An ancient landscape, shrouded in mystery… strewn with stones and the last of the summer heather…scattered with sites of ancient sanctity. Stone circles… an enigmatic fortress rising from the bracken like a ship to carry mind and imagination back beyond the veiling mists. Time becomes fluid, marked in shadows cast by standing stones. Stories carved in millstone grit by ancient hands come to life beneath the racing clouds… and all around is beauty.
In September 2016, as the seasons turned, we walked forgotten pathways across the moors to circles lost in the bracken. We heard the stones whisper echoes of the dreams of a mysterious Seer as we explored the sacred landscape of Derbyshire. In the solitude of the moors, the voices of the past seem to reach through the land and touch the heart, finding there a continuous thread of light that winds through the ages as each soul asks its own questions, the same questions that have been asked for millennia…
Circles beyond time: Seeking the Seer
The birds told me of your coming.
Hawk and Raven follow you;
sight and memory,
soaring of wings and thought.
I see you… tall and grey, small and red.
I see the purpose in your step and know where it leads.
I know what you seek…
I have been waiting since they laid me under stone…you come for my eyes.
There is a price…
…Bitter cold, the wind blasts the moor, hair whips colour into pale cheeks, rain hides the tears that still come.
It had been a long journey and little comfort awaited… just a fire in the small ravine by the waterfall, hides stretched between the rowans for shelter, meat she cannot stomach.
A place that matches the desolation in her heart…
…Gone, all gone.
The ravagers of the Raven had come.
Death a small price to pay to protect the sacred wisdom.
They had chosen.
Voices raised in song, taken by fire and sacred smoke; knowledge sacrificed, love immolated, wisdom placed upon shoulders too young.
She pulls the furs around her.
She is not alone in the night.
Others came first. Not here.
Not to her.
She could see their fires on the ridge.
Even now they work, making a place for her.
She who remains.
Even here she is not alone…
She carries their gifts… the dead ones, their souls in hers, more than memory.
All they could give, all that they were, she holds within.
Circles beyond time: Seeking the Seer II
…You seek my eyes?
Then see it all.
Vision is the price of sight.
You saw the flames, tasted the stench of burning flesh, the sickening lurch of hunger that smells meat in the fire, knowing it for your kin…Burning.
You walked with me blindly through the night, pulled by the Guardian, wishing for your own death, theirs stark in your eyes.
Your mind touched my dreaming by the wood-stone.
I saw you then.
Showed you the way…
You followed me to Raven’s Nest and thought me home.
It was a beginning, no more.
You heard my birth cry… twice…
Once when the gates of life opened for me, marked with blood and rowan blossom.
Once when the knife plunged through my flesh, the blood dripped on flame, red as the rowan crown as the gates of vision opened.
Would you take my eyes?
Then there is another birth…
…They come, beneath a summer moon, picking their way through the heather, casting light on the purple with their torches. But not too close. This is a guarded place. The dead-mounds cluster round the home-place… dead men… guardians… dead seers…they hold the circle… Watching still.
She had known of their coming before the torches, seen them through sightless eyes with her back against the telling stone… in the circle they call the Rowan Crown in memory.
The breeze plays through the darkness of her hair, lifting it like a black cloud around her under the cloudless sky.
She stands and leaves the encircling stones, watching the toothless ones by the stream…
Circles Beyond Time: Seeking the Seer III…
They care for her needs, which are few enough… goat’s milk and berries, bread and herbs…fur for the cloak and boots she wears against the cold through the long nights of vigil by the stones.
They keep their distance, coming only to the Guardian.
She speaks to none else who do not seek.
Very different this life from her beginnings in the bright, fire-lit halls of lore and music… but it is life and she serves the Clan of the Raven.
Laying her hand on the great mound she walks through the cairns to the home-place to warn him of their coming. Bending low she enters the house, low roofed and sturdy, lined with stones piled between the circle of uprights, a special burial at its heart, capped with stone.
He had gone back, her Guardian… under cover of night… dangerous work…to bring her their ashes and a spray of rowan berries to lie beneath her bed.
He would meet the seekers of answers when they came, offer them bread and milk on the lawn between the mounds… then he would bring the seeker with his questions and she would carry them into vision by the stones.
She would not sleep tonight…
A First Dawn
Friday started early; there is always that sense of excited, nervous anticipation as the day of a workshop dawns. While our companions for the weekend were making their way from distant corners of the country, two of us were driving through crepuscular suburbs toward the open moors for a final morning of reconnaissance.
The lightening sky lit the pathway through the fading heather towards what would be our first destination, a little bridge across a stream. We had, on our initial visit, intended to climb the hill by the obvious route, only to find the ground to be a boggy and impenetrable morass. The stream had helped itself to an offering of chocolate from my companion’s pocket… which he had retrieved and unwrapped before giving it back to the water. Retreating, we had been directed to follow the path to another crossing point.
We had both remarked that it looked like the troll bridge from Billy Goats Gruff when we had first seen it. This had given us an idea, one that would evolve as the workshop drew closer and we listened to the story of the land as the wind… perhaps… had helped itself to further offerings from our hands.
By Friday morning, however, our plans were clear. I lingered on the path while my companion went down to the bridge to check lines of sight, then followed him down, reciting a poem from Tolkien that seemed appropriate to the moment, so we could check when approaching voices could be heard. “The Road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began…” As I reached the bridge, the sound of small birds filled the air, rising to protect their young from the silent wings of a hawk.
The birds were not the only watchful creatures… we were watched by interested eyes as we paced out our intentions and learned the space we would be using for our opening. While the rest of the sites we would be visiting are familiar to us, we had only been here once before and we have learned that spatial memory can be unreliable. What you think will work beautifully in one spot may bear little relation to what you can actually do there.
We had decided upon a theme and a loose, flexible structure, adding in some more carefully constructed elements to tie the workshop together. Most of the weekend would be allowed to unfold in the moment, relying on memory for facts about the sites we would visit and on the landscape itself for inspiration. This first entry into an ancient place, though, was something we wished to mark, sealing the intent of the company and our search for a deeper understanding of the old places and mankind’s eternal questioning of what is and what might be.
The all-pervading damp of the early morning mist was chill, yet the light was soft and beautiful, giving hope for a lovely day ahead. It was not until we turned our gaze to the east that we realised that, in this magical little valley, the sun had yet to rise. We watched in hushed awe as white fire erased the horizon and our day was born. There was yet another place we needed to visit before we headed home to prepare for the start of the workshop… and we were unprepared for what we would find there…
It is difficult to describe the feeling when we arrived at ‘our’ stone circle. The last time we had been there, we had spent hours in the landscape, just sitting and absorbing the feel and the vibrant serenity of the place. Looking at the devastation we found when we arrived to check the site prior to the workshop, it was as if that previous visit had been in a different time-frame altogether. As if centuries, rather than months, had slowly eroded the memory of joy and left the site bereft of presence. Or as if the hours we had spent had been passed in some ‘otherwhere’ that took no account of the passing of time in our world.
It is even more difficult to describe why it should be so. The stones, small and typical of Derbyshire’s circles, are always half-buried in the grass. The reeds that have begun to invade the site have been there all along, though not as prominent as at this time of year. The small offerings of coins, feathers and flowers were still present… yet there was something indefinably ‘missing’. As if the stones, that had so recently seemed awake and aware, had been put to sleep. It was profoundly shocking.
Our plan was to work in the little circle the following day, demonstrating how we thought it might have been used by the seer who kept the stones. As we walked around the overgrown lawn, we both came to the same conclusion… we would have to do something else too; try to help somehow…. though quite how we could do that, we didn’t know.
Our carefully laid plans were altered; we had no idea what we would end up doing there. All we could do would be wait and see, trusting, as always, that what was needed would come with the moment.
The rest of the moor looked just as it should. The fading heather cast patches of soft purple, the rowans were full of berries and the bracken was high, sending up waves of sharp, fragrant incense as we brushed against its fronds.
Across the brook we saw deer grazing in the mists. Nothing too unusual at that time of morning; we had encountered deer here before… but for some reason, their presence was reassuring.
So was that of the furry caterpillar. We have found them at almost every significant moment of our adventures and watching the little creature make its determined progress across the damp grass was almost as if we were being given a nod of approval.
It is hard to say why it matters. The heyday of the stones is long since gone… but what was behind their builders’ quest for understanding has barely changed across millennia. The faces and shapes of the old gods are forgotten, but the land that inspired their creation remains beneath the vault of the heavens; Man has always been rooted in earth and yet turned his face to the stars.
We left the moor quiet, grateful for the silent wings of the hawk as it passed over the far hills. We would be returning the next day with our companions and would see what happened then. Our aim was to open a pathway to the ancestral wisdom of the past, tracing that link back beyond the generations of Man to the planetary heart and beyond, to the Source of Being.
You can never tell how such work will unfold, only know how you think you will approach it, knowing too that, when you listen to the whisper of ancient voices on the wind, all plans may bend like a rowan in the breeze. For the moment, we headed back to breakfast and to prepare a first encounter with the Old Man of the Fort…
Crossing the Troll Bridge
The first hug was a good one and was soon followed by others as we gathered in the car park of Fox House. I had arrived at our rendezvous minus my erstwhile companion and his absence was noted. “He’s not feeling his usual self,” I explained. The disappointment was palpable.
“It must be bad for him not to be here…”
“Umm… well, he’s weirder than his normal weird…” It was just one of those things that couldn’t be helped, but it felt odd greeting the workshop’s gathered company without him.
A few minutes later we were walking along the pale pathway that led to the bridge across the stream where the two of us had inadvertently greeted the dawn that morning. On one side of the path the land rises steeply, blasted by quarrymen and unnaturally exposed; a reluctant nakedness that hurts the eyes. On the opposite side the land slopes down to the stream that divides the valley. Beyond the water, the gritstone bulk of Carl Wark rises from the bracken, still worked by Man, but with greater respect and harmony.
This was where we were heading, an ancient and enigmatic site of which little is known and much surmised. The plan was to begin the weekend with a sunset, but the weather seemed unlikely to oblige. It was not unpleasant in the valley, but on the heights the wind always blows and clouds were gathering.
We talked as we walked, as friends do who see each other too seldom, spreading out along the path as everyone fell into their natural gait. As we neared the final descent to the bridge, I gathered the companions together and, taking the lead, began to tell them a little about the site, the incident with the chocolate and our joint conclusion that the pack-horse bridge was really a troll bridge. I told them too about the origin of the site’s name… Carl Wark is thought to derive from the Old Norse for ‘Old Man’s Fort’. The ‘Old Man’ would have been seen as diabolic by the Christians, who determinedly shunned pagan practices… or adopted them under an altered and sanctified guise. Maybe the Old Man was not the Devil, but the ancient one who guards the ways…
…and as we rounded the final hillock that hides the bridge from the path, a wild-haired figure leapt from beneath the bridge to bar our way.
Behind me there was an intake of breath as realisation set in… he was definitely weirder than his normal weird; his staff planted firmly in the earth, draperies of wool the colour of autumn and a symbol bound about his brow.
There was no pause for discussion. I raised my staff and answered the challenge.
You could call it playacting… we call it ritual… but there is a serious and definite purpose to such moments. Up until we reached the bridge we were little more than tourists, friends sharing a common goal and interest. Our purpose at the bridge was to create a point of crossing, a demarcation between the everyday realm and a magical landscape that could be seen with the eyes of the heart. In terms of the system we use within the school, you could call it a psychological shock point, where, by taking accustomed normality by surprise, you open the doors to possibility.
In the same way that we do not take photographs during rituals, we do not share all their detail either. It would be of little use; experience adds a different dimension that is unique to each one who attends. It is enough to say that our purpose for the weekend was affirmed, each gave their assent to our stated intent and was given a personal symbol for use during the weekend.
The best-laid plans of mice and men… or in this case the Old Man and the Walker, are never going to work out perfectly though. Our plan to smudge with incense refused to ignite, so we used sound instead… which led to a realisation about the relationship between sound and stone that we had missed, in spite of it knocking on the doors of consciousness for long enough. Some apparent disasters bring their own gifts.
We had crossed flowing water into the ancient, sacred landscape and the mood was noticeably different as we began the ascent of the escarpment walking up to a huge boulder that seems to watch like some giant head rising from the bracken. The ‘Old Man of the Fort’ stayed behind to gather his things and bring up the rear and Steve wandered back to the stream to join him. Otherwise, we might never have known…
Clambering beneath the bridge (and forgetting the promised gift to the spirit of the waters) his fingers were refused purchase on the stone and, after several attempts to right himself, the Old Man measured his length in the cold, moorland stream. He paid the price of our passage and forded the stream in the old way.
Dripping, he rejoined the company to whom his final words had been those of protection. Oddly, there was no real hilarity… the atmosphere had changed and we were far from a place of ridicule, although there was both laughter and concern. I was reminded of the old magical affirmation, “I am thy sacrifice.”
The weekend had begun.
I smiled, knowing what was still to come… and knowing that our companion had picked up on something not yet visible when she had said that the place reminded her of the stone blocks of the old South American cultures. I knew what she meant, but while the precision of the masonry at Cusco still defies understanding over a thousand years old since its building, the place to which we were walking was older. Far older.
Following the path that climbs through the bracken, you can see the changing forms of the stones. Peering from the top of the plateau, they seem to shapeshift in the fading, afternoon light, taking first one form and then another as you approach the steps that lead into the enclosure. It is a strange place. To some, it is just another hill to climb. To others, ‘just’ another ancient hillfort. Cinema buffs may recognise one of the locations from The Princess Bride and geologists would have a field day. To archaeologists, though, Carl Wark is pretty much an enigma and unique in this part of the world.
As soon as you reach the plateau you begin to see how important the site must have been. No direct dating evidence has been found so far, but comparisons have been drawn between the construction of the enclosure at Carl Wark and one we would visit next day at Gardom’s Edge… and that has been dated to around 1300BC. The general consensus seems to be that although some of the more visible features date back only to the Iron Age, the site and features of the surrounding landscape have been in use since the Bronze Age. The trouble with such dates, however, is that they can only work with what they can see, dig up and measure. If a place becomes important in the life of a people, how long does its legend take to build before the walls are begun? How long before it becomes so entrenched in the life of the clan that its safety becomes a priority?
A natural outcrop rising around eighty feet from the valley floor, the hillfort sits much lower in the landscape than nearby Higger Tor. Even to a layman’s eyes, the Tor makes a far more defensible position, having much wider views of the surrounding landscape and being visible from a far greater distance than its smaller neighbour. Not only that, but the enclosure of the hillfort is completely covered by huge boulders, making any kind of settlement there impossible to establish and no evidence of such has been found. If it was a fortress in the sense that we understand it, what were they protecting? There is nothing there but the stones.
It was stone that greeted us as we reached the plateau… a great wall of boulders, carefully placed and buttressed from behind by an earthen embankment. The wall, so the archaeologists believe, dates back only to the Iron Age, which in Britain began around three thousand years ago. The site has been in use for far longer than that. Only one section of this rampart remains, a hundred and thirty feet long, twenty-six feet wide at its base and nearly ten feet high. Each stone is huge and the construction quite unexpected in the middle of the moors.
Beyond the wall, you enter a magical landscape of frozen forms and movement captured in stone. Perhaps the eyes of the heart can come closer to understanding what the old ones were protecting than the eyes of science. Almost every boulder reveals a face, shape or limb that to the human eye and imagination, suggests life. Some stones, like one of the ‘rocking stones’ perched precariously on the edge, seem to have been encouraged into their position and carefully chocked with small boulders. Some seem to shapeshift, from bear, to cat, to hawk depending on where you stand… as if Nature has shaped a cathedral to honour the totems of the ancient tribes.
We left our companions to explore for a while and headed over to the southern end of the hillfort. Here there was a stone we had planned to use, carved by Man or Nature into a perfect chair for storytelling or teaching, but the wind had increased, the clouds had come down and the rain had begun… nothing major, but not exactly conducive to sitting around on the grass. We sought out a more sheltered spot and gathered everyone together, showing them the great blocks of millstone grit that had been added to the natural revetments of the cliff to fortify the place.
Taking our places in a shelter between towering boulders, we shared a meditation where we each sought a thread within the web of light, tracing it back, through our own ancestry and beyond; back to the beginnings of our own civilisation to a time and place where there were no religious doctrines, or dogma wars… just the many-faceted One that each could see moving across the face of the earth in the shapes of the life that they knew. That web of life is not a thing of the past, but the matrix of life.
As the echoes were erased by the wind, I thought of a passage from Dion Fortune’s Sea Priestess that seemed to sum up both something that has gone wrong with our society and something of what we were attempting over the weekend. “…sinking back into the primordial sleep, returning to forgotten things before time was: and the soul is renewed, touching the Great Mother. Whoso cannot return to the primordial, hath no roots in life, but withereth as the grass. These are the living dead, they who are orphaned of the Great Mother.”
We were far from being the living dead that day… We shared our thoughts and some readings. One of our companions shared a poem he had come across and which had seemed appropriate to the moment. We all smiled in recognition at the first lines of Tolkien’s ‘The road goes ever on and on…’. I smiled twice, loving the poem and remembering that, quite coincidentally, I had been reciting it just below where we were sheltering at dawn that very day. Another of our companions gave us music, singing October Song a cappella. Written by Robin Williamson, it had been a hit in the 60s for the Incredible String Band. We had to smile at that too; we were going to see Williamson play later that week. Such small synchronicities seem to offer a reassurance that you are getting things right.
Which is more than we could say for the weather. We had allowed plenty of time to explore the hilltop and its mysteries knowing how much there was to see, then had planned on sharing the sunset there before returning for dinner. The wind, damp and chill, though, were too much for us to linger… and the sunset would be hidden by clouds. There would be other days. We gathered in the lee of the ancient wall and, with the sound reverberating from the stone, joined in chanting the close of day, bringing sound to the stones in a spirit of reverence for Life. Somehow, it felt exactly right.
We’d cancelled sunrise. Not literally, you understand, but what with our company, for once, being lodged across a swathe of miles and the weather being singularly uncooperative, it seemed unfair to drag everyone from their beds at some ungodly hour just to get wet and see nothing. It was, therefore, a rested and well-breakfasted company that gathered for the short trip to our next ancient site.
Only two of us had visited the site before. We had found it quite by accident whilst on the track of the infamous wandering stone which, although it remains stubbornly lost, has a habit of revealing wonderful places as you follow its trail. We had come back in winter with author Graeme Cumming and more recently to check the site before the workshop when we had been thoroughly drenched by unseasonal rain that had filled my boots until I squelched with every step. Even so, with each visit, the magic of the place had caught us unawares…. but we were hoping for better weather this time, in spite of the pall of grey cloud that hung low over the moors.
A short walk across the moor takes you to a fence and a gate. It is as soon as you walk through the gate that the land seems to change. Regardless of the weather, it is quieter here… as if the place has withdrawn from the world somehow and waits at a temporal tangent for those who come seeking its mysteries. A few yards to the right of the path and the land falls away steeply from the edge of the cliff. In between is a green lawn strewn with boulders and silver-barked birch. It feels as if you have slipped into the realms of the Fae and the guardians of the place watch as you pass.
For a little way, the path slopes gently uphill. After a while, you begin to notice that the boulders look odd, as if placed rather than strewn by ancient glaciers, then the land opens out into a boulder field of monumental proportions, very similar to the top of Carl Wark in appearance, though here the stones are enormous and the cliffs sheer. But whereas the atmosphere of the distant hillfort is one of peace and serenity, here there is something else; it ‘feels’ odd and uncomfortable.
It is always difficult to tease apart the threads of impression. Most people are sensitive to atmospheres and will react predictably to the serenity of a quiet chapel or an eerie, moonlit ruin. With the open landscape, it is impossible to say what it is one picks up, but places have their own particular ‘feel’. Most of the time we are visiting sites of which little can be known, given their antiquity and the mind inevitably tries to make sense of the landscape in modern terms first. When it cannot, the natural reaction is to seek a story the mind can accept, but these sites are older than our knowing and alive in a way difficult to express. Images arise and are dismissed as imagination… until others, too, begin to recount the same feelings and you have to take note. At this particular part of the site… and only here… the impression is that the rock-strewn cliff was once used as part of the ancestral funerary rites… and was then desecrated and despoiled by invaders, as if to take the heart from its people. The atmosphere affects everyone differently, so saying little except that there would be a chance to look around on the way back, we hurried our companions through the stones to the second gate.
Once through the gate, the land changes immediately. Delicate mosses carpet the undulating earth in emerald, scattered with diamond drops of mist and festooned with jewelled webs. Even the sound changes as the slender trunks of the silver birches cluster closer. It is a quiet place… a child’s fairyland… and at its heart, a standing stone, almost invisible, yet very present…
The Standing Stone
We had brought the group here for just two stones. Nothing as visually spectacular as the wonderful dolmens we had seen in Wales, but to a quiet, green glade that always feels as if it is waiting and where a single standing stone rises like the gnomon of a sundial from the earth. If you saw only a picture, you would be forgiven for questioning whether or not it was a real standing stone or just an erratic, dumped there by some passing glacier in millennia past. If you walk into its presence, you have no doubt.
Even so, it is good that for those who demand scientific evidence, there is also the archaeological report of this vast Bronze Age site. We’d had no idea when we had first visited how wide the site might be, or what had been found there. Nevertheless, we had recognised this and many of the other features of the area. It was only later research that bore out our flights of fancy, including the idea of funerary rites.
There are cairns, a huge enclosure, strange pits and a variety of hut circles, including one that appears to have been part of a ritual site for the preparation of the dead. We had even found what seems to be a stone circle, though that would bear further investigation at a later date. For now, our main interest was the standing stone and the archaeology confirms that its base had been carefully packed with rubble to position the stone in its present place.
The archaeologists also used 3D modelling of the way that light hits the stone, allowing for shifts in the earth’s tilt over the four thousand years that the stone has stood there and, finding that the north side stays in permanent shade throughout the winter, they concluded that it must be some sort of symbolic sundial. Which is exactly what our group concluded without that information.
What the official team didn’t seem to take into account are the curious notches on the top of the stone that stands over seven feet high. Undoubtedly weathered, they seem deliberate and provide a sighting line to distant Frogatt Edge… and perhaps, who knows, to the stars and planets beyond. The seasons are written in the turning of the sky and the stars would have been so much brighter when the only light at night came from the embers of the fire.
The stone itself is curious. With every step that you take around it, the form seems to change. Everyone sees something different, yet the forms are clear enough that they can be pointed out and shared. When we first saw it, we named it the Crone Stone for its hooded shape… and Chronos was the Greek personification of Time. From another angle, it becomes a bear, from yet another, a double-hooded form…and most famously, on one of its sides is a ‘devil’s face’. Since Christianity took hold of these Isles, everything that went before is consigned to the devil.
For us, it was one of those places you do not want to leave. Even though we have always been there in poor-to-awful weather, there is something about the place that invites you to stay and just spend time with the stone. As if it misses fulfilling its purpose. We are always reluctant to turn our backs to the stone and walk away. This time, we were going to work with the stone and the spirit of the place, so we gathered our companions and showed them what we wanted them to visualise during a guided journey, going back in imagination, into the web of life, seeking an ancestral figure with whom to make contact.
It is not for us to say how any meditation should work out for any individual…. we provide a guide and an idea and the results are as personal as the interpretation of the ideas. Whether that ancient past is seen in terms of linear time, part of the collective unconscious or as a level of personal consciousness is a matter of choice and inclination. What we hoped was that, rather than fixing on a given individual from the past, they would begin to connect with that pool of collective wisdom that is behind the idea of the Ancestors. How that manifests in the mind and emotions is a personal thing, but once touched, it opens the gates to a deeper understanding.
Both the rain and the midges began their assault as the meditation began, but we did not plan on keeping everyone standing there for too long. There was so much more to see at this site… though the bracken would be too high to see many of the places we could have taken them. The bracken would, undoubtedly, make the next part of our journey more difficult than usual, but we planned on making it more unusual still. It was also a bit of fun but with a serious undertone. We described our destination… then asked them to use their pendulums and rods to dowse for it…
We had, quite unfairly, asked the company to dowse for the next stone we were to visit, giving them the simplest of descriptions. Following the person who was on the right track, we set off through the sodden grass in the direction of a curious bank of bracken.
When the green fronds do not bury the bank, its true nature is revealed and its scale is staggering. It is a Neolithic enclosure of dry stone walls that still stand up to five feet high in places, although many of the stones have been removed to build more modern walls.
The enclosure they contain has seven entrances and runs for around two thousand feet in length over a width of up to thirty feet. No trace of settlement has been found during the archaeological explorations there and the conclusion is that it was a ritual gathering place.
The other structures found there seem to confirm this idea, for although there are the remains of nearly thirty roundhouses and several other enigmatic structures quite close by, none of them seems to indicate a permanent settlement and the largest was used to perform funerary rites over a period of time.
If we seem to spend a lot of our time walking the realms of the ancient dead, there are several reasons for that. First and foremost is that it is in these very places, the ritual and mortuary sites, where the realm of spirit walks hand in hand with the living lands, that our forefathers seem to have lavished the most care and invested the most effort to create permanent structures of such strength that they still survive today after many thousands of years.
While the domestic sites may have fallen to plough and bulldozer over time, the legends and folklore may have kept many of the standing stones and cairns safe from intrusion. Even today, many of these places are woven about with strange tales, and sightings of eldritch creatures and spectral lights are not uncommon.
There is another reason too, less ‘logical’ perhaps, but no less real for all that. We spend a lot of time on the moors and while we feel welcome in the realm of the rites of the ancestors, there is an uneasy feeling about walking through their settlements, as if, being outside their time, we should not be there. There is another part to that theory that has to do with time and perception that we shared with our companions as we walked through the wet grass within the enclosure.
The boulders within the enclosure are strange. Many would not look out of place in Fred Flintstone’s back yard and, although we have no knowledge of their individual significance, it is obvious that here again we are looking at stone that was left for a purpose in an area that could have been cleared. The stones themselves would have provided perfect material with which to build the enclosure walls, yet their strange shapes were left untouched and the walls built around them.
One huge boulder is covered in white lichen and stands out from the rest. It was to this we were drawn and everyone was intrigued by its hollowed bowl. One of our companions wondered if it was the particular energetic properties of the stone that made it a target for this particular variety of lichen…. none of the others seemed to wear it. Another suggested that it looked like a ‘font’ in which infants might be cleansed and purified… tying the two extremes of life together at a place where only the rites of death have left any trace. Whatever the truth and the purpose of the stone, it brought the enclosure to life for us as we looked back upon the lives of the people to whom this place had meaning.
Having left the main path, we walked back to one of the seven entrances that pierce the enclosure wall. There is a path here to the stone that was our final destination on this stretch… but the bracken is taller than most people here and the fronds, heavy with mist and rain, were bowed across it. We forged through, knowing it was worth the wetting and brought the company to the little clearing of the carved stone…
Wading through the wet bracken, we knew, would be worth it, for on the other side of the green fronds there is a stone…and it is something a bit different, in more ways than one. Several examples of Neolithic rock art, or petroglyphs, have been found on this part of the moor. One we have yet to locate, another, found during the excavation of a cairn, has been moved to the museum in Sheffield, and one… a huge, earthfast boulder… remains where it was found. But all is not what it seems.
The stone, one of the best we have yet to see in the area, was discovered in the 1960s, but it was soon noted that the carvings were rapidly deteriorating. This, sadly, is the case for many of the remaining petroglyphs that have withstood natural weathering for thousands of years, only to be almost obliterated since the Industrial Revolution altered the atmospheric chemistry of the world. One of the best known carvings to have suffered so is the Fylfot at Ilkley, also known as the Swastika Stone, that bears an image similar to the Camunian Rose found carved in Italy. When I was younger it was clearly visible. Now only a faint shadow remains and can only be clearly seen when the weather and light are right, behind its modern counterpart that at least still allows us to see what was once deeply carved in stone.
Something needed to be done in order to protect the stone we had come to see and prevent it from sharing the same fate as the Fylfot. It is a large stone, difficult, though not impossible, to remove to a covered location, but the trouble with moving such stones is that their context is forever lost. We do not know for certain what they mean. What we do know is that many, if not all, of the significant stones that our ancestors left only make sense when seen in relationship to their surroundings. There are known alignments to landscape features, planetary bodies and to other ancestral stones… removing them from their place in the landscape robs us of any chance at all of learning to understand them.
It is only by looking at the curves of a standing stone against its own horizon that you can see how they have been formed to shadow the hills. It is only by sighting through the notch on a standing stone that you can see how it aligns with a cliff or a stone far distant. It is when you stand within a ring of stones with the stars wheeling overhead that you begin to glimpse the understanding our ancestors had of the dance of the heavens. The mathematically inclined can plot the movement of the sun and show on paper why the Heel Stone and Trilithons of Stonehenge are so fantastically aligned… but when you watch the sun, framed within a stone arch and poised delicately atop the Heel Stone then, you can feel it.
It is unlikely that our ancestors spent time computing zenith and nadir in a way we would recognise as mathematics, but they undoubtedly had an understanding that allowed them to build magnificently complex structures, like the recumbent stone circles prevalent in Scotland and Ireland that chart so precisely the movement of the moon. Moving their stones means we lose their precision as well as their natural context and any chance of understanding how and why they were so placed. The team charged with preserving the carved stone at Gardom’s, seem to have understood this and came up with an innovative way to protect it. Leaving it in place, they took a cast of the stone and created a perfect replica with which to encase it. The stone remains where it has always been. Close by, two stakeholes, some flakes of flint and a polished, shale ring were found.
We do not know what the carvings meant to those who made them We do know that they are often found close to ritual sites. They may have been maps whose key we have now lost, or plans of the sites themselves. It has been suggested that they are star-maps or show the placement of springs, pathways or that, rather than showing any physical detail, they map the energies of the stones and circles themselves. We know of one that looks more like a three-dimensional architect’s model than anything else and others that resemble counting devices. As we gathered round the stone, our companions added their own suggestions, wondering at the complexity and meaning of the arcane design.
Before we left there was another small ritual, with each companion choosing a token from those that had been placed within the hollows of the stone. These they would keep until much later in the afternoon when we had something we wanted to try within the stone circle. It would soon be lunchtime so made our way back towards the glade of the standing stone and then back out amongst the great stones of the Edge…
A Rock and a Hard Place
We left the standing stone and walked back through the gate onto the Edge. Normally we would walk back a different way, but the path is a morass at the best of times and it had rained a lot in the area lately. At least the path would be fairly dry this way. The trouble was, we didn’t know what to expect. It is always a delicate decision… how much should you say, indeed, how much can you say without someone calling for the men in white coats to haul you away?
The first time we had walked this way hadn’t been so bad. That is a matter of opinion, I suppose and depends largely on how you view the whole process of death. But it is not the first site where the stones suggested excarnation. The idea of stripping flesh from bone to help your loved ones rejoin the ancestors may seem less than palatable to our culture, but it is and has been a common practice both in this country and around the world. Oddly enough, it was something I had never really thought about… though had I done so I must have realised that the practice went on even into the Middle Ages here. When important or saintly people died and their remains had to be transported long distances, the bones would be defleshed to protect against decomposition en route…and to provide relics too.
I had first been obliged to consider excarnation after a visit to another site… one we would be visiting later that afternoon. It was only afterwards that I had begun to do some digging and found that air burial and other methods of excarnation had been used by our Neolithic ancestors. It made sense of the stacks of long bones and skulls found in so many of our ancient burial places, but it had never occurred to me before and it is not something that the archaeologists tend to mention in general articles or on prime-time TV.
One theory suggests that the soul was seen as being bound to the flesh and could not be freed to join the realm of the ancestors until the flesh was gone. This would make ensuring rapid excarnation a final act of love and respect. Even in later centuries, there is an echo of this, when Silius Italicus (c. 28 – c. 103) wrote of the deaths of Celtic warriors:
‘to these men death in battle is glorious;
And they consider it a crime to bury the body of such a warrior;
For they believe that the soul goes up to the gods in heaven,
If the body is exposed on the field to be devoured by the birds of prey’.
So, the first time we had passed this way, in the company of friends, we had done little more than look at the stones and decided that it must have been an area for the preparation of the dead. My companion had moved me along, quite rightly… not the best subject for post lunch conversation perhaps.
The second time, there were just the two of us and the place really got to us and with it the sense that, although it had been a sacred place it had been desecrated in some way. It had knocked us for six, being so unexpected… which was why we had hurried our companions through the stones on the way to the standing stone. Somehow it wouldn’t seem quite as bad after visiting the stone…or perhaps we were just expecting it. Or maybe we had just been imagining things. After all, there was nothing visible to support what we were feeling. A sort of folie a deux perhaps…
One of our companions for the weekend was fellow author and blogger, Helen Jones. Helen is sharing her own account of the weekend and graphically describes the feeling she experienced there that ran closely with our own. Nor was she the only one to pick up the images and emotions of the defilement of a once sacred place. Even the photographs already posted of the spot drew a comment about excarnation and sky burial. We will never know the truth of it, but it is a curious and unsettling place.
The feeling does not extend beyond a few yards of the hilltop. After that, there is just the quiet peace of the stones and the horizon. The boulders here would be classed as erratics… stones deposited by the flow of a forgotten glacier… but some of them seem to stand out. Either for their shapes or their positioning, we are not convinced that all of them are erratics. Even if they were, if we can recognise a face or form in the weathered shapes, our ancestors, ready to see the spirits in all things made by Nature, would have done so too.
We showed our companions some of the stones we felt were significant, including a small stone table supported on two boulders in a way that seems deliberate. On our previous visit, I had placed my hands on that table, looking out across the valley, and the feeling is a strange one. You get the impression that where you stand, others have stood for centuries before you. It was here that, without a word spoken, everyone simply sat down in silence, spaced out across the Edge and lost in their own thoughts.
We left them for a while; there seemed to be a reluctance to move, even though the morning had not been physically strenuous, then gathered everyone together and made our way back across the moor. Lunch was five minutes away…and there is nothing like food for grounding you after a place like Gardom’s Edge. We needed grounding too… the afternoon would be spent in a landscape of stone circles…
There are some places that seem to have a timeless quality. As if, when you step within their atmosphere, you step beyond the constraints of place and time; you could be anywhere…and anywhen. This little stretch of moor is such a place. Patches of heather were still in full bloom, stones lie hidden in the bracken and reeds, quite appropriately, mark the path of underground streams.
We had gathered for lunch on Baslow, just a few minutes’ drive away and taken a little time out to settle after the morning at Gardom’s. The afternoon would be spent amongst the cairns and circles of Barbrook. It is a strange place. At first glance… and if you stick to the wide track across the moor… there seems to be little to see. Yet this small area is rich in archaeology. Like most of the Derbyshire sites, the stones are small and little shows above the summer vegetation, unless you know where to look. But almost as soon as you step onto the moor, you begin to feel it.
We left the main track immediately; that had been put in place for modern access. We headed west, following a path we had found when the vegetation was lower by following the stones into the moor. Going that way also means that you complete the circle widdershins, rather than deosil… anti-clockwise, against the movement of the sun, rather than clockwise. To those of us who have studied and worked in the Western Mysteries or magical traditions, this really did ‘go against the grain’ at first, but we have found that at many of the older sites, this seems to be the natural way to move around them. As Helen said when this subject had been raised, perhaps the coming of Christianity and the subsequent demonisation of earlier pagan practices accounts for why moving widdershins has been associated with darker paths and bad luck. Another factor may be that the majority of the ancient sites we visit were built either for ritual or as part of the realm of the dead. Both would have been seen as gateways to the Otherworld that runs ‘at a tangent’ to our own… and perhaps that is why they require the opposite approach from sites pertaining to the lands of the living. Oddly enough, we still walk instinctively clockwise when we visit a church. It as if the site itself dictates the ritual of movement, if you listen.
As we walked, we pointed out the remains of the Swine Sty hut circles and settlement site, over on the opposite side of the little valley that is divided by Bar Brook. These were once the lands of the living, which often seem to be separated by running water from the ritual landscape, and yet it feels far less welcoming than the cairn field where we now walked. There are around eighty cairns on this side of the brook, making up part of a Bronze Age necropolis. Some are thought to be clearance cairns, some are burial sites and, when the bracken is low, they can be clearly seen. Some have been robbed over the centuries, either for stone or from curiosity and their internal structure and the cysts they contain can be clearly seen. Most have never been legally excavated and the whole area is now a designated Scheduled Ancient Monument.
The first major structure we came to was the large cairn behind the stone circle that would be our last stop of the afternoon. This particular cairn was excavated and reconstructed around fifty years ago, the structure having been much disturbed in previous centuries by the amateur antiquarians who were the precursors of our modern archaeologists. Four carved stones were found there and removed to Sheffield’s museum. Cremated bones and pottery sherds from a collared urn were also found, along with an urn with the cremated remains of a child. So many unanswered questions in this one cairn! And with so many cairns, where so many of our ancestors were once laid to rest how many stories could this land whisper? It was perhaps a fitting start to our journey across a moor that holds at least four thousand years of human history, walking between the heather-covered cairns towards a very strange stone circle…
We walked through the cairns, seeing their contours in the rise and fall of the heather, knowing many more were now hidden by the late summer bracken. We were heading for the prosaically named Barbrook II. We know it better by another name, but that is a different story.
“…We reach the house-place. My eyes see only the encircling wall of stones, a few courses high… standing stones in the walls… even here she did not escape the Seeing… Her eyes join mine and I see the angled roof of thatch… the low opening covered with hide.
A fire burns within and I enter.
By the door a rough cot covered with fur… On the far side an alcove, draped in hides to keep out the draught, piled with furs… a necklace of seashells, incongruous on the moor, lies beside the bed. Beneath it, I know, is the stone cyst where she placed their ashes. The last of the embers glow softly on the hearth.
The remains of a meal discarded.
It is warm, homely.
They were here not so long ago…”
From Doomsday: Dark Sage, Stuart France & Sue Vincent
It is a curious place, unlike any other stone circle I have ever seen. At first glance it seems no more than a hut circle, the remains of a dry stone wall that might once have supported a conical roof, thatched with reeds. That was my first impression, though I have never found any recorded evidence of this. Closer inspection, though, reveals something extraordinary… a small stone circle of nine stones is built into the internal face of the walls. The site is recorded as a ringcairn with a revetment of dry-stone walls and an earthen embankment, but that is only a technical description.
It was, as were so many, excavated in the 19th century by antiquarian Samuel Mitchell who found nothing of significance. It was again excavated, carefully and extensively, in the 1960s. Several cup-marked stones were found, along with the remains of four human cremations. Two of them were simply interred within the circle, one was buried in the stone cyst and the other beneath the small cairn within the circle itself. Radiocarbon analysis of the remains from the small cairn gave a date of between 2192 BC – 1430 BC. Vandalism in the late eighties gave rise to a further investigation and a careful restoration of the circle to how it would have appeared back in the Bronze Age.
For us, it is a place of peace. A homely place, where I feel I should be offering hospitality and making my friends comfortable… which sounds silly, in a pile of stones out there in the middle of the moor… but that is how it feels. As we entered, everyone found a place to sit…and it seemed everyone gravitated to the upright stones of the circle. For a while no voices broke the hush… there was just a strong sense of companionship. Then we spoke of the circle and our thoughts on its usage and some shared the readings they had brought. there was no hurry. The first two were song lyrics, both pertinent, and, with that odd synchronicity that is no coincidence, one of them raised some very personal memories and emotions that led to a third reading that meant a great deal to its author and, through that curious and magical bond of love, to his listeners also.
We fell silent and shared a little quiet time, a comfortable quiet apart from the over-friendly midges and one persistent wasp. When the moment passed, our companions again tried their hand at dowsing… the shift in the reactions of rod and pendulum are quite clear there, especially around the cairn and the small standing stones. It was a gentle sort of an afternoon. The weather was kind, the land beautiful in its own, wild way and went a good way to restoring us after the morning at Gardom’s. We moved off, continuing over the moor towards the modern pathway that would complete our circular route. There was still much to see before we reached the final circle of the afternoon…
Between Two Worlds
A herd of deer were outlined against the far horizon as we followed the path, leading our companions across the moor to where it joins the track that runs above Bar Brook. The stream gathers the peat-stained water from the moor; feeding the old reservoir, its course divides the ancient lands of the living from the realm of the ancestral dead. The original track upon which we now walked might be from any age, but the wheel ruts and gravel speak of the modern vehicles that have used it and suddenly you feel as if you have been taken out of the story you were living and can now only observe.
As we walked past the old bridge that crosses the stream, there is a choice of ways. There are many crossing points, but this one seems odd as there is no visible path leading to or from it. A bridge whose only purpose seems to be to allow you to choose. Beyond the stream once stood the homes and hearths of the clan. On this side, the path leads to a place of magic and mystery… and it was this path we had chosen to walk.
To the left the land slopes up to where the cairns sleep beneath the bracken. A few trees take advantage of the meagre shelter offered by the little valley and beneath them the bright caps of toadstools add to the unreality of the place. We walk on towards Deadshaw Sick, a stretch of marshy ground that leads to a little waterfall where the rowans grow. We gather again at one of the Companion Stones… modern sculptures inscribed with poetry. This one has the image of a recumbent man in outline, asleep or dead, who knows? Around the stone is a poem, half hidden by the grass and deliberately mis-spelled to engage attention.
Beyond the stream, on top of the hill, you can see a standing stone. There is another at the top of the waterfall and still more on the moor above. At least some of them are guide stoops… placed in the trackless heather to give directions to travellers a couple of centuries ago. Others, we are not so sure. Around them are traces of Bronze Age homes and these stones seem older, more weathered, too many and too close to be guide-stones. Whatever their origin, it is as if the moor has taken them for its own and shaped them to its own story.
Across the water, a rocky outcrop stares back at us; an unmistakable face weathered from the stone and flanked by a cave, just big enough for a man to stand and watch the crossing. We suggest some might want to go and look, but no-one chooses to cross the stream into the living lands. Instead, we stand in silence, sharing some unfathomable emotion.
We walk on, passing between an avenue of stones. Beyond them lie traces of ancient fields and the outliers of the stone circle, buried now in the bracken; you can only see them clearly when the bracken is low. They seem, to the casual eye, like random boulders tumbled across the moor, but we had noted them as ‘significant stones’ on an early visit and only recently found their stellar alignments have been calculated and plotted, aligning with sun and moon at the changing points of the year.
The cairns come close to the path here as the track seems to turn its back to hearth and field. The land itself draws you in, pulling you close as if to whisper secrets. Water wells from the earth and in winter fills the small pools that flank a path that begins to climb once more. Passing between them, you see the first stone of a stone circle, rising above the horizon…
“They say the stones sleep. That they are old and forgotten… voiceless.
Is it so, little sister? Are they silent…or do they dream, the long, slow dreaming of aeons.
They were old when they were brought here. Older than memory. Older than time.
Their song never sleeps… it is we who live too fast.”
I’d written that a long time ago after a trip to the stone circle at Barbrook, bringing the vision of a seer to the page. “Sleepers awake, tell us your dreams”… Helen had written in that in her notebook a couple of days before visiting the place. And on the Friday morning, just after dawn when two of us had come to check the circle prior to the workshop, we had been shocked by the sense of ‘withdrawal’ at the stones… as if after too many centuries alone, they had finally sunk into sadness and allowed the moor to begin taking them back into the mists.
Three is a magical number…and three times three is thrice so. In the Silent Eye we work with a system based on a nine pointed symbol… but there is always the higher presence of the invisible One. As we approached the little circle we were only eight… but I felt that she who had once kept the circle would lend us her unseen presence. I say ‘she’ as, between the archaeology and geology of the area, plus what we and others have ‘picked up’, there seems to have been a strong feminine presence in the rites of land and sky.
It may be that it is time for the presence of the stones to fade, their meaning now lost, forgotten and often corrupted by those who seek to lay a new paradigm over an older vision and call it their own. But if that is the case, we may as well say the same of every church and chapel, every temple and grove, for all faith, religion and belief starts from a single point of illumination that is unique and personal before they can grow, evolve and spread. It is this continuous evolution that brings the understanding that set one heart and mind aflame to life, allowing it to speak to the hearts and minds of many and to answer their need… and each will take that spark and make it their own.
For me, as for many others, any place that has been rendered sacred by the faith of those who once walked there is worth preserving… and not just as a museum-piece. While there are still those who sit amongst the stones and wonder, while offerings are left in respect for some unnamed spirit of place, while there is one person whose thoughts turn to a higher sphere with stone at their back and their mind reaching beyond the birth of the stars… the ancient places will be kept alive.
We let our little company explore the circle. Some simply found a stone and sat quietly, others walked the perimeter of the circle…as we would do in ritual…. before taking their places at the stones. I watched from my place at the Seeing Stone, feeling the gears shift and stir, wondering what to do next. It was while we were waiting that a man appeared, accompanied by a white dog. He stopped and waited and was invited to go through.. he didn’t want to disturb us, he said. It was good to see the place being used. He was invited into the circle, to join us if he wished.
And so we were nine. Helen began by reading the first verse of the poem she had written about the sleeping stones. Then, in imagination, we visualised the rebuilding of the energy of the circle and all the while, our ninth companion, with white Nance by his side, nodded his head in approval. The symbolism was not lost on us; in esoteric terms, the Tarot is also known as the Journey of the Fool… and the Fool represents the soul. When we had done what the moment asked of us, Helen read the rest of her poem, which could have been written specifically for that moment and was perfect…and yet which had been written with no knowledge of what we would do. We hadn’t known that ourselves until we got there.
We do not seek to revive an outdated belief, nor do we seek to cling to what was. We honour what is… and what has lain at the heart of all of Man’s quest for understanding, since the dawn of time itself. What our ancestors understood from the earth and sky, we seek elsewhere, through the words of Books and the lives of Teachers. The teachings we are offered are appropriate to each successive Age of Man, building one upon the other and adding to a greater understanding. Yet the questions we have asked, of our origins and our purpose, will barely have changed…and however we clothe our vision of the truth across time and evolution, Truth itself does not change, even if we see only glimpses of it, like stars in the velvet night.
Our friend stayed with us as we reconstructed a simple divination, using the tokens our companions had chosen at the carved stone that morning. The method could not be historically accurate, for obvious reasons, but was based upon our own system and drew upon the ancient methods too. What we did was to show one of the ways in which we think the circle may have been used for the life of its people and it was in keeping with the spirit of the place. Of the stones that we used, each companion retained their chosen token, which left us with four. Steve, Stuart and I joined in a final blessing… which left us with one, a piece of labradorite, the magician’s stone, and this we gave to our friend. It seemed the right thing to do.
He accompanied us to the gate. He too had been to the other circle and had sat where we had sat. He is often on the moor and sits with the stones and we hope that we will meet him there again. Many of the small offerings we have seen there are his, gestures of respect… a guardian of the stones. As we walked away from the circle, we looked back to see a hawk, with wings outstretched, hovering over the stones.
The Thrice-Risen Sun
We were out long before dawn, driving the few miles to our rendezvous at Fox House, where we would meet our companions. With Sheffield behind us, we saw the sun rise above the distant horizon and watched its soft gold suffuse the sky of the city below as the car climbed the road to the moor. We were taking our little company to a high place to watch the dawn… yet we had already seen the sun rise in splendour.
Gathering our companions and blessing the fact that they had all risen so early to share the birth of a new day with us, we headed out to Higger Tor, the highest point in the area and an intriguing place in its own right. The views from there are spectacular…and have the added advantage of being only a few minutes walk from the narrow road that winds its way across the moor.
Our timing was perfect. We reached the top with just a few moments to catch our breath before we gathered to greet the sun, with a chant that echoed back across millennia to ancient Egypt. The sun’s timing was prefect too, but then, it always it… it is we who rise too late. Climbing above the hills beneath which the city sleeps, the solar disc crested the horizon as the final chants rang out and bathed the world in gold.
The photographer at the other end of the plateau must have wondered what on earth was going on…or maybe he, who rises early to catch the first rays of the golden hour, understood. We did get the impression that our presence was less than welcome…and we can understand that too; these early morning moments are special and seem, somehow, very personal. It is as if, standing before the sun, the world falls away and you come face to face with great Nature… and the Source of that great outpouring of life that stands behind her. True awe is not something we feel in our workaday lives as a rule, yet the miracle of a perfect sunrise reminds you of more than beauty.
Deep shadows and gilded mist make these first moments of the day magical. We wandered across the top of the plateau, looking out over the valley below and far across to the distant peaks, each with their own stories and legends to tell. You are around 1500 feet above sea level here and birds fly beneath you, skimming the early mist as seagulls skim the sea.
The mysterious bulk of Carl Wark was wreathed in swirling shapes, shifting and changing as if the spirits of the place had taken the morning mists to clothe their essence and make it visible, just for a moment, as the mistwraiths danced. From here the scale of the immense wall built across the hillfort thousands of years ago is made clear and the relationship between the two sites is both evident and full of unanswered questions.
The growing light began to reveal the details of the landscape. We began to be able to see some of the places we had been, some of the roads we had travelled to get there and others we were yet to know. From this high place, we could see how they related to one another, making patterns in the landscape visible only because of our experience of it…making sense of the disconnected moments.
The plateau slopes down here, dipping towards Hathersage and, as we once again turned to the east, we saw the sun crest the horizon yet again, thrice-risen for us that day. It was a strange feeling, for the dawn comes but once, but it was only with its third rising that the land moved from night to full day. It is even stranger when you really think about it…which we do not, accepting a daily dawn as part of the way things are.
The sun never, ever sets… it does not move from its point in space, nor does it sink into obscurity. It is the Earth that turns her back, turning away from a light that never fades and we believe that it has departed into the night. These days, we know that… yet we persist in our illusion of day and night because that is how it touches our senses. We know otherwise, but our experience is not one of ceaseless light, but of an alternating gift and loss.
Though we raise our eyes and our voices to greet the dawn, we do not worship the sun as we are told our ancestors did, as the source of all life, though we honour its place in the incredible beauty of creation. We raise our eyes and hearts to a symbol of something too vast and too bright to see… and symbolically, as well as in beauty, this was a perfect dawn. For us too, the Light may seem lost as life turns us away through the need to earn our place in the world. Darkness may take us and leave us feeling alone, lost and bereft… yet the Light never leaves us. We just fail to see that it is there.
We carry the Light into the world at our birth, often losing sight of it as we learn to move through the intensity and awkwardness of youth; it is never absent, only lost to consciousness. We may choose to turn and watch it dawn once more… standing in silent awareness as it reveals the true and rocky landscape of our lives to our understanding. And we may be graced with a third dawn that once again brings us into the realisation of a Light that never left us. Thus, for each of us, there may be a thrice-risen Sun.
We left Higger Tor after the sunrise and headed back to our respective breakfasts. Most would have to pack their bags too, before gathering for a final journey together. We were the lucky ones with time to spare and a drive back across the moors into the edges of the city. The early morning light was beautiful, though the first hint of autumn was showing in the iridescence of the clouds and the turning colours of the moor. For most of the year these high, wild places wear the colours of autumn… the russet, copper and pale gold that anywhere else would mean a sleeping time. It is only for a few brief weeks in late summer that they dress in amethyst and emerald and show their true colours. It matters little to me… though the heather makes my soul sing, it is the heart of the high places that speaks to mine.
We gathered in the car park, most of us taking advantage of the clear, bright morning to capture last shots of Carl Wark where we had begun the journey so short a time before. A lot happens on these weekends and time seems to bear little relation to how much we manage to see, do and experience. As the party would be breaking up after lunch some miles away, we had ourselves a convoy as we headed back across the moors, passing Barbrook and Gardom’s and then onwards into territory we had yet to share.
It is times like these that I don’t want a convoy… I want a mini-bus. “Over there to your left you can see the traces of the medieval ridge-and-furrow field system,” “to your right you will see Devil’s Drop, officially known as Peter’s Rock, that features heavily in our Doomsday series of books,” “on the horizon you can see the huge hillfort above Great Hucklow where we hold our annual ritual workshop…” So many things I would have liked to point out and share… but there is only so much you can do. At least we could stop halfway and tell a tale or two.
So we stopped at Monsal Head and looked out over the valley so high above sea level now, but whose rocks are made from petrified coral. As we waited for ice-cream, we told the legend of the beautiful shepherdess, Hedessa and the misshapen giant, Hulac Warren, who had loved her and of how she fell to her death to escape him… and how, where she fell, a healing spring welled from the ground. And we showed them where to look to see the giant’s form in the rocks.
And we told them of the tragedy of Fin Cop, an enigmatic site upon the top of the hill. There too, like Carl Wark, there are walls that were built to protect an ancient enclosure. The wall stood ten feet high and in front of it was a deep trench and wide embankment. Yet it did not stop those who came with murderous intent. They took the plateau, a place of women and small children, toppling the walls upon their victims, it seems. One of them was either heavily pregnant or bore a new-born child. Their bones were found beneath the stones.
The ice-cream was still not forthcoming and time was getting short. There would be no time on this to do more than look at the valley from our vantage point, which was a shame as there is a lot to see here. Through the valley, the river winds; in places, wide and slow, in others magical and strewn with flowers. There is even a waterfall… and high on the hillside, a fairy castle… or so it seems… that hides a cave where yet another skeleton was found. To look at the beauty of the place, you would never guess that it hides such tragedy… yet that too is a lesson and is true of many faces, not just places.
We piled back into the cars and headed off on the final leg of our journey, leaving the heather and bracken behind and entering into the other Derbyshire, the land of rolling green hills and dry stone walls. It is a very different landscape, yet you can see it shares a common ancestry with the high places, where the pale rocks thrust through the green of the fields. We were heading for the great stone circle of the north… Arbor Low…
The weather was surprisingly good. Normally when we visit this particular site it is freezing cold, driving rain or both, for the last stretch of our journey would take us to Arbor Low, one of the finest ancient sites in Derbyshire and certainly the best known. It is often referred to as the Stonehenge of the North, yet it bears little resemblance to that great circle, on the surface at least. The similarities are more subtle than that and anyone expecting towering pylons of stone are in for a disappointment. On the other hand, it does closely resemble the better-known site in other respects. The ritual landscape of which it is a part is potentially enormous. Mysteries abound and yet, unlike Stonehenge, here they have not been thoroughly plotted, excavated or investigated and what little is known is open to renewed interpretation in light of the discoveries and understanding we have gleaned over the past century. Even English Heritage in whose care the site now rests and who provide the information boards for visitors, admit that we know little and understand even less.
We crossed the farmyard which is the only way to access the site, paying our coins in an echo of an age-old rite of passage. Rather than heading for the obvious gate, and knowing the site well, we cut across the fields, following the path that most would take to exit the site. We had always done so before, but on our last visit, in the company of our friend Running Elk, we had kicked ourselves for not realising that here too, as at Barbrook, the accepted, clockwise path around the site runs the wrong way. This time, though, that deduction wasn’t based on some nebulous feeling of rightness alone, but on the layout of the site itself… and it made perfect sense.
We were heading first for Gib Hill. At first glance, it looks odd. It is neither a standard shape for a round barrow, nor for a long barrow. If anything, it more closely resembles in shape the type of mound usually dismissed as a ‘castle’… or a diminutive version of Silbury Hill. It stands at some distance from the circle and is thought to be the oldest surviving feature of the site. The strange shape of the mound has an equally strange explanation. It was originally a Neolithic barrow. The Neolithic period in Britain covers the period from around 6000 to around 4,500 years ago and was followed by the Early Bronze Age, which lasted until around 800 BC. During the Early Bronze Age, a second, round barrow, was built on top of one end of the older mound and it is this superimposition that has altered the shape of Gib Hill.
The mound was excavated in 1824 by William Bateman, who seems to have owned the field. Along with flints and a stone axe, he found that the earlier long barrow was made of layers of clay mixed with charcoal and cremated human bones. In 1848 his son, the antiquary Thomas Bateman, who became known as “The Barrow Knight” for his propensity for digging up these ancient mounds, dug a tunnel into the barrow, finding flints and the bones of oxen in the lower layers. Nearing the completion of his tunnel, a stone burial cyst fell through its roof containing a human cremation and an urn. Bateman appropriated the cyst and re-erected it in the grounds of his home at Lomberdale House. It has now been replaced in the mound and its capstone is visible on its summit.
The name, Gib Hill, would normally imply that a gibbet once stood there but there are conflicting opinions on this. Most, including English Heritage, say there is no evidence for a gibbet. Others maintain that one stood there in the 18th century. They were usually placed where they would do most good as a deterrent and although there is an old Roman road close by and the main turnipike road from which Gib Hill can be seen, it does run at quite some distance from the mound and there are other mounds, at least, if not more prominent on the surrounding hills that would have been more visible. Only the antiquity of the site would have made Gib Hill a ‘good’ choice.
Gib Hill, it would appear, has another name locally too and one I did not come across until I started researching for this article. It is known as ‘the serpent’, which, in light of what was to come, was something of a surprise… and another one of those very odd synchronicities that attended the weekend.
The other mounds are curious, topping almost every one of the hills in the area that can be seen from Gib Hill. Whether they are all recognised as ancient tumuli or not, they do seem to form an integral part of the landscape as seen from this point. Considering that Arbor Low has a ‘sister’ site at the Bull Ring in Dove Holes about ten miles away, this scale of work across the landscape cannot be discounted and it is seen in so many other parts of the country, including at Stonehenge; that famous site is more than just the iconic circle and it is accepted that it stretches for many miles across the Wiltshire landscape.
We climbed the mound, explaining our thoughts on the landscape and pointing out the features that could be seen from its summit, including what appears to be the remains of another henge in the field beside it. We showed our companions the mounds that top the surrounding hills and where the earthen embankment runs that seems to form an avenue between Gib Hill and the stone circle. We spoke too of our theories on how these mounds could have been seen by our ancestors as gateways to the Otherworld… and how they could have been used by the shamans or priesthood.
Apart from the mound itself and a few of the stones that surround it, there is little to see of the site, though much to feel. You can see how the avenue leads into this side of the stone circle, rather than following the accepted clockwise route. And it is only from here that you begin to get a true sense of the stone circle that lies invisible behind the high banks of the henge. From here, those banks look like a sleeping female form…and from here we would follow the course of the avenue to enter the circle from the ‘head’, swallowed by the goddess, who would, when we were done, bring us to a symbolic re-birth into the world.
The Serpent Stones
We followed the earthen avenue from Gib Hill to the banks of Arbor Low. You do not really get a clear impression of where you are here; the roads climb steadily as they cross the undulating landscape and, by the time you reach the henge, you are already over twelve hundred feet above sea level. The countryside around you seems relatively flat, with only the distant peaks of higher hills to shape the horizon. Even today there are few buildings in the area and, with little light pollution, nights are dark and the stars bright. And that makes you wonder about what our ancestors might have been doing here, especially given what we have ‘seen’ in meditation within the circle on previous visits.
“…On the screen of inner sight a single glowing point of light that seems farther than the farthest star, yet closer than the sun.
Between her and the light nothing but the streaks of passage… a stream of movement, as of a million suns caught racing comets in the blackness of space.
A wormhole… dragons… serpents aflame with brilliance… a tunnel through which she is rushing faster than the light itself, falling inwards, forwards, upwards… she does not know…
…Then a figure blocking the brightness… a dark silhouette against the torchlight and the tang of smoke…”
From Doomsday: The Ætheling Thing, Stuart France & Sue Vincent
As always, we left our companions to explore, eventually taking up our own position on one of the central stones to wait until they had gathered. We had asked each of them to find a stone that seemed to draw them before joining us. By the time they did, the three other women in that party had all mentioned that they had an impression of serpents. That was curious in itself, that it was the women who caught that idea. Or perhaps not, as we have long felt that women were a prominent part of the ancient rituals of this area. We had the circle almost to ourselves and the other visitors were obviously sympathetic, so we asked our companions to go and sit or lie on ‘their’ stone and meditate.
It is a curious place. It is classified as being one of the finest henge monuments in the north; a ‘henge’ is a circular or oval bank of earth with an inner ditch. At Arbor Low, the bank and ditch together, even four and a half thousand years or so after its construction, form an impressive enclosure around 250 feet across. Near the south-east entrance, a large barrow was built many years later in the Bronze Age, just inside and straddling the henge. Thomas Bateman excavated the barrow in 1845 and found the cremation burials and grave goods in the mound.
There are over fifty stones forming the ovoid circle within the sanctuary space enclosed by the henge, with another seven forming a central cove. All the stones are laid flat, rather than standing as you would normally see. One theory is that Christians toppled the stones a few hundred years ago, destroying the pagan site, but there is no evidence for this either in documents or in the ground. Even to look at the stones, you do not get the impression they were ever designed to stand. Knowing standing stones so well, half of them would be the ‘wrong way up’ if you stood them on end to form a circle. Many are too close to the edge of the henge… and it does not look as if a circle could be formed simply by lifting them from where they have been ‘cast down’. On the other hand, the stones, laid flat, made us think immediately of a clock face or a zodiac map… and ‘time’ is also an idea most people have come up with when we have taken them there.
The cove itself is an unusual find within a stone circle. Its stones might have been standing at some point, like the gnomon of a sundial perhaps? It looks as if it would then form a central, upright horseshoe around ten to fifteen feet across, with the open end facing a midsummer moonset. A skeleton was also found buried close to the cove during excavations at the start of the 20th century.
It was here we sat and waited, once again, for our companions to return. We did not track the time… time matters little in such a place, but they were gone a good while before, one by one, they began to drift back and join us quietly at the cove. We waited still, unprepared to rush those who stayed out longer, before sounding a chime to bring them back. Three chimes, echoing around the circle and sounding right in a way it is hard to describe.
When all had returned and shared what they wished to share, we joined for a final time in a simple rite of healing and communion, hand in hand around the cove. We had unwittingly timed things perfectly again; as we were finishing and preparing to leave the circle, a large party of walkers arrived to whom our behaviour would undoubtedly have seemed a tad unusual. We are seldom interrupted by the unsympathetic in such moments; as if the intent itself is enough to shield our privacy, even in the middle of a busy tourist site. Hekas Hekas Este Bebeloi! We left the circle, walking between the serpent stones that led us back out into the world.
Worlds Without Borders
We left Arbor Low and headed back to the village of Monyash and the pub for lunch. Once again, we seemed to have seen and done far more than should be possible in such a short time, slipping across the borders of time and space as if it were perfectly natural. The trouble was that now, as we neared the end of our weekend, there was not a huge amount of time left before everyone would depart, making their separate ways to homes to in far-flung parts of the country. It always amazes me, and touches me deeply, the distances that are travelled by people coming to share these weekends with us. They are not huge, glitzy events… and for at least three of them every year, all we appear to do is go out for a walk… in whatever weather we happen to have. Yet, people travel hundreds… often thousands… of miles to share what we do, regularly coming from as far away as America to take part.
The weekends are open to all… not just members of the Silent Eye and their focus is about sharing an experience. They are an opportunity to get together with people who walk widely different paths, both in everyday life and on their own spiritual journeys. One thing has always stood out for me at gatherings such as these and that is a complete lack of tolerance for the beliefs of others. There is no need for ‘tolerance’, which still, when you think about it, implies a judgement. Instead, there is just acceptance, pure and simple, of the validity of every other path. The minister laughs with the witch, the shaman with the Qabalist and the druid with the Taoist. There are no borders, no boundaries, no social divides and no prejudice… just a genuine desire to share and learn from each other.
Spirituality is not about looking the part, it is about living it. There is a kindness, an openness and a generosity of spirit that characterises those who have set their feet on their chosen path and turned towards the light that guides them. It is in this, as much as anything we do, that we see the true beauty of the gatherings.
It was a warm and happy group that sat down to that final lunch at the Bull, but all too soon it was time to depart. Here too there is something curious, because the bonds of friendship are freely given and although there may be regret that there is not more time and few of know when we will next meet, there is an ease about such moments; as if our accustomed normality has paused for a while and we return to it enriched by our sojourn in a different world… a world that will take up its conversations as if we had never left should we return to it.
Soon, only Stuart and I were left. It is a curious feeling when you have organised one of these gatherings and the companions have dispersed. We needed grounding and so, there was only one thing we could do… We drove back to Curbar, bought ourselves a well-earned ice-cream and went to lay down in the last of the heather.
We would particularly like to thank author Helen Jones, who joined us for the weekend, for sharing her own account of our adventures. It is one thing for us to tell the story, but quite another to be able to share such a comprehensive and beautiful account written by someone who had come along to her first weekend workshop with us. We hope it won’t be her last. You can read Helen’s account on her blog: Please click here for parts one, two, three, four, five , six and seven.