A year writing about Oxleas Woods in south east London took Emma Warren somewhere unexpected – to a series of solstice celebrations:
When I celebrated the winter solstice in Oxleas Woods last year I wasn’t aware that I was embarking on a new habit.
Since then, I’ve marked the pagan dates that sit between the winter and summer solstice with small, made-up ceremonies in the woods, on a derelict stretch of Thames shoreline at Deptford, and in a back yard in Stockwell.
Carving these times on a regular basis has a similar quality to the moment you step outside and smell a new season in the air. It makes you realise where you are in the year. It lets you see nature evolving and rotating in noticeable six weeks chunks, just like a school term. If nothing else, marking out these natural compass points orients you, lessening the chance of slamming into a marker month like back-to-school September or end-of-the-year December like the dummies in an ancient TV campaign for seatbelt safety. On top of that, it’s really enjoyable. I look forward to these dates like they’re special birthdays or long-planned rave-ups with old friends. In my new calendar, it’s Carnival or Fireworks Night every six weeks.
The popular imagination of modern pagans has people swishing about in white robes being ethereal but these began as party times, a chance to stop work, to drink and dance, and to find love and romance. I think we need that kind of breather as much as our ancient brothers and sisters did when they were tilling the fields and building their own shelter.
So I’m wedded now, to my own mutant form of natural celebrations. I don’t identify as a pagan but I’m using the pagan calendar as a starting point to get my feet on the ground, simply because it’s useful orientation for a beginner. These are systems that reflect natural changes and which are as old as the ancient woodlands that sit around the edges of our city, woods that have been continuously themselves since the end of the last ice age.
The first three celebrations of the year, Imbolc, Beltane and Ostara, each have their own quality and focus. Imbolc happens in February and is a time to build fires to encourage the sun to keep going through the last bit of winter before hitting the tipping point of spring. Beltane is May Day, a fertility festival where you decorate your house in yellow, take the cattle up to the fields, build bonfires and build Beltane babies, too. Ostara’s the Spring Equinox and time to start planting, with a few celebratory fires along the way too.
Fire is a recurring theme, making this an excellent pastime not just for people who want to remember where they are in the world, but also for people for whom a tiny bit of dilettante pyromania brings a glint to the eye.
We didn’t manage to bring too much fire to Imbolc, but we did bring tea lights, which were all I had time to grab before I walked from Lewisham to Deptford to meet my friends Chris and Annette on the first day of February. I walked because you’re supposed to process on Imbolc but we’re a small congregation and I decided that stomping over the flat wet grass on Blackheath, up to a London highpoint, and then down again into the riverside jumble of Deptford counted as procession enough.
I’d been up to the woods earlier, looking for signs. The traditional Imbolc alarm is the arrival of the first blackthorn blossom but I couldn’t see any. The hazel was in bud and looked ready to go any day and there were catkins on a couple of trees along the main bridle path in the woods, where light hit the trees’ furthest edge.
I walked over to the lowest, wettest part of the woods to look for the reeds you’re supposed to gather to make crosses, but I didn’t find any. It was a damp day and the tiny stream that wends its way through the woods had discernable flow, so I decided to follow it up to the source. Imbolc is supposed to involve a visit to a holy well, and whilst I’d already decided that the Thames would be our holy well for the night, this seemed like a suitable thought to follow. I skip-hopped across the banks trying to stay by the water as it skimbled downwards. It’s only a tiny stream, easy to lose. At that point of year it’s also a very muddy stream and my Converse got caked in decomposed leaves and wet soil. One day I will buy some proper shoes.
I stopped and hung onto a bit of bendy hazel to try and scrape off some mud, and there, on the right, was the sign I’d been looking for – no blackthorn, but the pale green prayer hands of a snowdrop shoot, the first of the year.
Down in Deptford that night we walked off the high street down towards the river, past a kids playground called Twinkle Park and down the tiny alley end of Watergate Street, which formed the pre-Industrial hub of Deptford, back when it was just a small fishing village. The alley leads directly down to the water, so that at high tide the Thames licks and nuzzles at least half way up the stone steps, and at low tide, it reveals fifty metres of pebble, sand and decaying dock infrastructure. It’s a perfect church for our three person nature mass.
I’ve got some items in my backpack. First, shot glasses and milk. You’re supposed to throw milk into a holy well at this time of year, which becomes much more like the fertility metaphor it probably is when we toss it out of the shot glasses into the Thames and the zig-zag of creamy liquid hangs in the air like cartoon jism. Annette, who is an old hand at Imbolc having set this whole thing off with her celebrations last year, cuts an elegant figure at the waterside. We’re all alone on the shoreline, which means we can raise our voices into the nothing across the water, and we do.
We spark up a tea light each and place them in a small hole in a rock half way up the beach. Chris, who is usually very measured in his movements, stumbles into a natural basin on the rocks and splashes dirty Thames water directly onto my face. We’re all giggling in the dark around our tea lights and Annette helps me wipe down, kindly fishing tissues out of her handbag. Chris is endlessly apologetic but it’s somehow appropriate. Someone has been anointed at the holy well.
Our tea lights, flicker-flashing like epileptic morse code, stay alight as we gather up our stuff and walk back to the warmth of their house, and the drinks cabinet.
I missed the Spring Equinox in the third trimester of March because I was huddled up in the corner of a Holborn bar drinking gin & tonic with Lou, who was only in the country that night. Ostara, as it’s also known, is the pre-Christian Easter, a time traditionally seen as a day of equilibrium, where the seasons are perfectly poised between winter and summer – and what could be more balancing than seeing old friends?
Beltane was planned as a five person celebration but ended up with just two. I’d bought an outdoor fire grate from Homebase in preparation. I didn’t have time to source proper firewood so ended up with synthetic firelighters and MDF composite logs – the spam of kindling – joggling around in my trolley. Instead of jumping over bonfires just off Deptford Creek I carted the whole lot over to Stockwell in my ancient Nissan Micra and lit fires in a Stockwell back yard. Bunches of Yellow Corydalis hung out of the yard walls, which were topped with barbed wire and a sign saying Danger! Anti-Intruder Devices! Sirens and the audible ghosts of other people’s music provided an ambient top note to the crackle of the fire. It was Beltane, Brixton style.