Tag Archives: Ice

Ten Years After

NEW YEAR

1st January 2010

winter sun on sun dial - KM

Across the world last night billions of people were celebrating New Year’s Eve – one of the very few global celebrations. Although several calendars co-exist – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mayan – the start of the Gregorian new year as is commonly accepted by clocks, businesses, governments, computer systems, etc, is hard to ignore. Ten years ago people were panicking about what became known as the Millennium Bug, or Y2K, which vanished like scotch mist on the 1st January 2000 – like so many WMDs. This was tied in with millennial anxiety – whipped up by the media and world religions. The world didn’t end. Computers didn’t crash. Planes didn’t fall out of the sky. Legions didn’t die in hospitals. The world carried on. Our millennium fears seemed ill-founded. We can laugh at all the worry about Y2K – looking back, ten years on, it seems so ludicrous (it shows how much we swallow what the media whips up – how much we buy into the culture of fear). If only we know what lay around the corner. The charnel pyres of CJD or Mad Cow Disease, as it commonly became known, were bad enough – with whole sections of the countryside off-limits, like some awful Quatermass Experiment scenario, but this was trumped by the inconceivable atrocity of 9/11. This earth-shattering event stamped its indelible mark on the decade, and we’re still feeling the shockwaves now. Yet, even after such a moment – when the world seemed to stand still in horror – life has gone on … and this decade, however dire it has been at times (and it’s hard to imagine it being any worse – wars raging, global financial meltdown, climate change, peak oil), has flown by. It’s hard to believe it really – ten years ago I was standing on Glastonbury Tor, guiding people up and down the spiral of light (777 lanterns dedicated to peace, spiralling around the hill); and all over the world people were doing extraordinary things to celebrate the new millennium – even then, there was dispute, some saying the new millennium didn’t start until 2001. It’s like those who don’t like to celebrate NYE, because for them the winter solstice or samhain is … I know what they mean, and intellectually I can agree – but surely, anything that brings people together in celebration – family and friends, old and new – is got to be good. Any excuse for a party. To step off the wheel. Dance. Make merry. Watch fireworks. Sing together. Greet strangers warmly. Reforge connections. Rather than ‘business as usual’ – what the world certainly does not need right now, is ‘business as usual’. We need to stop, take stock, and resolve to lead better lives, create a better world. It is only a collective act of will. Twenty years ago, the will of those maintaining the Berlin Wall relented and it toppled. Two hundred years ago, slavery was abolished. All it takes is a change – a shift in the collective will. We are more powerful than we imagine – as Nelson Mandela once said. We create time and we can bend it to our whims – create national holidays, two minute silences, and so forth. We can choose to create quality time for our loved ones and we can create quality time for the world.

We can make this decade what we want it to be. We could stop the wars tomorrow. We could stop destroying the only planet we have. We could be kinder to each other. Forgive old grudges. Melt all the guns and decommission all the warheads and mines. We could make all transport run on green fuel. Stop building nuclear power stations and start building wind, wave and sun farms. Create works of great beauty rather than that which makes a quick buck. Favour the well-made and the meaningful rather than the shoddy and the trivial. Consume less. Love more. Live well and die happy.

the winter road - KM

Millennium Grove and Time Capsule

3rd January 2010

I decided, on a whim, to visit the Millennium Grove I planted with friends on 22 December, 1999. It was a beautiful cold clear day – deep blue skies and sunlight like cream – and wanting to make the most of the precious few hours of daylight, I had originally planned to go up Solsbury Hill, but when I rode up Solsbury Lane my way was blocked by a van well and truly stuck, askew on the road, skidding on the ice, wedged in the narrow lane. The road was dicey – with the double-peril of gravel and patches of ice – and so I turned back, but at the bottom I decided to go left, rather than right, and follow the lane along St Catherine’s Valley and come back along Bannerdown Hill. It was too beautiful a day to go home early.

It was a joy to be riding along the winding lane, through the deepening vale of St Catherine’s, past cosy farmhouses, golden in the low sun. By the time I reached the bottom of Rocks East Woodland – my destination – the track was all but iced over and I had to be bold to traverse it on the bike. I took it real steady and only nearly lost it as I had to cross a whole sheet of ice going up a hill, which needed some revs. Hairy! Heart in mouth, I kept the bike upright and made it to the tarmac on the other side. Relieved, I rode the couple of hundred yards to the carpark of the Rocks East Woodland educational centre – empty for once (no one in their right mind would come out on a day like today).

I have been coming here, to this ‘100 acre wood’ at the head at St Catherine’s Valley, where the three counties of Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire meet, since ’96 or ’97 – after I read about it in the local newspaper in an article that compared it to something out of Tolkien’s opus. (And today just so happens to be Tolkien’s birthday – last year I had a Tolkien Birthday party, getting my friends to read out the radio drama, The Rabbit Room). I fell in love with the place – the old man in the tree, the sculpture trail, the grotto, the witch in the woods, the valley of the rocks, the old coach road and billy goat bridge – and started to visit frequently. At the time I was living in the centre of the city, and so it was a much needed sanctuary away from the madding crowd. I got to know the owner, Tony Philips OBE – an old soldier, local independent councillor of nearly sixty years’ service, district president of the Wiltshire West Scouts, and a real-life Man who Planted Trees – even then, in his seventies, he seemed ancient, weathered and tough like an old oak, but he would be down in the woods every day, working. He was a forester first and foremost – he loved his woods, practically lived in them – and he was for me, the old man of the woods. At first I wanted to keep the place a secret – but it was too special not to share, and so I started to take friends up there and guide them around. I must have introduced hundreds of people to it… Over time, a trust was built up and I was allowed and then asked to put on events there and contribute to the wood creatively. I put on eco-arts events, like the Lost Forest Festival in 1998 or the WildWood Camp in 200? In my year as Bard of Bath, 98-99, I was ‘in residence’, running monthly events there – readings, gathering. I started a poetry trail, which still remains. I lived there for the summer in a tent, throughout one of the last beautiful summers for sometime. I painted backdrops for the Rocks annual flower show display, which one prizes. And for the millennium, I decided to do something more permanent – a Celtic Tree Wheel, which was co-devised with artist and priestess Sheila Broun. We got different people to sponsor a tree and we planted 13 native hardwoods in a circle with an apple tree in the middle. This was planted at the turn of the solstice, 22nd December, 1999 – on the eve of the new millennium, so it became known as the millennium grove. The idea was to have a natural calendar – one tree per lunar month. Working with the appropriate tree each month, one could work one’s way around the wheel. We had created, like our ancestors, a sacred space in which to mark sacred time. I initiated a series of ‘moots ‘ there on the sunday nearest the full moon. We started with a healthy crowd at Imbolc, but by the late summer, I was going up there by myself and I lost heart in it. I kept visiting when I could, seeing how the trees were getting on, occasionally organising working parties to do maintenance on the grove. A beech overshadowed the grove initially – which meant the trees in its shade didn’t take – but when the offending limb was taken down, and the dead trees replanted, the grove became established, and has grown healthily ever since. The local druid, Tim Sebastion, suggested a turf-maze, which we created in a clearing just down from the grove, starting it on May Day. A mum and a young girl was present – the girl was called Fey, and so Tim called the miz-maze, ‘Fey’s Maze’. When Tim sadly died at Imbolc 2007 we planted an oak tree for him, by the maze, putting in some of his ashes. We did the same for my poet friend Simon Miles, honorary bard of Bath – and the grove has become something of a memorial now for those no longer with us. Tony instigated an avenue of redwoods, each of which is dedicated to a loved one – more often than not no longer around – and so the woodland has become increasingly a memorial woodland. A place to remember lost loved ones.

And so it was with bitter irony today that when I turned up and bumped into Philip, who was looking after the place, that he informed me that Tony had passed away in the summer (while gardening on 22nd June – perhaps suitably for this real life Oak King). I knew he was old and half-expected to hear something each time I’ve been up over the last couple of years. He was in his eighties, but he was tough as nails, and still kept working down in the woods. Yet still it was a shock – horrible news on a bitter day. The sad thing was many of his friends and colleagues were not informed – there was no memorial service for him. But he will not be forgotten. I will think of him every time I visit. He made these woods what they are – buying the place when it was in a mess and painstakingly restoring the gardens in the woods and sensitively managing it. Rocks East is a working wood – timber and firewood is the main income – but it has one of the best campsites around and some good trails and resources for school-children. The centre is low, timbered and blends in the woodland well, nestled in a little ampitheatre, its roof covered in moss and lichen. The place isn’t overmanaged – the campsite doesn’t have the usual eyesore plugins. The facilities are a little ramshackle, but that’s part of its charm. It is a pretty unique place and we’ve held some pretty unique events there – a druid/maori camp, for instance – thanks to the open-mindedness and pioneering spirit of Tony Philips. He was one of a kind. I remember him saying he was instigating things, like the redwood avenue, that he would not see the culmination of. Unlike many around today – he did not leave the Earth impoverished by his impact, but enriched. He has left a legacy – at Rocks East and at Broker’s Wood, the other wood he owned – for future generations to enjoy. Through the beautiful green spaces he created, the ‘old man of the woods’ will live on.

One of the many glowing tributes that appeared on the local newspaper website, following the announcement, sums up the general feeling: ‘Heaven’s garden however will bloom just that little bit brighter now.’

This sad news made my visit to the millennium grove even more poignant. It was touching to be there ten years on from when we planted it – some no longer with us, but the trees planted in their names provide a positive living memorial. Death is part of the natural cycle of things – and standing their in a ‘naked’ wood on a freezing winter’s day, this hard truth was driven home … but there is the reassuring fact that … life goes on. There is the promise of Spring, of rebirth. I noticed some trees even had buds on them, tiny slithers – like pen nibs dipped in ink, waiting to write the book of the year.

I walked back up – it was starting to get dark and I had to go while some light still remained, and before the roads froze over. I past the two yurts where the woodsman and his wife dwell. Smoke curled invitingly from the chimney of one. To most, living in such a place in winter would seem insane, but they are designed for cold climates.

I talked briefly with Philip, who was looking after the place by himself. We discussed the possibility of doing something for Tony at the woods in the warmer months – plant a tree (although the whole wood is his memorial), have a gathering of remembrance … something. I left determined to not let Tony fade away.

I set off, turning right at Hunter’s Hall, where an infamous murder took place (caused by a nasty highwayman), onto the Fosseway – then stopped briefly at the Three Shire’s Stone, the remains of a cromlech, moved from its original position – although that couldn’t have been very far as the four stones – three uprights and a cap stone – are massive and must weigh several tonnes. Not far from here, on a snowy day at the turn of the millennium (the same day I came up to collect the trees for the grove I believe), I came and buried a time capsule. It was a comforting thought to know it was still there – some kind of continuity. The sun was setting in the west – a bloody yoke pierced on a pollarded stump, oozing its load over the horizon. I thought of Tim (who gave a talk here, at one of my events) and Tony – and wished them both peace in the Summerlands.

death and rebirth at midwinter - Stoney Littleton long barrow, solstice, Dec 09 - KM

Winter walking

The first day of the New Year. The land white like a clean sheet of paper. A heavy overnight frost had transformed my corner of England into Narnia. My friend, fellow writer and all round good egg, Anthony Nanson, was staying over – we went to a New Year’s Eve party together at Mairead’s the night before, watched fireworks exploded over the city while toasting in the new year with champagne (later we had both shared bardic efforts, along with Marko Gallaidhe). After a hearty hobbity breakfast we headed for the hills – ‘into the wild’ as Strider would say, or into the Mendips at least, which usually seem tame, but today felt like more like Dartmoor: slightly edgy. A wildernessed zone of white death.

We put on our boots, drank some edifying coffee from our flasks and set off – following a bridleway up to our first destination, the 375, of Beacon Hill. The hawfrost was half an inch thick on the branches and evergreen foliage. Nature’s attention to detail was, once again, astonishing. No film set could mimic this so completely. Coleridge called it ‘the secret ministry of frost’, and I mentioned the pleasing notion that we may be walking in the Romantic poet’s footsteps – as he and Southey (who became Poet Laureate) used to walk across the Mendips. Here they hatched their plans for a pantisocracy – a utopian society based upon the idea that two hours work a day is all man needs to survive, the rest of his day spent in creative or leisure pursuts, the ultimate idler’s paradise. Anthony and I are no slackers – indeed we are both close to certified workaholics (when it comes to our writing), but the idea of a lifestyle where our own creative endeavours took precedence over the treadmill of existence sounds tantalising. We both endure the grind of marking – it’s somewhat heartening to discover that Tolkien did to. My mind was saturated with Tolkienian arcana, having just finished my radio drama, The Rabbit Room. To anyone else, my harping on would have been a bore, but Anthony shares my enthusiasm, and indeed our whole walk had an Inklings-ish feel to it, as we discussed matters literary, philosophical and spiritual as we traversed the bewintered landscape.

From the trig point, where we were surprised to discover a cluster of other hard-core walkers, who’d had similar notions of New Years Day walks – we made our way down into the forest of Rowberrow – which had its own micro-climate, lacking the frost and being noticeably milder. We then ascended to Dolebury Warren – using a convenient break in the stone wall, like the gap in the border between this world and Faerie in Stardust. No threshold guardian appeared, although barbed wire halted our progress when, breathless, we got to the brow. Instead, we followed the ridge along to a proper gate and stopped for a chilly lunch on the lee of the hillfort; some honeydew mushrooms our ‘hearth’, cheering us with their bright orange colour in the bleak landscape. I found the wintry vista sublimely beautiful and for a while we just stood and stared at the muted tones, fading into visual oblivion. I observed how ‘grey’ can have so many nuances. All the vibrant shades of the natural world were softened by the pervading whiteness. Soothingly gentle after the often garish nonsense of Christmas and New Year – a true stillpoint. Blissful stasis. The wheel, it seemed, had mercifully stopped. Fellow Firesprings David Metcalfe described it as ‘a day outside time’ – having driven over the Mendips to Wells that day. It did us both good, Anthony and I, to have a day off – having both worked over Yuletide, either on teaching obligations or our own projects. It was salubrious to be forced to focus on the physical, on simple needs – food, warmth, shelter. This was hardly a survival situation, although it easily could have become so – if one of us had slipped and broken something. But we were both suitably equipped for such predicaments, although it fortunately didn’t come to that. It was only a hike in the hills – and plenty of other people were around: mountain-bikers, motor-trikers, families… It was hardly Antarctica! What I loved was the way the frozen landscape had its own acoustic: the brittle crunch of ice beneath one’s boot, the satisfying crack of an ice-pane in a puddle, the scittering of ice-shards, the dull thud of our progress on the iron hard ground. Our words were distinct as cold pebbles, forced from blood-sluggish mouths. The frost-world muted sound as well as colour, but at the same time made them stand out even more. At one point we followed a path of ruddy soil, strangely exposed and unfrozen, flanked by endless white heathland – like a trail of blood in the snow. It could have been a scene from Fargo. Yet this was a Mendips Nifleheim and our conversation was ‘the director’s commentary’ of a different DVD. Two writers in search of a pen in a world of endless paper – the land a tabula rasa of our imaginations and ambitions.  Swinging back east towards our starting point as the brief hours of daylight began to wane, we passed the magical dell of Rod’s Pot – where Old Man Willow himself seemed to guard a stream-crossing, his mighty limbs covered in moss – and further on, Goat-church Cavern, hidden amongst the downy folds of the hills. We arrived back at the car after a good three and a half hour yomp. Gratefully back inside its artificial warm cocoon we drove through Burrington Combe, passed Aveline’s Hole and the Rock of Ages, which inspired the famous hymn after a passing Reverend Augustus Montague Toplady took shelter there in 1763. Nature had similarly provided our sanctuary that day.

Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.