Country: The druids' longest day

Summer solstice: what better time to meet the Archdruid of Glastonbury? By Matthew Brace
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The Independent Travel
The White Spring Cafe at the foot of Glastonbury Tor is a good, mystic place to meet a druid. It is more cave than cafe. Dark, cool, and slightly damp, a contrast to the midsummer sun blazing on the Tor. Its corners are hidden in gloom, half lit by candles. The only sounds are light, ethereal music, water trickling along a runnel cut into the stone floor, and hushed conversation from customers in the shadows. By the door, sitting at an uneven table, was Rollo Maughfling, Archdruid of the Glastonbury Order of Druids and, more importantly today, Archdruid of Stonehenge. At dawn this morning, dressed in his ceremonial robes, he made the 40- mile annual pilgrimage to the famous stone circle on Salisbury Plain and there challenged police at the gateway, requesting that he and his fellow druids get access to the Hele Stone - over which the sun rises in the north-east - to perform the summer solstice "Gorsedd", one of Britain's oldest religious events.

Since a ban was imposed in 1989, the druids have only managed to get within a few hundred yards of the circle. Plan B this year was to hold the ceremony among the signs on a traffic island outside the small nearby town of Amesbury - a modern metal henge of sorts and a monument to road building, but hardly the druids' favoured location to celebrate the wonders of Mother Earth. And since the Criminal Justice Act forbade illegal gatherings of 20 or more people on private land, they will have had to alter their ancient ceremony further by reducing their numbers to groups of 19 or less.

For those who did not rise with the sun this morning, it peeked over the North Sea at about 4.40, ushering in the longest day of the year. This is the pinnacle of the druidic year. Of eight spiritual days, my new druid friend explained, the summer solstice is of greatest significance.

"In the northern hemisphere it is the time of maximum fertility because the sun is aligned most closely with the Earth on that day," he said.

"We have always believed that a ceremony of living was held on the longest day. It is when we pray for wisdom and inspiration, for the Government and the people, and for the well-being of the Earth."

The summer solstice Gorsedd, or ceremony, is a colourful affair. The druids and druidesses are adorned with garlands of oak leaves and branches. (Oak, being one of the broadest trees, can shelter more species than most and represents the all-powerful sun at midsummer.) A herald blows a horn (a conch shell or hunting horn) to call the druids to the ceremony where they form into a circle.

"The event is `bid', or addressed, and the druids celebrate the marriage of the sun and the Earth," the Archdruid said. "Then the four quarters are called - a proclamation by a horn's blast. East first, then South, West and North are summoned in invocations of the ancient Celtic guardians of the quarters which correspond to the archangels of Christian tradition." Then offerings of oak leaves and summer flowers are held aloft for blessing by the archdruids and the people.

"If the ceremony is performed well - and English Heritage permitting - this coincides with the moment the sun comes up over the Hele Stoneand a moment of silence is observed by the assembly during this most solemn time," said the Archdruid, slowly and exactly. "To me, it represents the living period of contact with the Divine. I and those others who take this seriously feel inspired and enriched in our personal and creative lives."

The "others who take this seriously" are growing in number. In 1989 the Council of British Druid Orders was formed with just two or three founding member orders which had been going, according to history and legend, for 1,500 years. Now there are 12 major orders throughout Britain and the Celtic islands, and five minor ones, comprising 15,000 members.

"Druidism is more and more popular," the Archdruid said. "There are 1,300 ancient druid sites throughout the British Isles which also have their Gorsedd recorded under statute and to which great medieval fairs became attached, so all parts of Britain with sacred sites are ripe for druid revival." With the currently strong green movement and increasing interest in New Age thought, druidism is becoming more acceptable.

To prove the point, the Archdruid took me, blinking, from the White Spring Cafe, out into the evening sunshine and up the Tor where we met the tipsy remains of a wedding he had blessed earlier that afternoon. A slight, elfin woman with oak garlands in her hair floated up in a white dress and cloak and offered me the dregs of a bottle of mead.

"Have you just got married?" I asked.

"No, not me. King Arthur's Green Knight over there has just married Hera Lacinia, the woman in the green cloak," she replied.

I sipped their sweet mead, patted their dogs and admired a tranquil scene, before reluctantly heading down the Tor and back into the modern world, leaving Rollo and his druids to their music-making.