Tag Archives: midsummer

Walking to the Light

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.

Advertisements

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.’