Pipers at the Gates of Dawn
`O Mole! the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.’ The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
We have been blessed with magnificent weather the last few days – the sun has well and truly had his hat on. When the sun doth shine, the English summer is a glorious thing and I would not want to be anywhere else on Earth. Shaman-poet of The Doors, Jim Morrison once said ‘No eternal reward shall forgive us now for wasting the dawn,’ and having missed the solstice sunrise I thought I’d better make an effort to see it while it was at the same place (over the solstice period the sunrise & sunset stays at the same time for 3-4 days: 4.44am & 9.22pm in England), so on Midsummer morning I awoke before dawn and, after listening to the exquisite pre-dawn chorus over a cuppa in my back garden, I headed up the hill to Bathampton Down (home of an Iron Age tribe – who sculpted it into earthworks and field systems; an effigy of the triple-aspect goddess was discovered dating from that period in the road above mine). I made a bee-line for Sham Castle, a local folly which I thought would be the perfect place to greet the midsummer sun. While I waited in the brightening light I made some notes and had a flash of inspiration for a story, which I wrote up later that day (‘The King of the Sun and the Queen of the Moon’). Although the sun decided not to make a dramatic debut that morning you could still feel the quickening of nature – the surge of energy rippling across the land like a tidal bore. On this wave of solar power – the ‘high tide’ of the year – I launched my latest book the next day…
The 25th June was the official launch date of The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, and I planned to do something to ‘wet the baby’s head’ in Bath – when I discovered that penbeirdd Robin Williamson was playing at Chapel Arts Centre on the same night (an event I did not want to miss) I decided to find a way of bringing the events together, so I booked the Live Arts Cafe downstairs for 6-8pm (with the help of my friend, Svanur, centre manager) leaving time to see Robin’s show after – and it all worked beautifully. Robin had generously contributed to The Bardic Handbook – which came out four years ago – and so it seemed apt to combine the events. He was most accommodating about it, and popped down at the start, after I had given him a hand bringing in his instruments. To have him there was such an honour, as he’s been such an inspiration – so to Greywolf, aka Philip Shallcrass (late of the British Druid Order), who was one of the key people to introduce me to the concept of Awen in the mid-Nineties. I was delighted when he turned up with his friend Eva and his son Joe. I thanked both these awesome bard-druids at the start of my talk – presenting them each with a copy – before reading extracts from the book. There was a good crowd – including Franklin, the Bard of Basswood all the way from Buffalo, USA – who seemed to respond well to what I shared. The mead flowed and the atmosphere was pleasant – helped enormously by the graceful solutions of Saravian, who kindly created a lovely ambience at the start, with candles, incense and her beautiful music. I couldn’t have done it without her.
In many ways it felt like a very successful launch – it’s important to honour achievement of any kind, to mark the completion of a project, the manifestation of vision, craft, co-operation and sheer hard work. Afterwards, we decamped upstairs to enjoy a fabulous concert from Robin Williamson – probably the best I’ve seen him do. He did some amazing Celtic tunes on his harp, weaving stories, jokes, anecdotes and songs seamlessly together. He did a fantastic cover of Dylan’s ‘No Direction Home’; some of The Beatles ‘Within, Without You’; a slow, beautiful version of ‘The Irish Rover’; and even a blues number – on the harp! It was a pleasure to hear a couple of his new songs, and some from his back catalogue (eg the ever poignant ‘Political Lies’), a deeply touching one about his son, Gavin, as well as one from his time in California in the Sixties. He did a couple of classic British ballads, ‘The Death of Robin Hood’ and ‘Lord Barnard’ – overall, an impressive set showing his incredible range. One could really appreciate the fact this was a man who has been performing as long as I’ve been alive – his technical virtuosity and repertoire is awesome. He truly is Britain’s greatest living bard. To enjoy such a concert after my book launch really was the icing on the cake – when one works on such a big project like my book (really 20 years in the making, as it draws upon journals and notebooks from that period), organise the launch, entertain everyone, play the host, give a reading, etc, one can feel depleted – but a concert like Robin’s really replenishes the well.
The next day I had to get up early and get my act together for a creative writing dayschool in the lovely Wiltshire town of Devizes, followed by a camping trip with friends. The plan was to rendezvous at the Barge, Honeystreet, but when I rolled up there on the Triumph Legend I found it to be completely jammed with revellers, there for the bicenternary bash – a mini music festival. You couldn’t swing a cat, let along pitch three tents and park three vehicles. I looked around for my friends amid the merry but mellow crowds, to no avail. I procured a pint of Croppie – brewed by the Barge – in my pewter tankard and supped it on the canal bank, cooling off after a hot day’s work and riding. After trying to contact my friends I discovered a text explaining the change of plans – they had found a campsite in Bishop Cannings – and so I togged up again, into my sweaty leathers, and set off down the backlanes.
To my relief I found my friends, pitched up in a quiet campsite. I was offered a cold beer – things were looking up. I finally managed to pitch my tent, somewhat hampered by the ale. The campsite – little more than a lawn – could hardly have been more different than the chaos at the Barge. Yet later, after a meal, my poet friend Jay arrived and drove us over to soak up some of the Bacchanlian vibes. A band called The Hub was on – young, loud and belting out various covers with the same three chords and hoarse vocals – but the crowd was dancing and Jay and I joined in. There was a certain hick chic to the whole thing. You really feel you’re in the Wild West Country, at the Barge, with its eccentric demographic of boaties, croppies, bikers, yokels, druids, bards, boozers and glampers (glamorous campers – the word of the weekend). We didn’t stay long enough to incur brain damage – from the cider or the music – shooting off into the tranquil night with a little relief (and great relief at not camping there). Jay insisted we visited Avebury in the light of the midsummer full moon, which was truly enchanting and worth the effort.
We three poets – Jay, Dawn and I – wandered around in the silvery light, savouring the spell-binding beauty of the place. There wasn’t a soul in sight – and the place regained its ancient glory in the glow of the moon, the enchantment not challenged by the traffic and crowds of the daytime. We processed along the chalky ridge – as hard and bright as compacted snow – our shadows proud on the opposite bank like an ogham. Dawn and I spotted a shooting star exploding like a firework over the hill towards Silbury. I made a wish for a loved one. At the beech grove, contained within its matrix of roots, we lent against the smooth grey trunks and nearly descended into Rip Van Winkle-like slumber, from which it was hard to extricate ourselves. With the honey moon lambent through the leaves, sheep huddled quietly nearby, a deep peace over the land, and a benign golden warmth pervading everything, it was like falling asleep in a Samuel Palmer painting. The next day, after resurrecting ourselves, we struck camp and headed up to the Wansdyke, parking up in the droveway by Milk Hill and heading up to Adam’s Grave to enjoy the 360 degree view. The cool breeze was a relief – it was scorching – and the light and space helped to clear my head. You can really get a perspective on things at such a place. Starting to feel weak – having only had a handful of strawberries for breakfast – we wended our way over to Avebury, where we grabbed some lunch at the Red Lion. I bumped into my biker buddy Nigel, who had been up for the whole week. He had played the Oak King in the ceremony at Stonehenge the day before – duelling with, and ultimately being defeated by, his rival/brother the Holly King, who takes his place as consort to the Goddess for the second half of the year. This was my third visit to Avebury in a week, (it’s the hub of things at this time of year, as it probably was thousands of years ago) but I wished to be there for my friend Michael Dames’ launch – who was celebrating the publication of his new (and apparently last) titles, Silbury: resolving the enigma, by The History Press.
He was standing outside the National Trust shop with a kind of ‘art altar’ illustrating his theory of the hill, the largest man-made mound in Europe, aligned with the phases of the moon at certain times of the year. He gave a colourful demonstration, placing his model of Silbury on his head at one point. He seemed prepared to act the clown, but like many clowns, he was prone to fits of grumpy despondency. Yet, he would ‘revive’, like John Barleycorn, regaining his sunny persona and merry twinkle and pass round glasses of wine. I chatted with the publisher of my Lost Islands, Bob Trubshaw, (Heart of Albion Press) who videoed the whole thing for posterity.
I was wilting by this point – after alot of sun, beer and little sleep – and so I headed home for a much needed ‘quiet night in’ (watching Christopher Eccleston on superb form in ‘Lennon Naked’). I felt I had truly made the most of this exceptional weekend – apparently a time of great cosmic events (full moon; lunar eclipse; Grand Cross; the sun and moon in alignment with the centre of the galaxy…!). Exhilarating and exhausting and utterly memorable.
This extract sums up the last few magical days perfectly…
‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ – from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
The line of the horizon was clear and hard against the sky, and in one particular quarter it showed black against a silvery climbing phosphorescence that grew and grew. At last, over the rim of the waiting earth the moon lifted with slow majesty till it swung clear of the horizon and rode off, free of moorings; and once more they began to see surfaces–meadows wide-spread, and quiet gardens, and the river itself from bank to bank, all softly disclosed, all washed clean of mystery and terror, all radiant again as by day, but with a difference that was tremendous. Their old haunts greeted them again in other raiment, as if they had slipped away and put on this pure new apparel and come quietly back, smiling as they shyly waited to see if they would be recognised again under it.
Fastening their boat to a willow, the friends landed in this silent, silver kingdom, and patiently explored the hedges, the hollow trees, the runnels and their little culverts, the ditches and dry water-ways. Embarking again and crossing over, they worked their way up the stream in this manner, while the moon, serene and detached in a cloudless sky, did what she could, though so far off, to help them in their quest; till her hour came and she sank earthwards reluctantly, and left them, and mystery once more held field and river.
Then a change began slowly to declare itself. The horizon became clearer, field and tree came more into sight, and somehow with a different look; the mystery began to drop away from them. A bird piped suddenly, and was still; and a light breeze sprang up and set the reeds and bulrushes rustling. Rat, who was in the stern of the boat, while Mole sculled, sat up suddenly and listened with a passionate intentness. Mole, who with gentle strokes was just keeping the boat moving while he scanned the banks with care, looked at him with curiosity.
`It’s gone!’ sighed the Rat, sinking back in his seat again. `So beautiful and strange and new. Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worth while but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it for ever. No! There it is again!’ he cried, alert once more. Entranced, he was silent for a long space, spellbound.
`Now it passes on and I begin to lose it,’ he said presently. `O Mole! the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.’
The Mole, greatly wondering, obeyed. `I hear nothing myself,’ he said, `but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.’