The problem with being a participator in life is you are never quite sure where your participation may lead.
Yesterday I set out on a winters walk with four friends. From Trosley Country Park, we headed for Coldrum Long Barrow along the North Downs Way, catching a glimpse of winter sun and trudging through the lanes, sticky with mud.
I was carrying a homemade solstice kit thrown together the previous evening. Whatever your religious leanings, I like the idea of celebrating the solstice. As someone who works outdoors all year I am still in tune with the cycle of the seasons and work with them.
The spring means dawn starts to survey lapwings, the summer is long days on the marshes, autumn is reaping a hedgerow harvest and this winter has been bumping around in a landrover with farmers as geese rise from the estuary edge and flocks of curlew gather in the fields.
As the days grow shorter (if not this year colder) then I feel it, the dying of the old year and look forward to the return of the new. So I am in sympathy with the druids practice of marking the solstice and happy to give it a nod with an offering and a ritual.
However arriving at the stones yesterday afternoon I became swept up in Kent Gorsedd’s solstice celebration. As an array of colourful characters walked out from the village of Trottiscliffe, led by the priest clothed untraditionally, as my friend pointed out, in an array of ‘made in India’ colourful cloaks. Still, wreathed in ivy garlands and carrying hazel staffs entwined with honeysuckle they looked cool.
At the base of the long barrow sat a women sounding a skin drum and, when they called for participants, I was over the fence like a jack rabbit as my friends lingered out of reach.
The ceremony commenced with offerings to the Guardian Spirit of Coldrum Stones, wafting of incense, holding the hands of two rather handsome druids either side of me and some ritual chanting. So far, so good. However, when the high priest suddenly wielded a claw like scythe in the air, I was all ready for scarpering. I eyed the dog and the chid in the circle as far worthier sacrifices than me but thought it might be a case of, ‘last in, first out!’
However, instead he brandished a big bunch of mistletoe and offered us all to step into the darkness at the centre of the circle and sacrifice something in order to receive the light. The sacrifice was merely our thoughts and in return we received a bit of ‘trickery’ from dark witches and offered a piece of mistletoe. I was game, took my mistletoe, offered my dark thoughts and returned to my place in the circle.
The ceremony wound on with folk singing and drumming . I was conscious of my rumbling stomach and my friends waiting on the side lines. I began to feel as I once had when caught in a Catholic service in the Vatican surrounded by nuns, but, once participating, you have to accept you are in for the long haul. It is all very well jumping a fence and saying, “I’ll join,” but maybe you should read the small print first.
Suddenly I was being asked to step into the circle and be initiated into the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Coldrum Stones. A few timid looking souls offered themselves up, but blimey, I had only come out for a country walk, I wasn’t about to join a new religion I knew nothing about. I hung back, my desire to participate having reached its limit, at least for today, no one seemed to mind. The new initiates joined hands and offered words of allegiance. It was a nice ceremony and afterwards came the bit I liked best. The feasting on bread and mead, the most tasty, spicy, woodland drink I think I have ever had the delight to sample.
A little more singing, a bit of ritual chanting and the procession wound away. My friends and I conducted our own low key ceremony. writing down something we wished to leave behind in the old year and burning it on the alter stone and then writing on a piece of material something we wished to come to us in the new year. This we tied on the tree overlooking the site hung with offerings. We feasted on peanut butter sandwiches washed down with cherry brandy, we gave a call for peace to the four directions, we walked on. I felt the year turn.