next weekend... ...celebrate equinox

METROPOLITAN LIFE
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Next Saturday is the autumn equinox, the exact point in the sun's annual cycle where the day is the same length as the night; the nights then start getting longer. Barely acknowledged by the world at large, it's a significant event for Britain's pagans. Less formally it also marks the end of the free festival season - the last chance to go wild.

druids

The Druids will be celebrating equinox at the megalithic stone circle at Avebury, Wiltshire. Druidism is one of Britain's native religions. It was banned by Nero in the first century AD because he thought it was too disgusting. The Emperor was not a fastidious man, so it makes you wonder what the original Druids got up to. Just over 200 years ago Druidism re-emerged from the mists of time under the aegis of one Iolo Morganwg, described by a member of the Council of the Order of British Druids as ''a great man - part genius, part charlatan''. As usual in such cases, nobody is sure which part was which. Iolo revived the religion through meeting those who had been practising it underground for centuries (he said) and through studying surviving Celtic manuscripts. It is generally agreed he was a gifted scholar, an impressive achievement considering that he was the self-educated son of a stonemason. It is also recognised that he wrote many of the manuscripts he "unearthed". Like many of his Romantic contemporaries, he was fond of opium.

The high point of the weekend will come on Sunday in the Avebury stone circle, when the Council of the Order of the British Druids will perform the gorsedd ceremony, an ancient ritual fortuitously rediscovered by guess who? But the Druids will be camped just down the road all weekend and holding various workshops on druidic rites. The witchcraft tradition will be there too, along with people representing native religions from all over the world. It will be the largest gathering of Druids in England. The Welsh National Eisteddfod is much larger, but before we start arguing about authenticity, remember that Iolo had a hand in starting that too.

getting there

Although Avebury is less immediately impressive than Stonehenge, many circle buffs rate it much higher. To find it, leave the M4 at Junction 15 and follow the A346 to Marlborough and then join the A4. Six miles out of town is the Beckhampton roundabout, from where you can follow the signs to the village, which is impressive in its own right. By public transport the nearest rail station is Great Bedwyn and then by bus via Marlborough. The bus services are patchy on Sundays. If you don't want to sleep under the stars with the Druids there's a pub, the Red Lion, and several bed and breakfasts in the area. Further information: Marlborough Tourist Office tel 01672 513989.

stone free

Stonehenge itself remains out of bounds. No doubt several reckless individuals will be playing hide and seek with the Wiltshire Constabulary in what has become something of a British tradition in itself. They are unlikely to have much joy. At the midsummer solstice Arthur Pendragon (that's right, King of All Britons etc) had his collar felt before he had got sight of the place.

elsewhere

There is to be an equinox camp in the Welsh Borders which lasts all week and is probably the last chance to get out and be alternative in the open air. The event is as green as you can get - so absolutely no sound systems. No drugs either, indeed no buying or selling of any kind, participants go out of their way not to bring any money with them. The plus side is that the site will be a safe place for children and everything is free.

Precisely what goes on depends on who shows up. The emphasis is on workshops and skill sharing. But, explains a woman minding the phone on behalf of the co-ordinators, in the unlikely event that nothing happens, "people would be happy just to sit around. Somehow it magically all comes together".

There is a modest charge of pounds 13 to cover the costs of the kitchen. The food is vegan, although people can make their own arrangements. "If people must have cows' milk, we understand." But we take it as read that doner kebabs are out.

The real cost of the event is the amount of energy the individual is prepared to put in. "People pay in a diferent [sic] way''. Naturally an event of this kind attracts a dedicated bunch, recruited mostly by word of mouth. But if it sounds like your sort of thing, find out more on 01179 542273.

BILL SAUNDERS

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