Tag Archives: Stonehenge

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.

Solstice Sunset

 

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Resisting night’s gravity

I rise to the Heavens,

clay on boots,

dusk at my heels,

slipping up to the

lonely grove on the brow,

where a year ago,

we planted a circle of hope.

Now I stand alone

in silent vigil.

Aurora of the day

sliding away, behind

Rodborough’s bear shoulders.

It is a satisfying death –

a great actor’s swansong.

A star born for this moment.

The lights fade, and, on cue,

another nova.

No desecrating ruckus

at a stone circle is needed

to mark this annual valediction – leave

the vandals to their

trilithon abuse and stoned selfies.

I have no need of the Am-dram

of dodgy rituals,

the posturing of ill-cast hierophants.

My gaze is for the sun alone.

 

Quietly, I say goodbye.

 

From The Immanent Moment, Awen 2010

https://www.awenpublications.co.uk/

Smooring the Hearth

Solstice Sunset

Resisting night’s gravity

I rise to the Heavens,

clay on boots,

dusk at my heels,

slipping up to the

lonely grove on the brow,

where a year ago,

we planted a circle of hope.

Now I stand alone

in silent vigil.

Aurora of the day

sliding away, behind

Rodborough’s bear shoulders.

It is a satisfying death –

a great actor’s swansong.

A star born for this moment.

The lights fade, and, on cue,

another nova.

No desecrating ruckus

at a stone circle is needed

to mark this annual valediction – leave

the vandals to their

trilithon abuse and stoned selfies.

I have no need of the Am-dram

of dodgy rituals,

the posturing of ill-cast hierophants.

My gaze is for the sun alone.

Quietly, I say goodbye.


Burning News

The old year

is an empty grate,

solstice-black and cold

as a spurned lover’s heart.

Waiting to be filled with

kindling – scrunched news,

or the celebrity tittle-tattle

that passes for it

these days,

fat splinters of shattered tree,

glottal stops of coal,

black bile of angry mines,

the simmering earth

beneath our feet. Its fury

on slow-burn. The fuse of

ancient forests sizzle.

Coal scuttle, clatter and clinker.

With the rasp of a match,

paper curls, catching flame –

spreading like hungry gossip.

Inflammatory rumours

blaze into headlines of fire,

snagging our gaze.

We try to turn away,

but too late.

We’re hypnotized.

Smooring the Hearth

The clock ticks towards

the midnight chimes.

The sands of the year drain away.

Sip your anaesthetic,

reflect upon all that has gone,

the deeds un/done, the words un/said.

Bank the fire down, my friend,

before going to bed.

The memories glow and fade

like the coal, slow time

locked in its fossil heart.

Each a dream, once cherished,

come morn, a pail of dust

to be scattered on the dormant earth.

The day a squall of rain,

the nights come as fast.

The solsticed sun instructs us

to hiatus, to put down our tools.

Endless struggle, surrender arms,

as the Christmas ceasefire commences.

For a while we no longer

have to be anything.

Merely drop down into our being.

It is okay, friend, we can stop buying.

We can stop pretending to be nice,

so desperate to be loved back,

to be popular. For surely,

this is the measure of success.

That, and how much you own.

What you can show off to visitors,

the guests guessing your soul

from what’s on your shelves.

Shallow the depths of society’s

criteria. As though our lives

are no more than a lifestyle magazine,

a trending meme.

The fire dies down,

and what is discarded

slips through the bars of the grate.

Leaving the sine qua non of embers –

the truth only found

at the eleventh hour,

say, on the eve of execution,

when we face the cold, naked fact

of our mortality, our swift sparrow-flight

the length of a mead-hall.

Yet still, we bank the fire down –
thanking the warmth and light it has

bestowed, its borrowed grace –

in the hope that come dawn,

the last star can rekindle

our wintering king,

before it winks out

vanishing with the night.

Poems copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

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

Walking with Laurie

John Lee reads out an extract of 'Cider with Rosie' by Rose Cottage, Slad, 22 June 2014

Anthea Lee reads out an extract of ‘Cider with Rosie’ by Rose Cottage, Slad, 22 June 2014

I rounded off a glorious solstice weekend (which began with watching the sunrise over Stonehenge with 37,000 people!) by taking a group of 17 walking in the footsteps of Laurie Lee – one of the series of ‘Walking with Words’ literary rambles I’ve organised for Hawkwood College.

The weather was glorious as we wended our way up the Slad valley to the start point, overlooking Rose Cottage (which Laurie Lee purchased with royalties from ‘Cider with Rosie’). We had a lovely group – including 3 cousins of the great man himself, which was very special. I encouraged them to chip in with any info, and to take turns (alongside the rest of the group) reading out extracts of the book.

Along the way we bumped into some of then newly-installed poetry posts, which we also recited from  – they’re beautifully-designed and a great initiative from the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, who have created a Wildlife Way around the poet’s beloved Slad Valley. You see the landscape through his words (literally, as they are printed on perspex) – and thus you gain an insight into his world and a deeper appreciation of the natural environment. Writing can change our perception of places – and it certainly does here, enriching it enormously. Psychogeography seems a fancy, urbanish word for such a bucolic idyll as we experienced that day – but there is an element of that in the way we interfaced with the many facets: ecology, local history, literature, social history, etc.

We paid our respects at the lovely gravestone ( the man himself said: ‘I want to be buried between the pub and the church, so that I can balance the secular and the spiritual’, from Valerie Grove’s biography, p510) and then I showed the group the memorial window inside. There is an art exhibition on – and invigilating it was James Witchall, who designed the windows, another moment of serendipity! He happily told us about the commission and design. The church was beautifully decorated with flowers – it was lovely to see it brimming with art and nature, and visitors. I finished the walk outside the Woolpack, with the final section of the book, and then some of us went back to Hawkwood for a delicious lunch.

A Slad Century - performed by Adam Horovitz and Becky Dellow outside Rosebank Cottage, Slad, 22 June 2014

A Slad Century – performed by Adam Horovitz and Becky Dellow outside Rosebank Cottage, Slad, 22 June 2014

That would have made a perfect day by itself, but then I went back to Slad to explore the exhibition a bit more, and then make my way to Rosebank Cottage (Laurie Lee’s childhood home) for a poetry and music perform – A Slad Century with Adam Horovitz and Becky Dallow. It was very special to be in the well-tended garden of this famous domicile, sitting on the lawn sipping Pimms in ‘poets corner’ along with other Stroud bards: Denis Gould, Rick Vick and Richard Austin. Listening to Adam and Becky I slipped into a blissful reverie. I felt I oozed into the soil and became one with the Slad Valley, curled up in its arms like an ammonite. After an epic weekend (overnight Stonehenge tour; one hour storytelling performance in Rockingham Village Hall; over 300 miles of travel – many on the motorbike) I was exhausted but content. Laurie Lee’s writing does (largely) evoke a nostalgic, bucolic idyll – but sitting in the sun in Rosebank Cottage, enjoying poetry, fiddle, a drink and good company, I do not think that is a bad thing. Such experiences feed the soul and make life on this beautiful, blighted world a lot more bearable.

Afterwards, we decamped to The Woolpack where we ensconced ourselves in Laurie Lee’s ‘corner’. Amongst the company of fellow poets, (who all carry the torch past on by Lee and other great Gloucestershire writers) I felt a warm sense of belonging to this precious corner of the Cotswolds.

To finish with the words of Cotswold Ballads poet, Frank Mansell, who was helped into print by his friend Laurie Lee. In thanking his fellow poet, Frank wrote:

‘What we are really doing is creating a legend, leaving a landmark, a sarsen stone to show we passed this way’.

 

The summer solstice sun rises over the Heel Stone, Stonehenge, 21 June 2014, by Kevan Manwaring

The summer solstice sun rises over the Heel Stone, Stonehenge, 21 June 2014, by Kevan Manwaring

(***on 22 July, I am running a 1-day writing workshop at Hawkwood College on Landscape, Memory and the Imagination***)

Many more events celebrating the Laurie Lee Centenary can be found here.

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

Rider on the Storm

Births, Deaths and Marriages

5-16 June

Sometimes life seems to challenge us – events come along to test what we’re made of, what we believe. It’s been one of those fortnights … but with positives that give me hope.

Within the last two weeks I’ve had to attend the funerals of an old friend from Northampton who committed suicide and a dear friend from Bath, who died of cancer last Tuesday: fellow poet, Mary Palmer, whose funeral is today – making two in a fortnight. This one will be a different affair from the one I attended in Northamptonshire for Sarah B, mother of two, who tragically took her own life on the 1st of May. Her ceremony took place at Olney Woodland Burial site. About twenty years ago I went to the first woodland burial in the county, for a lady called Jackie. Whether it was at this site or not, I cannot recall, but it is now a small forest. Many gathered in the carpark – and it was sad to think she took her life, when she had so many people who cared about her. I had ridden over the Cotswolds to be there for 2pm. I had ten minutes to spare, but Sarah’s partner and their daughter kept everyone waiting – turning up 50 minutes later (it must have been a huge ordeal for him and the kids). Many old faces were there. While we waited my bardic chum, Jimtom brewed me up a welcome cuppa in his van, which helped me to thaw out from the ride. I chatted to friends I hadn’t seen in ages, making surreal small-talk. Then, finally, we were ready to start. A guy with a flute led us in procession to the graveside. The haunting sound carried across the groves of remembrance and was deeply moving. A simple ceremony took place at the graveside, by the whicker casket. A poem of Sarah’s was read out. The casket was lowered into the ground. As everyone scattered in some flowers, we chanted ‘the river is flowing…’ led by the daughter and a friend. It was heart-breaking seeing the family, clearly decimated by their loss. Afterwards, we decamped to the United Reform Church in Yardley Hastings, just up the road, where no less than three religious ceremonies took place: Pagan, Christian and Buddhist (showing Sarah’s interests and tolerance), plus a moving presentation of her life – with photoes and music. There was a meal sometime in the evening – but not having had any lunch, I was spaced out and flagging, so I left to visit my Mum, whose 65th birthday it was that day – and the initial reason I was visiting Northampton then. It was a shame it was all on the same day, but it some ways it balanced it out: birthdays, deathdays… And the next morning I visited my sister and her wee bairn, Kerry, now a year and half old – eyes full of shining wonder. The cycle of life continues.

I rode home – wiped out from the draining experience, the funeral and a night around the fire in the rain with my ‘frenemies’, trying to rekindle some of the old Earth Rhythm magic and failing. God bless ’em – but I probably won’t be seeing them until the next one. Once we were close, but now we just get on each other’s nerves. It’s telling it took Sarah’s death to bring us together. A shame, but … people move on.

In extreme contrast to my grim time back in the old town, in Bath I went to a talk by Marina Warner on fairy tales (part of the International Music Festival) at St Michaels church, then onto a private view – my friend, William Balthazar Rose’s new show ‘Horses, Hats, Cooks and Cleavers’. Ah, it’s good to be back in Bath!

The next day I took part in King Bladud’s Pageant, despite not feeling particularly keen to read long complicated texts in large public spaces!

Looking every bit the Bath old fogey I read in John Wood's The Circus

Looking every bit the Bath old fogey I read in John Wood's The Circus, from The Bath Chronicle

Life continued, demanding attention, effort!

I had a heavy week, workwise, with a stack of marking to do – but on Tuesday, a bombshell hit. I received a call saying Mary Palmer had passed away early that morning at Dorothy House Hospice. Her sister was present. Having seen her (fortunately) last Thursday I knew she was on death’s door, but it was still a huge blow. Three months ago she had been performing at Waterstones. The cancer had come back and claimed her very quickly. I read to her in the hospice, and she seemed to be soothed by this, and took solace in the fact her words would live on – we’re publishing her selected poems. In the last few weeks she was able to edit her old work and write new material, up until the last week. It will be a poignant legacy to a brilliant poet. The way her friends have rallied around to help is so heartening.  We are all working hard to ensure her work will survive.

Tuesday night, despite receiving this awful news, I still had to teach somehow, as I was due to do my evening class at Chew Valley School. The session seems blighted – for it was on Tuesday a month ago I heard of Sarah’s suicide. I somehow dragged myself out of the house to go to the lesson, only to find my batteries were flat – and maybe just as well, as I wasn’t really in a psychologically fit state to ride. And today is Mary’s funeral – followed by the class. Not easy, being in the public eye!

Thursday morning I had been booked to run a private dawn ceremony at Stonehenge, through Gothic Image tours. I got up before sunrise and rode there – it was beautiful, seeing the sun rise over the misty, ancient landscape of Salisbury Plain. It was a stunning morning at the stones (for once). Introductions over, I led the small group from the States, Australia and Singapore into the stones, using my wolf-drum to lead the procession. We gathered in the circle and I started, casting the quarters with the help of volunteers (almost one from each corner of the world). In the gorsedd I performed Dragon Drance, which was a thrill to do in the stones, although at 6.30am I wasn’t at my best!  Still, it seemed to move people. A lovely bloke from Kansas wrote to me afterwards saying: ‘I thoroughly enjoyed and was moved by your poem at Stonehenge.  I’m not easily moved, but your words and your voice resonated deeply with me.’ He sent a photo too.

Bard on a Bike at Stonehenge, dawn 11.06.09

Bard on a Bike at Stonehenge, dawn 11.06.09, thanks to Larry Philips of Kansas

After the ceremony, we went back to the hotel they had been staying in, in Marlborough, for a very welcome cooked breakfast. It was nice to chat further with Jamie’s tour group. I don’t normally run ceremonies, but this was a pleasure. The sunshine makes all the difference!

Bon voyages over, then it was back home and down to earth with a bump for more marking!

The slog must go on!

Saturday, I, unusually, ran another ceremony – a handfasting at Stanton Drew, aka ‘the Wedding Stones’. This was only the second one I had done – the first, on my birthday a couple of years ago at Swallowhead Spring, near Silbury Hill, was for John and Colette. They recommended me to their friends, Nigel and Sophie. It was very special, to conduct the ceremony in the stones. Once more, I found myself leading a procession of people (this time much bigger – about 100) across the fields – negotiating an electric fence, cow pats and stampeding cattle (the cows, hearing our bells and seeing the line of movment may have thought it was feeding time – or was just overly curious. After a couple of attempts to join us or cut us off, they opted for circling a 4WD parked nearby, watching the gathering with frisky intent)! The sun broke through as we began. It was a beautiful ceremony – the couple clearly loved it, going by their beaming faces and comments afterwards. Many there hadn’t experienced anything like it before, and the responsive was overwhelmingly positive. Back at the lovely home of Nigel and Sophie (after a further trepidatious trapse through the cowfield) in the capacious garden, where marquees, dance floor, bar, buffet, chill-out yurt and fire had been set up, I led the toast to the newly weds with my poem, ‘The Wheel of the Rose’, and then entertained the guests with a wedding set, which seemed to go down well. My work done, it was time to hit the road – back to Bath, to say farewell to my friend Svanur, who was going back to Iceland, with a much welcome meal at Anna’s place.

Sunday, I needed a day off! I went on a great walk with fellow Fire Springer, Anthony, on the Malverns – managing to do a full circuit, from Swinyard Hill to Worcestershire Beacon and back again in the glorious sunshine, walking in the footsteps of Tolkien and Lewis, conversation flowing. It was ice-cream weather and a pint of a local ale in the Wyche Inn went down a treat too!

Last night, we held a Bath Storytelling Circle at the Raven especially dedicated to Mary, who was a regular attendee over its ten years’ of existence. Many moving tributes were shared, songs and poems performed in her name – and I can’t think of a better tribute than the way we gathered together in poetic fellowship, remembering her with beautiful words from the heart.

And today, the day of her funeral, I am sure many more moving words will be spoken. I’ve been asked to read out  a poem at the service and also speak in the celebration of her life afterwards at the Forum. It is hard being the bard sometimes – the one who remembers, the one who must stand up there and articulate what everyone is feeling (while being assailed with those feelings themselves), but that is my role and it seems destiny has made sure I fulfil it, by thrusting me into these situations. Bombarded by life (and death). It has been a maelstrom of emotion, these last couple of weeks, and at times it felt the only way I could survive was to ‘lash myself to the mast’, like Turner famously did. One has to ride with it, or be overwhelmed – back in Olney, poet William Cowper, captured this in one of his famous Olney Hymns of 1779, ‘Light Shining in the Darkness’:

God moves in a mysterious way,

His wonders to perform;

He plants his footsteps in the sea,

And rides upon the storm.