Rest your back against a rock of ancient memory and you might be surprised at what you hear.
It is four o’clock in the morning. The mist is tangible as I cross the field armed with a torch and a badly drawn map from English Heritage. By the time I reach the main road my trousers are already soaked to the knees. The British have some very creative ideas about what constitutes a main road – this one is just a lane really – but even so early, there is a surprisingly large amount of passing traffic.
I really have no idea of what I am doing. Three weeks ago I got off a plane at Heathrow airport accompanied by my parents and two-year-old son. My intention had been to revisit my childhood haunts while travelling in a campervan and the highlight was to be a walk around Avebury Ring as part of my Bardic initiation, but my dream holiday had taken on nightmarish qualities the moment we’d collected our campervan. In retrospect, any sane person could have told me that three adults and a toddler inside a baked-bean-tin-with-wheels over three rainy weeks really wasn’t going to work, but I wanted to walk that ring so badly I would have done almost anything and I guess Great Spirit decided to see just have far I could be tested.
Eerie, yellow lights glow through the grey mist; I can hear the sound of hooves stomping impatiently on concrete. The cows have lined up for their early morning milking. A strange mix of gentle mooing and early morning radio floats across the air and I carry on down the road.
It is two miles to Avebury, or so I have been told. I am not exactly sure what two miles looks like or even if I will know the ring when I see it. Yesterday we drove straight through it without even realising it, so covered with every variety of tourist were the stones; some had come quietly to walk and ponder, but others were climbing all over the great megaliths posing for photo opportunities and I had a deep feeling of violation. I wanted to chase them out of my sacred place like Jesus chasing out the temple money lenders.
So much of England has felt this way to me. We have come at the height of summer, two days after the summer solstice, and everything feels as if it has been put on show or sold to the highest bidder – even the park I played in as a child has been broken up and is now privately owned, only the houses that edge it can enjoy the paths I used to play on.
But I am a stubborn woman; I am determined to find the sacred heart of my home land. Some part of me knew that if I could only get up early enough I would find the ring and have it to myself before the next batch of day trippers stole the magic from it. My torch catches the outline of two signs either side of the road and I feel a little part of me jump with excitement – the signs read: Village of Avebury. A tiny flame of hope kindles inside me; maybe I’m going in the right direction after all.
Then out of the mists looms this massive megalith and I’m suddenly terrified, brought face to face with the ghost of my ancestors. Everything within me wants to run away as fast as I can in the other direction, but I know I have to keep going, after all these are my ancestors however big and scary they may be. I pause on the threshold, honouring the spirits of place, and then I begin to walk.
At first nothing special seems to happen. I methodically stop at each stone, close my eyes and place my hands on its weathered surface feeling my way like a blind woman reading Braille. Little by little I begin to wake up to them. Some stones are very quiet, some quite frankly don’t want to be touched so I just don’t, and some are like relatives I greet and hug until the tears come to my eyes at our reunion. I’m sure a passerby would have thought me quite mad.
Half way round the circle I find the mother stone. I call her this because that is what she felt like to me. She is one of the largest stones of the ring, twice my size in every direction, a misshapen square, jammed into the earth on one point and pock-marked by wind and weather. I could feel her even before I put my hand on her; she had an intense loving, nurturing force that came off her and tingled through me. I asked her about the people climbing all over the circle, how she felt about it and she smiled, or I sensed she did, and I knew that to her they were just like my boisterous toddler – she paid them no mind, but loved that they came whatever their reason. I made her a small offering and promised I’d be back some day soon.
Only five stones remained as I rounded the last quarter, sadness flooded my damp body; an initiatory walk had turned into a family reunion and soon I would leave these wonderful stone people I had waited so long and come so far to see. I wanted to slow it all down, take it all deep inside me and never forget a detail. I slid down to the ground with my back against one of the stones for support and waited. If a Roman centurion had walked through that ring I would not have been surprised. For the first time I understood what they meant in ancient tales about time standing still and the hero returning to the real world where everyone has aged one hundred years. It was like that, time outside time, in the circle.
My back pressed into the stone and I felt its solid peace run though me. I found myself wishing I were a stone so I could know such peace, then almost jumping out of my skin at the idea that I should want to be turned to stone. The rock seemed to chuckle behind me, I could feel that time for him was counted at a different pace; with the peace came a patience that things would take as long as they would take, some would call it stubborn, but what I felt with my back against that rock was that there was time without measure for him – a complete and beautiful stillness. This was the gift the stone people gave me that day. It was a grounding gift that reconnected me to my homeland and I found later when I returned to Australia, to Great Mother Earth wherever I chose to meet her. It is a gift open to anyone who is willing to set aside time to let the earth guide them. There are no ancient stone circles in Australia, but here the stones find their own way to communicate in the many places of sacred beauty where it is possible to walk or rest your back against a rock of ancient memory and listen to what it might have to say. I thank the stone people every day for their gift – it has been six years since that walk and yet when I close my eyes I feel that I am instantly there again with my back against that stone.
As I squelched soggily back to our campervan that day, a weak morning sun beginning to dawn, I was cold to the very marrow of my bones. The strange thing was it didn’t seem to matter; I had completed my initiation. I had walked the Avebury Ring, I had spoken to my ancestors the stones and I felt energised through every cell of my being.
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