THERE is magic in the air at Oxleas Wood in Eltham, south-east London. More than 70 people are dancing in circles, banging drums and singing to the pagan goddess Freya. 'Ancient mother, I taste your tears,' they chant. Then the circles pick up speed and move closer before the dancers collapse on to the meadow grass, ready for meditation.
These are the people of Dragon, a pagan group that brings together witches, Odinists, druids, magicians and the many other elements of the neo-pagan revival now taking place in Britain.
For the past two years members have been gathering here to throw a protective ring of magic around the wood, which is threatened by a proposed six-lane motorway, part of the East London River Crossing. They are relying on the natural forces and earthly spirits they believe still survive in the wood's ancient heart.
As the legal battle to save the area becomes increasingly desperate, members of Dragon plan to step up their efforts. They have been encouraged by the recent defection of a transport industry lobby group, the British Road Federation, to the side of the dissenters. This has left the Department of Transport isolated.
Dragon's members have tried to keep a low profile in the Shooters Hill area, where Oxleas Wood stands, for fear that their pagan activities could damage the campaign to stop the motorway. Now, however, they are becoming less circumspect, and on Saturday they will gather under a full moon to hold an energy-raising session and candlelit procession.
They assemble at a boarded-up cafe on top of a hill overlooking Oxleas Meadow; a high-spirited, straggling group of men, women, children and the inevitable dogs.
A few crusties with army greens and muddy boots mingle with grannies in bobble hats, young mothers with pushchairs, youngsters with names such as Cherokee, and a core of slightly intense, baggy jumpered people in their thirties. Some have drums, one man has brought an electric guitar with portable speakers, one woman has a flute.
Among the crowd is John, who sells magical artefacts and jewellery from his 'holistic' bookshop in nearby Dartford. He joined Dragon atter seeing the devastation at Twyford Down in Hampshire, where an extension to the M3 is destroying another sacred site. 'They dug up ancient graves containing seven-foot skeletons, and there is a definite magical aspect coming into effect,' he says. 'Already four of the building workers and security guards have died of heart attacks. I don't think people should discount the ancient forces they have disturbed.'
John played in Oxleas Wood as a child, and says he wants to preserve the area for future generations. 'As a pagan, I see all life and nature as sacred, yet I live in a society which views the Earth as a plunderable resource,' he says.
He believes that Dragon's magic can influence people, including John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, but only if it is backed up by other, non-magical action. 'It's like if you were out of work, you could sit down invoking all sorts of magic, but if you don't then get yourself down to the Job Centre, it won't work. You have to link your magic with practical work, which is what Dragon is doing very well.'
John says he was attracted to paganism because of its tolerance and links with the environment. 'If I commune with nature, what a tree says to me is never going to be the same as what it says to anybody else, because I am unique. So within paganism, and a group like Dragon, there's always this basic principle of the right of the individual to commune directly with the spirit.'
Simon, a trainee masseur from Epsom, joined Dragon at its inception three years ago. He is interested in Oriental philosophy and believes Dragon's aims fit in well with his pre-Christian beliefs. 'Once you start respecting yourself and other people, it's a natural extension to respect the environment,' he says. 'The woods are sacred, and what they're planning to do here is obviously wrong. You wouldn't put a motorway through a cathedral, so why do it with the woods?'
As John and Simon look on, Adrian, a sharp-faced man in red anorak and red trousers, calls the group together. A photocopied schedule is handed out and we form circles, holding hands, while a young woman steps out to give us an Odinist blessing, invoking Freya.
We sing an adapted version of the hymn Jerusalem, which finishes after four paganised verses with:
I shall not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have saved old Oxleas Wood
For England's green and pleasant land.
Then the chanting begins. It is not the sinister, dark dirge normally associated with pagan festivals - in fact, for the most part, female voices dominate as the circles swing around, and there is a recognisably folksy tune which most people quickly latch on to. The circles remain intact as they sing, dogs following at heels and children struggling to keep up with the increasing pace. There are two chants - the first to the ancient mother and a second that finishes each cycle with the words 'great is the spirit around us'.
Three local boys sit nearby on their bikes, suppressing sniggers, and when the meditation begins two dogs start fighting. Despite the confusion, most of the participants seem to be tuning into something. As they flop to the ground, some kneeling and some lying, they meditate for three or four minutes until restlessness sets in.
Afterwards lanterns and candles are lit and, as rain begins to fall, we walk off round the wood in a disorganised procession. One of the crusties screws open a large bottle of cider as he sets off, and a young child scolds a musician for using a drum made of animal skin. The second chant is renewed sporadically as we wander through the trees.
As dusk arrives, Adrian explains that although there is already energy in the woods, Dragon needs to generate extra protective power. 'I can't explain exactly how, but you can just feel it when the energy needs regenerating,' he says. 'That's why we came here today to recharge things.'
Adrian, who works for an environmental charity, describes himself as a wiccan, or witch, and says he uses potions and spells only 'symbolically' at Oxleas Wood, although Dragon members have made talismans and charms from wood, stone or metal.
Magical symbols are drawn on the talismans and energy is focused through meditative rituals, he says. Some time ago members were asked to make their own talismans at home and bring them to the wood, where they were buried.
Whether Dragon's magical efforts are succeeding is impossible to judge, Adrian admits. 'All you can say is that if Oxleas Wood is saved, we hope we will have contributed. We would never claim it was our spells that did it, but it's important that people involved with magic are putting their spirituality behind the campaign.'
He says that smaller, more exclusive energy-raising sessions involving about 10 people are more effective, because 'we get people who really know what they're doing'. But at a nearby pub afterwards he judges the day a success, even though several people got hopelessly lost in the depths of the woods as darkness fell.
'We do more or less the same things when we're in smaller groups, but normally we would also call in the elements from north, south, east, and west - and we would have planned our ritual beforehand so that each person knew exactly what they were doing,' he says. 'It's a bit like a jazz band - if you've got people working together who are familiar with each other, you can get better results, even if you are improvising.'
Today's ritual was intended to be a show of solidarity involving followers of other, more 'conventional' religions. But apart from a Buddhist called Barry and a Christian called Reg, there were no non-pagans to support the initiative. Suspicion and misunderstanding of paganism, it seems, are still commonplace.
There was a strong turnout from the various pagan groups, however. 'Paganism is very eclectic and broad-based,' Adrian says. 'Some of us are into Egyptian goddesses or Nordic goddesses while others, such as myself, are into Celtic traditions. We acknowledge our differences and work together.'
None of the Dragon members will admit putting spells on Mr MacGregor, but they believe their magical activities can influence the minds of outsiders who come to see what they do.
'I would say that raising energy in the woods must make some difference to them,' Adrian says. 'Those local people who were watching today, I bet they'll come away with a different perspective and that they'll be more in tune with the woods. I really hope so, because the future of this place depends on it.'
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