Every druid has his day

Rollo Maughfling is a very happy Archdruid. For the first time in a decade, he can see in the solstice at Stonehenge
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The Independent Culture
Emerging from his battered Austin Montego, dressed in his "civvies" of black jeans and T-shirt, his receding hair and expanding waistline engaged in a losing battle with encroaching middle-age, you might take Rollo Maughfling for a roadie for Deep Purple.

Striding down Glastonbury Tor, however, Maughfling, Archdruid of Glastonbury and Stonehenge, and Archdruid of Britain, looks like nothing less than a force of nature, his flowing ceremonial robes and mane of grey hair flying in the wind, sturdy elm and hardy ash seeming to bow in supplication as he passes. These are good times to be a Druid.

Having been barred for the past nine years under an English Heritage ruling from celebrating the summer solstice at Stonehenge, Druids will once again be assembling within the ring of sacred stones on 21 June to perform the "Gorsedd" - one of Britain's oldest religious ceremonies. Druids - along with everybody else - have been barred from the site under a so-called exclusion zone imposed by English Heritage in the wake of disturbances involving police and travellers.

Circumscribed by a mixture of Section 13 of the Public Order Act and Section 14a of the Criminal Justice Act, the Druids have instead been obliged to celebrate their most important religious festival in a lay- by on the A344, the stones visible at a frustrating distance through the tangle of barbed-wire and the ubiquitous cordon of police.

Over the past year, however, have come concessions. A limited number of Druids were allowed into the stone circle at autumn equinox and winter solstice in 1997, and for the spring equinox this year.

This week English Heritage announced that 100 people will be allowed to the stones for the summer solstice. This number will be made up of Druids, pagans, members of the public, representatives of professional bodies and English Heritage itself.

"It's a start", says Maughfling. "But we have always argued that there should be full public access to the stones, and that is what we shall continue to campaign for."

The first recorded mention of Druids assembling at Stonehenge can be dated to the 17th century, when the scholar John Aubrey speculated in his work Templa Druidim that the stone circle might have been a Druid temple in neolithic times. More recently, academics have poured scorn on the suggestion, arguing that the Druids were the high priests of the Celts, who came to Britain no earlier than 1500BC, a thousand years after Stonehenge was completed.

"We would say that the way these stones are built presupposes a kind of worship related to sunrise and all that kind of business", says Maughfling. "This means that even if these people weren't called Druids, they were Druidic in function and fashion, and we have carried that on."

The rights of Druids to assemble at Stonehenge, says Maughfling, can be traced back over 800 years, enshrined in Richard the Lionheart's decree of "various customs and practices as inalienable rights of the British people", through Elizabeth I's proclamation on Druidic rights of the Silver Harp, to Queen Victoria's further ratification of the rights to ceremony "since time immemorial".

"And then," sniffs Maughfling, "we got Margaret Thatcher..."

As Archdruid of Glastonbury and of England, Maughfling presides over 17 different Druid orders, representing 15,000 Druids throughout Britain. He describes Druidry as "the nature religion of Albion". Its central belief is the sacredness of the earth and nature and all living things - particularly all creatures great and small - and the relationship of the earth to the cosmos. "To quote William Blake," says Maughfling with a sniff, "we believe that everything that is, is holy."

It has animistic aspects, a belief, for example, in the spirits of the trees. "But it's not just a sloppy tree-hugging thing," says Maughfling. "We are rediscovering the ancient lore and magic and properties of trees generally, which is now I hope going to be of extreme help, given that the Forestry Commission is on the verge of admitting that most of our common trees in Britain and Europe are subject to decline and dieback. They're certainly admitting that the oak is, and that is our most sacred tree of all."

If ever a man's destiny was written in his name it is surely Rollo Maughfling's. Astonishingly, it is genuine.

By an extraordinary coincidence, he says, both his parents independently decided that he should be named Rollo. "I think it comes from the epic hero, Rollo the Strong, who sailed from Iceland, or possibly Finland, with - was it Erik the Brave?" Maughfling tugs at his beard. "One of those Eriks anyway..." Maughfling, he says, is the Anglo-Saxon spelling of the Irish Celtic Maughlin, "which became the Norman-French Merlin". He smiles enigmatically.

So is he suggesting...?

Maughfling sniffs.

"Well, if you've got it in your genes as it were, I suppose it comes out and there's not very much you can do about it. But I kept it to myself for most of my life, if for no other reason than if you go around calling yourself Merlin everybody's going to take the piss."

Maughfling grew up in Cornwall. His father, an agricultural contractor, was a close friend of R Morton Nance, Archdruid and Grand Bard of Cornwall, and compiler of the Cornish dictionary. From the age of four, the young Rollo would be carried on his father's shoulders to Druidic ceremonies.

"But Druidry wasn't strange in Cornwall. Everybody came to the ceremonies, and nobody would have thought of putting a stop to them - whatever for?"

Like the origins of the Druids themselves, Maughfling's early life appears to have been largely obscured by the mists of time. His education at public school, "which I didn't think very much of, to be perfectly honest", is a complete blank, its conclusion untimely - something, he suggests with an airy wave of the hand, to do with alcohol and girls, "neither of which you were supposed to have anything to do with".

At the age of 16 he left "school, home and everything else'". Inspired by the burgeoning counter-culture - "all of which was of much greater interest to me than filling in forms to get into the civil service" - he made his way to London, where he became involved with the underground newspaper The International Times, and establishing the Notting Hill "free school". A friendship with John Michell, Britain's foremost authority on the subjects of Atlantis, sacred sites and ley-lines (and a man nowadays revered by Druids as "Bard of the Eternal City") stirred Maughfling's interest in his own singular ancestry.

In the early Seventies he retreated to Glastonbury, where he has lived ever since. For 17 years he practised as a psychotherapist - "broadly Jungian" - while cultivating his interest in alternative medicine, Druidism and megalithic culture. Honouring, perhaps, the ancient rites of fertility, he fathered five children by four relationships - a subject which occasions much sniffing and ruminative stroking of the beard. In 1970 he became head of the Glastonbury Order of Druids, although at that stage, he says, it was "very much a local thing".

For years, he suggests, Druidry had been a religion awaiting its moment. But throughout the Seventies and Eighties, the conditions for its re-emergence began to gather force. There was the growing awareness of ecology, and the idea of Gala, or "mother earth'" a renewed awakening to the myths and legends of England, and the emergence of the New Age travellers, whose caravans of dilapidated jalopies and ex-army ambulances revived the spirit of the great fairs and public festivals of medieval times.

The catalyst was the infamous "battle of the beanfield" in 1985 when a free festival at Stonehenge was broken up by police baton-charges, leading eventually to the English Heritage enforcement order four years later and the Criminal Justice Act.

"Travellers aren't perfect," says Maughfling. "but it was by no means right to brand the entire travelling community as criminals. It was a very great evil. What we saw then was an extraordinary wave of repression from government, for no apparent reason other than that the prime minister of the day felt personally threatened by these people.

"So we felt the whole background and philosophy of Druidry and natural religion had to come out and stand strong against this obsession with authoritarianism, the money markets, nuclear power and so on.

"To us, putting forward the nature religion and living in harmony with one's planets was common sense. Anything other than that is madness." In 1988, Maughfling was approached by Druids from all corners of the country, responding to what he describes as "a spiritual call" to rekindle Druidism as a public religion.

He was officially ordained as Archdruid of Britain, and a year later the Council of British Druid Orders was formed with the specific objective of reclaiming the right of access to Stonehenge, not only for Druids but for the public at large.

The sacred importance of Stonehenge cannot be under-estimated, says Maughfling.

"The dynamic purpose with which we were anciently charged as Druids was to keep the planet tidy, keep it going. And Stonehenge is the place that was anciently designated by our people as a particular power-spot on the surface of the earth. If you're getting your ceremonies right at Stonehenge all sorts of changes can occur a lot faster and a lot more beneficially for everybody than if you don't.

"So rather than bash down a nuclear reactor, people just start dismantling them anyway." Maughfling sniffs. "Well, that's the principle anyway." The Council of British Druid Orders is a broad church, says Maughfling, that believes in freedom and diversity. "We're not here to be some sort of alternative institution where you obey the rules or you're out. We're not the Freemasons."

Central to its aims is the restoration of Druidry as the "natural religion" of England, a central and visible part of public life, rather than an esoteric cult.

"Our holy days should be open to anybody who wants to come, have a good time and go to the pub afterwards or whatever."

Members of the general public wishing to attend the forthcoming summer solstice, however, will be obliged to watch the ceremony from a distance. This, says Maughfling, will consist of prayers to the earth and the rising sun, for peace in Ireland and for the starving children of Sudan. There will be the primordial chant of I-A-0, signifying the three Druidic rays of light, and there will be the honouring of the sacred oak.

The oak's significance, says Maughfling, is that it is generally the tree that grows the largest girth and the fullest canopy, and it is home to more than 300 species of bird and insect life. "So it's the earthly symbol of nature's bounty - tall oaks standing proud are a symbol of our nationhood and what we aspire to become as human beings."

Could he point one out to me, I wonder. Maughfling gathers his robes around him, and leads the way through the long grass towards a thicket of trees. "Is that one? No, no, it's hawthorn." He scans the thicket hopefully. "I'm sorry, my eyes are watering."

Maughfling sniffs again, more deeply this time, and finally reaches for his handkerchief. "Hay fever," he says.