Last night I sleepwalked with 8 other people. Like characters lost in some surreal story – little Nemos in Slumberland – we wandered over hill and down dale, through night-forests and night-gardens. We could have been Stephen Black, following the King’s Roads (like in a scene from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell). In silent awe, we noctambulated, not wanting to break the spell. In truth, only Aurora herself could break it – for we walked from midnight til dawn, the sunrise of Midsummer’s Day no less, the feast day of St John the Baptist (June 24th), but we were pagan pilgrims, or rather walkers of many paths. We each carried with us our beliefs, our backgrounds, and our intentions. For I led my noctivagants on a mindfulness hike, or ‘earth-walk’. This was inspired by a midnight til sunrise walk I suggested to a friend, Anthony Nanson, last solstice. Then we walked from the centre of Stroud to Coaley Peak and Nympsfield long barrow, before greeting the dawn on Selsey Common. It was a sublime experience, and this prompted me to suggest it to Hawkwood College. I called it ‘Walking to the Light’, and in this simple, powerful act, I encourage the walkers to set an intention – to ‘walk their prayer’. We gathered in the eleventh (or 23rd) hour at Hawkwood, where I briefed the group to be ‘night-wise’. We shared our intentions and memorised each others’ names. We would be responsible for one another – and ‘hold each other’ on our night-journey. This forged a sense of tribal camaraderie.
We set off, like hunter-gatherers, into the night. It was beautifully mild, still and clear. A half moon hung in the sky like a Christmas tree decoration – you could distinctly see the Man in the Moon’s pointy nose. It all became a bit Winsor McKay, or Arthur Rackham – the witchy silhouettes of trees casting their hexes over us. We passed through silverine fields of wheat, and I plucked a stem, recalling how such an ear of wheat was a symbol of the initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries, one who had seen ‘the sun at midnight’. We were transgressive Persephones tempted into Hades’ shady nightclub to pop pomegranate pills, or Demeters descending to bring the wayward daughter back to the light – Angela Merkel looking for the Greek deficit perhaps!
Yet we felt far away from the world’s din. In the middle of the field, we turned off our torches and drank in the dark wine of stars. Arthur’s Wain steered us, and Cassiopoiea’s Chair. I suggested to the group that we each pick a star and name a loved one after it – to guide us on our way.
Walking in file through the wet fields, everything was sensation. The air was rich with the hot smell of summer, the fecund land. Here was plenty. Here in Gaia’s selfless bounty was a true end to austerity. We just had to trust in her. We felt safe enough to lie down on her downy bosom and go to sleep.
We crossed narrow foot-bridge, as trepidatious as Billy Goats Gruff, but no troll demanded a toll. This road was free. Tiptoed past snoring houses and barking dogs. Struck out and hoped for the best. Yet, having walked it in the daylight a couple of Sundays ago with my partner, Chantelle, my feet remembered what to do, even when we couldn’t see the way. At obstacles, we would call out ‘feet’, or ‘head’. We looked out for one another as we clambered over stiles and squeezed through kissing gates.
We stopped for drinks and snacks, contentedly chewing the cud in bovine silence. Our bodies thanked us and we moved on.
Like a line of gnomes we sat on the wall by the Edgmoor Inn – a strange sight to the rare passing driver.
We pushed up onto the Cotswold Way – ascending through Russage Common, where Paul pointed out orchids. When we reached the beechwoods on the Edge, we stopped to turn out torches off again, soaking in the primal texture of a nocturnal forest – our ancestors’ first glimpse of the world, perhaps. This instilled in us a healthy respect, and we proceeded in silence down the narrow path. This walk through the tall grey trees was the most magical moment – we had entered a fairy tale Forest Perilous. We let it speak to our subconscious in contemplative peregrination.
At a barn, the mannequin of a child eerily looked down upon us, and a white cat scrutinised us from a stack of hay-bales, eyes in the gloaming, a mirthless Cheshire Cat.
We rose through the earthworks of Haresfield Beacon, and gathered by the trig-point like the Hares’ Parliament said to meet here. We had arrived early – the darkest hour before the dawn. I suggested that we sat in meditation for half an hour, so off we wandered to find a spot. I gazed out over the Severn Vale – illuminated by the traffic of the M5 and, in the distance, the Severn Bridges. The neon constellations of Stonehouse and Dursley epitomised the prosaic world. Yet I accepted this darkness, accepted it all, in my fatigue – feeling heavy with deprived sleep, an enchantment one could not escape. Someone in the kingdom had pricked their finger.
Then, we were startled from our slumbers by a herd of curious cows, who had silently appeared right behind us. They gathered around this fascinating intrusion in their space, letting us scratch their necks and share their common ground.
We harkened to the dawn chorus across the deep vale flanking the Beacon, an orchestra tuning up for an exquisite symphony. Then, feeling the surge of day, headed towards the gathering light. By the toposcope we greeted the sunrise, a magnificent mackerel sky preceding the return of the sun king. Here, we shared poems and songs and morning praise. We had made it. We had walked the night into the day as though our feet had turned the Earth beneath us.
Unmasked by the light, the faces of our fellow midnight ramblers greeted us, weary but happy, wearing the clothes of our common humanity – souls cloaked in bodies, making their way home.
We wended our way back to Hawkwood for a hearty breakfast, well earned – joyously waking from our midsummer night’s dream.