Building community at the Spirit of the Marsh Festival in Lincolnshire

Claire Dixon —  May 19, 2016 — 11 Comments

THEDDLETHORPE, Lincolnshire — The Lincolnshire Salt Marshes in England are an unforgiving place. The countryside edges the local Wolds and the wind blowing in from the neighbouring North Sea can be bitter. The flat landscape lends itself to breathtaking panoramic skies.

This area is steeped in Viking history, a past etched into the landscape in its place names, in which Nordic suffixes such as -thorpe, -gham, -by and -ford abound. Perhaps it’s link to Viking culture also explains the fighting spirit that pervades its history, right up to modern times.

© Copyright Mat Fascione

© Copyright Mat Fascione

Lincolnshire has birthed radical and revolutionary thinkers including English Civil War leader Oliver Cromwell, Methodist Church founder John Wesley and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. All of three, whatever people think of them, demonstrate the region’s prevailing sense of self-sufficiency, stoicism, modesty and pragmatism.

And it seems as if such spirit is still alive. If proof were needed that the people of Lincolnshire are still radical yet rooted in tradition, and ultimately ready to fight for their beliefs, then that proof can be found in annual Pagan festival called Spirit of the Marsh.

The festival was conceived as a defiant response to a briefing by the Lincolnshire County Council, which rated the coastal village of Theddlethorpe as “failing” and “unsustainable.” The county announced that it would no longer fund any public services there.

Locals held an impassioned meeting to determine a course of action and, from that meeting, the Spirit of the Marsh (SotM) festival was born. The event is the vision of local Pagans Julie Shepherd, Sarah Goodley and Gary Nowell. Taking guidance from the late Anna Salter, the three began planning the first gathering in 2011, which was finally held in 2013.

“No one from the council came to talk to us when they pronounced that we were a ‘failing village’ says Julie. “We didn’t like being labelled that way.”

From the left: Gary, Julie and Sarah [Courtesy Photo]

From the left: Gary Nowell, Julie Shepherd and Sarah Goodley [Courtesy Photo]

The long-term vision of the festival is threefold: to create a space where Pagans from all over the UK could come and celebrate Beltane; to provide a market space to showcase the diverse talents that are hidden away in the area; and for proceeds of the weekend (minus running costs) to be ploughed back into a community fund for Theddlethorpe village.

In previous years the festival has explored the region’s Nordic roots by having a Viking village and re-enactments on site. However, the team stresses that Spirit of the Marsh is a truly Pagan festival and a celebration of Beltane.

The importance of community dominates the weekend and it was also integral to the creation of the camp. As Sarah explained: “We wanted to show the hidden qualities in and about this area. There’s a real alternative subculture here of healers, Pagans, home educators. We wanted to celebrate the energy, the talents and the knowledge of people in the region.”

This year, the festival celebrated its 3rd anniversary and despite some teething problems (last year the wild winds of the marshes carried one of the marquees away), a relaxed mood prevailed. The camp has moved to a new site on a local farm, where the farmer and his family are supporting the event by providing the land for free and selling their locally reared produce on a stall.

Spoonmaking Demonstration [Courtesy Photo]

Spoonmaking Demonstration [Courtesy Photo]

There are many local businesses here, including woodworkers, falconry centres, massage therapists and artists. Julie said: “We wanted to show the world that we are not failing and that there is passion and talent in our area. By having the fair we wanted to give some confidence back to the region and show what we can do.”

During the festival, Ian, a woodcarver from the nearby town of Market Rasen, gave a demonstration of the ancient craft of spoonmaking. He said that he was keen to get involved with SotM, saying: “This festival is refreshing in that it doesn’t pander to over-commericalisation and marketing, it’s just about helping the community.”

Creating an appropriate space for a temporary Beltane community was important to the team. As Gary stressed, “We wanted to create a space where people can get together to celebrate and create a community, albeit for the weekend. We’re particularly keen on providing a space for Pagan families to come and celebrate Beltane. We’re not interested in becoming the next Glastonbury, but just helping the Pagan community, and in turn helping the local community in Theddlethorpe.”

The festival also features bands and musicians, from both the region and afar, playing the main tent each evening. Local folk heroes Whiskey Before Breakfast returned as did Liverpool-based rockers Leafblade. And Leafblade’s effort to help out underlines the broader sense of community present at SotM.  Gary met lead singer Sean Jude on a camp site in Wales years ago, and they became friends. When Spirit of the Marsh launched, Jude answered its call.

Leafblade [Courtesy Photo]

Leafblade [Courtesy Photo]

There were also talks and demonstrations from local pagans, which Gary in particular is hoping to develop for next year’s festival. The energy of the weekend was held in the steady and gentle hands of John Licence from Pan’s Grove in South Wales, who led all of the Wicca-inspired ceremonies of the weekend.

Since the festival’s inception, the word has quietly spread about the importance of this festival and how the Pagan community can help out Theddlethorpe. People travelled from far and wide to this remote patch of Eastern England, where all main roads have long since petered out. They came to offer support because they believed in its ethos.

There were people from Dorset in South West England, people from the cities of Manchester and Liverpool in the North West, and one couple, who had driven from Southend-on Sea on the south coast. But one striking new development was that the festival now had registered on the radar of The Dagda.

Members of The Dagda. From Left to Right: Aus, Elric and Rich [Courtesy Photo]

The Dagda describe themselves as “the gatekeepers.” In Irish mythology, the Dagda is a father figure or protector of the tribe. These “gatekeepers” are a team who provide security, marshalling and general helping-out at the majority of Pagan summer camps across Britain. Aus and his son Elric, who were part of the crew, spoke with The Wild Hunt about their own take the subject of community building.

The Dagda came about at the tail-end of the 1980s after a series of high-profile and often violent clashes between Pagans and various groups, including the police and Christians. The most notorious of these was the Battle of the Beanfield. The Dagda was created on the back of these events. Aus explained, “There was a lot of persecution then against Pagans from Christians and other groups. Any gathering that we tried to have was either cancelled at the last minute or would get mobbed by Christians. People used to get worried by it, saying ‘What happens if the Christians turn up?’. Me and my mate Dog decided that this was something we could do for our community, so we kept on doing it.”

The Dagda is going strong now, with approximately 45 members and, as Aus is quick to point out, “Under Anglo-Saxon law that’s enough for a small army.”

The group gatekeeps most of the Pagan camps on the summer circuit. “This year we’re doing 28 camps,” says Elric. “This is our summer, virtually every weekend we’re off all over the country helping out at camps, collecting tickets, making sure people don’t get too drunk and helping out where needed.”

Elric has grown up in The Dagda and now organises his own Pagan events. His commitment to the British Pagan community is obvious. “This is one way I can give something back to our community. I wouldn’t be the person I am today, have the mindset I have, the outlook I have, if it wasn’t for growing up Pagan.”

Aus has seen many changes over the years and stresses the need to remember the importance of community. He said, “When The Dagda first started out, people would ask, ‘How can I help the community?’ I think we’ve lost that, sadly. People seem to turn up to camps now and say, ‘Here’s my money, entertain me’. It may be that this is an inevitable result of Paganism being more widely accepted in British society today. People are fine with it now. Where I work, they just take the piss out of me! But then I take the piss out of them for supporting Wolves (Wolverhampton Wanders soccer club, which is based in the West Midlands, England)! It’s just good-natured banter.”

Ritual at Spirit of the Marsh Festival 2016 [Courtesy Photo]

Ritual at Spirit of the Marsh Festival 2016 [Courtesy Photo]

Elric is keen to point out that the Pagan Symposium, a coming together of groups representing the wealth of different Pagan paths in the UK, has been important for the British community. He said: “I think it’s a good idea, it’s brought lots of different facets of the Pagan community together instead of working against each other. There’s enough people outside of the community who are against us, let alone the people inside the community being against each other. We should be coming together.”

As Aus said: “This is what we do for our people and our community, I can’t write articles or organise events, but I can do this, so this is my way of giving back.”

The sense of giving something back is what is at the heart of Spirit of the Marsh and what has clearly resonated with The Dagda. As the dust settles on the 2016 gathering, Julie, Sarah and Gary are already brimming with ideas for 2017. And as their fight for Theddlethorpe continues, they can expect plenty of new recruits.

Claire Dixon


Claire Dixon is a Bardic level druid with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and a member of the Pagan Federation. She is a married mother of three based in Worcestershire, England. Claire is an avid astrologer, having studied the subject since her early teens, and has written extensively on astrology/astronomy for Pagan publications. She also loves researching British and Irish history and mythology. Claire is also an 80s TV boxset freak (Kip Carpenter’s Robin of Sherwood is a particular favourite) and Earl Grey tea fan.
  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    The disruption of UK Pagan gatherings in the ’80s are news to me. Kudos to the Dagda (especially helping people not get too drunk).

    • claire dixon

      During the 70’s and ’80’s there was a huge groundswell in British paganism. This manifested itself in lots of ways, but the summer solstice festival at Stonehenge was one of them. The mainstream media reported that the festival goers had damaged the site, but more probable is the governmental heebie-jeebies at losing ‘control’ of the stones. Up until then, Stonehenge was fairly accessible, you could walk around the stones and so on. Now you have to stand (what feels like) half a mile away from them and can only enter inside the circle once authorised by English Heritage.
      The late 80’s and the early 90’s was an interesting time in this regard as the Government brought in new legislation such as the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 ( which curtailed these kinds of festivals and was intended to break pagan (as well as other) sub-cultures.
      This legislation came about on the back of the Castlemorton Common Festival, ( which was a week long festival in Worcestershire, England. It was the final nail in the coffin for these kind of events in England and Wales.

  • Anna H. (Anima Mundi)

    What a great group of enterprising, spirited folks!!

    • claire dixon

      Thank you, Anna! They are a great bunch of people – very inspirational.

  • Segomâros Widugeni

    Parts of Lincolnshire are included in the Fens, a region of marshes also called the Cars. One of the culture of the Fens is a unique body of folklore mostly recorded in the late 19th century. Much of this lore concerns the Strangers, a local race of fairies. Another Fen tale is that of the Buried Moon, which concerns the kidnapping of the Moon by evil spirits, and the successful effort by the people of the Fens to free Her. The Wikipedia version can be found here: I am, however, unsure that Theddlethorpe itself is in the parts of Lincolnshire that are included in the Fens.

    • claire dixon

      Nice link! The Legends of the Cars came from the northern part of the county (just south of the river Humber). The official region known as ‘Lincolnshire Fens’ is in the southern most part of the county and is part of a bigger expanse of fenland that stretches into other neighbouring counties such as Cambridgeshire and Norfolk.
      However, just to complicate matters, many parts of Lincolnshire have the suffix fen or fenny attached to them, precisely because much of the county is so flat and marshy.
      The Salt Marshes, where SotM took place is on the eastern side of the county near the coast. The Salt Marshes have a long tradition of being used to produce salt and were being worked for this since at least pre-Roman times. Hope that clears it up somewhat.

  • Wolfsbane

    Cromwell was hardly a radical and revolutionary thinker. He was hunch brained twisted troglodyte savage. The world would be a better place had he stopped a bullet in beginning of the English civil war.

    • claire dixon

      I’m no fan of Cromwell, for many different reasons. However, at the time his puritan ideology and the way he formed his new model army was radical and revolutionary. He’s still a controversial figure in Britain even today.

      • Wolfsbane

        Cromwell’s actions are directly responsible for the situation in Ulster. The relocating Loyalists there so as to dilute the indigenous population. Crimes against humanity, the gift that keeps on giving.

        It’s the same crime we currently condemn the People’s Republic of China for doing in Tibet.

        • claire dixon

          As I said, I’m no fan of Cromwell and, as someone, who is half Irish, I’m more than aware of the devastating effect he had on the Irish – it still reverberates down the generations today. However abhorrent, it still does not detract from him being radical and revolutionary. It just depends on whether or not you define radical and revolutionary as a positive thing. Mao could also be defined as radical and revolutionary, yet I doubt many would describe him a a positive force, and especially in Tibet as you rightly point out.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    Paganism political action, and creating festivals is an old tradition well underway when I started out looking for it in the early eighties, right in the blow up of alleged Satanic Ritual Child abuse, myth and the rise in congress of that group the alleged Moral majority, which wasn’t either moral, or the majority. Taking action and demonstrating was already very controversial because many Pagans were deeply in the closet as it was rather dangerous to be known as Pagan and they were much afraid to have a return to witch hunts. At the same time those that took action and demonstrated felt nothing would change if we hid out and stayed secret. They felt and I consider rightly, that public protest, and open discussion was to only way to overcome the fear many Christians had of Paganism and especially Witchcraft, be it Wicca or other.

    After all the public idea of magic was all of it was black magic and much of it was Satanic. Remember that we are talking of a variety people that were accused of Satanic Ritual Child Abuse and convicted and sent to prison when no such crime ever happened involving these people. It was rather frightening to realize at the time how something that we thought was far back in the past could happen again and send people to prison The last victim of those arrests only got out of prison a few years ago. None of the victims were ever repaid for the damage to their lives and reputation, nor the loss of property or the destruction in many cases of their families, on opposite sides of accusation and being convicted.

    The early Pagan Festivals, heavily Wiccan in those days, were held in secret and you were warned no to talk about what kind of festival you were going to in near by towns and villages, for fear of how the locals might react. Once you paid your fee only then were you given instructions on how to find the festival, often starting something like take Hwy # 4 to Mile Post 45 and then look for a red bit of yarn or ribbon. The yarn or ribbon became your guide to were to turn on often the winding rout to the festival in the back country. There were no signs, no real advertising in the local media and you had to literally know another Pagan to even know it existed. This was in the United States. I am not sure what it was like in England, though they too suffered through their own version of the Satanic Panic , as did Canada during the same period.

    So this one in England shows today is fairly common being able to fully advertise and not just depend on word of mouth at local new age shops. What I like about it especially and shows how things have changed is that it is also to benefit the local village bring in attention to the village’s plight as the government cuts off services and bring support to the village. So we are going back to Pagans being active in their own neighborhood as ancient Pagans were doing, when religion daily life and politics were all part and parcel rather than separated. Just that now we have less of the need to get persecuted, though we saw that in the eighties, and still occasionally see it today.