Drops of Hope

by the river.

A mother’s first milk.

She calls on Brigantia
to deliver her first-born child.

Drops of hope
by the river.

She drinks of her milk.

Will Brigantia deliver us?

No-one knows exactly where they came from or who brought them here in the early sixteenth century. Yet the snowdrop (galanthus nivalis from the Greek gala ‘milk’ and anthos ‘flower’ and the Latin nivalis ‘of the snow’) along with lambs has become an essential part of the constellation of the Celtic festival of Imbolc/Gwyl Ffraid which is celebrated by modern Pagans and Celtic Polytheists on the 1st and/or 2nd of February.

The common etymology of the term Imbolc is that it comes from the old Irish i molc ‘in the belly’. It is usually associated with the pregnancy and lactation of ewes. Sheep, along with domesticated cattle and pigs, were brought to Britain and Ireland during the Neolithic period. This could well have been the time the Celts began venerating the ‘culture gods’ associated with the cross quarter pastoral and agricultural festivals such as Brigid/Brigantia (Imbolc) and Lugh/Lugus (Lughnasadh/Gwyl Awst).

I have often wondered whether ‘in the belly’ relates to earlier human fertility cycles amongst hunter-gatherers in which most of the mating took place at Beltane/Calan Mai so babies were born nine months later, at Imbolc, a time when the days were beginning to lengthen and the weather to warm. One of the roles of Brigid/Brigantia was as a midwife and perhaps relates to an older tradition.

If our ancient ancestors had seen snowdrops at this time would they have seen them as signs of hope as they brought life into a world which remained precarious due to unstable weather, lack of food, and perhaps also winter illnesses such as colds and flus?

Hope in a time of precarity is what snowdrops say to me this year as Brigantia approaches with a bunch of milk-white flowers in her midwife’s hands.

Mid-Winter Reflections

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The Mid-Winter Solstice arrives: a time to pause and reflect. It’s been a turbulent month. Floods have drowned much of Cumbria. Here in Penwortham in Lancashire we’ve not been badly affected but the Ribble’s been high and during heavy rain the roads and footpaths have taken on the apparel of rivers and streams.

The water’s been washing up into my dreams. In one I was working at a riding school where the horses could only be turned out at certain times due to tides covering the path to the fields. In another instead of roads we had transport akin to fairground water-rides.

This future is not unperceivable. Following the agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris to reduce global warming to 2 degrees, the UK government announced 68 new shale gas drilling sites including a well in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park.

Along with environmentalists and pagans across Britain I was outraged. A greener future will not be brought about by causing further damage to the landscape in a ruthless quest to extract expendable fossil fuel which benefits only rich share-holders. This can only mean more industry, more roads, more cars, more pollution, worse climate change and more floods.

Earlier this year Lancashire County Council stood by local people and refused to grant permission to Cuadrilla to drill at Roseacre and Little Plumpton. Cuadrilla have appealed and it was recently announced the decision will be made by the central government. With their plans to ‘get shale gas moving’ it’s obvious which way the decision will go. The last resort will be resistance at the sites themselves.

The atmosphere in Preston is increasingly edgy. On the 17th I received a call from a friend asking me to join anti-fracking protestors outside the County Hall to stand against a pro-fracking vigil. When I arrived there were no pro-frackers to be seen: it appears to have been a farce spread by Facebook. However seeing the anti-frackers with placards, a group walking past shouted “let the workers get their jobs”.

That very morning the Fishergate Centre and adjoining roads had been shut off because an ‘incendiary device’ was found in the men’s toilets. Luckily a member of the public put it out. It wasn’t a bomb but a lot of people were freaked out by the thought it could have been.

The war against IS is fabricating divisions in the city. Recently The Daily Mail made a false claim about Muslim no-go areas. Fortunately this has been refuted by the Lancashire Police and Muslim faith-workers. There are more homeless people on the streets than ever due to austerity.

It’s 16 degrees and plants are flowering and it doesn’t feel like winter. Within the tumult it is difficult to pause and find anything positive to reflect on.

Looking back, on personal and community levels it has been a good year. I published my first book: Enchanting the Shadowlands, presented it to Gwyn on Glastonbury Tor and held a successful book launch. I’ve performed ancient British and Greek seasonal myths at local festivals with Guests of the Earth. It’s possible this is the first time the story of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad has been told in the Old North for centuries.

My poem ‘Devil’s Bagpipes on Stoneygate’ was published in the pioneering Gods & Radicals journal: A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are. Korova Poetry has had its ups and downs in numbers of attendees but is still going strong after over a year.

I’ve met Potia, Neil and Heron from the Dun Brython group and contributed to The Grey Mare on the Hill anthology (edited by Lee). We’re planning a group meeting and new devotional and creative endeavours for 2016. I’m also arranging additional events with the Oak and Feather Grove to supplement the eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year.

I’ve learnt about the re-introduction of cranes in Norfolk and on the Somerset Levels. Over the past few years I’ve felt a growing connection with local wetlands. Much of Lancashire used to be lowland raised bog and marsh which is reflected in the name of the Romano-British tribe ‘the Setantii’ ‘the Dwellers in the Water Country’.

Over the past four centuries most of Lancashire’s wetlands have been drained and made into farmland. The most dramatic example is ‘Lancashire’s Lost Lake’: Martin Mere. Of its 15 mile diameter only the shrunken remnant of the mere, outlying lakes and place-names such as Mere Sands Wood and Mere Brow remain. However the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust are doing valuable work restoring Martin Mere’s reed beds. Thousands of whooper swans and pink-footed geese over-winter there every year.

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One of WWT’s recent accomplishment is the opening of Steart Marshes. To protect the coastal village of Steart the flood walls have been breached, flooding the Steart peninsula creating new saltmarshes to absorb tidal surges. This is good news for the villagers and wildlife with avocet hatching eggs for the first time and water voles, otters, oystercatchers, lapwing and ringed plovers doing well. This proves it possible to live alongside nature in this time of rising tides.

One of my favourite destinations for a bike ride is Brockhole Nature Reserve. Lying 4 miles outside Preston, its lakes, reed beds, meadows, woodlands and floating visitor centre occupy the former site of a quarry. Opened in 2011 it is still developing. Last year on the Winter Solstice with the Oak and Feather Grove I attended the opening of a new stone circle built by John Lamb and a team of volunteers (the OaFs will be celebrating there again tomorrow afternoon).

Every time I visit I’m struck by how Brockholes reminds me of (how I imagine) the landscapes of our ancient British ancestors with its lake dwellings, wooden walkways and new circle of stones. At places like Brockholes and Martin Mere I am able to pause and find hope for a future lived harmoniously alongside the birds and animals of our wetland landscapes and divinities of our sacred watercourses and the deep.

On that note I would like to wish everybody a blessed solstice and a hopeful new year.

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Song for the Nine

This is a song for the nine
who stood against fracking:
the nine who stood firm
the nine who stood
against the tyrants’ gall.

This is a song for the nine
who stood for land and people:
Little Plumpton,
Roseacre,
democracy and hope.

This is a song for the nine
who stood for Lancashire:
clean rivers,
unfractured land,
our children free from harm.

This is a song for the nine
the nine we will remember
for standing firm
standing for us
in centuries of song.

~

This song came to me near whole and of its own accord the morning after Cuadrilla’s proposal to frack at Little Plumpton was refused by Lancashire County Council’s Development Control Committee 9-4 (2 abstained).

I e-mailed it to Peter Dillon, who was also involved in the protests. He told me that night he’d dreamt of a tune. With a few tweaks it fit the wording perfectly and  wasn’t far off the tune I had when the song came to me.

I’ve sent a copy with a thank you e-mail to the nine at Devcon today. We may be singing it somewhere in Preston soon.

Corpse Road

Birch and Blackthorn, Hurst Grange Park, PenworthamWho’ll walk the corpse road back to me?
– ‘Revenants’ Andrew O’Riordan

Where spring brings hope to downy birch
And blossoms of stars to blackthorn trees
When the hunt is still as the final frosts
Who will walk the corpse road back to me?

Where spring brings hope to drunks of the woods
With the pale potential of anemone
When my court dance in dew where a man lay cold
Who will walk the corpse road back to me?

Where spring brings hope to primrose hills
But none to vagrants on city streets
When wills clash like I do with impudent rivals
Who will walk the corpse road back to me?

Where spring brings hope to prison gardens
For a watchful moment the condemned walk free
When to solitary confinement comes Annwn’s darkness
Who will walk the corpse road back to me?

Where spring brings hope to those who can see it
Yet Victorian cells of asylums scream
When dreams of my kind are derided as madness
Who will walk the corpse road back to me?

Where spring brings no hope and death is release
And no fusion of flowers can quench the pain
When souls are lost as my absent queen
Will you walk the corpse road back to me?

Lych Gate, St Mary's Church, Penwortham* Poem written in the voice of Gwyn ap Nudd, a British King of the dead and the fairies

The Other Side

Looking beyond the embers of bridges glowing behind us
To a glimpse of how green it was on the other side
Steps taken forwards but sleepwalking back again
Dragged by the force of some inner tide
– Pink Floyd High Hopes

Glastonbury 2000

The world was ours, the moment all that mattered.
Our hopes were high in the mist of dawn.
We flung our friendship over the wildest horizons
riding rainbow lights and drums to distant haunts
that never satisfied the fire in our souls
nor the loneliness that lay its pall between us.
Strung out on stars, burning everything of value
we reached the ravaged borderlands and paused
so far gone even astronomers couldn’t find us.
Looking beyond the embers of bridges glowing behind us

they saw the stone circle and distant Tor,
the penumbra of a festival vanished to the night.
At last we staggered home lost and nearly blind,
dazzled by the sun we couldn’t find to tiny houses
with stiff front doors surrendering hope for certainty.
The return was hard, obeying the constant grind
of re-learning how to put one foot in front
of the other one. Re-mastering the system, unseeing
starry skies. Yet on the odd occasion reality elides
to a glimpse of how green it was on the other side.

I fought onward, eventually alone
as the division bell began to toll, making happy
families with freshly ironed clothes, polished homes
and forced smiles. From a dusty library I looked out
across the hills- a glimpse of green and beacon fire.
My feet trod through cotton grass to broken remains
of tribal ruins drawn by chants on the west wind.
The other side returned to life in the vestibules of trees.
I saw a river goddess wash her hair in the rain.
Steps taken forwards but sleepwalking back again

the fragments stayed broken, my vision incomplete.
Stunned by the Tor redrawing itself on the backdrop
of my mind I relit the embers on the Ribble’s bank
and recalled the last hint of paradise before everything
went black and time took our dreams away. Guided
by the voice of an otherworldy king I reclaimed my pride
at the Tor’s white spring. Time performed its circle,
gave back my starlit dream. The world is mine again.
To the other side and spiralling back I ride
dragged by the force of some inner tide.

Glastonbury Tor 2013