torso,

like making dough

without water.

Churned up by

excited scurryings,

sledge runs,

snowman trails,

the moulds of dog noses,

bird feet runes.

Squeaking polystyrene

under boots,

like some cheap special effect.

To find a snow-field

unmarked by man –

to be the first

to place one’s foot

on virgin regions.

To make one’s mark

and to know it is

the original.

Prototype,

not pirated,

Nth generation

loss of definition.

Not to follow

in the blurred footfalls of others,

but to be the pioneer,

breaking trail.

One foot after another

into freshly fallen flakes.

Boot soundlessly slipping

into the place waiting for it.

Walking on angel down.

No one around.

No direction,

except your own.

Nothing to listen to

except

the sound of snow

falling on snow.

Kevan Manwaring

from The Immanent Moment,

published by Awen

to be launched at Garden of Awen, Chapel Arts Centre, Bath 7 Feb 2010

http://www.awenpublications.co.uk

Ten Years After

NEW YEAR

1st January 2010

winter sun on sun dial - KM

Across the world last night billions of people were celebrating New Year’s Eve – one of the very few global celebrations. Although several calendars co-exist – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mayan – the start of the Gregorian new year as is commonly accepted by clocks, businesses, governments, computer systems, etc, is hard to ignore. Ten years ago people were panicking about what became known as the Millennium Bug, or Y2K, which vanished like scotch mist on the 1st January 2000 – like so many WMDs. This was tied in with millennial anxiety – whipped up by the media and world religions. The world didn’t end. Computers didn’t crash. Planes didn’t fall out of the sky. Legions didn’t die in hospitals. The world carried on. Our millennium fears seemed ill-founded. We can laugh at all the worry about Y2K – looking back, ten years on, it seems so ludicrous (it shows how much we swallow what the media whips up – how much we buy into the culture of fear). If only we know what lay around the corner. The charnel pyres of CJD or Mad Cow Disease, as it commonly became known, were bad enough – with whole sections of the countryside off-limits, like some awful Quatermass Experiment scenario, but this was trumped by the inconceivable atrocity of 9/11. This earth-shattering event stamped its indelible mark on the decade, and we’re still feeling the shockwaves now. Yet, even after such a moment – when the world seemed to stand still in horror – life has gone on … and this decade, however dire it has been at times (and it’s hard to imagine it being any worse – wars raging, global financial meltdown, climate change, peak oil), has flown by. It’s hard to believe it really – ten years ago I was standing on Glastonbury Tor, guiding people up and down the spiral of light (777 lanterns dedicated to peace, spiralling around the hill); and all over the world people were doing extraordinary things to celebrate the new millennium – even then, there was dispute, some saying the new millennium didn’t start until 2001. It’s like those who don’t like to celebrate NYE, because for them the winter solstice or samhain is … I know what they mean, and intellectually I can agree – but surely, anything that brings people together in celebration – family and friends, old and new – is got to be good. Any excuse for a party. To step off the wheel. Dance. Make merry. Watch fireworks. Sing together. Greet strangers warmly. Reforge connections. Rather than ‘business as usual’ – what the world certainly does not need right now, is ‘business as usual’. We need to stop, take stock, and resolve to lead better lives, create a better world. It is only a collective act of will. Twenty years ago, the will of those maintaining the Berlin Wall relented and it toppled. Two hundred years ago, slavery was abolished. All it takes is a change – a shift in the collective will. We are more powerful than we imagine – as Nelson Mandela once said. We create time and we can bend it to our whims – create national holidays, two minute silences, and so forth. We can choose to create quality time for our loved ones and we can create quality time for the world.

We can make this decade what we want it to be. We could stop the wars tomorrow. We could stop destroying the only planet we have. We could be kinder to each other. Forgive old grudges. Melt all the guns and decommission all the warheads and mines. We could make all transport run on green fuel. Stop building nuclear power stations and start building wind, wave and sun farms. Create works of great beauty rather than that which makes a quick buck. Favour the well-made and the meaningful rather than the shoddy and the trivial. Consume less. Love more. Live well and die happy.

the winter road - KM

Millennium Grove and Time Capsule

3rd January 2010

I decided, on a whim, to visit the Millennium Grove I planted with friends on 22 December, 1999. It was a beautiful cold clear day – deep blue skies and sunlight like cream – and wanting to make the most of the precious few hours of daylight, I had originally planned to go up Solsbury Hill, but when I rode up Solsbury Lane my way was blocked by a van well and truly stuck, askew on the road, skidding on the ice, wedged in the narrow lane. The road was dicey – with the double-peril of gravel and patches of ice – and so I turned back, but at the bottom I decided to go left, rather than right, and follow the lane along St Catherine’s Valley and come back along Bannerdown Hill. It was too beautiful a day to go home early.

It was a joy to be riding along the winding lane, through the deepening vale of St Catherine’s, past cosy farmhouses, golden in the low sun. By the time I reached the bottom of Rocks East Woodland – my destination – the track was all but iced over and I had to be bold to traverse it on the bike. I took it real steady and only nearly lost it as I had to cross a whole sheet of ice going up a hill, which needed some revs. Hairy! Heart in mouth, I kept the bike upright and made it to the tarmac on the other side. Relieved, I rode the couple of hundred yards to the carpark of the Rocks East Woodland educational centre – empty for once (no one in their right mind would come out on a day like today).

I have been coming here, to this ‘100 acre wood’ at the head at St Catherine’s Valley, where the three counties of Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire meet, since ’96 or ’97 – after I read about it in the local newspaper in an article that compared it to something out of Tolkien’s opus. (And today just so happens to be Tolkien’s birthday – last year I had a Tolkien Birthday party, getting my friends to read out the radio drama, The Rabbit Room). I fell in love with the place – the old man in the tree, the sculpture trail, the grotto, the witch in the woods, the valley of the rocks, the old coach road and billy goat bridge – and started to visit frequently. At the time I was living in the centre of the city, and so it was a much needed sanctuary away from the madding crowd. I got to know the owner, Tony Philips OBE – an old soldier, local independent councillor of nearly sixty years’ service, district president of the Wiltshire West Scouts, and a real-life Man who Planted Trees – even then, in his seventies, he seemed ancient, weathered and tough like an old oak, but he would be down in the woods every day, working. He was a forester first and foremost – he loved his woods, practically lived in them – and he was for me, the old man of the woods. At first I wanted to keep the place a secret – but it was too special not to share, and so I started to take friends up there and guide them around. I must have introduced hundreds of people to it… Over time, a trust was built up and I was allowed and then asked to put on events there and contribute to the wood creatively. I put on eco-arts events, like the Lost Forest Festival in 1998 or the WildWood Camp in 200? In my year as Bard of Bath, 98-99, I was ‘in residence’, running monthly events there – readings, gathering. I started a poetry trail, which still remains. I lived there for the summer in a tent, throughout one of the last beautiful summers for sometime. I painted backdrops for the Rocks annual flower show display, which one prizes. And for the millennium, I decided to do something more permanent – a Celtic Tree Wheel, which was co-devised with artist and priestess Sheila Broun. We got different people to sponsor a tree and we planted 13 native hardwoods in a circle with an apple tree in the middle. This was planted at the turn of the solstice, 22nd December, 1999 – on the eve of the new millennium, so it became known as the millennium grove. The idea was to have a natural calendar – one tree per lunar month. Working with the appropriate tree each month, one could work one’s way around the wheel. We had created, like our ancestors, a sacred space in which to mark sacred time. I initiated a series of ‘moots ‘ there on the sunday nearest the full moon. We started with a healthy crowd at Imbolc, but by the late summer, I was going up there by myself and I lost heart in it. I kept visiting when I could, seeing how the trees were getting on, occasionally organising working parties to do maintenance on the grove. A beech overshadowed the grove initially – which meant the trees in its shade didn’t take – but when the offending limb was taken down, and the dead trees replanted, the grove became established, and has grown healthily ever since. The local druid, Tim Sebastion, suggested a turf-maze, which we created in a clearing just down from the grove, starting it on May Day. A mum and a young girl was present – the girl was called Fey, and so Tim called the miz-maze, ‘Fey’s Maze’. When Tim sadly died at Imbolc 2007 we planted an oak tree for him, by the maze, putting in some of his ashes. We did the same for my poet friend Simon Miles, honorary bard of Bath – and the grove has become something of a memorial now for those no longer with us. Tony instigated an avenue of redwoods, each of which is dedicated to a loved one – more often than not no longer around – and so the woodland has become increasingly a memorial woodland. A place to remember lost loved ones.

And so it was with bitter irony today that when I turned up and bumped into Philip, who was looking after the place, that he informed me that Tony had passed away in the summer (while gardening on 22nd June – perhaps suitably for this real life Oak King). I knew he was old and half-expected to hear something each time I’ve been up over the last couple of years. He was in his eighties, but he was tough as nails, and still kept working down in the woods. Yet still it was a shock – horrible news on a bitter day. The sad thing was many of his friends and colleagues were not informed – there was no memorial service for him. But he will not be forgotten. I will think of him every time I visit. He made these woods what they are – buying the place when it was in a mess and painstakingly restoring the gardens in the woods and sensitively managing it. Rocks East is a working wood – timber and firewood is the main income – but it has one of the best campsites around and some good trails and resources for school-children. The centre is low, timbered and blends in the woodland well, nestled in a little ampitheatre, its roof covered in moss and lichen. The place isn’t overmanaged – the campsite doesn’t have the usual eyesore plugins. The facilities are a little ramshackle, but that’s part of its charm. It is a pretty unique place and we’ve held some pretty unique events there – a druid/maori camp, for instance – thanks to the open-mindedness and pioneering spirit of Tony Philips. He was one of a kind. I remember him saying he was instigating things, like the redwood avenue, that he would not see the culmination of. Unlike many around today – he did not leave the Earth impoverished by his impact, but enriched. He has left a legacy – at Rocks East and at Broker’s Wood, the other wood he owned – for future generations to enjoy. Through the beautiful green spaces he created, the ‘old man of the woods’ will live on.

One of the many glowing tributes that appeared on the local newspaper website, following the announcement, sums up the general feeling: ‘Heaven’s garden however will bloom just that little bit brighter now.’

This sad news made my visit to the millennium grove even more poignant. It was touching to be there ten years on from when we planted it – some no longer with us, but the trees planted in their names provide a positive living memorial. Death is part of the natural cycle of things – and standing their in a ‘naked’ wood on a freezing winter’s day, this hard truth was driven home … but there is the reassuring fact that … life goes on. There is the promise of Spring, of rebirth. I noticed some trees even had buds on them, tiny slithers – like pen nibs dipped in ink, waiting to write the book of the year.

I walked back up – it was starting to get dark and I had to go while some light still remained, and before the roads froze over. I past the two yurts where the woodsman and his wife dwell. Smoke curled invitingly from the chimney of one. To most, living in such a place in winter would seem insane, but they are designed for cold climates.

I talked briefly with Philip, who was looking after the place by himself. We discussed the possibility of doing something for Tony at the woods in the warmer months – plant a tree (although the whole wood is his memorial), have a gathering of remembrance … something. I left determined to not let Tony fade away.

I set off, turning right at Hunter’s Hall, where an infamous murder took place (caused by a nasty highwayman), onto the Fosseway – then stopped briefly at the Three Shire’s Stone, the remains of a cromlech, moved from its original position – although that couldn’t have been very far as the four stones – three uprights and a cap stone – are massive and must weigh several tonnes. Not far from here, on a snowy day at the turn of the millennium (the same day I came up to collect the trees for the grove I believe), I came and buried a time capsule. It was a comforting thought to know it was still there – some kind of continuity. The sun was setting in the west – a bloody yoke pierced on a pollarded stump, oozing its load over the horizon. I thought of Tim (who gave a talk here, at one of my events) and Tony – and wished them both peace in the Summerlands.

death and rebirth at midwinter - Stoney Littleton long barrow, solstice, Dec 09 - KM