Tag Archives: Avebury

Riding with a King

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The highlight of the route: at the top of Butser Hill, South Downs Way. Worth it for the view looking towards the south coast. Photo by Kevan Manwaring

Riding with the King

While working full-time at the University of Leicester I had the pleasure of being able to cycle to work, which meant I rode most days. This got me back into cycling on a regular basis, although I have been cycling all my adult life, and first enjoyed going on rural cycle rides as a boy, exploring further afield than I would get comfortably on foot: this expanded the ‘map’ of my world considerably. I always remember reaching the edge of a village, and looking out from its hill-top site over the vast unknown landscape beyond, and feeling a certain frisson of ‘here be dragons’. To a lad who hadn’t travelled far at that point, this was terra incognita.

            I have loved getting to know a landscape under my own steam ever since. By walking, running, or cycling a landscape you get to ‘know’ it in a visceral, embodied way. You have a physical sense of the lay of the land, not just a mental map. And this makes where you live (and its environs) so much more tangible. You have come to know it through your feet, or effort.

The end of Day 1 – and the first 60 miles. Honeystreet, Wiltshire, after a much-needed pint! Photo by Chantelle Smith.

Having recently purchased a shiny new bike through work (a Specialized Diverge E5) I thought I would try out the King Alfred’s Way – a 350km circular off-road cycle route created by Cycling UK, and launched in 2020. As this passes close to where I live (near Avebury, Wiltshire), and where I used to work (Winchester) it seemed like a tempting one to do. I have done some cycle rides in my area on my old mountain bike, and despite a tumble earlier in the year which left me with serious gravel burn, I was determined to get back in the saddle and to hit the road.

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Lord Wantage’s monument to his wife, Ridgeway National Trail. Photo by Kevan Manwaring

Bikepacking is very much in vogue. Back in the day it used to be called cycle-camping, and to my mind there isn’t much difference, except the popularity of pricey kit for mountain bikes (e.g tail-packs and other funny shaped bits of micro-luggage designed to fit onto the frame). Well, having invested in a pair of really decent Ortlieb panniers I thought they would be more than adequate. Some advise against low-slung panniers, but I didn’t have any issues – it was more likely that the pedals would clip the top of a rut if anything. I took the bare minimum I needed for 4 days of wild-camping: food, shelter, and warmth (water, snacks, and meal pouches, stuff to make an essential cuppa and my morning porridge, a sleeping hammock and tarp, and thermals and fleece for the evening). Nothing more than I would carry on my back if backpacking – which I did earlier in the summer, walking the Wessex Ridgeway. Letting the bike take most of the weight makes a huge difference, although of course one still has to exert energy to make progress, especially up those hills! Unlike walking though, one has the joy of coasting – the reward for all those ascents; and of whizzing along an empty country lane. On a bike one can cover greater distances (my average was 55 miles a day; on foot it’s 15); see more; and get through long, boring sections quickly (e.g. traversing a long section of road, or escaping a city).         

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River Itchen, Winchester. Photo by Kevan Manwaring

The guide book from Cycling UK (recommended for planning and info about the features along the way, if not the mapping – which at 1:50,000 is not useful at the nitty gritty level) suggests between 2-5 days (or stopovers). I opted for 4 nights, as I didn’t want it to be a complete slog. Unlike some people I don’t like turning the countryside into a backdrop for some macho endurance competition – hats off to those who do, but it’s not my bag. I just love the great outdoors, and during the ongoing global pandemic crisis, a local bikepacking adventure seemed like a sensible choice, and one also good for the environment.

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Waiting for the train to Winchester, Bournemouth Station. Photo by Kevan Manwaring

With my bike fully-loaded, I caught the train to Winchester – South West Trains has free bike spaces on their local services. You can’t book ahead for these, but I was in luck. Deciding to set off on Thursday early evening I managed to avoid the bank holiday weekend rush. This meant I could make a start on the trail, and hopefully avoid the crowds I had been told to expect (as it turned out, I saw maybe half a dozen cyclists doing the King Alfred’s Way). Getting out of Winchester, and finding somewhere to pitch up in the rapidly fading light were the first challenges. I tried to use Komoot with the downloaded GPS map of the route, but found it very unreliable and frustrating: trying to use that, plus the guidebook map and compass, created a cognitive dissonance: 2 different mapping systems and mindsets clashing. Having intended a digital detox as well, I found the constant focus on the GPS distracting and jarring (that sat-nav voice shattering the bucolic idyll!). And so in the end I opted to just go analogue. I found it easier to navigate the old school way, although map-reading on a bike is hard! One is going faster, and there is less thinking time. One can keep pulling over, but that becomes tedious and time-consuming. The problem with the King Alfred’s Way is it is not signposted like a national trail (with the good old acorns in England, or thistles in Scotland), so one has to orienteering continually – except for the mercifully well-signposted sections of the Ridgeway and South Downs Way. This really reduces the enjoyment: it is just tiring, especially at times when you are not entirely sure if you’re going in the right direction. Even the best maintained trails can have obscure sections. Trail signs can fall over, or be damaged or obscured. I’ve navigated several long-distance trails successfully over the years by myself, so I know I can use a map and compass. But when you are tired – after several hours of walking or riding – you inevitably make mistakes. I would not recommend undertaking the King Alfred’s Way without a decent GPS device like a Garmin (as opposed to just some app on your phone). Also, I found the trails a bit too hard-core at times for bikepacking. Okay for the seasoned mountain-bikers with minimal kit (luxuriously staying in B&Bs and dining out every evening – which makes for a pricey holiday). I don’t mind pushing my bike up a steep track, but coming down some was pretty hairy on a top-heavy bike. I must admit to preferring smooth country lanes to rubbly tracks, which were bone-juddering to ride along. There were some lovely sections following peaceful B-roads through pretty villages, but the route-planners had obsessively avoided roads – sometimes resulting in ridiculous and very obscure diversions when the common sense thing was to simply go straight ahead. I like the concept of off-road trails, but not when it’s the choice between a pleasant green lane, and a miserable rutted track. There was something rather anorak-ish at times about including certain off-road sections, e.g. the Pilgrims Trail into Winchester, when it would have been far nicer just to have continued coasting into the city, rather than have to detour up another undulating, rocky track. Also, it baffled me why they planners made the route go through the sprawling city of Reading – which was mercifully quiet on a Sunday morning, but still an urban maze – when it would have been far nicer to have come off at Wantage (a key Alfred site), and avoided most of the densely populated conurbation along the Thames Valley into Hampshire altogether. A route westwards across the Somerset Levels to Athelney would have been far more meaningful, but it didn’t feel like King Alfred’s story was made much of on the trail – it seemed like an arbitrary way to created a route, and not one hard-wired into his narrative. There were also key sites on the Ridgeway that could have been mentioned. And Westbury – site of Alfred’s famous battle – could have been included at the expense of a tedious trek across the middle of the militarized zone of Salisbury Plain.

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An old milestone, Queen Elizabeth Country Park, South Downs Way. Photo by Kevan Manwaring

So, I would have created a different route! Nevertheless, the King Alfred’s Way is a great initiative to encourage folk to get on their bikes and explore the amazing ancient landscape and more recent history of the south of England, and despite my grumbles it had its highlights: certainly the Ridgeway (my favourite section), riding across the Stonehenge landscape, and the South Downs Way (especially Butser Hill, the views from which made the effort all worthwhile). Aching from top to toe, I was still filled with joy to finally reach the end, at the King Alfred statue in Winchester: a satisfying glow of achievement, which was hard-won and all the more appreciated for it.

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The glow of a good ride.

I would certainly consider more cycle-camping trips – although I am not entirely convinced by this ‘bikepacking’ lark. Maybe with a super-light kit set up it would be a different experience. I wouldn’t be amiss to do overnight mini-adventures. Quality, not quantity I think is the key! It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to do something, but how much you enjoyed it along the way. My favourite moments were when I stopped to have a brew-break and watch the world go by.

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Connect to your inner sovereignty

It is interesting to reflect that the majority of highlights on the ride were when I made a decision to come off the route: for me, this is about tapping into one’s inner sovereignty*, so completely in tune with the spirit of the way. Such trails should be seen as only guides – a suggested route and one that you should be able to customize according to one’s needs and preferences (after all, you are one doing it; only you will complete it; and it is meant to be a recreational thing, not some kind of official race). Strict adherence to every nook and cranny of the route is for completists only. It is an interesting moment – to be in the middle of nowhere, with a guidebook, trying to follow someone’s artificial route (a particular frame or narrative mapped onto a landscape, but only that), rather than listening to your body or to common sense. When we turn off the script (or the device), and listen to our own motherwit and become empowered – then we start to step into our sovereignty.

Kevan Manwaring, 31st August, 2021

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Made it! King Alfred’s Statue, Winchester, 350km later.

*Which is the main concept behind the pilgrimage route I created last year, the King Arthur Way – a 153 mile walking route from Tintagel in Cornwall to Glastonbury in Somerset.

Midsummer Glory

 

Kevan at Avebury stone circle, Solstice Eve, by Chantelle Smith

Kevan at Avebury stone circle, Solstice Eve, by Chantelle Smith

It was an epic solstice weekend which began with me riding on my Triumph Legend motorbike down to Avebury, picking up my partner on the way for a solstice eve picnic on the banks of the mighty henge. Avebury is the largest stone circle in Britain and for my money the most magnificent. Many folk gathered here for the solstice sunrise (but nowhere near the insane numbers of Stonehenge) but it was peaceful enough to enjoy a pleasant picnic in the early evening sunlight. In the distance the obligatory drumming circle had started; and behind us a cricket match was just finishing. You could almost hear the land hold its breath in anticipation of the longest day of the year. For once, it truly felt like summer, and what a glorious place England is to be at such times – the golden green of the rolling hills and trees, the white of the chalk downs and the cricketers, the trilithons of Stonehenge and the cricket stumps, the strawberries and cream, cheese and cider, summer frocks and druid robes.

After I bid farewell to my companion I jumped on a train to London where I was scheduled to pick up a coach-load of sun-worshippers – to take to Stonehenge for the summer solstice sunrise. This meant a 12.30am departure, arriving in the carpark at 3am. It was surreal experience – with me having to articulate about neolithic archaeology in the middle of the night. Still, we got ’em there and we all witnessed the most spectacular sunrise I’ve seen at a stone circle for many years – the full orb rising over the Heel Stone. Truly awesome. A moment that is bigger than all of us (even the 37,000 at Stonehenge) putting everything in perspective. Whatever our faith, or lack of it, we can all worship the sun.

The sun rises over the Heel Stone, Stonehenge, 21 June 2014

The sun rises over the Heel Stone, Stonehenge, 21 June 2014

Bumping into friends at Stonehenge, by the Heel Stone just before sunrise, 21 June 2014

Bumping into friends at Stonehenge, by the Heel Stone just before sunrise, 21 June 2014

The crowds at Stonehenge Summer Solstice sunrise 21 June 2014

The crowds at Stonehenge Summer Solstice sunrise 21 June 2014

After I had dropped off my neolithic pilgrims back in London I jumped on a train to Swindon, where I met my partner for a solstice coffee (the actual solstice was at 10.51am), before heading north to Northampton (my birth town), some 70 miles up the road. There, in the grounds of my beloved Delapre Abbey (where I used to walk my dog as a kid) I snoozed on the lawn until my sister and wee bairn turned up. We enjoyed a cuppa and a cake, while we caught up. I ran through my stories in the glade, fighting off the fatigue. I felt a 1000 years old and could have turned into a tree myself at that point! I reminded myself that the solstice means the ‘sun’s stillness’ and savoured this all too brief hiatus from the heat and dust of the road.

Glade to be alive. Kevan in Delapre Abbey, 21 June 2014

Chillin before the gig. Kevan in Delapre Abbey, 21 June 2014

Then it was off to Rockingham Village Hall, near Corby, for a one-hour storytelling gig. This was a fundraiser for the lovely village hall, and was organised by big-hearted Jim. I was made most welcome by him and his wife in their very picturesque thatched cottage. Jim is an old-school biker himself and showed me the awesome chopper he had built in his garden shed. It was a serious mean machine. I freshened up – somewhat flagging considering I hadn’t had any sleep for 36 hours! This seemed to do the trick as I performed my set without any gaffs. It seemed to go down well, going by the feedback (‘once again many thx for the great stories ,  you have made an impression up  here !!’).

Sadly I wasn’t able to stick around afterwards to enjoy the beer and ceilidh band – I had to get back, even though it meant a 3 hr slog late at night – for my final booking the next morning… And so I said a fond farewell to Jim and his Scottish crew – until next time!

Bard on a Bike and meinhost, Jim of Rockingham, 21 June 2014

Bard on a Bike and meinhost, Jim of Rockingham, 21 June 2014

Although I was exhausted and chilled by the time I made it back at 1am I was glad to be able to flop out in my own bed (41 hrs without proper sleep!). I had 7 blissful hours before I had to get up and get ready to lead a 3 hr literary ramble with 17 people from Hawkwood College – no rest for the bardic!  The weather was glorious as we set off for Slad – and the rest is related in my previous post (‘Walking with Laurie’). By the time I was able to slump down in the garden at Rosebank Cottage with a Pimms, to listen to the poetry and fiddle, I felt as old as the hills, but at one with the land.

The summer solstice is the most expansive, joyous time of year – the time of maximum daylight (and sunlight if we’re lucky) and energy in the northern hemisphere. It feels possible to have such (relatively) epic adventures – because the engine of the year is behind us, the vast CCs of the sun, the ultimate hot-rod, cruising through the cosmos – the Lord of Light in his leathers and shades, long -hair flowing and Hendrix on the headphones, blasting across our skies.

Stone Temple Biker - Kevan at Avebury, by Saravian

Stone Temple Biker – Kevan at Avebury, by Saravian

Laying the Dust

The Cove Avebury

The Cove Avebury

9-15 July

Last Tuesday my German friend O visited (a month before she gets hitched to a fellow storyteller) and we went to Avebury to rendezvous with Z, resident of The Lacket – her family home nearby in a ridiculously picturesque National Trust village. If you can imagine a filmset for a movie about fairies intruding on a quaint English hamlet, this would be how it would look … but it’s for real. A line of thatched cottages surrounded by recumbent sarsen stones, Lockeridge Dene feels as though it straddles the worlds between mortals and the Good Folk. In exchange for giving our hostess some feedback on the incredible story she is writing about her and her famous grandmother, who was married to Scott of the Antarctic, we got to stay the night. We shared stories by the fire in the ‘Little Room’ as the living room is known, the shelves and walls steeped in history (rare volumes; memento mori; old photographs of famous friends and relatives).

The Little Room, at the Lacket

The Little Room, at the Lacket

Sipping sherry left over from her father’s funeral and eating some creamy camembert on home-made rye bread, we talked into the wee small hours. Then I staggered out into the night – and nearly ‘drowned’ in the sea of stars above my head – a spectacular star-field, due to the lack of light pollution (or anything from the 20th or 21st century) around. I stumbled my way to the Roundabout – the cute thatched ‘gnome’ house which was to be my bedroom for the night. I felt very privileged to be staying in such a place. Thank you Zzzzz…

Gnome, sweet, gnome - The Roundabout, my bedroom at the Lacket

Gnome, sweet, gnome – The Roundabout, my bedroom at the Lacket

The Lacket

Stars like sarsens

scattered across the sky’s meadow.

A house heavy with bristly thatch,

eaves, a furrowed brow.

Timbered frame riddled with history,

the ghosts of literati,

dubious diplomats,

the Polar extremes of Scott and Peter Pan

(the explorer’s son named

after their friend Barrie’s creation).

A lost father immortalised in the Neverland of ice,

leaving Wendy to run the house.

The garden, a habitat of Tinkerbells,

hedges good enough for a Woolf to jump in.

A cow-licked meadow

of glacial erratics,

a stone circle workshop,

Avebury in utero.

Here, great dreams and fragile visions are born,

eminent Victorians nurtured,

erudite Edwardians pandered,

visiting diplomats indulged.

Ineluctably, at the Lacket,

magic is forged,

protected in a vale of deep peace,

where time takes a hiatus

(wristwatches stop in the middle of the night,

stuck on the Roundabout of dreams).

A funeral sherry is sipped

in the snug of the Little Room,

beneath the sepia gazes of

the famous and familial.

The timbers, spines of rare books,

stained with the centuries of

mercurial repartee, firefly passion, hearts

breaking like an Antarctic ice-shelf,

minds locked into themselves,

imprisoned in the past,

imaginations roaming free.

 

Kevan Manwaring

July 2013

 

The next day, we went for a walk up Cherhill with Kevin, gurned to the camera in front of the Lansdowne monument and white horse, before ending up at the Black Horse for some quaffing.

Cherhill sunset

Cherhill sunset

The next day I accompanied O to Bath, and met up with my Icelandic friend, Svanur (aka, ‘The Viking’ as we affectionately call him), who was passing through town on his way back to his homeland, where he works as a tour guide. The last time I’d seen him was Easter 2012 in Cornwall, so we had alot of catching up to do – which we did over a few beers. His wife, Suzanne, and friends joined us for a pleasant afternoon sat in the beer garden of the Pig and Fiddle. Skol!

The Viking in Bath!

The Viking in Bath!

On Saturday my friend Robin visited and we walked the Wansdyke – even though we set off at 4pm, the heat was still formidable, and it was hard work to get up onto the ridge. Stretching from Bristol to Marlborough, this ancient earthwork is attributed to the Danes, hence its name, Wansdyke, or ‘Woden’s Ditch’, but it might well pre-date this. The fact it links several significant ancient sites – hill-forts, long barrows, and camps – makes it feel more like a processional route than a defensive structure. This is certainly how it feels, walking along it. I remember once on the way to Tan Hill (its highest point, and site of a famous fair) I found a verse and melody popped into my head, something along the lines of ‘I’m on my way to Tan Hill Fair, I hope to find my true love there.’ It seemed to arise out of the rhythm of my progress along the ancient way – the May trees, in full blossom, enhancing the sense this was the sacred route to the Hill of Bel-Tane. Higher up, there was a trace of pleasant coolness, and the going was far easier – it felt like one was a giant striding over the land; that one could go on for miles. Just as well, as we had several to go to our destination – the Barge Inn, Honeystreet, where there was a summer knees-up – and the shadows were lengthening (‘our shadows taller than our souls’). By the time we dropped down into the Vale of Pewsey and made our way along the tow-path to the pub, the sound of revelry guiding us, it was getting dark. We arrived five and half hours after setting out, having walked around 12-3 miles, with detours (navigational haziness; a Roman road that was now a blocked right of way; a vast field with no way out like the one in Ben Wheatley’s new film ‘A Field in England’). We were in need of sustenance – alas, the kitchen had shut. The slender bar-maid failed to inform me there was a BBQ, so I got us some Ford Prefect peanuts and myself, a pint of ‘Croppie’ (de rigeur in Wiltshire’s legendary crop-circle pub, a favourite watering hole for cerealogists, stranded aliens and yokels). These were consumed with ravenous haste. Then I managed to grab the last veggie-burger (minus a bun) and some cake – thus was our West Country repast for the night. Fortunately, the beer was good and the atmosphere pleasant. We sat and watched the bands for a bit – even vaguely dancing at one point, although the swaying might have been more from exhaustion, and being on the state of collapsed. Replete with the fullness of the day, we staggered off to find a place to wild-camp, which we did, nearby in Alton Barnes, by the squat Saxon church – found at the end of a Corpse-path in the middle of a field. Dog-tired, we didn’t notice any ghosts – only something rustling in the undergrowth and the police helicopter overhead, searching for rogue males, no doubt! Nevertheless, it was a peaceful and pleasant night’s sleep – it was so warm, a mat and sleeping bag was all that was needed. I awoke, hearing the first bird break the dawn – before being joined by the feathered choir for the morning’s chorus.

Robin on Adam's Grave

Robin on Adam’s Grave

We arose and walked up to the ridge, stopping at Adam’s Grave, a long barrow, to enjoy the sublime view – the mist burning off in the Vale below. It was only 7am and we had the whole morning before us, a good feeling – and practical, as we avoided the heat of the day. Following a seldom frequented stretch of the Ridgeway, we reached Avebury from the south in a couple of hours, arriving via the Avenue of menhirs (this was about my fourth time walking up it in a month and it was starting to feel like Groundhog Day). We’d run out of water, so replenished our bottles, and I brewed up by the roadside like a tinker. There were no buses back to Calne, alas – so we grabbed some sarnies from the NT cafe, and hoiked ourselves along the road, thumbing up. Drivers looked at us as though we were escaped criminals. Fortunately, at the Beckhampton roundabout an old hitcher on his way back from a car-boot took mercy and gave us a lift up the road – it wasn’t far (7 miles) but boy, were we grateful: my feet were blistered enough by the time we got back. Limbs scratched and dripping sweat, this bardic bod was in a sorry state – but I felt exhilarated too. Our footloose foray had been a success. We freshened up and had some lunch – again, the simplest food can be so satisfying when you have a proper appetite (and not just eating out of habit). I got changed and ready for a tour I was due to lead in Bath – no rest for the bardic! I gave Robin a lift to Chippenham station, then blatted it over to Aquae Sulis, where I met up with a couple of Americans from Maryland, on a whistle-stop tour of English culture spots (Winchester, Stonehenge, Avebury…). Despite being wiped out by my Wansdyke walk and the heat, I think I acquitted myself well. An hour and a half later, I was given a very nice tip and bought a pint of Bell-ringer in the Coer-de-Lion, Bath’s smallest pub – this most certainly needed to lay the dust of the road down, like the pump used to do by the Marden river in Calne. By the time I got back to the Wiltshire town I was not much more than a bardic zombie, shuffling around sore-footed and staring, looking for a take-away.

The following night I went back to Bath for the Storytelling Circle at the Raven, which I used to run. It is now hosted by David Metcalfe, a fellow Fire Spring member. At first, there was only a handful of ‘usual suspects’ there, but it rapidly filled up and there was a good crowd and an entertaining cross-section of offerings. I told the story of The Far-travelled Fiddler from my forth-coming collection of ‘Northamptonshire Folk Tales’ – being published by The History Press – in the week I had received a proof of the gorgeous cover from Katherine Soutar. To see seeds sown in early Spring (when I submitted the manuscript) come to fruition is immensely satisfying, and offers some consolation for my ‘exile’ in one-horse Calne, which the visit of friends and various sortees makes more bearable.

Friends by Cherhill

Friends by Cherhill

Laying the Dust

The Cove, Avebury

The Cove, Avebury

9-15 July

Last Tuesday my German friend O visited (a month before she gets hitched to a fellow storyteller) and we went to Avebury to rendezvous with Z, resident of The Lacket – her family home nearby in a ridiculously picturesque National Trust village. If you can imagine a filmset for a movie about fairies intruding on a quaint English hamlet, this would be how it would look … but it’s for real. A line of thatched cottages surrounded by recumbent sarsen stones, Lockeridge Dene feels as though it straddles the worlds between mortals and the Good Folk. In exchange for giving our hostess some feedback on the incredible story she is writing about her and her famous grandmother, who was married to Scott of the Antarctic, we got to stay the night. We shared stories by the fire in the ‘Little Room’ as the living room is known, the shelves and walls steeped in history (rare volumes; memento mori; old photographs of famous friends and relatives). Sipping sherry left over from her father’s funeral and eating some creamy camembert on home-made rye bread, we talked into the wee small hours. Then I staggered out into the night – and nearly ‘drowned’ in the sea of stars above my head – a spectacular star-field, due to the lack of light pollution (or anything from the 20th or 21st century) around. I stumbled my way to the Roundabout – the cute thatched ‘gnome’ house which was to be my bedroom for the night. I felt very privileged to be staying in such a place. Thank you Zzzzz…

Image

The Lacket

Stars like sarsens

scattered across the sky’s meadow.

A house heavy with bristly thatch,

eaves, a furrowed brow.

Timbered frame riddled with history,

the ghosts of literati,

dubious diplomats,

the Polar extremes of Scott and Peter Pan

(the explorer’s son named

after their friend Barrie’s creation).

A lost father immortalised in the Neverland of ice,

leaving Wendy to run the house.

The garden, a habitat of Tinkerbells,

hedges good enough for a Woolf to jump in.

A cow-licked meadow

of glacial erratics,

a stone circle workshop,

Avebury in utero.

Here, great dreams and fragile visions are born,

eminent Victorians nurtured,

erudite Edwardians pandered,

visiting diplomats indulged.

Ineluctably, at the Lacket,

magic is forged,

protected in a vale of deep peace,

where time takes a hiatus

(wristwatches stop in the middle of the night,

stuck on the Roundabout of dreams).

A funeral sherry is sipped

in the snug of the Little Room,

beneath the sepia gazes of

the famous and familial.

The timbers, spines of rare books,

stained with the centuries of

mercurial repartee, firefly passion, hearts

breaking like an Antarctic ice-shelf,

minds locked into themselves,

imprisoned in the past.

Kevan Manwaring

July 2013

The next day, we went for a walk up Cherhill with Kevin, gurned to the camera in front of the Lansdowne monument and white horse, before ending up at the Black Horse for some quaffing.

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The following morning I went to Bath with O and met up with an Icelandic friend I hadn’t seen for yonks (Easter 2012). Over a few beers in the Pig and Fiddle we caught up. Svanur, aka ‘the Viking’ as we call him, is a tour guide in Iceland and was on his way back home. Skol!

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On Saturday my friend Robin visited and we walked the Wansdyke – even though we set off at 4pm, the heat was still formidable, and it was hard work to get up onto the ridge. Stretching from Bristol to Marlborough, this ancient earthwork is attributed to the Danes, hence its name, Wansdyke, or ‘Woden’s Ditch’, but it might well pre-date this. The fact it links several significant ancient sites – hill-forts, long barrows, and camps – makes it feel more like a processional route than a defensive structure. This is certainly how it feels, walking along it. I remember once on the way to Tan Hill (its highest point, and site of a famous fair) I found a verse and melody popped into my head, something along the lines of ‘I’m on my way to Tan Hill Fair, I hope to find my true love there.’ It seemed to arise out of the rhythm of my progress along the ancient way – the May trees, in full blossom, enhancing the sense this was the sacred route to the Hill of Bel-Tane. Higher up, there was a trace of pleasant coolness, and the going was far easier – it felt like one was a giant striding over the land; that one could go on for miles. Just as well, as we had several to go to our destination – the Barge Inn, Honeystreet, where there was a summer knees-up – and the shadows were lengthening (‘our shadows taller than our souls’). By the time we dropped down into the Vale of Pewsey and made our way along the tow-path to the pub, the sound of revelry guiding us, it was getting dark. We arrived five and half hours after setting out, having walked around 12-3 miles, with detours (navigational haziness; a Roman road that was now a blocked right of way; a vast field with no way out like the one in Ben Wheatley’s new film ‘A Field in England’). We were in need of sustenance – alas, the kitchen had shut. The slender bar-maid failed to inform me there was a BBQ, so I got us some Ford Prefect peanuts and myself, a pint of ‘Croppie’ (de rigeur in Wiltshire’s legendary crop-circle pub, a favourite watering hole for cerealogists, stranded aliens and yokels). These were consumed with ravenous haste. Then I managed to grab the last veggie-burger (minus a bun) and some cake – thus was our West Country repast for the night. Fortunately, the beer was good and the atmosphere pleasant. We sat and watched the bands for a bit – even vaguely dancing at one point, although the swaying might have been more from exhaustion, and being on the state of collapsed. Replete with the fullness of the day, we staggered off to find a place to wild-camp, which we did, nearby in Alton Barnes, by the squat Saxon church – found at the end of a Corpse-path in the middle of a field. Dog-tired, we didn’t notice any ghosts – only something rustling in the undergrowth and the police helicopter overhead, searching for rogue males, no doubt! Nevertheless, it was a peaceful and pleasant night’s sleep – it was so warm, a mat and sleeping bag was all that was needed. I awoke, hearing the first bird break the dawn – before being joined by the feathered choir for the morning’s chorus.

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We arose and walked up to the ridge, stopping at Adam’s Grave, a long barrow, to enjoy the sublime view – the mist burning off in the Vale below. It was only 7am and we had the whole morning before us, a good feeling – and practical, as we avoided the heat of the day. Following a seldom frequented stretch of the Ridgeway, we reached Avebury from the south in a couple of hours, arriving via the Avenue of menhirs (this was about my fourth time walking up it in a month and it was starting to feel like Groundhog Day). We’d run out of water, so replenished our bottles, and I brewed up by the roadside like a tinker. There were no buses back to Calne, alas – so we grabbed some sarnies from the NT cafe, and hoiked ourselves along the road, thumbing up. Drivers looked at us as though we were escaped criminals. Fortunately, at the Beckhampton roundabout an old hitcher on his way back from a car-boot took mercy and gave us a lift up the road – it wasn’t far (7 miles) but boy, were we grateful: my feet were blistered enough by the time we got back. Limbs scratched and dripping sweat, this bardic bod was in a sorry state – but I felt exhilarated too. Our footloose foray had been a success. We freshened up and had some lunch – again, the simplest food can be so satisfying when you have a proper appetite (and not just eating out of habit). I got changed and ready for a tour I was due to lead in Bath – no rest for the bardic! I gave Robin a lift to Chippenham station, then blatted it over to Aquae Sulis, where I met up with a couple of Americans from Maryland, on a whistle-stop tour of English culture spots (Winchester, Stonehenge, Avebury…). Despite being wiped out by my Wansdyke walk and the heat, I think I acquitted myself well. An hour and a half later, I was given a very nice tip and bought a pint of Bell-ringer in the Coer-de-Lion, Bath’s smallest pub – this most certainly needed to lay the dust of the road down, like the pump used to do by the Marden river in Calne. By the time I got back to the Wiltshire town I was not much more than a bardic zombie, shuffling around sore-footed and staring, looking for a take-away.

The following night I went back to Bath for the Storytelling Circle at the Raven, which I used to run. It is now hosted by David Metcalfe, a fellow Fire Spring member. At first, there was only a handful of ‘usual suspects’ there, but it rapidly filled up and there was a good crowd and an entertaining cross-section of offerings. I told the story of The Far-travelled Fiddler from my forth-coming collection of ‘Northamptonshire Folk Tales’ – being published by The History Press – in the week I had received a proof of the gorgeous cover from Katherine Soutar. To see seeds sown in early Spring (when I submitted the manuscript) come to fruition is immensely satisfying, and offers some consolation for my ‘exile’ in one-horse Calne, which the visit of friends and various sortees makes more bearable.

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Midsummer Magic

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

24-27 June

The Gates of Dawn by Herbert Draper


 

 

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…

Launching The Way of Awen - Chapel Arts Centre, Bath, June 25th

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.

Saravian gets the awen flowing at my book launch

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.

chatting with Robin Williamson after my launch/his concert - Chapel Arts Centre, Bath, June 25th

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.

Daw, Helen and Daryl at Bishop Cannings camp

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.

'...like sleeping in a Samuel Palmer painting'

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.

Michael Dames launching his latest Silbury book, Avebury, June 27

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.

sitting with Michael outside the National Trust shop, Avebury

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.’

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

20-21 June

Bard and Stone, Avebury, Summer Solstice 2010

The summer solstice is one of those deadlines of the year – it is for me anyway. Everything seems to build up to it and there’s a millions things to get done before it, as though … time will stop after. Of course, it will carry on just as before but, like the millennium or 2012, significant dates – lines in the egg-timer sands – turn normally sensible people into headless chickens, and the ‘doom’ that we expect becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (our mounting panic causing accidents, hysteria, conflict, suicide, down-sizing to a remote Scottish islands, etc). On a microcosmic scale, summer is the ‘silly season’, when lazy journalists, recovering from long liquid lunches, dig deep into the odd box. But it’s not hard to find stuff – druids at Stonehenge being a favourite ‘isn’t life a bit weird sometimes/don’t worry about the economy’ piece. Images of ragged revellers at the World Heritage Site – usually with some wally raving on a trilithon – marks the turning the of wheel as iconically as a groundhog in the States or bluebells over here.

I have attended the Stonehenge celebration at the summer solstice (when they first re-opened it to the public after 10 years exclusion) but found it complete chaos and as far from sacred as you can imagine – with many people off their heads and so much conflicting energy/attitudes it defeated the point. It seemed to me the ‘mob’ where desecrating that which had drawn them to a jumble of stones on Salisbury Plain very early on a June morning – a sacred site at a sacred time. Any attempt at ceremony became a circus show spectacle – tolerated in the libertarian atmosphere, or laughed at. Priests were mocked. Anarchy ruled. It might as well have been a dodgy football crowd: ‘Innggerrrlunnddd’. Couples got handfasted in the hurly burly. Others snogged, skinned up, threw up, danced naked, chanted, shouted or blew horns. A feral lad tossed somebody’s ashes into the crowd and they blew into our faces. A group of Maoris looked on aghast – was this how we treated the dead? I felt ashamed for my country. Stonehenge is amazing – and at other times of the year (winter solstice can be more civilised and atmospheric) or via private access, you can feel the awe and majesty of the place – and connect with something sacred. But unless you love the mob experience, avoid summer solstice.

But what of my own revelries?

After an intense couple of weeks meeting all my (mainly marking) deadlines I was looking forward to a couple of days of downing tools and just enjoying the sun – and he certainly had his hat on for us, which makes the world of difference. Nature smiled – filling everything with a benign quality.

Solstice Picnic on Solsbury Hill

I went to a picnic on Solsbury Hil, organised by my friends Peter Please and Kirsten Bolwig. Rocked up there on the Triumph and found them to one side, underneath a rocky ledge. There ended up being about twenty of us – a splendid picnic with splendid people. Poems and songs were shared. We ‘broke bread’ together and relaxed in the sun.

Alas, we had to shoot off – I had a previous commitment to run the Independent Creatives Forum at the Gaynor Flynn’s Being Human weekend, Frome. The venue – a warehouse tucked away in the obscure outskirts of the town was difficult to find. A couple of small easy-to-miss arrows pointed in vague directions. Finally found it – after a few dead ends – and it felt like a lazy Sunday afternoon chill-out with a small group of friends (in publicity it looked like it was going to be some amazing ground-breaking happening, not a house-party). My forum was meant to take place in a yurt – which had been taken over by children. I managed to claim the space and set up; the event was announced and … I had one person come in. I can’t blame folk for wanting to sit in the sun and drink beer (I wouldn’t have minded doing that myself). Sunday 2-5pm is the wrong time to have an intellectual forum. Nevertheless, we had a nice chat about creativity (there were four of us in the end). One woman who had come all the way from East Grinstead for the event said she was so glad I had come along – all weekend she had been hearing discussions about technology and I was the first speaker to talk about people, about … being human. If you connect with one person, or make one person’s day – sowed the seed of something, an idea, a thought, inspired in some way – then it’s all been worthwhile. It was nice to bump into my fellow Bard of Bath, Helen Moore and her partner, Niall from London. There’s a healthy creative scene in Frome and Gaynor’s outfit is one aspect of it – showing that provincial life doesn’t have to be parochial. Later Banco de Gaia played and a little backstreet of a sleepy Wiltshire town became plugged into the global groove.

My solstice Bard-B-Q starts

Returned at speed to finish setting up for my annual solstice Bard-B-Q, with the help of my friends Sally and Ola. It was a lovely gathering, blessed by a perfect summer’s evening, with friends sharing poems, songs and stories.

Saravian - wild, free and beautiful - entertains us at my Bard-B-Q

I got my mead-horn out – as I am wont to do as such occasions – and we offered heart-felt toasts as it was passed around. This jump-started an excellent discussion on the BP oil disaster, and I found myself having successfully facilitated a creative forum after all, albeit in my own home. So many lovely talented friends turned out – old and new. Particularly resonant was the appearance of a Dutchwoman called Eva, whom I met on Glastonbury Tor exactly 19 years ago – on solstice eve, 1991. We had been in the tower, dancing along to the drums, trying to keep warm. I had lent her my waistcoat. Later we caught up in the campsite over a cuppa. A couple of years ago we bumped into each other at a Druid Camp – and then I met her at the OBOD bash a week ago. And now, here she was, on my doorstep!

Solstice friends - me and Eva, 19 years on

It was special to connect with her again after so long. When you celebrate such times, the ghosts of all the other solstices jostle side-by-side. This was my fortieth, but only the twentieth I had consciously celebrated. Not many, and each one stands out – especially the people you celebrate them with. I thought of ‘absent friends’ and I raised a meadhorn in their honour. It was special night – one of my best gatherings.

Afterwards, a guest Verona, said: ‘You have the gift of getting people together and to make their  talents shine!’

After a lazy breakfast – getting up at sunrise would’ve been a bridge too far – I have learnt to be gentle with myself lately (the solstice doesn’t have to be a triathlon, although it can feel like that, racing from event to event) – I headed over to Avebury for midday with my friend Sally on the back. It was a lovely run in the sun and we got there just in time to catch the noon ceremonies (solstice was 12:28).

Revellers worshipping a stone egg at Avebury, Summer Solstice 2010

gong show - Avebury summer solstice

A wonderfully raggle-taggle mixture of sun worshippers hung out between the stones – the atmosphere was relaxed. No doubt the all-night/or early morning revelries had worn out most. Avebury is big enough to accommodate for everyone’s ‘thing’ – the energy is far more feminine and less antagonistic than Stonehenge, which I feel have been tainted over the years by all the conflict that has focused around them: stones of contention. One group was having a dual gong shower. Another, sat in worship around a giant stone egg. Druids in full regalia chanted hand in hand. People meditated, picnicked, slept – it was hard to tell. Everyone was in a kind of placid state, like a load of … cows in a field, contentedly chewing cud. Stoned bovines. If anyone was on grass, they were keeping it discreet as the token bobby strolled around. There was no crowd control trouble here – many had come from Stonehenge that dawn, but something about Avebury chills people out. We did a ceremonial ambulation – with frequents stops in the scorching heat – before culminating in the ritual pint at the Red Lion, where the party continued on the benches outside. We sat in the leafy shade of the ‘fertile triangle’ nearby and ate our sandwiches. Bumped into an old bardic friend, Jim, who updated me on all the ins and outs of the druid scene.

Bards of Avebury and Bath - Jim and Kevan, Summer Solstice

He’d played 4 gigs that morning (!) and was involved in getting the ancestral sculpture to Stonehenge. He was excited about the media coverage they had gained – Jim is sincere and committed about his cause, but druids can be complete media tarts, preening and pontificating in front of the cameras. Certainly, it can be used as a platform to discuss real issues, but often the media treat such people like a novelty news item (‘And finally…’) Jim’s band, Druidicca, feature in a new movie partly filmed at Avebury called The Stone. He talked at length about his big scheme to bring all druids together. Good luck to him. We stopped off at Silbury Hill to hail the ‘Mighty Mother’, then hit the road back home.

Visiting Silbury Hill

Rounding off the solstice revelries nicely was the Bath Storytelling Circle, which happened to be on at the Raven that night. I went along and contributed a story and a poem, and enjoyed the ambience, helped by a couple of ales.

Satisfied, I returned home. Finally I was able to be still – which after all is what the solstice signifies. The sun puts its feet up for three days and has a well-earned rest!

Bards on a bike - me and pal Sally about to set off when an English Heritage volunteer took our snap

Heavy Weather, Grey Wethers

Bath to Avebury

14-15 November

new bike 021

My new 'time machine' at Silbury Hill, 2400 BCE

A contrasting weekend. Yesterday went to the Big Transition Bath Event at the Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institute (BRLSI) – a day of talks, workshops, networking and inspiration organised by Transition Bath. Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees, opened the event with a sobering but galvanising talk about the effects of climate change – and how we can respond to its challenges (as the Maldives is doing, becoming the world’s first carbon neutral country). There followed a triple programme of interesting and empowering talks. Oh, and some nice cake.

The weather was suitably ominous – like the start of some disaster movie. This particular ‘pathetic fallacy’ was simply a pain in the arse for most of storm-battered Britain. Unfortunately, it will probably take some extreme weather event (London flooding – a la New Orleans – to shock the majority of people, including the government, into action). Most people are still in the denial stage – prefer to see Climate Change as a myth (an morally outrageous & unscientific stance perpetuated largely by the Oil Industry), in itself a consoling fiction for those who wish to stick their heads in the sand and continue their carbon-emitting lifestyles. Yet it is very difficult for even the greenest person to lead a carbon-neutral lifestyle – from the day we are born we become a burden to the planet. In this ‘new paradigm’ the sin of carbon can be absolved by the purchase of carbon credits – the modern equivalent of medieval ‘indulgences’. Carbon-traders are the modern Pardoners, giving people the odour of sanctity with their invisible benedictions. Climate Change gurus are the new priests, the greener you are, the ‘holier’ you are – as people try to outdo each other in what could be called ‘hair-shirtman ship’, eg ‘I turned green twenty years ago’; ‘I went green twenty five years ago…’) and there’s even a happy clappy song to go with it: at the end of the day a guy called Chris got everyone to join in his ‘Climate Change’ anthem, which had the lyrics: ‘Energy … Descent … Plan  – Transition Culture!’ I don’t think they’re going to win over many people with that – they need to work on their song-writing! Green art doesn’t have to be bad art – and the last talk I went to (and the most interesting for me) was a session on Imagineering led by eco-poet, Helen Moore – where we discussed such matters, and the ‘spectre of the preacher’ as I put it: people don’t respond to a hectoring tone (I certainly don’t – and I’m sympathetic). You have to enchant people by sheer quality – entertain, impress, then you have their attention. Ask tough questions, but don’t spoonfeed answers. Light a candle, don’t fill a pail (although a few buckets today – when the heavens opened – wouldn’t have gone amiss).

Afterwards went to Bristol for something completely different – ostensibly – a critically-acclaimed Tobacco Factory production of Uncle Vanya at the marvellous Old Vic, but as it turned out, it had a strong ecological subplot, as advocated by the Doctor, with his forests, his love of trees, his vegetarianism. And in its stark depiction of how we have to keep on living – even through depression and despair, Chekov perhaps hints out how we might also ‘keep going’. It was surprisingly funny – and shows how much humour is an essential for life on Earth also (the probes being sent out across the Solar System should be scanning planets for it as well as water).

Avebury today by Kevan Manwaring

The Great Circle of Avebury in the winter light

Today, the skies miraculously cleared, so I made the most of the window in the weather to take my shiny new time machine (a Triumph Legend) out on a long run to Avebury. I’d been working hard –  after two weeks of marking OU papers I needed to blow away the cobwebs (all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy – and I didn’t want to do a  Shining: ‘Here’s Johnnny!’) I first went to Silbury Hill (Europe’s largest man-made mound, dating from 2400 BCE), then walked up to West Kennet long barrow (3650BCE), enjoying the glorious light, the wind, the space. Hardly a soul around.

Good to get away from computers, etc, in this vast sacred landscape temple… ancient technology that has stood the test of time. The incredible West Kennet is still standing after nearly six millennia – how many things these days would last so long?

West Kennet long barrow - 5659 years old and still looking good

Then I rode the short distance to the massive main circle and had my packed lunch in a copse of beech trees, enjoying being back in this magnificent sacred space where I have been coming for twenty years (‘I’ve been coming for twenty five years!’)

The standing stones are made up of what are known locally as ‘grey wethers’ (because they resemble sheep in poor light – many of which were manically munching away amidst the megaliths, bulging-eyed grass addicts). I walked all the way around the henge, stopping occasionally to scribble in my field journal – notes for my new book. Out in the sun on my shiny new steed – working on my new book … life is good.On Dyrham hill fort, Remembrance Sunday

Doing my bit for Climate Change ;0)

Bardic Poetry: Last Rites for John Barleycorn

Last Rites for John Barleycorn

 

Twilighters,

Roam with me…

 

Through the Gates of Herne

To find a kernel of truth,

Confront the stag of the seventh tine,

Decode the marks of his horned hoof.

 

Down the familiar paths we trod,

Frequenting our earlier selves;

Sharing our picnic of the past –

Feasting with Pooka and his Elves.

 

Then over the bloodstream

And through the iron turnstiles,

Two into one –

Led by the Maiden of the Corn

To the barrow to be reborn.

 

Along a tunnel to the light –

Spurred on sperm, a wheaten worm,

Wisely upstream wriggling.

To germinate where we are but a gleam –

Prodigal suns returning.

 

Walking between the worlds,

Through fields of alien wheat,

To the place of hallowed dreams,

Where all our tomorrows meet.

 

Rising to that yawning cleft;

Between that baked earth, right,

And bearded barley, ripe –

Beyond all that is left.

 

Demeter mourns for her lost youth,

Russet cloak unleavening

The burgeoning Lammas-scape

In her widowed wake.

 

Yet, if she lifted up her downcast eyes

They would glimpse a gladdening light

That could demystify those

Night-stung tears of dew.

 

Rekindle a faltering love

Which was once so bright;

Tinderbox heart sparked ablaze

By this Promethean view.

 

Look! His dazzling smile already melts

Her frosty gaze –

The heartening land smiles welcome

As the colour returns to her cheeks.

 

With a God’s eye view

We discerned the canvas

Upon which he painted –

Pigments selected from a divine palette,

Sable-soaked, laden with morning hue –

As elegantly across the vast vista

He swept it.

 

Drowsy textures arose –

Dormant tints, awoken by his touch.

As our orbs imperceptibly peeled

An earthairfirewater colour

Was unveiled.

 

Rich vermillions, sombre umbers,

Occult ochres, verdant viridians,

Were presented by this prismatic parade

As if such a spectrum had never before

Dared to emerge from the shade.

 

Blinded by an unearthly faith,

We now rubbed our eyes

At this dawning creation

With a renewed belief.

 

Breathtaken, we breathed it back:

Pulling the sky towards us

In lungfuls of light –

Then exhaling,

The clouds dispelled like dandelions.

 

An impromptu pantheon,

Recreating the world

In our own fractured image.

Raise an eyebrow to influence the air,

Lift a finger and the crops would soar,

Invert a thumb and harvests fail…

 

But who are we to judge,

When from afar, we appear mere

Dot-to-dots,

Yearning for a common thread?

 

Yet the lionheart’s golden mane

Is not ours to wantonly flay;

Braided bails of spiralling corn

The only evidence

Of a God that passed this way.

 

Now hush – for fields have ears

And silence is as golden as the sun.

 

From the dancing trees

Our forest kith could be heard;

Amongst the bustling stalks

The flower kin spread the word.

 

It was a choral dawn like no other –

The morning eavesdropped upon by Adam

When first he emerged from the

All-Mother.

 

A myriad of voices chattered away,

But in the same tongue spoken.

Revealed! The lost language of the fey –

Our ears had awoken!

 

The gloaming star winked green:

It knew a secret – we did not.

The champion waited for

Was finally seen, borne in his sacred cot.

 

Lugh! He soars by bronzed chariot.

Lugh! He strums with a solar lyre.

Lugh! He sings with honey lyric.

Lugh! He sees through eyes of fire.

 

We toasted the rising king

With wide eyes and barley wine,

Our joy expressed in sundancing –

Jumping alive with ecstatic mime.

 

Lost in the landscape of Lughnasadh,

The moment telescoping,

Outside time.

 

It was ourselves looking at our elves,

Which the Outsiders insighted –

A frame within a frame.

The burning gallery ignited.

 

Rocketed by déjà vu (again)

A product of eternal combustion,

This glimpse of infinity’s spark?

 

For the answer to that endless question

We had to go where none return:

Down amongst the dead men,

Hoping in the dark.

 

Skull walls leered in silent mockery,

A sarcophagus whistled

A deadly tune;

Lulled, rolling into the barrow,

Returning to the tomb…

        

Way, way down there:

A rag, a bone, a hank of hair –

Would that be all that is left

To resurrect us?

 

O Lazarus, O Lazarus.

 

Ashes to – what then – Ashes?

 

Dust to – nothing more than – Dust?

 

As cold clay kissed awake,

Mannequins of the Fire Drake.

 

Charged in this earthen kiln,

Ossified, lacquered and brittle,

Until dropped, and shattered

At the marriage of the Quick and the Dead.

Each shard indicative

Of the punishment or pleasure

Stretching ahead..?

 

No,

Not whilst friends remain

To keep one’s memory alive –

Though tempests torment us,

Storms in our cracked cup.

Join hands

and we will endure.

 

The dead talked

Amongst themselves;

Thick as thieves –

They kept their secrets,

 

We kept our lives.

 

For now we had descended

To the summit’s peak,

Casting our reflections

Upon the waters of the deep.

 

It was time to go,

To leave a votive offering behind.

Confronted,

The past’s shadow was exchanged

For something of worth to find.

 

The sacred place resanctified,

By rites of passage outworn,

We emerged remembered,

Reconciled, reborn.

 

Crawling blinking into the brightening world,

We learnt to see again, through fields of vision.

 

Back down to earth

We cloudwalkers gently floated.

The grease of our harvest supper

Still upon empty mouths –

Terra firmly devoted.

 

The Bacchanalia was over –

Boozy God of derangement

Rent asunder: his goodness shared,

Blood into wine, flesh into bread.

 

John Barleycorn is dead!

John Barleycorn is dead!

 

The parched soil drank him dry:

The Goddess takes back what once was hers.

 

The power returns to the Mother.

The power returns to the Mother.

 

As we turned to the crimson-smeared day,

Imbibing the drunken sun,

Wetstone-slicked sickle in hand,

                           Ready to make hay.

 

***

 

Kevan Manwaring 1994/2007