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.
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.”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.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.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.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.”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.