By Emma Warren
It’s harder than you think to come up with a pagan ceremony that isn’t totally embarrassing. My friends Chris and Annette managed it back in March when they celebrated Imbolc by launching cardboard boats full of tea lights into Deptford Creek. Only one candle stayed alight and we watched it bank the corner of the creek, past the soft pink exterior of the Herzog and de Meuron-designed Laban dance school. It felt vaguely illicit, standing there in the dark on Halfpenny bridge between an estate and the Creekside Centre, and totally natural.
So I made some plans for the winter solstice down Oxleas Woods, and arrived fifteen minutes before sunrise. The street lamps were still on and the light was flat dark grey. I was quickly forced to admit that my sense of direction is terrible: due east was blocked entirely by the woods.
Ten minutes before sunrise on this longest night, and I’m hurrying down a main road on the southern edge of the woods. I veer left, hoping the view will open up like the Wiltshire plains. Funnily enough it doesn’t, and I’m left standing by a Welcome To Welling sign at sun-up, traffic streaming past and the only evidence of sunrise being three layers of just-differentiated blues in the lightening sky.
We pull up again, just before sunset, with four extra people squashed into the Nissan Micra including an extremely tall sound engineer who still finds it in his heart to slide his seat forward to free up some space in the back. Our group comprises my friend Hanna, Amir the aforementioned sound engineer and two of Hanna’s friends from Germany; Mattes and his girlfriend Bojana, who have driven over from Cologne and are staying in London for a few days.
They’re wowed by the difference between Homerton and this place on the high south eastern edge of this huge saucer of a city. I’m a bit wowed too, because everything looks different in the gloaming. The trees are starker than last time I came up. Everything has dropped from the canopy down to the ground. The trees are stilled by this lack of leaf, like ancients thought the sun was at this time of year – it’s a tree-stice as much as a solstice.
We zig zag through the woods, keeping an eye on the time and trying to steer away from the dog walkers. Mattes, who is a carpenter, tells me about the oaks and how the rings of new growth are harder in the winter and softer in the summer, giving the wood the perfect combination of rigidity and give, and that this is why oaks were so prized for shipbuilding. He is a woodsman in the woods, seeing stands of oak and ash through the filter of his working life, trees as living materials.
We find a small semi-circle of coppice hazel just off the path and begin proceedings at the same time as the sun’s dipping below the horizon. I’ve got a few things in my rucksack and I bring out the first; a bottle of Duppy Share rum. It seemed appropriate given Oxleas history as a source of oak for the docks at Woolwich and Deptford, and for sailors’ traditional appreciation of the drink. We give the woodland floor its share and we toast the spirits, the receding darkness, and the coming light.
The second items out of the rucksack are a bag of trowels and a bulb of garlic. Today is traditionally the day to plant garlic, ready for harvest at Midsummer. By now I’m sure this isn’t embarrassing, just really enjoyable. Everyone’s searching out their own place to plant their clove. Amir’s off in the distance burrowing about, Hanna’s happily switching between German and English to convey everyone’s glee at digging around in the rich, microbial soil and Bojana stops and tells us about collecting woodland soil as a child in Bosnia to make the garden more fertile. You can smell the deep age of the woods – a powerful, damp, tang that hangs around our feet like a cloud and makes us all feel fantastic. It’s only a few days later that I remember the powerful effect soil bacterium has on serotonin levels.
The third and final part of our ceremony involves a piece of paper. Earlier in the week a friend texted me a recipe for winter solstice incense from the Sunn O))) website which contained 33 items including elder bark, acacia gum, and ‘graveyard dirt’. Obviously I haven’t got the ingredients but I’ve printed out the list and instruct my friends to burn this instead. This is excellent fun; a tiny bit of fire with friends in the woods at sunset on the winter solstice. It feels like a small kick against national holidays being reduced to shopping, a reclamation of natural public life.
There are four seasonal celebration dates that mark the Earth’s solstice and equinox, and another four ‘cross-quarter’ festivals. Celebrating the natural rhythms of the world has been pushed right out to the edges of human experience, which is a shame because these celebrations are free, easy to understand and to celebrate, and you don’t need money or status to enjoy them. The source of the word ‘pagan’ tells you all you need to know: it relates to the ancient words for villagers, ordinary rustic people, the paganus.
This feels particularly resonant at a time of rapidly diminishing public space, when council services and local parks are under threat, when Londoners are increasingly being pushed out of their city, further out to the margins, to places like the streets around Oxleas in Plumstead, Woolwich and Charlton. And of course Oxleas isn’t that safe either – not if the plan to build a new bridge at Thamesmead goes ahead.
Our winter solstice feels like the whole year in Oxleas Woods condensed into one burning piece of A4: making the most of this ancient public space, naming and noting the year in natural terms, and attuning my urban eyes to the natural world. It’s been great.
We walk out into the woods, walking into and around the darkness in a way you’d never want to alone. “I’m glad we are many,” says someone. I am too.