Column: Celebrating a Bit of the British Isles in Australia

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[Today, The Wild Hunt welcomes guest writer and Pagan Josephine Winter. Winter is a teacher and geek from provincial Victoria, Australia. She is one of the founding members of the Pagan Collective of Victoria and an organizer of the Mount Franklin Pagan Gathering. Josie shares a little blue house in the bush with a hairy viking, a dog, three chickens and lots of books.]

In this part of the world, the month of May can be a touch unpredictable.

Some years, autumn comes on quickly. Warm days turn to grey drizzle in under a week and the European trees dump their leaves in one great heaving sigh, transforming the towns of provincial Victoria to gloomy little Tim Burton universes. To recover from the shock, it’s considered best practice to bundle into a café or another cosy nook with a fireplace and a mug of something sweet to watch the rain chase down the windowpanes while one tries to remember that summer was, in fact, only a fortnight ago.

This year was a much gentler affair. On country lanes, the hawthorn hedges dropped their leaves but left boughs full of bright red haws. The weather cooled down but the clear days lingered and condensed into golden afternoons with a kind of honey sunlight that turns the changing leaves to butter and fire and blood towards the end of the day.

KC Guy [Photo Credit: Kylie Moroney Photography]

Such were the scenes that whizzed by us as my friends and I set off for the English Ale, a seasonal gathering dedicated to celebrating the surviving customs and ritual traditions from the British Isles. Afternoon reds and yellows of ash and poplar scorched against a backdrop of newly green paddocks and the ancient and constant eucalypts.

It was a fair old hike, in the end, but not an unpleasant one: that day it took us around seven hours to drive from Victoria’s southwest up into South Australia and the Adelaide Hills. On the way we watched the vibrant autumnal landscapes fade to the reds and browns of undulating farmland, to the bright scarlet and violet of the turning vine leaves throughout the Coonawarra wine region. The trip was filled with lots of music, silliness and the kinds of rambling, comfy conversations that can only take place between dear friends.

The Adelaide Hills is a rugged area of winding roads, hidden valleys and sleepy hamlets on Peramangk country, in the foothills of Mount Lofty. The stringybark forests that populate the Mount Lofty Ranges are a traditional boundary between the Peramangk and Kaurna people. In May, the mornings and evenings are chilly, with hilltops looming out of roiling mist and roads disappearing a few metres in front of you. Just magic.

We stayed in a converted settler’s cottage in Stirling, which was sensibly equipped with a marvellous wood fire – just the thing for weary travellers. In the morning after we’d slept and showered off the remnants of our day’s driving, we made the short trip to nearby Mylor, through the grey-green bush and the shimmering ghost gums, to the English Ale.

The festival began as it has in previous years with Morris dancing. Hot for Joe were first, all stripes and bells and swathes of black. As a fledgling dancer in the Border Morris style, I confess I marvelled at their neat and tidy lines, their synchronised stepping and their obvious love of the dance as they whirled, hopped and whooped to the sound of the accordion and the beat of the drum. Throughout the afternoon Hot for Joe were joined by Hedgemonkey Morris, a Cotswold side of impressive skill (not to mention their cardiovascular capacity!), and the Lancashire Witches, who performed in the colourful and spirited style traditional to the North-West counties of England.

Hot for Joe [Photo Credit: Kylie Moroney Photography]

All my Morris dancing fandom was interspersed with conversations and sojourns with friends from all over Australia. As well as being popular with folkies and fans of English culture and song, in recent years the Ale has become well-known throughout the Pagan community, too. Over the course of two dances, I had bumped into friends from South Australia, Tasmania, New South Wales and the Northern Territory… as well as some mates from back home in Victoria. In between sets, South Australian friends introduced me to a multitude of Morris people, who were all warm-hearted, welcoming and clearly in love with all things Morris.

It occurred to me a bit later on, as I munched on freshly roasted chestnuts and watched a Punch and Judy show with some friends from other states, that the Ale had become something of a meeting-time for us. A chance to dance, talk, sing, eat and laugh with far-flung friends, and to celebrate the return of the green of winter together. What was dismissed as a folk festival by some had become almost another holy day for us.

Soon it was time to get ready for the procession. Mummers, guisers, obby osses, musicians and Morris dancers now dressed in ragged black tatters started to meet down by the Mylor oval, where we would be soon making our way to the site of the night’s ritual. When we got down there some of the stars of the Ale were already waiting for us: Petal the Giant, looking lovelier than ever with a fresh coat of paint, loomed over the gathering crowd, which included an impressive Jack-in-the-Green made of oak and eucalyptus leaves.

The organisers’ tireless and efficient marshalling of a couple of hundred dancers, giants, assorted masked and costumed folk, onlookers, local townspeople and other participants was nothing short of admirable: as organisers of events back home, we knew it was no mean feat to get than many people doing any one thing at the same time… and that’s before you add the fire factor. Not only did the Ale team have the procession marshalled and ready to go, they had hosted torch making workshops earlier in the week to ensure that as night fell the crowd was dotted with firelight.

As night fell, we were off. Led by music, dancers and giants, we made our way through the darkness we followed the sound of drums to meet at the ritual site, under the wicker man. The ritual was hosted by Druid grove-mates of the Late South Australian Druid Elder Lynne Sinclair Wood and some members of the Golden Wattle Seed Group, and began by acknowledging and paying respects to the Peramangk people as traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we met. Respects and offerings were paid to the quarters, and wishes for the year to come were bestowed upon the silent and sombre wicker man.

The night had truly settled around us by now. I watched my breath and the breath of those around me come out as steam as two fire puppets danced and sparred around the still and slumbering bonfire. I watched stars wink into sight above the wicker man, and I drew my coat around me as I felt the dew starting to come down. Then as one the gathered crowd turned to watch the dark, raggedy figures of the Morris dancers as they brought torches to the fire, cutting through the dark, the cold and the gloom.

The fire and the looming wicker man caught quickly, the dry brush crackling into long yellow flames that licked and whipped higher and higher, until the whole man was ablaze and the sparks were zipping up to the stars. The circle of onlookers grew wider as we stepped back from the intense heat from the leaping flames.The man leaned ponderously forward and then collapsed to whoops and cheers from the crowd. Sparks flew and what remained of the man was terrible and beautiful against the reds and the night sky as many began to dance.

That evening, the Ale concluded with a concert in Mylor’s cosy little town hall. We howled with laughter at the antics of the Fayre Guisers Mummers Players, relaxed and even had a bit of a sing to the tunes of folk legend Pete Titchener and our old friend Kacey Stephenson. Then the floor was cleared for dancing as Spiral Dance took the stage.

Most of the members of the band had been involved with other parts of the festival throughout the day, but they still managed to play with their usual fervour and enthusiasm as bodies whirled on the dancefloor in front of them and the music from the little town hall curled out into the dark night like wisps of bonfire smoke.

The month of May can certainly be capricious in this corner of the world. But whether autumn comes on slow and sunny or soggy and abrupt, the Ale – with its wonderful and welcoming people, its music, bonfires and cosy memories – will be a constant for us for years to come.

Lancashire Witches KM Photography2 Petal the Giant KM Photography2 Morris Dancer KM Photography2 Spiral Dance KM Photography2 Wicker man KM Photography2
Lancashire Witches [photo credit: Kylie Moroney Photography].
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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.