In This Place; At This Time – Imbolc I 2021

The Walk Of The Three Longbarrows – the first in a series of three Imbolc walks taking place over 2-3 weeks.

The monotony and restrictions of the current lockdown were starting to tell, and amplified unbearably my usual New Year impulse to break out, break away, do something.  I decided to set out on a long walk, encompassing three local longbarrows and following in part the Cotswold Way. I was challenging myself in two ways, mental and physical – firstly, by walking much further than I usually would (in the event, around 14 miles) and secondly, by setting off in the afternoon so that in these still very short days I would be returning in darkness. I had an underlying sense that this walk was more than just an ordinary stroll, but had no conscious purpose or intent in mind, I was simply happy to let it unfold.

From my house, I headed down to the main road and then up the footpaths towards Selsley Common. The signs of the thawing of the earth were apparent – the new growth of cleavers and fresh young nettle heads, the odd clump of snowdrops, a ridiculous cascade of catkins.  I was struck by the amount of emerald green moss and sea green lichen there seemed to be, plump pillows and scruffy pompoms clinging to the branches of hazel and thorn. I see a slightly defaced sign telling me that I am following a ‘Pubic Foo’. This makes me laugh more than it should.

I walked through a sheep field and the hedge was full of tufts of wool.  I collected some on a small spring of blackthorn, winding it onto the sharp needles. I found a wisp dyed with the red marking of the ram’s raddle and wound that into my growing tangle and was struck again by the red and the white and the black; a colour combination that continues to fascinate and I’m not sure why. I think of magpies in wintry bare blackthorn, on a snowy hillside with a huge scarlet setting sun; of our Stroud Scarlet work, the black of skin and of the soul-darkness of slavery, the white of skin and a light that blinds to wrongdoing, the red of the cloth and of bloodshed. It is impossible also not to think of the Christian myth, the Blood of the Lamb, of sacrifice. Later, at home, I think of alchemy; albedo, nigredo, rubedo.

Some time passes, and I think I have hypnotised myself with the winding of my fingers and these red, black and white thoughts. A man passes me with a huge shaggy deerhound cross – a beautiful beast, stuff of legend – and breaks the spell. Dogs are sacred to the Greek goddess Diana, who was accompanied by two hunting dogs and is akin to the Celtic/Christian Brigid, patron goddess of Imbolc for many. They are also my favourite animal of all the animals. We pass greetings, and I stroke the dogs head. He is magnificent, hip height on me.

I walk on up the hill towards the Common and my mind turns to the time of year, of the coming into the light from the dark of Midwinter, how the spark remains even in the darkest longest nights. In the past I have found this personally nourishing, encouraging, a much needed beacon. This year, I have a less personal reaction, and for the first time I start to appreciate on an inner level these changing of the seasons less as a wheel, a circle, and more as a never-ending spiral. I feel the earth winding in and winding out again.  And as I muse on this, I come to a bank at the roadside that is filled with empty snail shells, past feasts for countless birds, and their spirals are everywhere, standing out pebble grey against the dark soil.

Against the new blue skies I catch my first sight of the Selsley Longbarrow – low, squat, friendly, and orientated east-west as is usual. In a perfect sightline, straight across the Severn, is the conical outline of May Hill and the distinctive huddle of trees that crowns it. I lay my hands on it in greeting, but in truth there is little here for me but history and a deep appreciation for the way it is placed in the landscape, which is visionary.  It is easy, here, to see why our ancestors would have placed the precious dead in such a spot, and that in itself is a gift.

I cross the flank of the Common and head into the woods to join the Cotswold Way, which swoops down and hugs the bottom of the scarp until it rise again to Coaley Peak. It’s a good path, though challengingly muddy in places (as most of Gloucestershire is at this time of year, I’m discovering), through beech trees and skirting low farmlands on the vale. A few things catch my inquisitive, acquisitive magpie eye – a feather, grey against the copper of fallen leaves; a root that rises like a breaching whale’s flipper, reminding me of the ancient origins of the creamy Cotswold stone; a stone remembrance of a mysterious ‘W.P. E’; barbed wire on fence posts momentarily slaking my enduring textural obsession.

The path curves up and I reach Coaley Peak via a very odd disused hut, throwing off a distinct folk horror vibe, a tatty sign offering guided walks that I wouldn’t dare to go on. Crossing the field, I come to Nymphsfield longbarrow itself – this one without a roof, and it’s great chamber-defining slabs exposed. The two entrance stones are striking, and I speculate as to whether there would ever have been a third slab in front of them as there is at West Kennet. It feels deeply satisfying to look out from between them, and equally so to find a pair of trees that echo this view out across the vale to the Severn once more.

I continue on to the final barrow on my walk – Hetty Peglar’s Tump, situated unassumingly in a field further along the B4066. The tump is open, and still roofed, and you can enter into it, and so I do.  It is not the first time I’ve been in here, but it is the first time I’ve been in alone and taken time to sit.  I have brought a small candle with me in honour of the time of year, to bring some light into the darkness, and I sit in peace as it burns.  It is a real peace actually – I feel both my mind and body power down and relax and become still – a rare and welcome state for me.  It’s as if I need this containment, the weight of years and earth and dark and the simplicity of all three to momentarily lay aside the blessing/curse of my constant hyperactivity. The small flame and dusklight from the entrance provide reassuring anchors – I often find true darkness frighteningly disorientating, I lose sense of where my boundaries are, can’t distinguish between the ‘in here’ demarcated by my own skin and ‘out there’.

I become very aware of thresholds and the sense of being on them, an inbetweeness, the deliciousness of the liminal betwixt and between. I am in the earth, yet on the earth; alive, in a place of the dead; it is half light, and half dark; it is dusk, neither day or night, and the moon is midway through her cycle and will soon show a semicircle in the sky.

It is half past four by the time I leave, and the sun is setting, casting Lovecraftian golden glows on the deep troughs left by vehicle tyres. It is beautiful, another manifestation of Lux Brumalis, but a bit sinister, and a sign that it is time to leave.

I decide that the path I came in on was too muddy and treacherous to tackle in the gloaming, never mind full dark, and so stay high, taking unfamiliar paths through the woods but confident of my way as I am following the road that leads back to Selsley and thence to home. This is serious bravery for me, as usually I am quite scared of the dark in even the most benign of natural places – whether because at heart I am a city girl, or because my ancient instincts are still strong and secretly I am scared of sabre-toothed beasts, who can tell?

My thankfully-remembered head torch is more than sufficient to help me avoid the worst of the path, and my faithful boots are waterproof enough and responsive enough to make the rest of it comfortable enough. I find I am less scared than I would normally be, in fact not really scared at all.  I think that being out whilst it got dark, rather than going out into the dark, allowed me time to adjust, plus the rhythm of the walk and deep thinking has worked its own trance magic and by now it just feels natural to be out, walking, and it is home that feels a bit alien and far removed.

I cut myself a bit of slack and hug the road back across the common rather than go straight across. The dark changes how you experience what’s underfoot – I had never thought as the common as anything other than flat, but it is surprisingly uneven and tricky going. I realise that of all the walk, this is the bit most likely to result in a twisted ankle and a call for help. Weird lights criss-cross the mound of the barrow – it’s a magnet for mountain bikers – and I meet a Welshman who lives in a bus walking his irrepressible spaniel. He doesn’t remember me, but I’ve met him and his dog before. They are both friendly and expressive, though I’m thankful that only one of them licks my hand.

As I trek down the road to Woodchester, my torch picks out an excellently mythic reflection from a pair of lorry headlights parked up behind a gate. I am delighted, it looks exactly like the potentially malevolent eyes of a Beast and so the Beast Of Woodchester is born.

When I get home, and carry out the usual decompression (ie say hello to the family but give myself a bit of space to readjust to my home self once more) I am left with a strong desire to create something or things, to mark the walk with ore than just words and photos.  In the end, I crochet a grey spiral in honour of the snail shells, and I knit a Mobius strip of wool, striped in the colours of my walk – everything from the pale greens and greys of snowdrops and lichen and snail  shell to the black of the long barrow and the night,  and the vivid technicolour of the sunset.  I’ve been out for 5 hours but the difference in my state of mind on my return means it feels like much, much longer

I also make a small Imbolc nest of my hedgerow gleanings of dried grass and fleece and catkins. Some days later, my son and I brave the needle-sharp rain and high winds and head back to Hetty Peglars Tump to place this nest in the barrow. A symbol of rebirth and new growth in this place of age and endings, and a reminder of the spiral that links them.

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