From Dorset to Delapre
Over the weekend I rode down to take part in the Wessex Gathering – a lovely little camp held in the idyllic setting of Burnbake, a woodland campsite near Corfe Castle on the ‘Isle of Purbeck’ in deepest Dorset. This is the ninth year the event has been held, and the eighth I’ve attended (I took a year off last year after a seven year run – attending since it’s inception in 2003). I became their unofficial ‘resident bard’, traditionally performing on the Friday night, running a workshop Saturday, and hosting the Bardic Cabaret on the Sunday evening, which I instigated. It only takes a couple of times for something to become enshrined as a tradition – you have to be careful what you start!
I packed my ‘saddle bags’ and rode my metal horse down to Dorset through the hot afternoon heat. It looked like many people had the same idea, heading for the coast – but fortunately I was able to filter through alot of the jams (one advantage of being a biker!). By the time I arrived I was in need of a beer. I cracked open a can and setting about putting up my new tent, before finally chilling. It was good to be still – enjoying the green wall of trees surrounding the site, making it feel cut-off from the ‘real world’. A temporary village of tents dotted the field – with the marquee and Phil and Nina’s teepee marking the centre. The organisers welcomed me back (‘We’ve missed you!’).
A horn called us to the opening ceremony, when we gathered in a circle as the ‘wild man of the woods’ (Phil in his Herne the Hunter get-up, impressively clad in skins and antlers) called in the quarters and welcomed us all to the camp, laying down some very loose ground rules. Contributions to the programme were invited and was devised on the spot. Ola and I were down to perform later that evening after Damh the Bard, who traditionally kicks things off with a popular set in the marquee. By the time he had finished and folk trickled over to the main fire it was gone ten, but we had a fair sized, and very attentive crowd for our set of ‘Tales of the Desert, Desire and the Red Thread’. Ola and I ‘drummed up’ business, creating a sacred space by circling the fire and inviting the audience to gaze into the flames and imagine their desires and fears, using it transformative energy, which both destroys and creates. I started the set with a quote from Rumi’s great poem, ‘Story Water’, before telling the tale of the ‘Garden of Irem’. Ola followed with her self-penned tale, ‘The Firekeeper’s Dance’, from her new collection of short stories (The Firekeeper’s Daughter’). I accompanied her on the drum at times, as she inhabited the story and brought it alive with her body. It was great seeing her stand up and shine. Afterwards, I performed one of my favourite stories, ‘The Pilgrim of Love’. By the time we finished our set it was gone eleven – later than I would have liked, but it was magical, telling these tales around the campfire. As I relaxed with a well-earned pint in my pewter ‘wolf’ tankard, Cliff the Talesman, shared a funny story about a dragon. Others were invited to contribute but it was a hard act to follow – and it was pushing midnight by then. We retired – it had been a long day.
Saturday morning I gave a talk on the Way of Awen. I didn’t think 10am was early to start, but it clearly was for some – at first it looked like no one was going to show, but slowly people wandered over and in the end I had a nice group. I raised the awen with them and it seemed to flow in the discussion. Afterwards a participant came up to me with a poem she had written, inspired by the talk. A couple of people bought copies of my book, The Way of Awen, and it seemed to go down well.
In the afternoon, Ola, Paul and I went to Chapman’s Pool for a dip (all I could manage – it was freezing!) and a pint and pasty in the Square and Compass (one of my favourite pubs). We sat in the ‘Stone Age’ beer garden, amid the sculptures and Flintstones furniture, and enjoyed the ‘spirit of place’.
Later that evening, folk got ‘blinged’ up for the main ceremony – which centres on the fire labyrinth. The focus this year was the children, our future – who were invited to walk the ‘burning path’ first, watched on by their parents. Dressed as fairies and mini-knights, they looked very cute as they processed around, accompanied by the drums. Then the adults followed – though by this time, the fire labyrinth was more a ‘smoke maze’. Being held earlier (for the little ones) it wasn’t as dramatic as previous years – it’s certainly better in the dark, as the later fire show proved. We gathered round the main campfire for pyrotechnics and fire juggling. There was some leaping of the flames and more tales from Cliff. I had a lovely chat with fellow bard, Damh, and enjoyed listening to him play his songs in a ‘quietly raucous’ manner around a campfire later. I hit the sack, aware of my long ride the next day.
I awoke at the crack of dawn and struck camp – keen to get on the road. Although it was a shame to leave the Wessex Gathering early, I could not miss this important anniversary: my Mother’s birthday. We were to hold a memorial picnic for her at Delapre Abbey, and so I rode the 153 miles there in time to rendezvous with my sister and her kids. It was worth the effort, as we sat in the grove where we had scattered her ashes earlier that Spring and celebrated her life with champagne and memories. I read out the eulogy I had written for her for this occasion – a four page poem entitled ‘Mother Home’. Afterwards we decamped to the Golden Horse for a pint at the bar where a plaque has been put in memory of Dad. It felt like we had honoured both our parents – and connected as a family: for better or worse, the first ‘tribe’ one has.
The next morning I set off back to Stroud, via Milton Keynes – and a day of EMA marking. Down to Earth with a bump! By the time I reached home I had clocked up 350 miles. Stiff and saddle sore, I greatly enjoyed the long soak – Bard in a bath…