Thursday, June 24, 2010

summer solstice

As usual, I pilgrimaged to the Avebury area to celebrate the summer solstice. I was feeling a bit energetically depleted after setting up, partaking of, and tidying up after my 40th birthday celebrations, so I put my bike on the train to Reading and, rather than cycling the Ridgeway like last year, followed the (much flatter!) Kennet and Avon Canal towpath.

The first person I spoke to was Robert Wyatt! But not the RW...this was Bob Wyatt, one of the key organisers of BunkFest, an Oxfordshire folk festival. He spotted the encased saz on my back and asked what it was. I got it out and let him have a strum (he plays a bit of guitar). When I expressed surprise at his name, he mentioned that he'd seen his namesake as a young man, playing with Soft Machine circa 1968. Unfortunately, he didn't seem to remember much about it — seeing Led Zeppelin around the same time seems to have had more of an impact.

I was cycling under a rather leaden sky, and it started to drizzle towards evening. I pushed on to the Barge Inn, stopped for a quick pint, had to politely decline to get my saz out and play (a couple of people asked) — competing with the Friday night crowd in a pub after seven hours cycling didn't seem that appealing — but I said I'd be back the next day (not entirely convinced of that fact). I summoned up the dregs of my energetic reserves to get myself up to Golden Ball Hill and sleep soundly under one of the amazing old hawthorns up there.

The next morning, looking out over the escarpment from up there, I was seized by the desire to walk out to the furthest spur visible to the east. I checked my map and saw that it was shown as a "settlement" called the Giant's Grave. So I set off, into a surprisingly cold wind, for what turned out to be a longer walk than expected.

view from Giant's Grave
view from Giant's Grave (photo by Robert Gladstone)

The Giant's Grave is a long thin spur of land which, unfortunately, has a fence running right down the middle of it, which rather ruins the experience of sitting up on it. But I did my best to ignore this and played a bit of music, looking back at Adam's Grave to the east. I then walked on the lower ground via the village of Oare, mostly on footpaths, then a bit of road, to Alton Priors. I went to revisit the "laughing spring" near the church which Stef and I thought we'd found a couple of summers ago. It turns out that what we'd found was merely as small satellite spring...someone had (finally) created a decent path through the nettles to the main spring, and it's quite something to behold. I sat entranced for ages, watching the 'boiling' silt below the water and the occasional cascades of rising bubbles, each one producing an internal "aaaaahhhhh", like aquatic faerie fireworks. I recorded a little bit of music there, then in the yew tree, then inside the church...

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I had to borrow a key from the nearby cottage to get into the church. The gentleman responsible seemed a bit suspicious at first, and after twenty minutes or so came over to see what I was up to. My recording device was on, so our (perfectly pleasant) conversational exchange has been preserved. He turned out to know Maggie Faultless, the early music violinist who Vicky and I met in the same church (and helped move a harmonium) several summers ago. My mentioning her name clearly seemed to put him at ease that I was no mere ne'erdowell! She lives locally and organises an annual early music festival (several concerts in the church over a weekend), but apparently these always sell out among friends, as the venue is so tiny. We were just getting onto the subjects of the yew tree, the sarsen stones beneath the floorboards and the (obviously) pre-Christian nature of the site when some tourists came in and distracted him.

Not wanting to have been disingenuous when I said I'd be back to The Barge the evening before, I wandered over there, to see if the person so keen to hear my saz was around. Walking around the campsite, I failed to see him, but a wild-looking, drunken bloke with a guitar called out "Oi, mate, come and join the band!". So I did. The "band" was him, plus a couple of friends making semi-musical sounds on a harmonica and pennywhistle. I asked where they were from. "From the river!" he proudly (and drunkenly) proclaimed. He was called Lenny, and they were canal barge travellers. He started playing and singing a song which I didn't recognise, but which reminded me of The Waterboys. It was a Waterboys song, it turned out. I asked which album it was from, and Lenny explained that it wasn't: "it's just a song Mike [Scott]'s had in his pocket for a while". He even claimed to have played it backstage with some of the band backstage after a gig and that even they didn't know it. Clearly a big Waterboys fan. We did "This is the Sea", then his friend Mikey (or Joe?) started up "The Raggle-Taggle Gypsy" on pennywhistle, so we played a very ragged version of that. It was all hoarse vocals, sweat, flailing hair and broken strings — wildness! At this point I was about ready to leave, so I suggested "Fisherman's Blues" as one last song, and we played a very intense version of that (he said his voice was too shredded to manage the "woo-hoo-hoo" bits, so offered to do them!). I managed to record that one...

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That evening, I played a bit up on Knapp Hill, then jammed around a brazier with some cosmic types (discussing astrological alignments, "stargates" and crop circles), including old Viv, who I've met around Avebury a few times. Viv's losing her hearing, but managed to play some quite nice mandolin. Then it was up to Adam's Grave to play a bit of solo saz and then doze off peacefully under the stars.

On Sunday I went back up Adam's Grave to enjoy the daylight view. I was just starting to record some music when Viv came up and started filling me in on the coming astrological alignment. So that got recorded...

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Cycling up the Ridgeway towards the Wansdyke I suddenly heard a horrible crunching sound and turned around to see my rear derailer all twisted up in the spokes of the back wheel — a pin had come lose and the spring mechanism had then caused this mechanical catastrophe. I managed to twist a couple of mangled parts into something resembling their original shapes, force the pin back in and then secure the whole thing with gaffer tape! Amazingly, I did about another seventy miles on this with no further serious problems (I've since replaced the whole derailer).

William Stukeley's 18th etching of The Sanctuary
William Stukeley's 18th etching of The Sanctuary

I stopped in the amazing old grove of beech trees on Furze Hill, recorded a bit more there, then carried on up to The Sanctuary on Overton Hill where I met Lau from Austria. He had an Indian flute with him and played a little bit. I was unable to follow very effectively (a bit too free), but what he played inspired a melody of my own.

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I followed the footpath which more-or-less follows the route of the old West Kennet Avenue (mostly gone now) into the main circle, where solstice celbrants were starting to gather. Nathan spotted me and called me over to the stone where he was sitting with his new girlfriend Harmony. I remembered Harmony from a Big Green Gathering two or three summers ago, when I accompanied her songs in the Pachamama chai tipi (she was sufficiently into this to invite me up to record with her in Sheffield, although this never happened). She's mostly playing flute and violin now. We played a Welsh song, and then I had to keep moving.

On up to Windmill Hill, I found Andy Bard, his fiancée Nomi and Matt Spacegoat among others awaiting sunset up on one of the roundbarrows. Matt and I had a little saz/bouzouki jam, the sunset was beautiful, then we all set up under the sycamore trees to spend the night waiting for the dawn.

What followed was one of the most intensely wonderful nights of music I've yet to experience. I didn't record any of it (recording people playing around a fire is always a problem, and some things should just be left unrecorded — this was one of them). There were Welsh songs and tunes from Nathan (accompanied by Harmony's flute), Harmony's songs, some mad Jim/Andy concertina/bagpipe duelling, a Cliff Stapleton waltz with everyone joining in (that went on and on, building up and up to an incredible level of intensity), old Spacegoats songs from Matt like "7 x 7" and "Gingko" (and some from Nathan when Matt couldn't remember them, e.g. "Dragons" and Krish's lovely "Song of the Meadow Lark"), some of Andy's mandolin-based songs, free psychedelic jamming, Breton stuff, an amalgam of Incredible String Band songs from Nathan just before dawn (a bit like what Pok did at my birthday weekend)...and lots more I can't remember. Apart from during some cryptic-rhythm'd Breton tunes which I couldn't get my head around, I was stationary on a blanket, completely one with my saz all night. Dave P's lodger, Snowy (a soul singer) was lurking in the background with a chihuahua in a bag, wearing a flashing red LED collar — it took quite a while to work out what was going on when it first made its presence known with a period of unearthly growling! A lovely smiley couple called Jo and Joe, who'd come from Oxford on a tandem(!) were also with us — Jo turns out to be a piper (but hadn't brought her pipes), like Andy, part of the Hurly Burly Band, a "Rabelaisian carnival street band" who exist solely to make a joyful noise in the streets of Oxford on Mayday morning.

the barrow from which we saw the sunrise
the barrow from which we saw the sunrise

We got back up onto the barrow for the 4:44 sunrise. A bank of clouds on eastern horizon meant that the sun didn't show up for another 40 minutes or so, but in the meantime, it streaked the clouds with crimson veins and we got another load of ecstatic music (largely me, Matt and Andy jamming on a daft-but-compelling three-chord spacerock riff &mdash saz, bouzouki and mandolin. Graham the druid produced a punnet of strawberries and I a jar of West Cornwall mead (the remains of a bottle Lisa brought for my birthday), which combined to make for rather a wonderful solsticial breakfast shared with the twenty or so assembled celebrants.

There was one character I didn't recognise getting into some djembe rhythms as the sun appeared (I joined in with a bit of saz riffage)...later I found out that this was Mike Hannis, a name I've heard mentioned for years (in connection with the King's Hill community near Glastonbury, and the BGG, but more recently which showed up atop a remarkable dissertation from Lancashire University's philosophy department, entitled "The Last Refuge Of The Unquantifiable: Aesthetics, Experience And Environmentalism". I found this when Googling certain keywords relevant to certain topics in the first chapter of my new book, and it turned out to be so relevant that I included an extensive endnote promoting it enthusiastically. So we still haven't properly met, but we've played music together on a cosmic hilltop in Wiltshire during a solstice sunrise!

Later that day, after extensive snoozing, Stef turned up from West Wales. Mordekkers commitments meant that he had to miss spending the actual solstice with us, sadly. We played some saz/mandola pieces, made endless cups of tea and philosophised, as is becoming traditional for this longest/vaguest day of the year. Everyone got a pleasant surprise when Carrie, one of the original Spacegoats, turned up with a few friends. The last time I'd seen her was the first time I ever went up Windmill Hill, about eight years ago. She now has a little daughter called Maya. We got another beautiful sunset that evening and more music around the fire. During the sunset, Maya was earnestly and excitedly telling everyone that when they'd been driving up the track, they'd seen little people up on the hill, but having come up there, they'd found big people!

On Tuesday, after more of the same, I headed off in afternoon. I was hoping to get down to the Square and Compass, the eccentric little pub (with attached museum!) in Worth Matravers on the Dorset coast to see Gadjo's last gig (other than at Glastonbury Festival) before they headed back to the continent. But all three possible lifts fell through. Still, I wasn't that upset — I was in the most beautiful landscape in the sunshine, and the idea of a long drive to see a band in a pub (even if it was that band in that pub) didn't seem hugely appealing in comparison. I went to look for Waden Spring (the little-known perennial spring at the end of Waden Hill which Stef and Ian the meadmaker had been discussing). I found it, but got rather badly stung by nettles, ended up partly falling in the water and retreating, spluttering, laughing and legs throbbing. I'll have to check it out again sometime, more carefully (and not wearing shorts and sandals). Then it was over to Swallowhead Spring (the seasonal spring which flows into the Kennet in the late winter/early spring) where I met a guitarist/didg player called Adam and his friend Vicky. Adam and I recorded a couple of little pieces while seated on the (relatively recently placed) stepping stones across the Kennet.

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Next stop was West Kennet Longbarrow where I found Rosie the harpist (the wilder of the two harp-playing Rosie's I know) and friends seated atop the structure. Rosie and I played a few minutes of very delicate saz/harp improvisation — real faerie music, and quite a contrast to the wild, drunken greeting I received from her down in the stone circle a couple of days earlier! In the midst of playing, one of her friends brought a wildflower over for another friend to identify (I can be heard on the recording correctly identifying it as cranesbill, after some speculation). After they had to go, I played a little bit more inside the barrow, some of which got recorded.

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West Kennet Longbarrow entrance
West Kennet Longbarrow entrance

After another amble around Avebury henge, I headed up the Herepath to the Ridgeway. I'd heard something about a Rainbow Gathering up there, and passed a tipi in which someone was playing a hang while someone else served up some communal all looked very 'Rainbow', and I almost stopped, but decided to push on. A couple of minutes later, a voice called out from a van with French number plates, "I know you!". It was Amelia, who had got to know the Dongas briefly while we were travelling down in West Cornwall (I was amazed that she remembered my name — I almost got hers right, but I did remember that she used to work in a pasty shop in St. Ives...I have a vivid memory of her dancing up to us in the street with a box of leftover pasties while we were busking once). She and her French friends were involved in the Rainbow Gathering, which turned out to be on Fyfield Down and was carrying on until the full moon. Again, I almost could have stuck around, but decided to push on over to Golden Ball Hill for dusk.

On Wednesday morning, despite my plan to head back along the canal fairly early, I was practically pulled up to the top of Tan Hill (via the Wansdkye) by that particular force that takes over me in that part of the world at that time of year. I recorded a little bit by a striking pair of intertwined elder trees (practically fused into one) on the Wansdyke, as well as on Rybury camp, a small hillfort below Tan Hill.

Rybury Camp as seen from Tan Hill
Rybury Camp as seen from Tan Hill (image from

Back to my bike, I headed down to Alton Priors for a last visit to the old yew tree and the "laughing spring" (where I recorded a few last pieces), then onto the canal and homeward...

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