The Cathedral of Trees

1st May

Last night I gave a talk on my book Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels to the Bath Positive Living Group – I talked about seasonal customs large and small and the eccentric folk who celebrate them… Today I joined their ranks, walking (or riding) my talk, as I got up stupidly early this morning to mark the start of May Day on May Hill – Gloucestershire’s local Beltane landmark. Here, at one time, great fires might have been lit – the Bel Fires – to mark the start of summer, but the chances of striking a match or even seeing a sunrise were highly unlikely as the forecast heavy rain rolled in. The roads were clear and dry on the way there – eerily riding through an empty Gloucester city centre like a scene from 28 Days Later – but as soon as I struck the flanks of May Hill I hit the rain. Flash floods made the narrow lanes hazardous to say the least. I eventually found a likely place to park and slogged up the hill in my various layers – keen to get to the top for dawn. I wasn’t likely to miss sunrise, that’s for sure – as thick mist enshrouded the copse of trees which marked the summit. I struck out to it in a kind of leap of faith – hoping something would be there and I wouldn’t just fall off the edge of the world. Through the damp mist (the Cloud of Unknowing) I heard the faint jingle of bells, clack of sticks and strains of an accordion. Relieved that I wasn’t the only person mad enough to be there at such an ‘ungodly hour’ in such infernal weather I made my way towards the small crowd that emerged out of the grey – a raggle taggle bunch like the last remnants of civilisation. I was in luck – I hadn’t missed the dancing! Bernie the Bagman, dressed in his rag mufti, handed out info sheets about his side, the Lassington Oak Morris to ‘latecomers’. ‘A bard is never late,’ I riposted. ‘They arrive exactly when they are supposed to!’ I watched the brave attempts at dancing on the wet grass – lank hankies flicked in the air – whilst sipping a welcome cuppa from my flask. Hail to the God Thermos! Recovering from my blat to make it, racing the dawn, my spirits revived – enthused by the joyous energy of May morn – and I asked Bernie if I could do a poem. He agreed and introduced the ‘fluorescent poet’. I performed my Green Man poem, One With the Land, getting everyone to join in with the finale – bending to touch the Earth in thanks. This seemed to go down well – I got some very positive responses afterwards. It felt very special, performing it on May morn on May Hill. Although I hadn’t planned this, it felt like I had fulfilled some kind of ‘quest’.

Afterwards, we wended our way down the hill, chatting amicably. One of the dancers, Pete Simmons, told us about a remarkable feature – hidden in the forest which adorns the flanks of the hill: a cathedral of trees. A Major CP Ackers, owner of the Huntley estate, planted trees in a full scale layout of Gloucester Cathedral (440 feet long, 200 feet across) – with redwoods, cypress and larch – in memory of his son, Flying Officer David Ackers, who died in action in 1944, aged 22. This beautiful and moving poetic act of remembrance – the ultimate memorial grove – was designed to be seen from the air. It is now hidden amongst the overgrown plantation – but one can catch a sense of it if pointed in the right direction, as I was, by Pete – bless him! This was a magical place to experience May morning – the polyphonic dawn chorus in full swing; the branches dripping with rain; the lush foliage all around me; the swathes of bluebells. Here I connected with the awakening Earth, and with all those who gathered to worship in such groves over Beltane – the organic, self-governing congregation of the cathedral of trees – whose roots stretch across the planet, connecting us all.

I gladly joined the others in May Hill village hall for a lovely May Day breakfast – provided by local church volunteers for a fiver (a heartening coming together of paradigms). This hot food went down well, along with plenty of coffee and toast, as we listened to some more tunes (in a less soggy environment). The hall was beautifully laid out – with real foliage adorning the tables. Looking down over all was a portrait of David Ackers, eternally handsome and honoured (the hall had been also funded by his father). I connected with a merry band of young eco-warriors – who had impressively spent the night up on the hill. Last year they had fought to defend the Wilderness Centre nearby from closure – and like modern Robin Hoods they seemed prepared to go wherever the land needed defending. Such youthful fire was inspiring – the real spirit of May Day – green men and women, rising up in their power, to champion Gaia. Like the groups of young people who used to gather on May Hill on May Day in mock battle – the ‘summer’ versus the ‘winter’ – may their shining light overcome all shadows, heal the Fisher Kings and Queens, and re-enchant the wasteland.


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