I have been thinking about the feel of a “sacred” place. How does a place of worship feel different from another space? Certainly when you enter a church, there appears to be a slightly different atmosphere. Its calmer than the outside world. Now this could be down to people respecting a church as a place of worship and acting accordingly. However in the older churches especially, there is for me a deeper feeling that I get, one that I cant quite describe.
Places like Salisbury Catherdral, York Minster, Canterbury Catherdral, or smaller local churches like St Marys in Westham ( an early Norman church close to where I live) or Chaldon church in Surrey, with its wonderful mural of heaven and hell. These old stone and wooden structures smell and feel different to the outside world. Years of incense burning, and words of praise have seeped into those ancient stone walls. Wood and stone are of the Earth and I firmly believe that such substances absorb the memories of all that has happened in them. The echoes of thousands of footsteps and thousands of voices raised in praise of a God.
Now of course you don’t need magnificent stone edifices in which to praise your God, but surely a structure that was built for and continues to be used for the worship of a God, must have some power, some feeling of sacredness, even if it is not your chosen religion.
When I was a boy, my dad used to take my brother and I to visit old castles. We loved this and would run around the battlements, up and down the towers and great halls and dungeon areas pretending we were lords fighting off our enemies. we would brandish our pretend swords , or if we were lucky, the wooden ones we were bought from the gift shop, and prepare to defend the castle at all costs. I remember one year we were at a castle that had a small chapel attached to one of the main rooms, we charged through the main room and then entered this chapel.. and it all changed. Suddenly we felt the need to be quiet and respectful whilst in the chapel, even though we were not a religious family. Once out of the chapel, we returned to firing imaginary arrows from the tower windows and laughing about how the toilets were just holes in the wall. The memories held by chapel walls made that place feel different to the rest of the castle.
Is this the same feeling that you get from standing stones whose original purpose may never be known? Stonehenge is of course the most famous megalithic monument in the UK. So do I feel the same there? the answer for me is both yes and no. I have been to Stonehenge at the Summer Solstice on a number of occasions. I have to say I do not generally feel anything sacred about the place during those open solstice celebrations. Too many people there for a variety of reasons. That said, just before dawn, when the thousands of people just stop and look towards the East, waiting for the rising Sun to appear, there is a total feeling of calm and wonderment. whether this is as a result of the collective psyche of the visitors, or whether it is induced by the Stones themselves, I am not entirely sure.
I have been lucky on a couple of occasions to attend rituals at Stonehenge with a very small group of like minded people. It is at times like this that I have really appreciated the majesty of the place. We don’t know why it was built, although the alignment with the Solstices is significant. we don’t know what type of rituals, if any, were ever conducted there apart from our modern ones. But the Stones sit on an ancient landscape, there are burial mounds nearby and avenues to Solisbury Hill and Averbury stone circle. The stones may have been “mended” in the 1900’s but the place still holds onto its magic and mystery. Was this place, or any of the megalithic structures we see today, sacred to the Druids of old? who cares! There they are still on the landscape where they have sat for three thousand years whilst generations have been and gone.
For the record, my all time favourite stone circle is actually
Castlerigg, Keswick, in Cumbria. This circle overlooks the Thirlmere Valley with the mountains of High Seat and Helvellyn as a backdrop. It is a place that never fails fill me simultaneously with a with a sense of peace and of awe.
I first came across Castlerigg when I was about 18. I did no call myself a Pagan at he time, in fact I would happily describe myself as an atheist. But something stirred in me when I first came across that stone circle. I was standing where people had stood 4000 years ago, looking at the stones they had placed there. This was no neolithic folly, it was built for a purpose. I did not know then what that purpose was and I still don’t. But the feeling I got from standing there was very odd. Odd in a good way and I did not want to leave the site to continue my walk.
To conclude this blog, I want to mention the Long Man of Wilmington, a chalk figure carved into the hills in Sussex where I live. A bit like Stonehenge, no one really knows why this chalk figure was carved and his age is uncertain. There are quite a few origin stories for the figure, I have written one myself called the Giants Treasure which if you are interested you can read here: The Giants Treasure.
Earliest recorded images make the figure about 300 years old, but the site also contains Long Barrows and neolithic flint mines and so the figure could be older. But it is not the age or original reason for the figure that makes him sacred to me. Anderida Gorsedd have been holding open rituals at the Long Man site for nearly 20 years. It was one of these rituals some 16 years ago that set me on my current path.
The Gorsedd meet on a small flattened tump or plateau which sits just beneath the feet of the chalk figure. It is this place that gives my blog its name “beneath the Long man’s feet” . It here that I have stood hand in hand and heart to heart with like minded souls, many who have become good friends over the past 16 years. It was here that my love of writing poetry and short stories was rekindled, it is the birthplace of me as a Bard. The figure may not have been carved with any spiritual intent and may just be old graffiti or art, but the fact that I have met with people here eight times a year for 16 years to mark the turning wheel and honour my Gods and Goddesses , makes this a scared site to me.
Whenever I visit the site, be it when walking the South Downs or attending a ritual, I get a similar feeling to the one I get in old churches and stone circles. Those 16 years of honouring the land, honouring my ancestors and celebrating my spiritual path here have had an effect. I think part of who I a, in a spiritual sense will be forever connected to that hill and the the Long Man figure. When I pass him on my daily train commute I always say hello.
I may leave Sussex at some time in my life, but wherever I go there will always be part of that hill lodged in my heart.