Go home to Mum for Christmas? No way]: Camilla Berens travels to deepest Wiltshire to spend the longest night with the Space Goats and other assorted pagans. There isn't a turkey in sight
Thursday 23 December 1993
Fraggle was sad. She had to MoT her bus in London and wouldn't be able to join her fellow tribespeople on their sortie into the Wiltshire countryside to celebrate the winter solstice on 21 December. 'I'll probably have to do it in a house]' she said mournfully.
Since the Dongas lost their battle to save Twyford Down in Hampshire from John MacGregor's bulldozers, the tribe has split into smaller groups. Some have gone 'back to the land' and are living in a small encampment in Brittany. Others are on the 'front line' of the campaign to halt work on the M11 extension works in Wanstead, east London. Others still are living on land in North Wales, lent to them by local Druids.
So on Tuesday, the night of the solstice, there was not a Donga in sight at the Red Lion pub in Avebury village, with its ring of ghostly grey stones. But there were plenty of Donga look-alikes in unisex dreadlocks, nose-rings, tie-dyed clothes and granny cardigans. 'We heard there's a ritual on Silbury Hill,' explained one.
The landlord, Trevor Walter, was surprisingly unfazed by the colourful influx. He has only been in residence since April, but he has already seen two Druid weddings, the May Day festival of Beltane and a lively group celebrating the summer solstice. 'They're a nice, peaceful bunch of people on the whole. There are some locals who have no time for them, but I say, as long as they behave themselves, let them be.'
Many of the traditions celebrated by these modern pagans have in fact been absorbed into Christianity. The winter solstice marks the return of the life force and the rebirth of the sun and one of its symbols is fire. Pagans claim that's why we light the Christmas pudding. Another name for the solstice is yule. The word yule is derived from the Old English name for a pagan feast lasting 12 days.
As the evening wore on, there was little sign of activity around the stone circle. 'Nothing like the summer one,' explained Mr Walter. 'There were 200 people dancing on Silbury Hill, quite a few of them naked. And we had 60 police on stand-by in the car park.' A local chuckled, and added: 'I bet they all had binoculars.'
Helen, a 19-year-old with de rigueur nose-ring, had met up with a group of friends from Lancaster University. 'Christmas really means nothing to me. It just feels like an obligation to your parents. The solstice is more like a natural time to celebrate the earth and the sun. And my mum's not very happy about my nose-ring either. She went up the wall and hasn't come down again.'
Tim, a graphic design graduate, believes many young people are attracted to pagan beliefs as part of the new 'tribal' subculture. 'If you see someone with dreds, you know they're probably sound people who are into the same things as you. It's about saving the planet, freedom and civil rights.'
In the car park on the far side of the ring, the rhythmic sounds of drumming filter out from a large black bus. Inside, the Space Goats, a group of self-styled 'modern-day bards' and 'eco-nomads', and a dozen or so friends are getting ready for the evening meal.
The bus is warm and cosy, all pine panels and pot plants. A pile of boots lies at the top of the stairs. A dozen or so people sit around in huddles under blankets and duvets. Lizzie, an earth mother type with long skirt and scarves wound around her neck, bustles about in front of the gas stove, brewing tea, and chopping vegetables for a veggie stew. The talk is of carrot cake and goddesses, and the scent of garlic and cannabis fills the interior.
The group, ranging in age from early twenties to late thirties, had travelled down from London to spend the day wandering around Silbury Hill, West Kennett Long Barrow and Avebury Circle itself - 'singing, chanting and feeling the power of the place'. After dark, they regrouped at the bus for a pow-wow.
Mel, another earth mother, picked up her guitar, began to sing a soulful ballad of how female wisdom and respect for the land has been destroyed by greed and patriarchy. Clive, one of the Space Goats, who, like Mel, thinks of himself as a pagan, joined in on his didgeridoo, and Matt, another Space Goat, tapped his spoon in time on the side of his mug.
Clive, Matt, Chris and Simon claim to be 'honorary Dongas'. 'We sing and talk to people about how our land is being destroyed and how we have to do something quickly before it's too late,' says Clive.
The dozen or so people sitting around Clive agree that the solstice is far more important to them than Christmas. 'I think people are opening themselves up,' interjects Mel. 'A lot of the problems we've got now are because of men and patriarchy. The female side, the goddess, mother earth, nurturing, caring, giving, is coming back to redress the balance.'
Most of the group turn out to be anti-roads campaigners. Some have been squatting in Wanstead, while others are campaigning against the imminent criminalisation of squatters. Clive believes the Government's reaction to the new wave of youth protests is to crack down on alternative groups, 'like squatters, travellers, anyone who is showing that there's another way'. As dawn breaks, will the group tire of mud and biting winds and set off home to mum and dad, a hot Christmas lunch and a nice soft bed? 'No way]' they chorus. But many of the younger contingent admit that it will be their first Christmas away from home.
'I've learnt a lot about myself this year,' says Caroline, 22. 'To me, Christmas Day is a time to be doing something useful and helping people in the community. It's difficult going home, because there are all sorts of hassles. For a start, I'm vegan and Christmas lunch is a big problem.
But Caroline says that she has reached a compromise: 'I've said I'll go back home to Perthshire for Hogmanay.' Doesn't she feel guilty about not doing the 'dutiful daughter' bit? 'No. I've been psyching them up for it for the last eight months.'
The group had planned a special ritual at dawn the following morning: 'a bit of chanting, invocation, things like that'. But as the rainy skies changed from slate to pale grey, there was no sign of life from the bus.
Meanwhile, in the circle itself, another group, the Rag Morris Men, who had been unable to celebrate the solstice at Stonehenge, joined hands and danced in a ring around a stone to welcome the new day. There was only a small anti-climax. King Arthur didn't show.
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