You never know when a journey begins. Sometimes you think it's when you actually set off, because at that point of departure you can say “See, I am travelling now”. But while a journey can be 'a trip' or involve time and distance, it's not always simply about leaving and arriving.
So it was, last Saturday, that I found myself on Ovingdean beach with my children and husband. It was hot. We swigged tonic water. The children ran in and out of the sea. We were together. It felt like Summer. The following day, Sunday, we went to the Long Man of Wilmington and participated in the Druids' open ritual. Solstice greetings were given and received. In the pub afterwards there was a time of collective connection when Paul and Greg sang and we all laughed and joined in.
On Monday Matt and I leant against our garden wall, smoking, waiting for his mother to arrive. I noticed that the fuschia needed watering. We were about to leave and we didn't really have any fixed idea as to where we were going, just that we were, being and going. We hadn't booked any campsite space. We had no 'masterplan', only a bit of cash and a vague idea that we'd go to Avebury and then on to Stonehenge for the Solstice. With that, we set off.
I'd never been to Avebury before, I can't tell you why, just that I hadn't, no particular reason, life's like that, decisions by omission … Avebury; the biggest standing stone circle in England, roughly a mile from Silbury Hill, which is the biggest megalithic 'monument' in England, and two miles from West Kennet Long Barrow, which is the biggest and most complete burial chamber in the south of England.
The megalithic and neolithic periods were roughly 4,000 – 6,000 years ago. Pretty old then. Ancient. Before the Romans or Saxons or Vikings or Normans. Before anything, least that's what it feels like.
I want to tell all of this journey, not miss a single thing out, because the devil is in the detail and without the detail or the devil I feel like my account/life would be incomplete.
We stopped outside Winchester, cooked coffee on our camping stove and ate cheese and onion pasties. We sucked in our breath as we drove through Tidworth, a flat, shapeless army town. We felt the dead space of Salisbury Plain, where tank crossings are marked with speed restrictions. We stopped off in Malborough to buy brandy to keep the cold out.
Avebury is owned and managed by the National Trust. In recent years they've permitted and accomodated Solstice gatherings, realising that it's benefiical to work with those of us who want access rather than attempt to fight us. Whilst Avebury, and similar sites, are obviously of great historical importance, they're also seen by practising pagans as sacred. We feel like they belong to us. We want to do our rituals there, in the time honoured fashion. We do not consider these spaces to be dead, rather that they've been resting for a number of years (perhaps) and now we wish to 'worship' there. They were not built to be tramped around by American tourists, or archaeologised and analysed out of existence, instead they are living, breathing representations of an age old 'religion' …
Pagans come in all shapes and sizes. The new age new wave has seen more people than ever before embrace some sort of notion of tribal heritage. I don't think it's that we feel a direct ancestral link (although undoubtedly some do), rather that we share much in common with the builders and worshippers of/at places such as Stonehenge and Avebury. It's difficult to explain, but in a world that's riven by global economics and individual crises, many of us find that coming together, to mark such a simple thing as the rising of the sun on the longest day of the year, creates a tribal order in amongst the chaos of Kapital. We work with and on the land because it's earthing. Life's a bit like being hit by successive bolts of lightening. The earth can take this, absorb it, channel it away from us. As a child did you ever spin round and round and round, with your arms outstretched, until you collapsed in a nauseous heap on the ground, staring up at the sky and scudding clouds? Do you remember that feeling of the earth at your back, solid if slightly whirly? And if you laid there long enough it felt like the world had stopped spinning and everything was calm and in the right place? Well, that's what working with earth energy feels like for me.
So, we got to the visitors' car park at Avebury and were delighted to find out that we could camp in the field behind, adjacent to the stones. We pitched our tent quickly, which was just as well, because it was beginning to rain, then went off to look at the circle.
In common with many ancient sites and henges Avebury has a bank and ditch. 'Ditch' is a bit of a misnomer, because it sounds small and insignificant. The ditch at Avebury is probably about half a mile in circumference and maybe five metres deep. The bank is, obviously, the same length circumference wise and rises perhaps 10 metres or so. As I mentioned before, Avebury is a stone circle, but, believe it or not, part of it has been destroyed by the construction of a village in the middle and it's also horribly intersected by a couple of roads – which form the shape of a cross. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. From looking at it now, but I'm no expert, it would appear that there was an outer circle of stones, an inner circle of stones and, inside that, an 'altar'.
The stones that remain are magnificent. I think they're sarcens, erected undressed, and over the years they've weathered. The sheer scale of the place is phenomenal. It must have been a hugely significant site, taking many manhours to contruct, with all the implications that go with that. For example, who organised this? How populous was the area at the time? What sort of tribal hierarchy was in place to achieve this? How did they feed everyone? What did the workers' encampments look like? How was life for these people? In terms of a feat of engineering and social control it's quite incredible, and that's before you even touch on the 'religious' significance.
We walked the circle in the rain, which was cool, because that meant everyone else went and hid, so we had the place pretty much to ourselves. I was wearing sandals and it was good to feel my feet wet. I like the rain. We stopped at some of the stones and touched them and said 'Hello'. I guess it would be great if I could say I got some big buzz off of them, as if I could channel the energies of the place, but I didn't and couldn't, it just felt peaceful and majestic and very, very old.
Feeling slightly old myself, and a little bedraggled, we went off to the pub, which is slap bang in the middle of the circle. There were lots of people and two beautiful dray horses harnessed to a cart – you don't see that much these days. Halfway through my pint of 'Green King' hunger bit, so we went back to our tent to fry up some sausages. Cooking outdoors is just one of 'those things'. It's best over an open fire, because then you've got light and warmth and heat for your food. Unfortunately, on a crowded campsite like Avebury, an open fire is not really a good idea, so we stuck to using our trusty trangia, which is a meths burning stove. Pretty soon the sausages were sizzling in the pan and we'd surrounded ourslves with small candles. Because we had no method of refridgeration we were cooking all of the sausages, more that we could eat. It's quite usual, I find, at times like these, for something or someone to come along and provide an answer to your 'problem'. In this case the issue was 'What do we do with all the spare sausages?' And the answer presented itself in the form of Hicksie.
Hot Lips Hicksie, the bear with hair, is a 40 year old hippy punk and he was travelling with Tricky Ricky. They joined us, happy to scoff some of our sausages in exchange for swigs of their Glastonbury scrumpy. We talked about bands – anyone remember the Angelic Upstarts? Dead on Arrival? Thatcher on Acid? No? – well I do and so does Hicksie. It's funny innit, I'm reminded of that rather flatulent saying 'There's no such thing as a stranger, only a friend you haven't met yet' … Although we're completely different, people like me and Hicksie have a common history, sometimes it feels like it's not just in this lifetime either. Maybe we're just types, the type of people who go to Avebury, who share and chat, I find a comfort in that, and the idea that a little bit of give and take on both parts creates kindnesses among strangers …
The next morning we got up early (me and Matt, not me and Hicksie, although he got up early too). We ate a hearty breakfast and then set off for Silbury Hill. I could've done without that Peter Gabriel choon constantly playing through my head, but hey ho. It sounds innocuous enough doesn't it? Silbury Hill. I mean, when all's said and done it's a hill right? Hmmmm. Thing is, archaeologists estimate that it took over 40 million manhours to construct. If one man worked for 10 hours a day, 300 days of the year, then that would be 3,000 manhours, over five years that would total 15,000 manhours. They tell us that Silbury was built in three stages, so let's say each stage took five years, 15 years in total then. That one man would represent 45,000 manhours and 1,000 men 45 million manhours, roughly what they estimate. If you take into account natural wastage though, death, disease, ageing, etc, I reckon somewhere in the region of 2,000 men may have worked on this project for what would amount to practically an entire generation, and that's not even counting the others who would have been employed in growing the food to support the workers and providing other services. Makes it seem less like a hill and more like a pyramid eh? Indeed, it was built along similar lines, terracing, dressed stones, a covering, even the architectural age, scale, etc. But, there's one major difference, it's completely and utterly empty. No-one knows what Silbury was built for or why. It's a big mystery, a huge man-made hill with no apparent purpose. Brilliant. I love that about it. It's just there, defying all analysis. It's a hill, end of, and I doubt it's going to give up its secrets any time soon. So much more impenetrable than a pyramid. No Rosetta Stone is going to explain this one. That's why I love the ancients of these lands. Their silence is deafeaning. Their structures mute, immutable (what does that word mean?).
We skirted Silbury and continued on to West Kennet Long Barrow. Crossing the water meadow, which has been restored to its seventeenth century state, we lost the path so walked to the end of the treeline. The land dipped and we followed its curve down to a small stream. Four huge stepping stones provided a bridge, marvellously sandy in colour and texture. A small, shady dell was nestled in amongst the trees. All was quiet, save for the babbling of the stream and the occasional bird chirrup. It became quickly apparent that this was a magical area. Ribbons hung from a wishing tree, dozens and dozens of them. The trunk of the tree seemed to have a huge mouth, inside of which people had placed devotional offerings; rough jewels, shiny things, coins, more ribbons, flowers, handmade clay objects, all sorts. A small notice told us that this was the 'Swallow's Head' where the spring rises, and placed around the water which trickled out of the earth were more quiet altar pieces. The atmosphere here was one of reflection and gratitude. Thank you to the water which cleanses, heals and nourishes. Thank you to the bowing trees. Thank you to the safe spaces of nature that allow us to nurture our hidden peace and pieces.
We moved on into an open field de Moneted by poppies. We could see the path which we had previously missed, although we were glad for our detour, that in being lost we had found something we didn't know we were looking for. An intimate energy overtook us and some saplings and long grass afforded us some privacy. Summer love is unique …
A short walk up a short hill and we were at West Kennet. Constructed of rough boulders and large stones and now covered in turf, it doesn't look terribly impressive from the outside, seeming like a kind of ridge on the landscape, but it's possible to circumnavigate the 'covering stone' and get into the actual barrow. It took a while, from first entering, for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The barrow is as was, there are no intrusive lights or notices. You can walk right in and see it in its actual state. Essentially, there's a long entrance area which leads to the western, and largest, chamber. There are a further two chambers, symetrically arranged on each side side of the entrance area, making a total of five burial chambers in all. Archaeologists have determined that the barrow was in use over a thousand year period and they have recovered 46 corpses. It is unknown who was buried there or why, but by my reckoning 1,000 years would represent 50 generations, at 20 years per generation, so it's feasible that West Kennet is the burial site for either the tribal chiefs or the priests and priestesses. We'll never know.
As I'm writing this I'm struck by the experience, in close proximity, of sex and death on that day, in particular the long, dark tunnel of West Kennet, ridged and ribbed, perhaps like an atrophied vagina … Anyway …
We sat on top of the barrow, where the grass was soft and cushiony, eating pistachio nuts and apples, gazing out into the horizon. It became obvious then that Silbury is so huge that it effectively interrupts the view, its peak dominating the natural landscape around it. I wonder if this was the point, literally, for men to build that which would overshadow the work of the god(desse)s.
An afternoon nap beckoned, so we unrolled the three mile journey back to Avebury, meeting a friend of a friend, Bridget, along the way – small world, you forget that sometimes. Collapsing in our tent we drifted off to murky techno and the sound of others doing other things, their thing, which was not our thing right at that moment. Waking in a sweat I staggered from the tent and lay down on the grass. The afternoon sun was sinking and it would soon be cooler, especially with that wind which blew clipped consonants.
We walked the stone circle once again, but this time we were not alone. Various people and bodies and egos were scattered in amongst the stones, like dandelion puff balls. When I was a kid I would pick those fluff spheres and blow on them while making a wish, believing (or wanting to believe) that the wool spiked faeries would carry my wind whispered dreams with them.
Some of the people were playing drums, others were shouting their dog's/children's/friend's names, still more had gathered around the altar stones, as if they were laying some sort of early claim. I find it difficult when people mark out their space, raise their flags or whatever. Of course, it's always possible that one (in this case me) could join them, but I'm not a joiner, more of a loner. It's not that I think they shouldn't be there, more that I find their fixed presence oppressive in some way. It is my fault. I accept that. In a crowded room I will always find the quiet corner.
We decided to leave for Stonehenge. Perhaps next year we'll stay at Avebury, but this year we wanted to be at the 'henge. We tatted down, slung everything in the boot of the car and pulled off site.
By way of a curious, and totally meaningless, aside; England v Sweden was due to kick off at eight. I'm not really a football fan, well hardly at all, but I have this memory, as a child, of watching an important game, in a tin shack in the middle of the desert in Kuwait. I can recall how shiny (and drunk) my father seemed, how animated he was when England scored. He threw me in the air. Everything about life was good at that precise moment and I get those feelings now, 30 years later, even though he's long dead, when I watch the World Cup.
I guess that says something about us humans, or maybe just me. We go back, time and time again, to re/discover our pasts. They're always with us, unlike our futures, which are uncertain. Maybe that's why we build Silbury or Avebury or Stonehenge, because they're like pivots, points on a map that say 'You are here'. Who knows.
So, we're whizzing through the Wiltshire countryside, me driving, Matt reading the map. We got lost. We get more lost. It doesn't matter really, we've got plenty of time and the football's on the radio. We squabble a bit, but that's nothing unusual. I purse my lips and frown (my 'cat's bottom face' apparently) and he sulks. Essentially, without a full scale shouting match breaking out (we both shout alot – who'd have thunk it) we arrive at the tail end of the traffic jam that is the Stonehenge approach.
We had to drive this year, but last year we walked the ancient avenue, following in the footsteps of whoever, past the burial mounds, through the field, seeing Stonehenge rise majestic from behind the hill. But, as I say, we drove this year, deciding to join all the other festival traffic.
Joe Cole scored an excellent goal as we sat bumper to bumper. Mine, and a few other, fists punched the air through open windows. The cops, who were directing the traffic, did a coppery, high vis dance. For the briefest of moments it wasn't 'them and us'. Football's like that, suddenly you're all on the same team, got more in common than not. That's kind of what Stonehenge is like as well, when you're there, with 20,000 other people, and you're all watching out for that first ray of sun to break, you're all facing in the same direction, like one big cohesive salute, a common purpose and all that.
English Heritage volunteers waved us into the car park. Stonehenge is basically owned by the state and managed by English Heritage. Apart from the two Solstices (Summer and Winter) and the Vernal Equinoxes (Spring and Autumn) it's shut. Well, not 'shut' as such, but the stones themselves are fenced off and visitors aren't allowed to be within them, especially not outside office hours. It's as a result of continuous and consistent pagan respresentations that we now have access. As I've said previously, these are sacred sites to us. Taking into account the best efforts of christianity to wipe us off the face of the earth, it's very important to us to be able to carry out our ritual practises on OUR sacred sites.
There's always a big hoohah about people climbing on the stones. It is an undeniable fact that this does indeed damage the delicate lichens and, undoubtedly, the stones themselves, however, it's also pretty obvious that building a road five foot from the Heel (Hele) Stone hasn't done it much good either. Personally, I don't climb on the stones, I just couldn't, but I'm the sort who carefully picks their way through graveyards, not wanting to walk over anyone's tomb, no matter how old or how dead and gone they might be. How do I feel about the people who do get right in there and dance away on top of our sacred heritage? Well, put it like this, I suppose it's like having a party on an altar. I believe that during the last supper Jesus ate and drank with his disciples, breaking bread and sharing a cup of wine. He counselled 'his men' not to grieve on his passing, rather, this meal was a celebration of the life yet to come. Somehow, christianity, under the leadership of Paul who pressed for suffering in all things, perverted this message and the altar became a symbol of miserable, elitest exclusion. Imagine how different the world would be if the catholic altar was not surmounted by a blood drenched christ but instead by a party of people, all joyous with the promise of paradise and life everlasting. What I'm trying to say is that our rather po faced attitude towards 'religious' ritual has been forced on us by the Paulenic tradition. We, as pagans, have a bloody good knees up at our festivals, always have and always will. Our altars are sacred, profound, profane, lusty, just like our bodies, and that's why some of us have to put those two things together.
Hurrah for the coffee pot again. Matt cooked up a right rare brew in the back of the car (we have a big car) and we drank sweet hot coffee with lashings of brandy – very Enid Blyton (the adult version). We then promptly fell asleep for four hours.
Waking at two it became quickly apparent that it was raining rather heavily, boo hoo. We sat all ruffled, snuggled under our blankets, watching sheets of water blowing about outside. Rain is good, especially as at the moment the earth needs a jolly good drink, but it's not so great in the middle of the night, when you've got no way of getting dry and you've forgotten your welly boots (whoops). We decided to make a move at about three and tentatively stuck our heads out of the car doors and wheyheyhey, as if by magic, the rain had stopped. At this point a cup of tea was in order, so we toddled off to the nearest fast food stand and treated ourselves. I was somewhat bemused by the huge queue assembled in front of the Mexican joint, not really understanding how anyone can eat a chilli con carne first thing in the morning but, as Matt pointed out, for some people this was dinner time. I did hear one woman, who was lying practically face down on the ground, plaintively wailing 'Is there a kebab stand?'
We walked down to the stones and I almost can't describe how I felt. To be honest, I was a little bit worried, because last year (which was the first time I'd been to Stonehenge) was so mind blowing that I couldn't help thinking that this time I might be underwhelmed, but no, that's not what happened. The stones stood there, like big black shadows in the muddy night, just so solid, their massive heavy presence dwarfing the whole event. It IS about the stones. I went up to one and touched it, underneath my hand it felt soft because of the lichens and mosses. I touched it with my whole body. I pressed myself right up against it. I kissed it – I don't know why I kissed it. I put my forehead to it. It wasn't cold or hard. It didn't feel like an inanimate object. I could hear it. Inside me I could hear it, but not in words, it was in … just inside, a solidity in itself but this huge, huge sadness, a stone wail, or groan of pain, it's pain, my pain, I don't know, I'm not sure it matters, but I don't think it was pure emotion or invention, because it felt inside and outside, it was something other than me, or perhaps an aspect of myself that I don't know …
Crushing into the middle of the main circle we soon found ourselves square shouldered and standing rigid. So many people and so much noise. We were drinking brandy from the bottle. It was very close, a bit too close for comfort, so we pushed our way back out and went to the Heel Stone. For many people, including me, the Heel Stone is also the Heal(ing) Stone. A man with long, blond, curly hair dressed in a white robe was circling the Heel Stone while gently striking a brass gong. His purpose was to create a space, a headspace, somewhere that people could be with themselves for a moment. A lot of magic is done within circle, it's a way of making a clearing, forming a specific area for a particular function, like drawing boundaries in the air, and the circle protects what's inside it … As I approached the Heel Stone he generously, instinctively, included me in the circle, walking around and around, binding me to the stone and separating us from the riotous revelling. I honestly cannot remember what I did there. I stepped away and he put me outside of the circle once again, as is customary. I nodded a thanks.
Fifteen minutes before sunrise, about a quarter to five, and we found ourselves at the edge of another circle. There's a man who goes under the name of Arthur and carries a sword called Excalibur. He travels the length and breadth of England, has done for years. Perhaps he's eccentric. Fair play to him. He doesn't seem like that though. He appears rather unassuming. Along with Arthur there is his Warband who, as far as I can make out, are politicised pagans generally operating under a Druidic type tradition. Peace was given to the quarters (earth, air, fire and water). A cauldron of Summer flowers was blessed. People were invited to come forwards, to be knighted with Excalibur, or handfasted (a kind of pagan marriage commitment), or to speak if they so wished. Then, the spell was made, for peace in Iraq and a more conscious global environmental policy. Dawn was breaking as a few hundred people held hands with the strangers next to them to enact the magic.
By peace and love to stand
Heart to heart
And hand in hand
Mark O' Spirit
And hear us now
Our Sacred vow”
We stood on a small ridge and looked past the Heel Stone, to where the sun was bloodying the sky. The chant seemed almost organic. I have learned the Druidic Awen over many years. When I do it the 'a(h)' fills my head with the sky above, the 'ow(e)' my belly with the earth below and the 'en' mixes the two together as if my body is some sort of melodic cauldron. It is done repeatedly and it can reverberate throughout your whole being. It's very difficult to describe, almost a bass sound, as if sound itself has morphed into spirit and consumes you, inside, outside, around you. It's meditative and intoning the Awen in a group serves to strengthen its power. I felt it was a great privilege to watch the sunrise so chanting. I could feel how the people around me became like the stones …
There was a bald headed man wrapped in a brightly coloured blanket, and a man in a white robe wearing a crown of oak, apple and ivy leaves. Some people almost meld with the earth. I think that's the biggest single thing about Stonehenge, the feeling of 'oneness'. I don't mean that everyone has the same intent or is even coming from the same place, it's just that as that sun rises above those massive stones, well, we're all sort of levelled out.
A moment later and the sun broke through the clouds. A huge cheer went up, a kind of chaotic roar. There were several groups of people with drums and for a while we went and stood beside one lot. The urge to dance is quite bizarre, partly it's the beat, but it's almost as if that's merely replicating the pulsing of the earth. The whole place was buzzing and throbbing with an intensity which I believe you can only experience when you're in a vast crowd. People are energy balls, inside every one of us is a life force which compels us to live. We have natural rhythms, the way we breathe or how our hearts beat, our bodies thrum with this and the drums make this internal external. I noticed it was a woman and she was playing a traditional drum, or what feels traditional to me, part of a kit, something you might see on stage at any rock concert, or find in a teenager's bedroom. She was whacking those skins in a trance. A smaller drum stood next to her and occasionally she'd give that a fierce lash. Two men stood with her, playing alongside. I just had to dance, little steps, barely noticeable I expect, but I had to move with the great sway that was around me.
Some time later (things get a little blurry in such situations, especially after a considerable amount of brandy) I decided to go and talk to King Arthur, mainly because I wanted to see Excalibur. He was very mild mannered (and sober), happy to draw the sword from its scabbered. Wow, it's an amazing looking thing, very, very big and shiny. The sun glinted off the blade, which was just perfect and totally hypnotising. I guess it must be heavy, but surely such a thing would need to carry a great weight. It was inlaid with Celtic knotwork patterns of fine detail. I've seen King Arthur draw Excalibur, cool. Now, it could be said that he wasn't the 'real' King Arthur and that's not the 'real' Excalibur, but excuse me, when did reality ever come into the equation when we're talking myth and faerie tale? Maybe Arthur was never a 'real' person. I doubt very much, for example, that Merlin carried the stones of Stonehenge across the Irish Sea on his giant legs. I tend to 'believe' that Arthurian legend is, in fact, a piece of a map, part of an oral tradition, stories that are told to us in order to inform and inspire, so who's to say what's 'real' and 'unreal', surely we create reality in our imaginations?
I wanted to check something out with Arthur though. I've been told that it's now possible to swear on Excalibur in court. Previously, we've only been given the religious texts of Chritianity, Judaism or Islaam, or we've had the option of swearing an atheist's oath. Obviously, as a pagan, I do not fall into any of those categories and would rather be provided with something that had some relevance to my spiritual path, after all an oath is an oath. Turns out it's true. Arthur has fought for many years to have the courts recognise the validity of Excalibur as a 'religious' artefact, so now pagans can request his attendance at court and duly swear by the sword. It's almost worth getting nicked for isn't it?
I'm now really digging about in the murky, brandy addled depths of my mind to try to bring back what happened next. A lot of people at Stonehenge do partake of some mind altering substance, be that alcohol or another drug. This is usually seen as a negative, but for the life of me I cannot work out why. Shamanistic practise, over several thousand years, has involved, to one degree or another, the use of drugs. If you think of the Vikings of Odin, then vast quantities of mead were consumed. Similarly, I don't think magic mushrooms were discovered in the 1960s. It is true that there are now other drugs out there, man-made chemical compounds, such as ketamine, but it's the twenty first century and everything is plasticised, you can't just seize upon the drugs and say they're wrong because they're not enchanted acorns or something … Note, avoid the seriously messed up people, because they'll either latch on to you or they'll think you're a scary manifestation from another dimension. And, never take ketamine, cos it makes you smell like a dead dog and that can't be a good thing.
Yeah, so then we stood on a small hill for a bit, perhaps a burial mound, I think the correct term for this is tumulus. We staggered around for a while, met Paul and Stephanie, a couple of folks we know from the Sussex Druids. I seem to remember elbowing my way back into the central stone circle, where there were more drummers and lots of people dancing about. We stopped by some guy who was having serious trouble rolling a spliff, two guys actually, between them they just couldn't achieve any kind of co-ordination. I ended up making the joint for them and they were fantastically grateful, well, one of them was, the other one just kept going on about his mate 'Little Willy'. It took some time for me to work out that he wasn't referring to part of his anatomy, rather a guy, who was quite short, called William. That was a bit of a relief.
There's a particular stone I like at Stonehenge, so I went and rubbed myself against that for a while, like a cat on a post or trouser leg or something. We met a guy called Mark and I took his picture. He gave us some rather nice orange wine that his mum had made. Then some old bloke … I sat down on the grass … got another cup of tea … went back into the middle circle … watched a big, black guy playing a wooden flute and then his mahoosive djembe … became fascinated by this old, rake thin woman who was dressed entirely in purple and had a tambourine … It was all very sensory, a rich visual tapestry. I suppose I remember the faces mostly, and the sun occasionally coming out from behind the clouds and lighting up the whole scene.
Stonehenge is amazingly anarchic, and I'm an anarchist so I kind of naturally fit there. Nothing seems to have a plan, it's all in the moment, that one moment, when the sun rises, but moment's aren't like that, they're not frozen embryos of time. Hmmm, I'm reminded of Burnt Norton:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. …”
We spend so much of our lives constrained, particularly by time, because time is money and money is god, or so it would seem. Just to suspend everything, for a few hours, to be in the company of strangers and do strange things, to step outside, to go through that door, into the rose garden … it's enough of a disruption to create a possibility and I find that is all I need in this life, possibilities, because somewhere, hidden in what might be, is the notion of freedom and the space where I dare to dream.
Some time later we left the stones and went back to the car park to cook even more coffee and boiled eggs and bacon. It was very windy. Early morning wind is strangely refreshing and it felt good to have everything blown away. We hung around for a while, basically until we were straight, and then pulled off, with the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction blaring out of the stereo. Matt slept while I drove and I enjoyed the quiet time – having turned off Pulp Fiction. I like to see him slack, as he's usually such a tight man, his body or brain always working away at something.
We'd decided to camp near to home on our last night, so we could chill out and not have a big drive the next day. We wound up in a place called Washington, pitched our tent, ate some more and then had a shower. The showers were massive, almost like a small room. As we hadn't actually bathed for a few days the hot water was a welcome relief. We scrubbed each other down and I remember feeling his legs and thinking 'These are your legs'. It's funny how much you miss in the day to day grind of life …
We just bibbled about for the rest of the day, sleeping, screwing, eating. It was nice. It felt truly relaxing and 'together'. The next morning I woke up at 5am and spent a happy three hours writing most of this account and wandering around in the small woods behind the campsite. No-one was about. I fed a sandpiper crusts of bread, ate a chocolate croissant, drank coffee, checked out the quarry (which was a horrible hole in the land and almost made me weep) and then woke up Matt. We did all the practical things, tatted down and drove to Brighton, our home and our kids. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the minute I got through the front door all I could do was sleep and he took care of everything else – thank you Matty.
By the next day, firmly esconced in domesticity, I thought that the journey would be over, but somehow it didn't feel quite complete. You know when you've arrived, because your spirit catches up with your body and you find that you've landed. I didn't feel like that, not until three days later, and it was my friend Helen who brought me down to earth. On Sunday night we went out to some woods near where we live. We found a firepit and pretty soon we were sitting round a blazing hearth telling stories. This is the one Helen told:-
Once upon a time there was a stone mason. One day, while he was chiselling at his block, the sun beating down on him, feeling tired and thirsty, he saw the king being carried in a covered litter. 'Now that's the life,' the stone mason thought, 'Nothing to do but be waited on hand and foot. No working with rough rocks and struggling to feed the family. I wish I were a king,' and as if by magic, pouff, the stone mason found himself inside a sumptuous litter. He reclined on the cushions, marvelled at the rich fabrics and greatly enjoyed the sensation of his slaves carrying him on their shoulders. 'Ah,' he thought as he swayed along, 'I could become used to this'.
After a few hours, however, he began to feel uncomfortable. The inside of the litter was heating up. The journey seemed almost inexorable. The clothes he was wearing were stiff and not like his comfortable stone mason garb. He pulled at the collar. Sweat ran from every pore of his skin. He drew the curtains back and looked at the bright sun, suspended in the cool, clear blue sky. 'Why am I sitting here sweating like a pig when I could be up there shining down on everything?' he thought, 'Surveying the whole world. I wish I was the sun,' he said, and as if by magic, pouff, he found himself in the middle of the bright blue sky, looking down on everything.
'Ah, this is the life,' he said, as he basked in his own brilliance. He felt like a big omnipotent jewel. He shone and he shone, over all the earth, all the fields. He could see the people down below him, running about like little ants. But suddenly, a cloud passed in front of him, completely blocking his view. 'Hey,' he shouted, 'Hey you, move out of the way'. But the cloud just stayed there, floating about in its own fluffy magnificence. 'I can't see,' he said, 'What use is it being the sun if a cloud can just come along and ruin it all? I wish I was a cloud,' he said, and as if by magic, pouff, he felt himself turn into white cotton candy.
'Oh wow, this is great,' he said, stretching out his cloudy limbs and riding a tide of wind. But then, the wind got stronger and stronger and he found himself being buffetted about. First he got blown one way, and then another, and pretty soon he was feeling dizzy and his head was swimming. 'I don't like this, I don't like this at all,' he said, 'I feel quite sick. I don't want to be a cloud anymore. I want to be the wind,' and pouff, as if by magic, he found himself running free over everything.
For quite a long while he blew and he blew. He played with the trees, rustling their leaves and bending their branches. He played with the sea, making big waves come up and crash all foamy white onto the shore. He played with people, watching how they would struggle to hold their hats on their heads and their coats together. He felt very powerful and swelled out his big windy chest, huffing and puffing at everything he came into contact with, until he got to the mountain.
The mountain stood tall and proud, its feet firmly planted in the earth below it and its tip peeping into the heavens above it. No matter how hard the wind blew the mountain would not move, it just sat there, solidly insolent. 'Hrmpf,' he said, feeling somewhat crestfallen and defeated. 'The mountain is stronger than me, look how calm and peaceful it is, I wish I was the mountain,' and as if by magic, pouff, he became the mountain.
'Ahhhhhhhhh,' he sighed, enjoying the tranquility after all his rushing about, 'It's so nice here'. Sheep grazed on his back, trees grew in little clumps around his base, a small stream trickled out of his side and cooled him. He felt very sleepy and serene, but all of a sudden 'Chink, chink, chink'. 'What the blazes ..?' 'Chink, chink, chink'. He looked down, in amongst his verdant skirts, and could see a stone mason, chipping away at his rock. He laughed quietly to himself, the way mountains do, as he made his final wish.
It's often said that you can never get away from yourself, because wherever you go you take yourself with you … That is true, but at the same time, who and how you are is informed by what you do. Life is one big journey and along the way we take excursions, the Solstice this year was a trip for me … It's not as if I went away being one thing and came back feeling like another, rather that I travelled somewhere, in both this material world and along my own spirtual path … I need to do that from time to time, to remind myself of who I am, where I come from and where I want to go to. For me, it takes more than pyscho babble to achieve some sort of anchorage and create possibilities. I have to work with the land and the earth spirits and I need the anarchy and chaos of somewhere like Stonehenge, I enjoy that energy, it's what being alive is all about.
I guess I'll always be a stone mason, chiselling away at huge blocks of rocks, dreaming and wishing, but I'll try and sculpt my life (not according to any random rules, bugger that for a game of tin soldiers) in order to live it to the full. It might not always make sense. Sometimes it'll drift off in the 'wrong' direction. Occasionally it'll just be bloody hard work. But, the sun rises every day, so they'll be ends, beginnings and whole adventures to celebrate. Blessings be. xxx