Del Hughes seeks out the light on the longest day
It’s been some time since I’ve explored the pagan side of life, so with June’s Solstice on the horizon, I’d decided to attend a Celebration of Light.
And that’s why I was sitting on an arse-numbing upright, in a chintzy community hall, surrounded by sixteen women, a lone man, a box of bodhráns, and a large wooden gorilla, adorned with floral wreath.
The walls were plastered with an array of spiritual iconography, navigating a haphazard pilgrimage through Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Paganism, Wiccan, and any others you could throw into the mix.
A hefty oak table held dragons, crystals, chalice water, corn dollies (Shudder – Stephen King has a lot to answer for), and what I think might have been a Knight’s Templar ashtray.
The room was definitely a visual feast, but the kind liable to cause heartburn, if not acid reflux.
And that’s not even taking the altar into account – a frothy confection that resembled the aftermath of a toddler’s sleepover, if you held it in Hobbycraft, and served alcopops. The flowers looked nice though, if slightly limp.
But back to the solstice, and if ever a day heralded the official start of summer, this was it.
At seven p.m. it was still sweltering, so I bagged a spot near an open window, which luckily, offered a breath of blessed breeze, and slightly dispersed the heavy scents of excessive incense. (I also got an occasional hit of Old Spice from Rupe, the music guy, which though retro, was a distinctly better olfactory experience than patchouli, sandalwood, and vanilla. Ugh.)
However, unluckily, it also meant that the M4 (just two-hundred-yards away, as the crow flies), made its presence continually felt, with the relentless rumble of tyres on hot tarmac, or zealous horn action, frequently disrupting the sacred vibes.
As far as locations for communing with nature went, I sodding knew I should have gone to Stonehenge.
But that would have necessitated camping, coping with a crowd of around eight thousand people, and at least two tanks of petrol.
So I’d binned the most revered solstice site in the UK, in favour of a cheap, twenty minute hop, arriving and ready to get my pagan groove on. . . in Port Talbot.
Yeah, I know. It seemed like an odd location, but I was up for giving it a go. And actually, the view of the steelworks from the car park, was really quite a sight.
I’d booked through Eventbrite, where I was sucked in by the reference to cake, fire, and the possibility of some (seated) ecstatic dancing: ‘The Wheel turns, and we enter a time of energy and light. We reflect on our purposes and motivations as we journey from spring, and into the summer element of fire. So, find your passion, and your heart-felt path, and join Geri and Rupe for meditation, sacred fire, drum circle, music-making, free dance, and singing. (Food to share most welcome.)’
Sounded fab. Undoubtedly I needed help locating my ‘passion’, which has been AWOL for at least ten years, and though I was clueless about where my ‘heart-felt path’ might lead, I definitely wanted an opportunity to find out.
So, I bought two tickets (£10 each), and started prepping.
Initially, my mate Gaynor was coming too, as she wanted to experience a drum circle. But last minute baby-sitting duties meant she had to bow out, so Jen stepped in to the breach, eager to take her first tentative steps along a pagan pathway.
Next, we organised supplies. To be honest, ‘food to share’ was a little woolly. Should we take crisps and dips, or a couple of sandwich platters?
Jen suggested something to cook, but we were going to a solstice ceremony, not a bloody BBQ, and I didn’t think Geri would approve of us contaminating her sacred fire with chicken kebabs and marshmallows.
I did a bit of research, and because I wasn’t invested enough to attempt brewing ‘Midsummer Mead’, or baking a ‘Sunshine Loaf’, I popped to Nisa and bought a large bag of Onion Rings, and a box of Mr Kipling’s Lemon Slices.
Yes, it was the easy option, but in my defence, I did consider the sunshiny theme, and deliberately picked yellow foodstuffs.
But just the day before our adventure, Jen cancelled too, a virus laying her low. Bummer!
As a very last resort, I asked Tim if he fancied coming along, but if you’ve read any of my other adventures, you won’t be surprised that his response was negative, and unprintable.
So it was just me, Geoff, and Trevor (my uke, ‘cause if there’s going to be music, we’re there for it), who revved off to the sunlit lowlands of Port Talbot, for an evening of hotly anticipated, fiery fun.
After a series of wrong turns, we finally pulled up to a stone farmhouse, flanked by a couple of large barns, and a lake filled with heritage fowl.
It was a tranquil spot, or would have been, if you were hermetically sealed inside a triple-glazed box, with added acoustic caulk. But I parked, left Trevor belted in the passenger seat (for now), and went off to join the throng.
It was immediately clear that my double denim getup wasn’t fit for purpose. There were lots of florals on display – clothing, cranium-crowning circlets of sunflowers and gyp, and even a couple of floor-length cloaks.
And I’ve got to say, they all looked brilliant. Bizarre, bonkers, but brilliant.
And they were so welcoming too. Many of them were regular attendees at Geri’s ‘moots’, and while we waited, I learned a lot about tonight’s festivities from a delightful pagan named Gwen.
A free-spirit, with silver hair, purple cloak, fishnets, and Doc Martens, she talked me through some of the customs and beliefs that were popular around Lithia, the pagan name for this solstice.
Symbolic of fertility, abundance, and prosperity, and tied closely to bountiful harvests, people of pagan Europe would light fires, often accompanied by druidic rituals.
Customs included bonfire-jumping, with the highest jump believed to predict the height of the year’s crop. Large wooden wheels were often set alight, before being rolled down a hill and into the nearest body of water.
It was something to do with ‘balancing the elements’, and whilst that would be an epic spectacle, I didn’t think the rare-breed ducks would be overly impressed.
When our hosts appeared, we were ushered into the ‘sacred space’, and everyone, bar me, unrolled yoga mats and made themselves comfy.
I chose a chair because, yes, it was by the open window, but also, if I’d descended to floor level, I’d still be down there come the winter solstice.
And then Geri uttered those hellish words, the bane of team-building exercises the world over –‘Let’s introduce ourselves to the group, and give an interesting fact about yourself’. Uh-oh.
But it soon became clear that I wasn’t alone in dreading this sort of thing because, by the time my turn came around, names were being quietly mumbled, and interesting facts were wholly inaudible. Phew.
Next came meditation, and I was happy to give it a whirl, but the fact that Rupe was scrupulously polishing metal bowls made me think he had a part to play, and I was right.
Seriously, if I’d known in advance, I wouldn’t have come, because I’ve experienced a sound bath once before, and it was the polar opposite of relaxing – the rattle of sharp sounding plinky-plonky seashells still haunt my dreams.
But maybe Rupe was the fella who could turn my frown upside down. So I closed my eyes, and embraced it.
That this was guided meditation had also come as a surprise, and not a welcome one. See, I’ve got Aphantasia, which means that I can’t picture images in my head, at all. It was actually my step-daughter who, unofficially, diagnosed this after seeing a test on Twitter.
She asked me to imagine an apple, I did, and when I pointed to number 5, she was amazed, and so was I. That people can see images in their heads was mind-blowing for me, because all that happens when I close my eyes is. . . blackness.
Fairy tale forest
Anyway, the reason I’m mentioning this is because Geri was going to ‘unleash our imaginations by telling a story’. Rupe would accompany on gongs (humph!), and we were going to take a ‘visual stroll through a fairy-tale forest’.
And it was dreadful. Obviously, I saw nothing, which left the sound of the gongs as my only focus – and given that our woodland walk was meant to be magical, with ‘trickling streams and gently swaying branches’, the sounds issuing from Rupe’s side of the hall were menacing, panic-inducing, and made my fillings ache.
If I could have done so without disturbing the others – who were spread eagled, with beatific smiles on their faces – I would have snuck out.
But later, when I listened to the ladies wax lyrical about their journeys, and how breathtaking it had been, I realised that it was just me who’d loathed it, and I admit to feeling slightly envious of their spiritual sojourns.
Let there be drums
The next activity was the drum circle, and I was really looking forward to it – ‘Let there Be Drums’ by Sandy Nelson is a favourite toe-tapper of mine.
Rupe handed out dhols, Idakkas, and bongos – I got a small bodhrán – and we trooped outside to get our first glimpse of the solstice bonfire, which was massive. . .
. . . in terms of disappointment. If you’d plonked a metal grill on the top, you could have maybe cooked a couple of rib-eyes and a string of sausages, but it would have been a squeeze.
We were all rather underwhelmed, but when Geri launched into a song about oak trees (which had a Native-American-meets-Outkast feel), with every ‘Hey Ya’, we swallowed our disappointment, hammered hell out of our instruments, and focused on the tiny flames.
It wasn’t great. Some of us were attempting to thump with the beat, some were striking random blows, and some gave up after the first verse.
And the noise – because it wasn’t music in any sense of the word – left many of us looking rather more pained than empowered. Plus, my puny biceps were killing me.
Geri clocked it, brought the song to a hasty end, and gave us a mini-lecture about things we could do to attract luck, and dispel negativity, on this auspicious day.
Now, this was more like it. Bring on the good fortune, because God/Goddess knows, I could certainly do with some.
She handed round ‘magic’ pine cones, which were clearly Christmas leftovers – their ersatz iciness was a dead giveaway. (And on a side note, that she didn’t call them tisty-tostys earned her a black mark in my book.)
She explained that they were ‘spiritual, seed-bearing organs, which represent enlightenment and can banish bad energies’.
So, while Rupe and Geri worked themselves up into a rhythmic frenzy, us ladies considered what we wanted to manifest, and what we wanted to banish.
I asked the sun for mastery over Trevor, control of our two adolescent pups, and some much-needed self-confidence, while ridding my life of any bad shit. I realise it was a lot to expect, but it was worth a shot.
One by one, we solemnly placed our tisty-tostys in the fire, and poked them vigorously with sticks of mugwort, because according to Geri, today was also ‘Mugwort Day’, though she didn’t explain the significance. But we ran with it anyway.
And once everyone’s cone had burned, it was time for audience participation, where we could recite poetry or sing songs, written for the occasion. Eek!
Was this Trevor’s moment to shine? No, it wasn’t. Geri didn’t feel that playing ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ – the only song whose chords I know off by heart – was ‘in keeping with the sacred ethos’. Sniff.
Thus, my only nod to involvement was listening, with an encouraging smile, as I applauded every contribution. And so it went on, and on, and on. . .
. . . until it was rudely (and fortuitously), interrupted by a speedy sheepdog who cavorted into our circle, woofing at all and sundry, but especially anyone who was still drumming.
He (Scout) belonged to the farmer, and I watched him caper about, before he darted around the unkempt privet, back from whence he’d come. Hmm?
As Geri headed inside to make the tea, and the rest of the group stood rapt by Rupe’s tympanic talents, I activated ninja mode.
I casually meandered across the patio, ostensibly admiring the herbaceous borders, and on reaching the hedge (aka Vanishing Point), rounded the corner and trotted away as fast as my limpy legs could carry me.
Cloud of dust
Then Geoff burned rubber up the gravel drive, shot through the open gateway, and headed west, leaving nothing but the squeal of tyres, and a cloud of dust, in our wake. Liberty! Freedom! Woohoo!
So no, that particular event hadn’t been my cup of camomile. During the evening, I’d felt nothing, spiritual or otherwise, apart from increasing irritation, and an intensifying desire to do a runner, ASAP.
But, that’s why I mentioned my blind mind’s eye, because I reckon it was my stupid, empty aphantasic head that was at the root my apathetic response.
Everyone else seemed to have an absolute ball, so if you’re toying with trying something like this, I’d really urge you to give it a go.
But, it wasn’t all bad. On the way home, as the sun touched the distant horizon, I pulled off the M4, found an elevated vantage point, and snapped a few pics. Because, it might not be part of the natural world, but seeing the steelworks bathed in the fading rays of the solstice sun, was 100% worth the journey.
N.B. When I was writing up this article, I messaged my friendly neighbourhood Chaos Witch, to find out a bit about mugwort.
It’s classed as a ‘dream herb’ because it has a lot of beneficial uses. And solstice day is recommended for picking most herbs, not just mugwort, because they are more ‘charged’ due to extra sunshine.
But she also happened to mention that the most propitious time for affirming manifestations would be at sunrise on the 21st, not sunset. Sigh. Yep, I deffo should have gone to Stonehenge.
Catch up on Del’s other adventures here.
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