Sitting here at my desk in the middle of October, listening to the wind and rain outside, I reflect and ponder upon the autumn and the coming winter. It cannot be denied that with the coming of Michaelmas at the end of September, autumn has made itself felt. The nights are dark and that darkness comes earlier. The mornings are colder and the weather is wetter.
It is true however, that here in my part of England, we have had an excellent summer. So amazingly warm and long, that eventually we started to complain. We English like to complain about the weather, it is tradition as ingrained as Morris dancing but it has been an unusually dry summer. The autumn however, has been so far and appears very likely to remain, damp.
September began with a very enjoyable trip to Abbots Bromley for the Horn Dance and that day was a dry one. The church was as always open to visitors and the yew at the lych-gate caught my attention. The needles were beginning to turn on parts of the tree but the berries were bright, striking in their abundance. Poignant, timely, meaningful.
Towards the end of September our Hearth of the Turning Wheel picnic; planned for the weekend of the Autumn Equinox, was cancelled due to the heavy rain and the issuing of a severe weather warning. This was the second picnic of the year that had to be cancelled but this time, we did not reschedule.
This meant that on the eve of the equinox (the 22nd), we held no picnic and moved our ritual from an outdoor venue to the house. Despite this wonderful summer the actual organisation of Hearth events has been disrupted by poor weather conditions. We have been unlucky but we hope next year will be more fortunate.
On a more personal note and representing something of my own harvest, the fruit of my own labour. I had the pleasure of seeing my name in print once more, with a four page article in Greenmantle magazine. No matter how many times one is published, the novelty, the simple excitement and that warm sense of achievement, does not fade.
I awoke on the equinox (Sunday 23rd) to discover a day that was bright, warm and beyond comfortable. I decided to visit Elvaston Castle for the afternoon. I had chosen the wrong day for the picnic but I was able to salvage something of the equinox thanks to this glorious day. Hawthorne berries were like those of the yew earlier in the month, bright and abundant in the hedgerows nearby. The trees were in an array of colours and autumn was indeed in the air.
The woodland festival was remarkably large, with a variety of craft stalls and demonstrations spread across the parkland. This provided an ideal excuse if one was needed, to explore the public walkways. The Green Man was present with stories and music. Decked out in plants found locally, he looked more than at home. He looked comfortable and perfectly suited to the themes of the festival.
Amongst the demonstrations were those focused on woodland cooking and the produce of this our land. Perhaps some of the public were surprised to see a seasonal harvest, which included animal life and not just the local fruits. The Autumn Equinox holds within it a taste of death, to live something must die and with the coming of Michaelmas, the year itself is dying. We today in our safe and civilised homes, are protected from the bloody and often dirty business of survival. Whether meat or vegetable, we are isolated from nature.
After exploring the Woodland Festival and on wondering into the heart of the park, I was delighted to discover that both church and tower where open. I was at first reticent with regard climbing one hundred and eight steps to the top of the tower. I changed my mind though, it has been a long time since I last climbed that tower but the opportunity was too much to turn away from.
The views of the park, the festival and the surrounding countryside, still green for the most part, made the climb worthwhile. The descent was however, painful. Ye Gods, my knees. I am barely over fifty but that descent has made me feel old. The church itself is something of an undiscovered gem, a quite charming building with a history of joy and violence.
During the Civil War the early post Reformation monuments were vandalised, together with what little stained glass had survived the Reformation itself. The iconoclasm of the Puritans was able to touch even this corner of Derbyshire but worse took place here than the smashing of the Stanhope tomb. The Parliamentarian soldiers responsible for the internal damage of the church, murdered several locals including staff from the manor house. The musket holes where these individuals were stood, are still visible today on the exterior of the north wall.
As one would expect, there is an array of monuments to the local autocratic family, including sadly, a child. The later monuments are of a high quality and include some beautiful depictions. These are outstanding and perhaps surprising finds that illustrate how a small country church can benefit from patronage.
My final call of the day was the Viking Encampment, a well organised and informative area created by the Vikings of Middle England. Here I enjoyed a brief wonder through the camp, chatting with the villagers and admiring the detail on display. I spent a few moments chatting in absolute fascination with a man who had a facsimile Saxon Leech Book on display. Beautifully created in leather, the text was in both Old English and modern for comparison.
Reflecting now on that day with the Autumn Equinox and Michaelmas well behind us. I observe that many of us will now turn our minds to the approach of the Hallowtide. There is much confusion within the secular world regards the festivals, one being a harvest of produce and the other perhaps a harvest of souls. Hallowtide is often perceived as a festival that celebrates death but this is incorrect.
Hallowtide is a festival of remembrance, a festival of the dead but not of death. It is a time to honour our ancestors both known and unknown (Griffith 2011). If there is a ‘death’ festival then it is as I imply, the Autumn Equinox (see also White and Talboys 2004). Is it no more than a coincidence that Remembrance Day falls on November the eleventh? A date that under the old Julian calendar would have been Old All Hallows (Farrar J. Farrar S. 1981). Surely then, there is no better day to remember the dead?
Went the day well?
We died and never knew.
But, well or ill,
Freedom, we died for you.
When you go home,
Tell them of us and say;
‘For your tomorrow,
We gave our today.’
John Maxwell Edmonds
From harvest to remembrance time marches on. The light fades, the darkness increases and now we look ahead towards the winter. In the heat of summer is metal forged and in the ice of winter, an edge is keenly wrought (Griffith 2018).
Greenmantle – a Pagan Journal.
The Vikings of Middle England.