Lord of the Deep and a glass of wine ~ Willow Willers

Reblogged from Willow Willers, who continues the tale of her experiences with the Lord of the Deep weekend:

As the first Ritual Drama came to an end and the Temple Guardian unsealed the Temple.

I find I am leading the fates out, bowing to the East and then to the Guardian as we leave. I stand in the hallway and I truly wonder just what had happened. I felt as if I was still Limma but there were Sue and Stuart thanking us for our hard work . So I guess I was back in the present.

Sue announces that we are meeting at the pub which is literally next door. I can’t get my head round that really. I end up asking Steve, Katie, Sue and Stuart if they are going to the pub because I still feel otherworldly. They must think I am an alcoholic!

Continue reading at willowdot21

The alchemy of joy

By the time this goes out, another workshop will be over and our Companions will have dispersed for another year. Inevitably, every time we go back to Great Hucklow, we think of that very first workshop… and for me, that meant laughter…

 

“What have you done with my mother?”

The laughing sally greeted our arrival and my offer to climb into my son’s home through his bedroom window. It set the tone for the day… one mainly filled with laughter. It is often so.

Laughter, smiles, joy… they are as contagious as a yawn… or as any other emotion. They can also turn a moment of fading sadness to beauty. It is a well-known phenomenon that depression can affect those living with someone suffering from it, in almost the same way as the cold virus will spread through a household. The negative emotions set up a downward spiral as, for instance, a partner closes him or herself off emotionally and a domino reaction sets in which affects the whole family as needs are not answered and individuals feel unable to communicate those needs for fear of setting off an even deeper reaction. Unconscious resentments, fear, fragility begin to dominate the minds and hearts of those concerned and it is a vicious cycle difficult to break.

In the same way a group of people coming together in an atmosphere of comfortable laughter will soon put others at ease and allow them to open up and be themselves. We saw this in action in April at the launch event in Derbyshire. We were a new School and this was our first major, public event as a School. To be fair, no-one knew what to expect.

Steve, Stuart and I had left a School we loved in order to follow the path we felt we had been given to tread. There was a certain nervousness when we began to publicise the Launch, wondering if anyone would come. Steve had run similar workshops before, notably the Alchemy series, I had taught in other ways… but the School was new and untried. We had only our vision to work with.

Gradually the bookings came in. We were delighted to see a group of people forming from all spiritual paths, from the Druidic and Shamanic to the Mystical… from traditional Western Mystery to those who follow a personal vision. This was what we had hoped for… this was about bringing our School to birth without barriers. Even more wonderful it was to see people flying thousands of intercontinental miles to attend! There was never any question of recruiting new students… that is not what a workshop is about. A workshop of this nature is a public opening and sharing… a simple and mutual exploration of concepts. Most of all we hoped people would come along and simply enjoy. We wanted it to be fun.

Photography by Matt Baldwin-Ives
Photograph by Matt Baldwin-Ives

The workshops begin late on Friday. At other workshops we have all attended it often takes until the next day before everyone settles and feels really comfortable. A few of us who got there early to set up had gathered in the pub next door. Gradually others filtered in… the laughter was infectious and by the time the whole company gathered to begin after tea, the atmosphere was simply buzzing and everyone seemed to have known each other for years, though few had ever met before. It was delightful and lasted the whole weekend!

I think you have only to read the posts written by some of those who joined us that weekend to hear an echo of that laughter…you can find links to some of their articles by clicking here.

It was an object lesson in how infectious joy can be. Perhaps it went further than that… maybe it was an object lesson in how we each, individually, define our own worlds. By meeting in joy and laughter we were able to create a world of fun and friendship for that weekend… a small pocket of light that lit us all from the inside out, sustaining friendships made there by planting them in fertile soil.

The School is now established with students across the globe… yet the sense of joyous adventure continues, born, I think, of the shared laughter of the launch weekend. .. the ‘infection’ continues, and long may it do so!

I have a feeling that these first moments of any relationship… with people, organisations, situations… colour how that association develops. The playful laughter that gave birth to the School has certainly coloured it for me and painted it golden … and those who joined us there and shared that moment will always have a very special place in my heart.

Photography by Matt Baldwin-Ives
Photograph by Matt Baldwin-Ives

“If at first…”

kites 356

Sleep would have been nice. I’m told it is good for you. I was certainly tired enough and expected to fall into a deep slumber as soon as my head hit the pillow… well, at least by the second chapter… and indulge until daylight. No such luck.

The clock said four a.m… it had said one a.m. as I turned out the lamp… and while I gritted my teeth and tried to resist, dragging the duvet over my head stubbornly in the interest of getting some much needed rest, the dreams were gnawing at my ear like a small rodent and telling me to get up and do something about them. And I was wide awake. You wouldn’t think something as ephemeral as a dream, small as a mouse could be so insistent… but then, mice are persistent creatures. I gave in. Stopped fighting. Sometimes it is the best thing to do.

I got up and dealt with the nagging of the dream, which turned out to be more ursine than murine, and that left me and the coffee twiddling thumbs before dawn yet again. Still, there are benefits to being up early, though the dog sees them merely in terms of an early start with the tennis ball and a dawn raid on the treats.

An article in the inbox sent me of researching, leading me off at various tangents over the second coffee. Persistence pays off, but it can be a double edged sword. You need the quality in order to achieve anything, yet the tight focus required inevitably blinds you to the wider picture that may include many more possible avenues than the one you are driving at… or feel you are driven towards.

kites 334I watched this in action one day as I drove home from my son’s. The busy road runs through a landscape of ploughed fields and as I drove a red kite flew alongside me for about half a mile, keeping itself level with my eyeline and speed, which, when I think about it, was awesome enough in itself. There was a moment… a split second… when it hung in the air, then swooped below the line of the hedgerow, emerging with a small rodent in its talons. The speed was incredible; it all happened in a glance through the side window and then it was away, soaring.

At first it was only the privilege of watching something so beautiful that imprinted itself on consciousness. But when I thought about it, I realised that had the great bird, a symbol of Isis, not been flying high enough, far enough from the ground, she would not have seen her prey… her goal… nor been able to pinpoint her descent so accurately. Her quarry lives and moves on the earth, yet she, had she joined it there, would have ended up with muddy feathers and no lunch. Her gift is to soar and to see from above and utilise her glorious design of wing and feather. She uses her whole being to its full potential by rising above the level of that which she seeks.

With our focus so firmly on the necessities of life in a demanding world, I have to wonder if we are walking in a muddy field alien to our true nature and failing to rise high enough to see a clearer, wider picture. Within the ridges and furrows of ploughed earth we may lose sight of the greater landscape and get caught in the sticky morass that makes flight ever more difficult.

kites 258There is the old saying we all know, that ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder’. We quote it without thinking, knowing that without the daily grind, the petty worries and pressures, the heart sees clearer the distant beloved and the emotion shines, standing bright against the mundane world. The details fade as we move apart, flaws disappear out of focus and we are left only with the essence of love.

On the negative side this can blind us to reality and allow us to indulge in the make believe of a romantic dream… and may explain why to many the past holds the only attraction, seen from a safe distance and we yearn for an illusion. Most of the time, however, it shows how small the details are in comparison to the essence, allowing us to see reality with truer vision as the minor details blur and recede. Yet we do not seem to notice that perhaps this applies at a deeper level also, and that by stepping back from the cares and worries, widening our focus and seeing the landscapes of our lives from horizon to horizon, we might just fall in love with life itself.

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Riddles of the Night: Raven’s Nest

Our final site was to be a stone circle high on the moors, but first, we had to get there, and the journey can be as interesting as the destination. We walked the ‘long way’ up to the moor, rather than climbing the short, steep slope that would have taken us to the circle in minutes. There were a few reasons for that, but mainly it was so that our companions, who had not visited the site before, could see it within the context of its landscape, because that is the only way it can really be understood.

The longer route takes you around the bottom edge of the moor, following a path whose age is indeterminate. It is what you might call the natural route across the moor, the path of least resistance, especially if you do not know what lies ahead.

We have often found at these ancient circles that they sit in a landscape where a stream divides the habitations of the living from the ‘lands of the dead’ where the cairns and circles are found. We have also found that the paths leading into the sites from a distance seem to follow the course of the water on the ‘dead’ side and this circle is no exception. They never run directly to the ritual sites, always skirting them at a distance. There would be practical reasons for being close to water, but why on the opposite side of the stream from the settlements? Was it a matter of respect for the living? Or was it so that travellers came into the tribal lands under the watchful eyes of the ancestors, treading sacred ground?

We pointed out where the settlement might have been, across the water, as we passed beneath the trees. We also discussed Pointy Stone Theory which had first come into being at this site. Pointy Stone Theory (as opposed to the Ubiquitous Pointy Stone Theory which lends significance to every pointy stone) came about on an early visit. My companion had taken the high path, while I took the lower route. The first thing you see on this stretch of moor is a triangular stone against the horizon. If you head for the stone, you come out on the ridge within yards of the circle.

But, if our theories about the trackways were correct, no stranger would want to come that close. How then did they navigate across these vast and seemingly empty moorlands? Following the lower path, it was noted that seemingly random boulders presented a single triangular face…if you followed the route. Deviate from the path and that face was lost. So far, it seems to work, leading you close, but not too close, to the ancient sites.

Our forefathers worked with the land on a vast scale. Whole hills have been shaped, and indeed built, to serve their needs and beliefs. Sites such as Stonehenge and Avebury, though best known to us for their very visible stones, cover great swathes of land with interconnected monuments. A simple and necessary thing like a navigation system is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

By the time we had demonstrated our PST, we were at the foot of the long, steep climb up to the moor beside a winter stream. Turning back at the top, we followed the track to the Outlier… a prominent stone from which an average height man of the bronze Age would have been able to get a first glimpse of the stone circle.

But, before reaching the stones, there was something else to see. A huge bed of rock perches on the edge of the moor, seeming to shadow the shape of the distant landscape, although you must lay on the mossy earth to see it clearly. This phenomenon is usually known as mirroring, but as Stuart had pointed out a while ago, a mirror image reverses what it reflects…these features in the landscape recreate the horizon in miniature.

The same phenomenon can be observed on the tallest of the stones of the circle. Its contours shadow the form of Win Hill. From this point, at Samhain and Imbolc, the setting sun appears to roll down the contour of the hill itself.

It would seem as if our ancestors, observing the movements of planetary bodies, chose or shaped their sacred stones to echo the topography of the land, recreating features of the wider world in miniature. This would suggest that their rituals involved sympathetic magic, where working with the microcosm they had created, the cosmic forces of the macrocosm could be harnessed or directed.

Within this ancient and sacred space, we shared a simple meditation, sending light radiating out, joining the sacred centres of this land as nodes of light, and then beyond to the wider world, continuing the work we have been doing for the past few years. It is as if the land itself has taught us what it is… what to do… and what it needs from us.

We had also found over the past year that many groups and individuals are, quite independently, working in the same way with land, stone and crystal. In oddly fortuitous circumstances, we have met and been made aware of each other, as if we too are ‘dots’ being joined together in a vast network of those who serve the Light.

And that brought us back, full circle to the questions we had pondered at the beginning of the weekend. What is it that causes this breadcrumb trail to be left for the curious to find? What prompts unconnected groups and individuals to set their hand to the same task? What did the ancients have in common with the Templars and their spiritual kin, the Freemasons? We all have the land itself in common… all the time… but we seldom pay attention to its whisperings. But when the Underground Stream resurfaces as a fountain of inspiration, there are always those who are able to drink from the well.

There were many questions unanswered…all we had hoped to do was sow the seeds of thought. Much more was discussed than has, purely because of space, made it onto these pages… and many more ‘breadcrumbs’ would lead us deeper into our quest for answers. But that is another story, outside of the bounds of the workshop.

We had one final stone to show our companions…the Raven Stone after which we privately name the site, the Raven’s Nest. Oddly enough, given our preoccupation with the dragon-lines, and serpent symbolism, this is one of only two places we have seen snakes. Quite symbolic when you consider the reptilian nature of birds… and the esoteric convention that sees the symbols of winged creatures as representing a ‘higher’ arc of spiritual evolution.

By the time we came down from the moor, the afternoon had almost gone and we were obliged to take leave of our companions who had a long way to go. We repaired to a local inn for a late lunch, before taking the long way back into Sheffield, over the moors, as the day ended with a final grace.

Riddles of the Night: The long and the short of it…

We had arranged for everyone to meet on our final morning at the church of St Michael and All Angels in Hathersage. It is a place we have visited on many occasions, but, as had been the way lately, recent visits had shed new light on old, familiar details. Even ones we had previously photographed and written about, but still not really seen.

The current church is largely fourteenth century, with all the usual later renovations and additions, though there had been a church on the site, close to an old settlement of the Danes, since at least 1100. The names of all the vicars are still remembered, as far back as 1281.

Initially, the decision to visit the church had been taken simply to provide a point of interest along the way, as our main site for the morning was at some distance from our base in Bakewell. A visit to reconnoitre had changed that perspective, once we had made the Eyre connection.

And anyway, given that we had spent the previous afternoon at Robin Hood’s Stride, it seemed only right to pay our respects at the giant grave of his companion, John Little, better known as Little John…and chuckle at what appears to be a parking meter beside his resting place.

Charlotte Bronte stayed at the vicarage here when she was about to write Jane Eyre. The name of her heroine is that of the influential Eyre family whose tomb dominates the chancel of the church, along with a number of medieval brasses showing the Eyre knights and their ladies.

It was one of their descendants, Thomas Eyre, who had been the parson at Birchover and who had shaped enigmatic landscape of Rowtor Rocks where we had spent the previous morning. And as if that wasn’t enough of a connection, there were all the other details we had missed…

As with so many things we have known but not realised until the time was right, it hadn’t even registered fully that this was a St Michael and All Angels, in spite of the dragons carved as gargoyles and grotesques on the outside of the church. The St Michael dedication is commonly found in areas where the leys… the dragon lines… can be found and the All Saints/All Angels attribution, we have found, tends to be significant.

Oddly enough, it is only as I write that it bothers to register that the little church in the village where I have lived for over fifteen years is also a St Michael and All Angels. Even odder still is the fact that the village of Hathersage has two churches dedicated to St Michael.

Arriving early on the last morning of the workshop, we had time to look around the churchyard, noticing how may of the crosses on the headstones were of the ‘cross pattée’ type, or resembled those on the medieval grave-markers we had seen at Bakewell.

Many of these symbols were also associated with the Templars and their successors. And, just to put the icing on the proverbial cake, one grave is carved with the All-Seeing Eye that is a symbol frequently associated with Freemasonry.

We know that it is easy enough for the human mind to join the dots and make patterns, finding significance where there is, in reality, none at all. It is all too easy to come up with a theory and start making the pieces of information you find fit that theory, rather like the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella, cutting off toes to squeeze their feet into the Glass Slipper. We didn’t have a theory… we didn’t have a clue what we were seeing to begin with, only that we were being presented with a lot of odd facts, artefacts and coincidences that all seemed to be related. All we were doing was trying to make sense of it all…

Had we any idea of what we were doing? More importantly, did those who had left us this centuries-old breadcrumb trail know what they were about? If they did, what were they up to? And if not, why were the same pertinent symbols showing up again and again in the most disparate places? What could possibly link a medieval church, the Templars, Eyres and Freemasons, a ‘green’ giant and the Bronze Age stone circle we would be visiting as our last site of the weekend?

Riddles of the night: Beneath a starless sky

After dinner in a cosy inn, warmed by good food and roaring fires, we set off for the final adventure of the day. Officially, the visit was not part of the planned weekend, but something we wanted to share with our companions. We had been granted permission by the landowners to visit the great stone circle of Arbor Low after dark.

In daylight, the site is spectacular. A huge henge… a banked and ditched earthwork… encloses a central space containing a circle of stones ranging from small boulders to great monoliths. None of them are standing and the official jury is still out on whether or not they ever were. Today, the immediate impression is of a clock face or a zodiac laid out on the ground… a star temple, perhaps, within the body of the Mother…bringing outer space and inner space together. There are rumoured accounts of the memories of standing stones from the eighteenth century, but personally, I do not feel the outer stones ever stood, though the unusual inner cove would have done so. These coves are found only at major Neolithic sites and a skeletal burial was found beneath it, missing both hands and feet.

The circle is high on the Derbyshire hills… so high that you have no sense of how far the land has climbed, save only the lowering clouds that seem close enough to touch. From the outside, the henge looks like a feminine figure reclining on the hilltop. From the air, the female symbolism is even more striking. As the solstice approached, we would enter the darkness within the body of the goddess and emerge renewed.

Although not an official part of the weekend, it did tie in with our look at the ley network and the ancient tracks. A Roman Road, built to follow the course of a much older trackway, runs just five hundred yards from the circle. We knew, from previous research, that Arbor Low formed one of the points involved in a countrywide set of geometries and was considered a major centre for leys. Curiously, as the leys are also known as dragon lines’ and serpent energies, most of the women we have taken to this circle in daylight have reported feeling that the stones were connected to serpents or snakes… not surprising when some of the stones themselves look reptilian. What we did not find out until afterwards…and which could not have tied in more neatly with our findings at Bakewell with its octagonal tower and eight-pointed anomalies in the church… is that the leys which pass through Arbor Low form an eight-pointed star. That would have been a strange enough coincidence on its own.

There was utter silence as we crossed the farmyard in the pitch blackness of a December night. The nearest town and street lighting are miles away. Had the sky been clear, the stars would have been amazing… but, although our luck had held with the weather so far, a clear sky was not on the menu. Instead there was a heavy pall of cloud that descended to meet us as we climbed the last slope through the muddy fields.

Passing between the serpent stones, we each chose a stone in silence for private meditation. As I lay on one of the stones of the stones of the cove, closing my eyes to outer darkness, rain as fine as frozen stardust began to fall. Perhaps it was not rain, but a cloud come down to kiss the earth…we would be drenched, but gently so.

From that meditation, I emerged with a symbol in my mind, an arrow-head with an eight-rayed star glowing at the centre, which would not begin to make sense until later when we found out about the star-patterned leys.

With that symbol in mind, we shared a simple dedication and healing at the centre of the circle, sending light through the leys and out into the world. Whether or not one believes in the ley network or the power of ritual, the power of the imagination, fuelled by sacred intent, is a potent thing. If it changes nothing but something within ourselves, it has wrought a change in the world. Like the tiny raindrops whose touch was no more than a whisper on the skin, but whose cumulative effects were felt by all, from such small changes, great change can grow.

Riddles of the Night: Unconventional methods…

A labyrinthine path leads to a summit that ends abruptly in a sheer and unforgiving cliff. From this side, the settlement on Cratcliffe Tor would have been impregnable. Yet, there seems little space or evidence for a group of homes in this place. There are other sites nearby where ancient settlements have been found and, although Cratcliffe, Robin Hood’s Stride and the stone circle below them may have been at the heart of a community, we do not think it was here that they lived. They were important for another reason. The rocks, the confusing pathway and uneven landscape seem rather to lend themselves to a minimal population and reminds me of other sites that we suspect may have been ritual landscapes, places where the births and deaths of a clan would have been marked. Certainly the summit, with its great beds of stone, would have been a perfect place for air burial.

One stone bed in particular seems designed for this purpose. A low, pillowed couch that slopes down to a trough… that got me into trouble when I suggested it could have been ‘for the juices’. For some reason, the phrase did not go down well with my companions.

This is not pure speculation. We know that air burial was an efficient way to clean the bones of the dead and it would seem that our forefathers held a belief that the process of dying was not complete until the bones were clean. We know, from archaeological evidence, that many different methods were used to hasten this process. Perhaps the dead could not become ancestors, guarding and promoting the wellbeing of the clan in the otherworld, until their bones were properly prepared.

The presence of a stone circle and other ritual sites close by would suggest that this was a place where the human journey, from birth into death, and from death into the otherworld was ritually marked. One of our companions felt strongly that a tranquil glade had been a place where the healers worked. At another spot, where a stark cut in the high cliffs drops to the valley below, has a ‘feel’ of a place of judgment, where one guilty of the most heinous crimes against his people would be cast down the sheer drop to his death. Dowsing seemed to confirm this.

Much of what we suspect about the way in which these sites were used in prehistoric times cannot be substantiated by any means that the scientific mind would accept, but in many ways, this does not matter. It is alternative archaeology. When the land whispers stories to the inner ear, there is no way of knowing whether what we hear is fact or fiction. What we do know is that such promptings make sense of the landscape, bring it to life for us, and allow us to see it with a new understanding, possibly one that brings us closer to the vision of our most distant ancestors.

On the plain below, forming a triangle with the Tor and the Stride, is a stone circle known as Nine Stones Close. Only four of these stones now remain… ‘squaring the circle’… though at least one other remains close by, reused in a stone wall. The circle used to be called the Grey Ladies and legends told of maidens who danced on the sabbath and were turned to stone for their impiety. I wonder if the story originated with the hermit of the crag, for certainly it is a Christian gloss on the story of the stones.

Another story tells of a farmhand who, resting from his labours against one of the stones, found a pipe. Lighting the pipe, he watched as the stones became transparent and through their surface he could see into the fairy realms. This tale may have its origins in an older memory, perhaps, of a time when sacred herbs were used to enhance vision and allow the priesthood of the stones a glimpse into the otherworld.

The Bronze Age circle would have been over forty feet in diameter, with the stones standing over seven feet tall. It is from the centre of this circle that the major southern moon can be observed between the pinnacles of the Stride. The stones are the tallest standing stones of any circle in Derbyshire… but our next visit would take us to a place where these stones would be dwarfed. As the light faded, we left the fields and headed for the warmth of an old inn to await the coming of darkness…

Riddles of the Night: Guardians of the Way II

 

 

Cratcliffe Tor is a rocky crag, prized these days by rock climbers, and a treacherous twin of Robin Hood’s Stride. It was once the site of an ancient settlement and vestiges of prehistoric earthen ramparts remain. Cross the Portway, and a gentle slope leads to an intriguing jumble of stones, bracken and trees. It takes some imagination to make any sense of the landscape here.

Our first point of interest was the hermit’s cave, nestled under a rocky overhang and guarded by two great yews, a tree held sacred in these isles from time immemorial. We do not know for how long this open shelter was used, or when it was first occupied. We do know that it is situated close to the ancient track called the Portway and that was in use from prehistoric times, through the Roman occupation and right through the Middle Ages.

A fourteenth century Rule of Hermits states, “Let it suffice thee to have on thine altar and image of the Saviour hanging upon the Cross, which represents to thee His Passion, which thou shalt imitate, inviting thee with outspread arms to himself.” The hermit’s shelter contains only a stone ledge upon which a man could sleep and a crucifix and candle niche carved into the wall. The carving, which may have graced the wall for seven hundred years, is a curious depiction of Christ of the Cross. The figure seems to have His arms raised in both triumph and welcome, rather than in agony and the Cross is portrayed as a living tree, not an instrument of execution. Does this Tree of Life carry the Christ to Heaven? Or do the arms invite heaven to Earth? The hermit who knelt before this image of eternity every day may have touched upon something his staid brethren in their cathedrals and abbeys may have missed.

We know nothing of the men who occupied this cave, except for an entry in the accounts of Haddon Hall for the 23rd December 1549, when a payment was made to ‘ye harmytt’ for supplying rabbits to the Hall and for guiding travellers thither.

The hermits were not simply reclusive men with a vision of solitude; a thirteenth century decree by Pope Innocent IV had bound the hermits, who had to be properly authorised by senior churchmen, to live by the Rule of St Augustine. It was their task to serve the road, giving aid to travellers, guiding them over difficult ground and offering all help needed. One of their tasks was to guide travellers to fords and river crossings, thus embodying the stories of the Good Samaritan and St Christopher.

 

St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, was particularly important to pilgrims and those medieval churches on pilgrim routes often had a large wall painting of the saint opposite their door, so that he would be the first thing a pilgrim saw upon arrival and would gain, thereby, a special blessing.

This particular area is so rich in stone circles and Neolithic monuments that it is easy to find possible leys and intriguing alignments in the landscape. When you walk such pathways, you cannot help but ask questions. Did the builders of these routes know something we have forgotten? Or were they simply practical routes for travellers and traders, with recognisable landmarks? But if so, why choose some of the most difficult and inhospitable terrain for such tracks to run, when there are sheltered valleys with food and sources of water so close to hand? Why struggle over hilltops when a river valley follows the same path far below?

Whatever modern beliefs and opinions about such things may be, that these alignments were significant to our ancestors seems indisputable. The leys, the ancient trackways and the pilgrim routes have much in common, running across the land and ‘joining the dots’ between sacred or significant sites, earth and stone, both natural and constructed, but always, it would appear, tended. First, by those who made them, and who raised great earthworks, stone circles and burial mounds and cairns beside them. Next, perhaps, by the boundary markers called ‘herms’, reminiscent of the Greek god Hermes, the patron of travellers and messenger of the gods who moved between the worlds… and whose name means a boundary cairn. Then by the holy men and hermits who served the road and also, oddly enough, by the Templars, formed to protect the pilgrim routes to the Holy Land during the Crusades. As we continued our journey, we were left with more questions than answers…

Riddles of the Night: Guardians of the Way

Beyond the forest’s leafy shade,
The hooded one, with giant’s pace
From pinnacle to pinnacle
Leap’t silently, in moonlit grace…
In eremitic solitude
In caverns deep to meditate…
Within, the riddle of the night,
A key that will elucidate…
Beyond the stones, to four once nine
To where the goddess meets her mate
And heavens dance at winters turn
Bends earthwards to illuminate.

After lunch at the Druid, there was another riddle that would give clues to the location and the significance of the sites we would be visiting that afternoon. It didn’t take long for the company to divine that it had something to do with a hood in the greenwood, a giant’s ‘stride’, a stone circle and a hermit. A search of the books we had on the table…and a bit of Googling too… and we were on our way to Robin Hood’s Stride.

The Stride itself is a fabulous outcrop that looks as if it would be more at home in the landscape of some fantasy film or the American west. It is another site we know well, as it is part of a much wider sacred landscape whose history begins in the Neolithic era and continues into medieval times. The area immediately around the Stride holds Bronze Age settlements and barrows, an Iron Age hillfort, a stone circle and a hermit’s cave… and through the middle of this landscape runs an ancient track, now known as the Portway.

Mam Tor – the Shivering Mountain above Castleton.

The Portway runs across the Derbyshire landscape, from Mam Tor… the ‘mother hill’ above Castleton to the Hemlock Stone, forty miles away in neighbouring Nottinghamshire. The old tales say that the Hemlock Stone was thrown to its current position by the Devil himself when he lost his temper at the constant ringing of church bells. This is obviously a later legend… the stone has probably been there since the Ice Age and the track was in constant use from prehistory to medieval times… but it does link both ends of the trackway. Like the Ridgeway, which is some five thousand years old or more and possibly Britain’s oldest road, the ancient track runs close to some important prehistoric sites along the way.

© Copyright Alan Murray-Rust and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
The Hemlock Stone. Image: Geograph.org © Copyright Alan Murray-Rust CCL

From the village of Elton, it follows Dudwood Lane to pass between Robin Hood’s Stride and Cratcliffe Crag, or Tor, and beside the stone circle. ‘Dudwood’ may come from ‘dod-wood’ and Alfred Watkins, the author of the Old Straight Track and father of the modern interest in leys, posited that the ‘dod-men’ were the prehistoric surveyors who laid out the original network of trackways.

The existence of the ley network invites much controversy and many theories, with some believing that they are simply routes between significant sites, others that they map earth energies and yet others claiming they do not exist at all. Our purpose was not to impose a view, but to explore ideas and, considering where the breadcrumb trail had been leading us, to offer a few possibilities of our own… and this site provided us with an ideal location to explore some of them.

But first, we needed to explore the land itself, starting with the Stride. Boulders of strange shapes and aspects litter the ground around the Stride. One looks like a giant hare, with its ears folded back moongazing. Others look like giant heads. There are traces of prehistoric rock art, hidden amid more modern graffiti, showing that the place was important to our more distant ancestors and the continuing tradition of climbing to a dangerous point, to hang there a wicker heart as a symbol of love, suggests a memory of old fertility rites.

At one end of the Stride is a rather odd cave, open at both ends to the winds and containing a deep depression that fills with water, making it an ideal scrying pool. Above it is another, smaller ‘cave’…and alcove with superb acoustics. Stuart has chanted in there before, but has never heard its effects…so Steve kindly ascended alone to test how the sound carried to the open cave below. The effects were startling… and the sudden rising of a wind that lasted only as long as the chant? Pure coincidence…

You could call it coincidence that a perfectly shaped nose forms one wall of the cave… a single stone, unattached to the main body of the Stride, that rests against it. We know that the ancients moved huge slabs of stone…we could see four that had been indisputably erected in antiquity from where we stood. We also know that if we, modern humans who are so far divorced from the life of the land, can see the faces and forms in the stone, be they natural, coincidental, fortuitous, or not, then our ancestors, whose survival required their attunement to the life of the land, would have seen, used and possibly adapted them too.

Twin pinnacles rise from the apparently jumbled heap of rocks and, just as at the recumbent stones we had seen in Scotland, there is an astronomical event that would not have failed to impress. From the centre of the stone circle, close by, the major southern moon can be observed as it sets between the two stone pillars on top of the hill. That our ancestors knew about this seems proven by the positioning of the stone circle… there is no other reason for it being just there. I would love to know if it is reflected in the scrying pool as it sets…

It would have been easy to spend the entire afternoon discussing possibilities at the Stride, including the idea that the ‘Hood’ of the Stride refers to the phases of the moon as it pulls darkness across its face, but the short December days were dictating our pace. We crossed the ancient Portway and moved on to Cratcliffe Crag…