After our dawn excursion I returned to the hotel for breakfast, then packed and checked out, as Arbor Low was the last stop on our weekend adventure before I had to head to the train station. I was picked up by two of the companions and we set off, sun shining as we wove through the countryside. The Peak District was glowing with late summer, green fields lush with grass and replete with cattle, the rising slopes rustbrown with bracken and heather. Before Arbor Low, we were to have a quick stop at Monsal, where ice cream could be had while taking in a glorious view of the valley and viaduct below.
Ice cream, however, was not forthcoming – the proprietor teasing us by bringing out the wagon but not opening it, despite the sunshine and crowds. So we stood for a little while taking in the view, while Sue told us the sad story of an ancient settlement on the hilltop nearby – archaeology has found that the only inhabitants were female, except for boys under the age of four, and it seemed to have been a place of some importance, fortified by a large stone wall. However, invaders came, as they often did in those times…
…the painted people…
…and the settlement was destroyed. Appallingly, the great stone wall was apparently pushed onto the gathered women and small children, condemning them to a painful death. Over forty skeletons of women, children and babies were discovered under the stones, grouped together in one final terrifying moment. It was a sobering story, and so it was in a reflective frame of mind that we continued on to our destination.
Arbor Low is a large Neolithic stone circle within an embankment, and is often described as the Avebury of the North. But I’ve been to Avebury, and Arbor Low, while of a similar grandeur, feels quite different. Set high in a field along a slight slope, Arbor Low is part of a working farm – we had to walk through the farmyard to get to the burial barrow and great circle beyond. Our entry fee was paid via an honesty system, into a padlocked metal box alongside the stony driveway. We paid our pounds, gold coins rattling into the box, then joined the small group of people heading through. As I walked along, I happened to look down and a piece of stone caught my eye. Broken into smaller fragments, it gleamed in the bright sunlight – I passed it before registering what it was, then realised and went back, picking up a sharp edged chunk, crystal gleaming in the sunlight.
‘That looks like local fluorspar,’ said Sue. ‘That’s for communication.’
As we exited the farmyard, I could see the earthworks rising to the left of us, like a crown upon the hill. Straight ahead the curved shape of an ancient burial mound loomed and I hung back from the group, unsure for a moment.
She clutched the stone in her pocket, feeling the smooth sharp edges digging into her skin. A voice spoke.
‘Go with them,’ it said. ‘Then come to me.’
She listened, wondering if there would be any other instruction, but all she felt was the reverberation of those seven words, like a smile in her mind.
We reached the burial mound, climbing to the top where it was pointed out that, if we looked around, similar mounds crowned many of the hills we could see. Clearly, this had been a place of great importance. After looking around a bit longer we descended, leaving the barrow to enter the circle itself, via the old processional way. Once inside, we were invited to wander around, get a feel for the place, and see whether any of the stones ‘spoke’ to us. I found a stone I liked, sitting there for a while before deciding to walk the circle, starting along one half of the earthworks, then descending into the circle, moving among the stones. All at once I felt joy, as though this were a dance. I started to move in and out of the stones, feeling as though that was the way to do it, as though I were being guided.
Once I’d woven my way through half of the circle, I walked the other part of the earthworks, enjoying the view across the countryside, cloud shadows drifting across the land. Then I descended once more, dancing my way in and out of the stones, feeling laughter bubble in my chest as I did so, pure joy.
Upon joining Sue and Stu in the centre of the circle, we were invited to lie on ‘our’ stone, and see what happened. But someone else had claimed ‘mine’, so I went to another one across the circle, lying back along the ancient sloped surface. It seemed strange to be doing so, yet natural, at the same time. I stared into the sky and let my mind drift.
She could feel energy here, bright and clean as a new penny or a mountain stream, running around the circle counter-clockwise, like a silver rope.
Or a green serpent. She could see it now, its great head entering the base of the circle where the goddess lay, golden eyes aglow with the knowledge it had to impart, golden tongue flickering.
‘Stop trying to force it,’ a voice said. ‘Just look at the sky.’ And so she obeyed, gazing up into the deep blue beyond the clouds, letting herself drift as they did…
I may have dozed a little, I’m not sure. But then the faint sound of a bell brought me back to myself. It was quite comfortable, lying there, and at first I wasn’t really willing to move. But then the bell rang again, and I turned my head to see the others starting to move towards the large centre stones. I also realised I was getting hungry – unsure how long I’d been lying there.
At the centre of the circle ritual was observed once more, though more to honour the space than anything else – it needed no help awakening. We were invited to share anything we’d experienced while lying on the stones but I said nothing, still not quite trusting what I’d seen. Then, as we left, exiting through the lower part of the circle, Sue pointed out a stone that she said looked like a serpent’s head.
‘Did you say serpent’s head, Sue?’ I asked. She stopped, turning to me.
‘Yes. Did you get a serpent?’ I nodded, sharing what I had ‘seen.’ She smiled.
‘We think the people here were the people of the serpent,’ she said, and I shook my head. That was a pretty big sign I needed to trust my instincts. After all I had seen and experienced over the weekend, the land speaking to me in ways unexpected, this final synchronicity seemed a fitting end to an extraordinary time away.
Well, it wasn’t quite the end. Lunch beckoned, and a last chance to spend time in conversation with good company. Wasps drove us indoors but bright sun shone in through the open doorway, illuminating our table. After lunch, once farewells had been made, two of the companions were kind enough to take me to the train station, saving me part of the journey. I boarded my train, feeling strangely out of time, the city landscape jarring after days spent among green hills and ancient stones. As I settled back into my comfortable seat and watched the countryside flash past, tiredness overtook me. I finally reached home as the sun set, bookending the day that had begun at dawn on a distant peak.
With thanks to The Silent Eye and all the companions for a wonderful weekend away.