Tuesday, 8 December 2015
THE ELVASTON CASTLE PAGAN PICNIC IN THE PARK: LOOKING BACK OVER THE TEN YEARS OF A FREE COMMUNITY EVENT
From the point of view of recreational open space, Derbyshire is able to claim three important firsts. The Derby Arboretum opened in 1840 as the first publicly owned, landscaped and urban recreational park in England, the first National Park, the Peak District National Park was created in 1951 and in 1970 Elvaston Castle became the first ever Country Park.
Elvaston Castle Country Park itself is a recreational park situated to the west of the city of Derby and was originally the country seat of the Earls of Harrington. It is not and never has been a castle. It is unlikely it was ever a fortified manor comparable to other stately homes further north in Derbyshire. Elvaston Castle is called a castle but no one really knows why. Today the manor consists of a late Tudor and early Stuart wing with a substantial Victorian extension grafted on.
The origins of the estate as the ending ton would suggest, are Saxon and pre-Domesday Book. As with the majority of Saxon estates it was eventually seized and presented to an assortment of Norman nobility. By the sixteenth century the estates had passed to the Stanhope family. Something of a remarkable family, who’s many branches at one point held three Earldoms, those of Stanhope, Chesterfield and obviously Harrington. The first two titles are now extinct and the current Earl of Harrington, the former owner of the estate, now lives in Ireland. His granddaughter is married to Viscount Linley.
The estate is notable for many things, not least the design of the Victorian gardener and genius, William Barron. Who after serving his time on the Blackadder estates in Scotland (this is not a joke), came south to take on the project of redesigning Elvaston Park. He outdid Capability Brown in the planting of mature trees as his losses where much lower. He even supervised the planting of North American Redwoods once shipped by steamer across the Atlantic.
The hall like the park was a redesign to accommodate the romantic tastes of the fourth Earl (formally the Beau Petersham) and his new Countess Maria Foote. Maria was a London actress and society mistress with children from previous relationships, the marriage in 1831 resulted in the couple being ostracised from polite society. So it was that Elvaston was turned into their private Xanadu. Complete with gilt mottos across the walls of the newly created Gothic Hall, such as ‘Be silent and alone’ and ‘Beauty is a Witch.’
Today Elvaston is noted for its bats and is the site of two Special Sites of Scientific Interest, the Church and the Old Boat House. The latter like other parts of the Park, including the folly known as the Moorish Temple, was used as a backdrop in the 1969 Ken Russell film, Women in Love.
That however, is not the only D. H. Lawrence connection as Lawrence being a Nottinghamshire man knew this part of Derbyshire well. He also knew of the family scandal, in which the wife of the ninth Earl ran off with an estate employee. Her grave, without the title of countess is in the graveyard close to the family mausoleum but significantly, she does not lie within the vaults.
There is no conclusive evidence that Kathleen Emily Stanhope was the inspiration for Lady Chatterley. Yet the coincidence is interesting and it certainly makes a good local legend and a legend that Ken Russell is likely to have known, when he chose Elvaston Park as a location for his film.
The Summer of 2012 saw the tenth and last year of the Elvaston Castle Pagan Picnic in the Park. In that ten years we saw thirty picnics, 27 of which I had the pleasure to organise and attendance grow from just over a dozen to on one memorable occasion, a hundred people.
The picnics started in 2002 almost by accident, a happy chance event that, rather like the proverbial acorn just grew and grew. The first picnic grew from two seeds, the first being the independent Pagan Moot at Ye Old Dolphin Inne, the oldest public house in Derby and claimed to be one of the city’s most haunted venues.
The second seed was the organisation of an ‘International Meet’ formed about several persons from a Pagan Internet Forum known as ‘The Witches’ Hut.’ The Dolphin Moot, a showing of the 1973 original ‘The Wicker Man,’ trips to the local museum and other local sites of interest were already on the agenda. The first Elvaston Castle Pagan Picnic in the Park was just one of these weekend events.
The link between the Dolphin Moot, the International Meet and the organisation of that first Elvaston Castle Pagan Picnic in the Park was a young lady called Marie. Well known in folk music and dance circles, whilst active amongst the web based Pagan Community. Marie was able to draw upon the interest in a gathering tentatively expressed on forums and at her own moot, to eventually push ahead with the idea.
Unfortunately the ‘International’ element for a combination of reasons did not manifest, as recent terrorist scares prevented many from flying. The first Elvaston Castle Pagan Picnic in the Park was primarily a British affair, with attendees from Derby, Doncaster, Northampton and other regions, a total of a dozen or so persons. A later event organised by members of ‘The Witches’ Hut’ took place in Cardiff. By this time the world had settled down somewhat after the ‘Twin Towers’ attack and therefore, it genuinely had a more ‘international’ feel.
The potential of the picnics and the concept that they could become something more than a one off event, became apparent to me at that first picnic. The obvious enjoyment of all in something as simple as a picnic; the attractive surroundings, the historical ambiance lent by the close proximity of the manor house, the beautiful weather, all combined to make a very pleasant afternoon enjoyed in the company of new friends.
The afternoon was interspaced with some informal chanting and an exploration of the park and here, I was able to show my local knowledge regarding the history of the area. Both chanting and ‘Magpie’s Woodland Walk’ would later become staples of the later picnics. By the end of the afternoon it was obvious to many that the picnic could appeal to a wider section of the Pagan Community. However, Marie being a shy retiring English rose, disliked the idea of being associated with a public event and therefore, I stepped forward to take on the project.
I began the hosting of the Elvaston Castle Pagan Picnic in the Park before I became Pagan Federation Regional Coordinator for the County of Derbyshire or later the East Midlands Pagan Federation Deputy District Manager. Therefore the picnics did not begin as an official Pagan Federation event and although later they were to become associated with the Pagan Federation, due to the position and membership of those assisting in their organisation; they maintained a fully independent if somewhat affiliated status.
This produced a most unusual and peculiar situation whereby some within the local Pagan Community criticised the existence of the event, based on the belief that it was either a Pagan Federation one or a Wiccan only gathering. These misconceptions have never been fully explained but it was certainly and unfortunately true, that in the early years too close a public association with the Pagan Federation would have been unwise and may have alienated some within the local Pagan Community.
The unsympathetic attitude of the Pagan Community at large towards the Pagan Federation and our work is a factor I have never been able to fully comprehend. Nor is it an issue that in my time as a Pagan Federation Officer, have I been able to successfully overcome. Indeed the antipathy towards the Pagan Federation and my lack of success in dealing with it; remains an unfortunate failure of my ten year tenure as a Pagan Federation Officer.
Accusations that the picnics were either wiccanesque in character or primarily a Wiccan event are easier to deal with. The Elvaston Castle Pagan Picnic in the Park was from the onset an open event, welcoming those of any Pagan Path together with non Pagan family and friends. However, since the majority of the Pagan Community, if not actual initiated Wiccans with a capital ‘W’ are wiccan with a lowercase ‘w’ and therefore wiccanesque in influence. It is natural that public events such as the Elvaston Castle Pagan Picnic in the Park, Pagan Pride and numerous other festivals reflect this apparent predisposition of the Community.
Of all the many Pagan Paths, Wicca is the one with the highest or most openly accessible ‘profile’ within the Community. Although outside of the Pagan Community in our mainstream society, Druidry is usually the most obvious and the first to spring to mind. Other paths such as Heathenry and the various streams of the Traditional Craft; which are not all necessarily Pagan, are fewer in number and in the example of the latter, rather more secretive.
The higher profile of Wicca or wicca manifests through literature both specialist and popularist, the ubiquitous influence of the path upon the generic Pagan being all the more obvious because of this. Therefore, although the Elvaston Castle Pagan Picnic in the Park was never a wiccan event, since the majority that have attended exhibited openly wiccanesque tendencies, it was unavoidable that some wiccan influence would come to display itself.
The basic philosophy behind the Elvaston Castle Pagan Picnic in the Park was that of a festival, welcoming to all, family and pet friendly. Therefore people were from the onset encouraged to share, mingle and one would hope, make new friendships. We actively encouraged the sharing of food and the presence of acoustic instruments. The dressing up of attendees, like any festival, was never discouraged. Although we insisted that clothing must be worn at all times, Elvaston Castle Country Park is a public recreational open space and not suitable for persons wishing to go ‘skyclad’ or skinny dip in the lake.
For ten years I was able, with the support and cooperation of friends, Pagan Federation members and the Park Rangers of Elvaston Castle Country Park, to arrange, publicise and host three or four picnics a year. It can be said without fear of contradiction; that they were from the beginning, a major success and that they became increasingly popular amongst the local Pagan Community.
Numbers increased quickly over the first two years, with an average attendance of well over forty persons, not including pets. We were lucky in those first few years in that we near always avoided the poor weather and often enjoyed bright, hot and sunny days. Numbers increased with the weather, eventually surpassing the sixty and even the seventy head count. Later and as stated above, we would on one memorable occasion peaked at the 99/100 headcount.
This success even before we peaked at the 100 attendees brought with it some problems, based primarily upon crowd control and safety issues. The gathering being now over large would divide into smaller sub-picnics and the Park Rangers were becoming concerned, that to the detriment of other family groups, we were beginning to take over the park. With the mutual agreement of all concerned, it was decided that in future we would have a designated picnic spot nearer the castle, put aside for our sole use on picnic days and this action rectified the issue to the satisfaction of all concerned.
The Security Team of the Park kept an eye on us, making sure we did not disturb other users of the park too much. However and perhaps far more importantly from our perspective, they maintained a close watch and kept potential troublemakers well away from us.
Semi-impromptu activities were organised from time to time, supplementing my own historical nature walk through the gardens. These activities included over the years; chanting and drumming, belly dance classes provided by Pandora a local dance teacher, bowls, badminton and supervised medieval martial arts such as sword fighting (with wooden swords or staves) and the use of the English quarterstaff. Many of these activities proved so immensely popular, that they would be repeated many times over the years.
As we approached our tenth year however, it became clear that partly due to a slight drop in attendance and simply due to the length of time the picnics had run; that it was time to put the picnics to bed. The tenth year seemed appropriate for this and was deliberately publicised as the final year.
At that final picnic in September 2012, to mark my achievement in organising the majority of the picnics and as a gesture of thanks, I was presented by friends with a card and two bottles of Welsh mead in a presentation box. A gesture I very much appreciated.
Looking back over those remarkable ten years, it is clear that the picnics have been immensely successful; enjoyable for all and that they served as an inspiration for several other groups to set up their own picnics. It is likely that my own name will long be associated with the picnics and that I will be known as ‘the picnic guy’ for many years to come.