It began with the pounding of drums.
As we crested the hill, the patchwork Hampshire countryside of Butser Farm and the rolling South Downs spread out at our feet. Over green fields of waving maize, bright yellow bobbing blooms of rapeseed (#aliterationwin), baby lambs were bounding and trees gently swayed.
We were bound for Butser Farm hosting their annual Beltain (or Beltane) festival, an ancient Celtic celebration of the beginning
of summer, with music, dancing and the burning of the giant Wicker Man. Not quite sure what we were letting ourselves in for, we jumped on the train in London bound eventually for a spot 5 miles out of Petersham, Hampshire.
We wore beautifully handwoven daisy chains, carried our cameras with care and picked our way carefully down the hillside path. Queuing up with caped pagans and hunter-wearing tweed families we held out our carefully printed tickets at the farm gate, for e-readers to be brandished and QR codes scanned.
Our mission was to witness the ancient Celtic ritual of burning the Wicker Man, for the Beltain festival ushering in Summer from the mischievous clutches of spring. This year the Wicker Man wore the woven form of a 45ft Stag, towering over the fields and adorned with ‘wishes’, wool-tied missives rolled in white paper.
Our fabulous 2016 Wicker Man.
Making a couple of leisurely loops of the tented pastures we made a beeline for the beer tent to the tune of Ozzy Osbourne floating on the breeze, interrupted only by wishing on the Wicker Man, a brief time-travelling trip to the Stone Age and slipping into the Storytelling tent for fireside tales of King Arthur retrieving Excalibur from nearby Winchester boulders.
We admired a 10-year olds fairy-light laden walking staff, beribboned and festooned with greenery; clutched barbequed burgers served by girl guides and wandered through the festival with a pint in hand.
Around us flame-haired dancers jigged to Irish fiddles while the sun began to dip below the horizon and as the temperature began to drop we broke out the brandy infused hot chocolates (the queue for tea actually doubled back on itself much to our amusement.)
May I introduce the The May King & Queen, watching the festivities & Morris Dancers. Not sure who the dude on the left is…
When we do something like this, I can often be found stood
quietly simply watching the goings-on. Really, it’s my internal blog
narrative recording ephemeral sensations, adding them to the bank of
experience. I often think feeling too many emotions is a bad thing, but then
the writer in me exalts in wrangling a few words later to express that inner delight.
As the light fell, a red green & black clad cadron of drummers ranging in age from ten to their fifties hammered their hearts out in a tempest of rhythm, whilst filing up the crest of a small hill towards the Wicker Man. Lining up either side of the effigy, they pounded in unison as a raffle ticket winner (hello England) and his mum(!) carried a burning torch from a small fire. By the time they reached the peak and touched the naked flame to the feet of our Wicker Man, the drums had escalated in tempo driving the ancient Celtic ceremony to a peak.
Essentially Beltane is a fire festival: “the ‘good fire’ was burnt for purification, for healing, for light, for growth.” The biggest, best known Beltane festival is held in Scotland on Carlton Hill where the May Queen and the Winter King arrive at the Acropolis
surrounded by handmaidens (who are guardians of the May Queen, who can be
portrayed by either sex), and drummers to process them around and down
the hill. As they travel, they are interrupted by the red men – spirits
of chaos and disorder – who try to distract the May Queen.(Guess where you’ll find us next May Day?)
“Beltane is a rural pre-Christian prehistoric tradition which saw
communities come together after long winters of isolation,” anthropologist Pauline Bambry says.
“It marked their connection not just to nature but to each other. That
need to belong to something or someone hasn’t changed. We can be just as
isolated living in the city or in a town as the ancient Britons were in
their round houses.”
Around me (and I was equally guilty) the watching masses pulled out
their smartphones, and watched/filmed as the flames
flickered and caught on the dry wood woven in the shape of a stag. The crowd
ooohed and aaaahed as the blaze
And this is why I love, love, love England.
(And incidentally my friends who also adore hare-brained reasons to meander into the countryside.)