Picture the scene… two o’clock in the morning… a half empty wine bottle on the table… the dog snoring on the sofa, her ball forgotten for a little while… and my companion picks up the book and begins to read aloud.
The words take us back to a day when nothing happened. That had been the point of reading… yet it was the kind of nothing that means something… and it was a day that changed the world for Stuart and I in a way that cannot easily be expressed. It was all about being there…
Sixteen books later, and the magic is deeper than ever.
“You didn’t mean to come this way did you?”
“This way, that way…what does it matter?”
“Who knows?” It is my turn to look mysterious as we set off up the hillock. The chill snags my breath as we climb and the mist swirls and eddies, clinging to our legs and arms like star-stuff. I nearly lose my balance a number of times for no apparent reason, a sure sign, if one were needed, that we are approaching the numinous.
The hollow of Dragon Hill affords a stunning vista of the Manger and the Giant’s Stairs. From this vantage the sheer scale of the site starts to impinge upon my consciousness. I agree with Wen that the laity would have congregated in the bowl or chalice of the hill where we now stand, shaped as it is it forms a natural amphitheatre. The scoured grass beneath our feet, which according to tradition is the spot where St. George ‘loosed the Dragon’s blood’, is clearly as anything a missing piece off the horse on the hill opposite. I am minded of the myth of Isis and Osiris and the search of the Goddess for her brother’s dismembered body. The other disconcerting thing from our point of view is that the figure is not wholly visible from this elevation. One would need to be a lot higher up or further back to make out the entire shape. It is, though, a highly dramatic landscape.
We have crossed to the opposite hill now and stand contemplating the eye of the dragon.
Looking out, back into the depths of the Manger, I start to feel the powerful presence of the place in a vague, barely expressible way but Wen can actually see it… she outlines the processional route…picks out the torch lit chalk figure through the mist and brings my focus to the lozenge shaped head of the dragon which mirrors the hill shape and hollow of the Manger in an ascending scale of size which descends in height…such precision cannot be accidental…and the enormity of the achievement in fusing heaven and earth in this spectacular way slowly dawns.
“Sure, the people responsible for this chose their ritual sites with care but they also adapted them to fit their purpose!”
I can find no fault in the story Wen has outlined, in fact it is so compelling that I almost start to see it myself. Just then there is a flurry of wings, and squawks and screeches overhead and we turn our attention skyward in time to see an enormous Buzzard chasing off two Ravens from the precincts of Uffington Castle.
“Oh, Don look!” cries Wen, “The hawk of the morning has chased the shadows of the night away.”
As if on cue a sky lark flies up from the Fairy Thorn with as incongruous a cacophony of song as you are ever likely to hear in such a setting.
Mirroring the skylark, Wen bursts into laughter and even I manage to smile at that one, “It appears that whatever it is we are going to do in April has just received its blessing.”
As the ravens fly into black specks and disappear in the mist another Buzzard glides into view and we watch the two mighty birds soar on the up-draught for a while, as if spiralling around some unseen cone of power.
It certainly feels like we have been accepted into something although I am not quite sure what. I make a mental note to look up the origins of the phrase, ‘…the Heart of Albion’.
“Now they’ve cleared the way, we may as well take a look at the Castle.”
We stride off past the Fairy Thorn and enter the plateau of the ‘castle’ through one of its three entrances which form an inverted ‘Y’. Trying to map their sight points proves difficult in the mist so we fall to speculating about the ‘why’ of settling in such an apparently inhospitable place. A look up ends the speculation. The air overhead is fair crackling with energy which is abundant enough to be visible to the naked eye. They evidently liked to live close to the source…
The acrid smoke hung heavy in the night air. They would feast tonight. But for now she plaited the strands of horsehair from the white mane. A gift from the gods she would treasure, a blessing as she shared the meat roasting in the pit on the plateau. The flames cast a dull glow across the faces of the gathered clans. They were expectant, eager yet solemn. They were waiting…
We eventually descend from the castle and regain the car. A short drive takes us to a small car park close to where we are due to pick up the ancient Ridgeway. As we again clamber from the vehicle one of the Buzzards sweeps by at house height, emphasising our intended path, then starts to climb again before its final flyby. Since coming down from the heights everything has acquired a hidden significance and appears fraught with meaning, even the large black dog with a red ball in its mouth ambling about the car park strives to get in on the act.
“If these animals and birds could speak, I’m sure they would.” I laugh but Wen just looks mysterious again and murmurs something about them not really needing to… the thought of talking animals starts to open doors in my memory and another natural silence descends, broken only by our footfalls, as we head for the ancient track which leads to Wayland’s…
On gaining the Ridgeway I make Wen laugh by starting to talk about ley-lines. According to Alfred Watkins the Ridgeway is not itself a ley but is crossed a countless number of times by them along the whole of its length which even today is quite some considerable distance. The ancient track certainly has a magical feel to it which may or may not be synonymous with the term High Way. We look back at where we have been and Wen takes a snap of Uffington from the track. The raised edges of the henge are still just about visible from here if you know what you are looking for. If there were a castle built to scale inside the circumference of the henge it would be absolutely immense and more than capable of comfortably housing a whole company of giants! There is a serious point here because Wen thinks that Uffington and Wayland’s are part of the same ritual site. The ability to think coherently on such a scale within the landscape itself is simply staggering but completely in keeping with what we are coming to realise about these folk
If anything the feathered activity around us has now increased to yet another level and as we walk it is difficult not to be both aware of and amused by the number of birds singly and in two’s and threes which accompany us, scooting from bush to bush, trilling their encouragement and then tweeting their goodbyes as another couple or trio take up our escort. I do not know too many avian tales but I am reminded of a Jacques Tati film that I saw many years ago. He and his sidekick spent virtually the whole film wandering the wilderness being stalked by a talking Raven which they were forever attempting to be rid of. The Raven agreed to leave them alone if they accepted their Hero Quest which they finally agreed to and which it turned out was to discover how sparrows communicate. Our two loveable clowns succeeded! After many hours of studying the movement of the birds they eventually came to realise that the sparrows were communicating with each other not by singing or tweeting or using their vocal chords at all but by hopping! Cue shots of Jacques and his sidekick hopping and jumping about from European city to European city amongst the various flocks of sparrows at these locations… Comic Genius!
“I know now…”
“What to do you now know?”
“I know what the quest is?”
“How do you know what the quest is?”
“A little bird told me…”
“The quest is always the same from age to age.”
“…Find the path… and stay on it!’…”
Extract from Chapter One: The Initiate