The weather was not ideal to say the least. All day we had experienced rain, hail, lightning, thunder and gusts which could easily knock a man off his feet. ‘Sunshine and showers’ seem to be the April motto. On this day, however, it was mostly the former and little of the latter. I was overjoyed and relieved to see sunshine and clear skies the following morning.
The South Downs of East Sussex rolled by, gently undulating with spring green femininity as we made our way through the former stomping ground of both the late Doreen Valiente and Evan John Jones who once lived close by. We were on a sacred pilgrimage to a place where Roy Bowers (aka Robert Cochrane) and other members of his Clan including Evan John Jones, Doreen Valiente and Bill Gray had once worked a rite together at All Hallows which has since been studied fervently by those wishing to continue Roy’s pioneering work in the early days of The Clan of Tubal Cain. This has been beautifully described by Bill Gray and is now featured in a book documenting Bill’s life and work. (‘The Old Sod’ published by Skylight Press who kindly allowed me to reproduce the passage in Part One)
Admittedly I was not sure what to expect of Newtimber Hill. Bill’s account had provided clues and the memory of that group of old Witches had dominated my thoughts and dreams for the last 48 hours or so. I tried to remain cautiously excited, all this rain could prevent us from getting anywhere near the top of Newtimber and that would be more than disappointing to say the least.
Someone clearly had other ideas and a sunny dry spell long enough for an early visit to the site meant we could climb Newtimber with relative ease, taking heavy, burdensome items with us to discretely squirrel away amongst the scrub ready for later on. We parked up close by and began the ascent. Pheasant squawked up ahead from somewhere amongst the bright yellow Rape fields. The going was OK. In fact the earth below was a little slippery just like Kent Clay and littered with shards of flint and fragments of white limestone, hinting that the South Downs had similar origins to my beloved North Downs. I felt right at home.
The climb became steeper and more tiresome, a few breaks for nicotine and water were essential but I was more than happy to take it slow and absorb the ambience, the calm, the awakening green and the song of a hundred birds rejoicing in a moment’s respite from the wind and rain. The path wound its way up the hill as if it were a pre-designed, purpose laid processional way. We snaked our way up and down, through twist and turn slowly, steadily… reverently. Along the edge of the path coppiced Hazel tree’s caught my eye, all growing bundles of perfect little stangs…I wonder if any of that lot had perhaps cut their stang from here?
Heartsease, Wood Anemone, Blue Bells and Mayflowers danced in the breeze, nestled in every crook and crevice as they fought for every ray of sunshine there was to spare. Despite the exhausting trek uphill I could see why this place held such fondness.
When we reached the top, not far from our final destination the rolling South Downs opened out before us into a beautiful landscape overshadowed by clouds sailing by overhead and punctuated by islands of radiant yellow gorse and the occasional lone tree, still bare, but standing bravely in the face of the prevailing gusts up on the exposed hill tops. A brief glance behind us became a joyous moment, and reason to pause, as we saw Jack and Jill in the distance. Once Roy, John, Doreen, Bill and others had stood here looking over the hills towards the very same landmarks Roy refers to on occasion in his letters. I was beginning to feel overwhelmed and, still hot from our climb, I removed a layer or two and the wind cooled and settled the spirit…it whispered softly “Rest child”.
Just a few more paces through a well-used gate where the earth was sodden underfoot we knew we had reached the spot when the hairs on the back of our necks stood on end, skin tingled as goose bumps rose in recognition all over. It is said that X marks the spots and in this case it was a cross of four perfectly spaced trees stood to the four quarters which guarded the site. We sat, smoked, recovered from the climb and connected in silence. The air brought the call of Crows on the wind. Odin’s faithful familiars Hugin and Munin representing Knowledge and Memory awoke exactly that, for in the breeze I could hear their chatter. Roy, John and Bill engrossed in deep conversation and laughing whilst Doreen’s bright smile seemed to radiate through the branches of the tree’s enshrouding this place, this “Mecca” as it had been affectionately called earlier that day. Stone, wood and soil oozed memory. It was an emotional moment for us all…I was humbled and honoured to be here, stomping the same soil of our ancestors. I was thrilled to have come here during the day to experience the gentle contact which seemed to welcome us home.
After a good few hours of sitting, exploring, talking and laughing we made our way back down Newtimber for lunch and respite. A typical ‘Greasy Spoon’ café on the side of the A23 was where we quenched our need for tea and cake. I could imagine Roy and John sat somewhere like this…discussing the occult and magical artes over a brew and a roll-up even though I had never met them. It seemed just being at Newtimber evoked their memory within so strongly it was like I had known them years!
The afternoon was devoted to rest and repose. I slept all too briefly, dreams littered with voices and whispers from the past, pictures of the elders of Newtimber, of roaring fires, boiling pots, scalding swords and grinding mills.
We set off again around 6:30pm. It started to rain much to our dismay. “Just a passing shower”. Fortunately it was, as we headed back down the A23 the sun broke through and a double rainbow emerged victorious from the dark clouds. At one point we seemed to drive through it, crossing the rainbow bridge much to our excitement and glee, one trying to capture the image on camera, one trying to drive and me, the fortunate passenger, just able to enjoy nature’s spectacle…a good omen perhaps?
A sense of de ja vu followed me back to the entrance to the Newtimber site. Not just because we had already been here earlier that day but a sense of recognition, familiarity and homecoming. We agreed to ascend in silence, each collecting a stone at the foot of the hill just as Roy had instructed the others to do on that All Hallows night back in 1965.
Being somewhat more familiar with the treacherous slippery clay I went on ahead, still in silence and firmly grasping my lump of flint. Whilst memories of founding Fathers (and Mothers) had dominated much of the day, on this particular climb it was memories of future torch bearers which stole my attention, those ancestors who are yet to be, who will one day also walk this perilous and crooked path to further Roy’s work and his legacy.
At the top of the hill, just before the gate we had entered previously, a wooden style crosses the fence and leads to the same spot. As I stood here and rested a while something told me the style was the right way to enter into the ritual landscape this evening, for this time we wasn’t simply visiting or on a reccy, this time there was work to be done.
I think I had about 15 minutes alone at the site before the others caught up, plenty of time to recoup and connect once again to that subtle contact. All worries and woes seemed to melt away in the dimming sunlight; any lingering turmoil of past upheavals seemed insignificant and evaporated in the breeze. Once the others joined me we placed our stones down around the site to relinquish burdens and of course in fond memorial of friends we had never met but live on through our work.
As darkness fell, a small fire was ignited at which point hail began to plummet from the sky, great biting waves of ice showers lashed at our hands and faces. We huddled around the flames for warmth waiting for the worst to pass. The deluge didn’t dampen spirits; there was something elemental about the experience. Fire and Ice which, according to Norse legend created everything, were here converging before us, it felt right, it felt wet and cold, but it felt right nonetheless! Shadow’s moved around us and spectral figures glided in and out of our peripheral vision…we were not alone!
The worst did eventually pass. The stang was planted, the circle constructed and work began. From that point on time seemed to stand still. All that mattered was that moment, a moment which seemed to go on for hours. Past, present and future no longer existed, and once the work was done we feasted on cake and wine with those kindred spirits gathered together around the dying embers of the fire in love, laughter and complete recognition. It became clear that this evening wasn’t about worship, at least not exclusively, this night was about seeking the dim light of a taper ignited some 40 plus years ago by the first brothers and sisters of tradition and turning that dim light into a radiant beacon of faith and hope…a legacy to be continued.
“This is the Taper which lights the way…
That’s worth a light…
…And into the castle that Jack built
Many thanks to Matt Baldwin-Ives @Miles Cross (http://www.milescross.co.uk/) for the fantastic photography accompanying this Blog.