Column: Solstice on the Hill

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England is small, green and – apart from a bit in the East – rolling. So hills are plentiful. English Pagans are great clamberers up these hills. However it’s less than half of all sunrises that we will see from these green and luscious vantage points, because the sky is clear so rarely. We stand attentively and enraptured; though a little disappointed on those many visits when the overcast British ‘sunrise’ is actually just a gradual lightening of the sky from a dark grey to light grey over a slow meditative hour.

Hass Hill [Photo Credit: Charlie Kennedy / CC via Wikimedia]

Hass Hill [Photo Credit: Charlie Kennedy / CC via Wikimedia]

In England, Pagans greet the solstice sunrise on their local sacred site, or at a local hill with a good southeastern view. Often people do it alone, or with their partner, sometimes with a small group of friends. Most often people stay local.

When I lived next to Hampstead Heath, I once went to the Whitestone Pond to watch a winter sunrise. When I had a boyfriend in Chalk Farm, I watched the spring equinox sunrise on Primrose Hill. When I lived in Richmond, I went to a dip behind a spot called King Henry’s Mound in the Richmond Park. That’s just a bit of my history around London neighbourhoods.

It’s even stronger across the country, in the more rural areas. Down near Glastonbury my pals lived in a tiny village by Ham Hill. When I went to visit, they regaled me with the origins of the name, the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon settlements found upon it, and described to me the strange lights that were sometimes seen upon it. Of course we had to trek up it.

My witch friends in Gloucestershire always went with their coven members up the hill behind their house. Almost every Pagan in England has an adopted hill. I promise that if you visit on or around one of the sabbats, particularly a solstice, you’ll hear all about a sacred site, and they’ll take you there if they’ve half a chance.

The English learned to write in the Dark Ages and immediately began writing about lore associated with every bump and dip in the landscape. Medieval writers Gerald of Wales and Geoffrey of Monmouth are two of those who recorded the lore of the land. The tradition kept up through the Tudors and Stuarts. Then the 18th-century antiquarians made an encyclopedic project of English landscape lore. Pagans today use the resources at hand to get hold of the earliest information they can about their local hill. Once that’s under their belt, they find which deities are local, and of course – which ghosts may haunt it.

Then there’s the logistical side to master. In other words, can you get up the hill? And can you see the Southeast from it? For Pagans, ‘accessible’ means you can find a way to get into the grounds and up to the top in darkness, and descend in daylight. Accessible may or may not mean technically legal.

Summer Solstice on Breton Hill [© Copyright Philip Halling  / CC lic. geograph.org.uk]

Summer Solstice on Breton Hill [ © Copyright Philip Halling / CC lic. geograph.org.uk]

Many a time I’ve been taken by a friend to a place for a solstice dawn that’s accessible. Well, sort of accessible because you can easily get in if you climb under a gap in the fence at the right spot. ‘We’ll just park in a layby down the road then approach quietly, sticking to edge of the road by the trees’ says the friend. And the farmer never need know as long as we leave it spotless. Sometimes the landowner is the National Park Authority, sometimes the National Trust.

Sometimes a Pagan meets another Pagan atop a hill, purely by chance. It’s a funny moment, that meeting. It’s always cold, dew-damp and dark, and we approach gently, so as not to startle. We then always nod at one another. Then we might offer a little advice as to where the sun’s due to come up, or ask if they came up by the wire fence down the left, just to break the ice a little. Then we separate, to find our own spots, and settle into our respective solitude.

After it’s over, an hour or so later, a few more pleasantries are offered with a query of a local pub in the region that might serve breakfast. When parting, one waves and mumbles unsurely ‘Blessed be.’ In that very English way, one doesn’t want to presume it’s appropriate. On the other hand, it would be rude not to extend the traditional good wish.

We’ve just had the winter solstice here, and I’ve recently moved to South London. For the very first time, I didn’t climb a hill as there isn’t one nearby. It feels all wrong. Tonight I’ll be getting out a local map and finding the nearest one, and tomorrow I’ll be digging out the local folklore. Solstice 2015 will see me climbing a hill again and I’ll feel properly pagan once more.