Solstice at the Avebury Stones

To mark the longest (or shortest, if you are “down south”!) day of the year, here are two of the tallest standing stones at Avebury, the remarkable site that draws many people to it every Solstice.

This picture gives you an idea just how immense these stones are…

I’ve been to Avebury many times, but you won’t find me there today. I prefer to be there when the place is quiet, if possible (preferably at sun-up or sundown). On my last visit, I stood beneath the slopes of Silbury Hill as twilight deepened, watching a barn owl quartering over the fields, like a white moth under the Moon.

I shall be returning to Avebury again this Saturday. Thanks to Esther and John, the managers of the Henge Shop in the village, Watchers is now on sale there. I’ll be doing an informal book-signing event over lunchtime/the early afternoon. So, if you are planning a solstice-weekend visit to one of the most extraordinary sites in Britain, do pop in to say hello!

If you can’t come this weekend but are going to visit the stone circles another time, I recommend a visit to the Henge shop before you leave. It has a wonderful assortment of books covering a wide area of interests (plenty of titles on crop circles, history, healing, lore, legend etc). It also stocks some carefully-chosen crystals, ceramics and a selection of unique souvenirs. I’ve never left without a new treasure of some kind.

Outside the Henge Shop, Avebury, last week

The Avebury complex itself is a wonderful place, for so many reasons. We do not know who set the great avenues and circles of stones in place, but it was a long, long time ago (Avebury is older than Stonehenge).

Was it the hands of giants that rolled the great sarsens so carefully into place? Were the Annunaki or the Nephilim involved? Or did our ancestors have some now-forgotten technology that enabled them to manoeuvre these huge, unwieldy objects with such precision – something we cannot do as well as they did? No one knows for sure. (I’d love to be able to duck back in time in order to find out!)

Evening sun on some of the Avebury stones

Sadly, many of the stones were knocked down and broken into pieces or we would know much more about them. Such is the way of things. Yet what remains is, I believe, still as powerful as it always was. For there is deep magic to be found at Avebury: the dancing dragon-magic of old that weaves its way beneath the surface of the land, no matter what we humans do above it.

It is for this reason that Avebury is crucial to the plot of the whole Tilly Greenway series. In Book One we do not visit the stone circle itself, but we do go to the West Kennet Long Barrow (that ghostly dolmen that lies just south of Avebury itself), before passing between the sarsens of The Avenue and heading on to Silbury Hill.

Yggdrasil-bury Hill, oldest of man-made earthworks of Europe. Inside there is a step-pyramid as old as those at Saqqara in Egypt…

It’s at Silbury that we meet (most of) the dragons who feature in the tale. Yggdrasil is one of them. She is the Ash Tree Dragon, the gentle spear whose actions usher in a new dawn for human consciousness.

It’s a piece of fun to have Silbury as her home. As one of the characters notes, the hill is named after her: Yggdrasil-bury Hill being the place where she was laid to rest until such a time as the world was in dire need of dragon-deeds once more. The hill was once known as the Dragontop, however, because it was said to be scorched black on top by the fiery breath of the dragons who guard its secrets…

I’ll be writing more about what makes particular sites that little bit extra-special very soon, but for now my best wishes for a Solstice full of wonder. Wherever you are in the North or the South, today marks a turning point in the year as the great wheel of the seasons rolls onward. It is a time of endings and beginnings, of hope and renewal: accompanied, as ever, by the thinnest sliver of the waxing Moon. Enjoy!

Watchers is now available in most Waterstones stores. Signed copies are also in the Henge Shop at Avebury and The Goddess and Green Man and in Dicketts in Glastonbury. Or you can purchase your copy via amazon.

Paperback amazon.co.uk      Paperback amazon.com

Kindle: amazon.com         Kindle: amazon.co.uk

Beware the Blackthorn Winter!

I love the old weather-sayings. Based on hundreds of years’ of observation, they are usually spot on!

Most of us are familiar with the old saying about March: “in like a lion, out like a lamb: in like a lamb, out like a lion.” Well, I think we can safely say that we got the second half of the prediction this year! After some lovely weather early in March, the first two weeks of April have seen north winds and plenty of morning frosts (my car has been iced over several times) which means I’m paying attention to another old saying: “Ne’er cast a clout til May be out.” In other words, keep your winter woollies on until the end of May!

The countryman’s expression for this time of year is “Beware the Blackthorn Winter.” This is because, although the Blackthorn is in full bloom by now, its pale blossoms are often matched by frost-whitened grass or snow-covered fields.

Blackthorn is very different from its cousin the Hawthorn (or Whitethorn). The Blackthorn’s bark is dark and smooth, whereas the bark of the Hawthorn is greener and rougher. Blackthorn blossoms are pure white with lemon-coloured stamens: Hawthorn’ are pale pink mixed with creamy-yellow centres.

Timing plays its part too. Whilst the hedgerows are awash with the white of the Blackthorn at this time of year, Hawthorns rarely bloom for another month or so (hence the Hawthorn’s country name of “May”). Lastly, the Blackthorn flowers before its leaves grow, so you get a real contrast of white flower on black bark, whereas the Hawthorn dresses itself in bright green well before its blossoms emerge.

The Blackthorn has a reputation as one of the “witch-trees” of the countryside, not least because you have to be very careful of their long (very sharp!) spikes which can puncture skin very easily and which have a tendency to turn septic. Associated with fairytales in which girls “prick their finger” and fall under a spell, the Blackthorn was reputedly what made up the “crown of thorns” of the crucifixion.

The old Celtic word for the tree was “straif” from which we take the word “strife” or “strive”.  We’ll revisit this – and more of the Blackthorn’s magical qualities – during the Celtic Blackthorn Month in the autumn. By then the tree’s white blossoms will have been replaced by the deep blue sloes that are sometimes used to flavour gin.

For now, much as I love the white blossoms of the Blackthorn, I have to say that I’m looking forward to the hedgerows being covered in Hawthorn blossoms soon, because that will mean that summer is upon us. This year’s Blackthorn Winter is truly one to beware of!  Brrrrr!

Myth and Magic – Fact or Fiction?

Silbury Hill features in Watchers as a place where dragons slumber....

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that so many myths and legends (and the lore within them) are similar in different countries. Take the story of the Deluge and the Flood. This tale is repeated in pretty much every continent. Huge rains are on the way. God tells one of the humans to build an ark, which he does. He and his family then escape the ensuing flood, whilst the rest of mankind is drowned. In the bible the human is Noah, in older texts he is Ziusudra: but the tale is almost identical. It seems unlikely that such a wide-spread story is just a myth. Far more likely that it records an actual event.

The tale of Tilly Greenway and the Secrets of the Ancient Keys also begins with a flood-warning, but this flood is not a real one. It is part of an orchestrated plan by those in power to micro-chip the population. Is such a plan pure fantasy? Perhaps, but the possibility is there, which is why it kicks off our tale.

Magic and myth are interwoven with the real world throughout the Tilly Greenway saga. Although many of the characters might have stepped from the pages of fantasy (such as Herne or the Dragons) the locations of the tale are all places you can find on a map. This was quite deliberate and, I hope, makes the books very different from other fantasies in which the reader travels through a wholly fictitious world.

Herne as he appears in the Tilly Greenway stories

I chose to write this way for several reasons. One is that I wanted to delve into the hidden history of our planet. In this way, the stories form a true grail quest, an exploration of what has been going on in the real world (and still is) in order to keep us from finding out the truth about our past. There are some eyebrow-raising revelations to come…

Having said that, the books are not allegory. Like Tolkien, I am not a fan of allegory. I prefer history – both real and imagined. In order to give the tale authenticity I’ve created a history of our race that goes back well beyond the Ice Age (as you’ll discover in later books). For this I’ve used a combination of sources, including some of the Celtic poems (many of which were written in a deliberately obscure way in order to avoid being edited) and the tales told on Sumerian tablets some seven thousand years ago.

There are hundreds of thousands of these clay tablets, most of them yet to be translated. My guess is that, as with the Qumran scrolls, many will never see the light of day (not for public consumption anyway). An interesting fact is that the majority of them are/were buried in the sands of Iraq and Iran, so you can see how relevant to today our tale really is.

But the main reason for mixing fact with fiction and magic with reality is that I believe magic is very much alive; that the world we live in is just as fantastical and full of wonder as any that I might create. Getting out into nature (and way from the screens that encroach ever more closely on our lives!) is magic enough for me, which is why Tilly and Zack spend so much time “outdoors”.

Take this photo that one of my daughters took over the Easter weekend. I love it! So much beauty. So much mystery. Who knows, perhaps each droplet of water is a universe of its own, with countless tiny lives being played out within it?

And I wonder what was going through this ladybird’s mind as it scaled the huge peak of this old leaf…

I hoped too that some people might feel inspired to visit some of the locations that Tilly and Zack find themselves in during their quest. So you can imagine how pleased I was to hear recently from a reader who had taken his sons to see Silbury Hill and the Avebury Stones after they had read Watchers.

Avebury Stones

Another wrote to me to say that she had climbed Glastonbury Tor and visited the Chalice Well Gardens because she had had enjoyed Tilly’s adventures so much. Wonderful!

The Chalice Well Gardens

The Vesica Pisces pool in the Chalice Well Gardens

Why does visiting such places make a difference? Well, for me, seeing them, smelling them, reaching out to touch them means that we re-connect with all they have to offer us, each one with its unique atmosphere, all of them with secrets that they whisper to us from across the long years.

They connect us with our past, inform our present and help us look to the future too. Wrapped in the mystery of myth and legend, they are very real gateways to knowing just a little bit more of the real magic that weaves its way through the world around us…

Next time, we’ll visit Skenfrith Castle, another of the real-life locations in our tale!

Tree Magic – Willow the Dream-Healer

Welcome to the mid-way point of the Willow-Tree Month!

Willows are wonderful trees. Growing beside rivers, ponds and lakes they carry with them the energy of flowing water, inspiring us to heal long-standing hurts and resolve outstanding issues. Of all the trees Willow is the Moon-Tree, the nurturing feminine aspect of nature. With its slender branches and quicksilver leaves it has held a special place over the ages in people’s hearts and minds and has been associated with birth and death, joy and sadness, poetry and love.

The fourth letter in the Celtic Tree Ogham (an alphabet used by Irish druids many centuries ago) is Saille or “Willow”. It sits between its cousin Alder (Fearn in the Ogham) and Ash (Nion). In the corresponding Celtic Calendar, the month of the Willow takes us from mid-March to the middle of April.

It’s easy to see why. Few trees show much colour during March (other than the Alder, whose catkins have already faded), but the hedgerows here are festooned with the silvers, greens and golds of willows.

Alder catkins taken last week

Driving up and down England and Wales to attend recent book-signings has really shown me how much this elegant tree dominates the countryside at this time of year. I took this picture of a Weeping Willow at Skenfrith Castle, which is one of the locations in Watchers. You can see how far ahead it is of the other trees.

There are lots of different types of willow. White, Goat, Crack, Grey and Sallow are all native to Britain and Ireland (the Weeping Willow was imported from China as recently as the 18th century) and all varieties have much magic to share with you.

Goat willows are most common in my neck of the woods. At this time of year they bear wonderfully soft catkins that are exquisitely soft to touch, like the new-born lamb that accompany them in the fields.

As their catkins open out, they transform from silver to gold.

Druids especially valued the Goat Willow for this ability to transform from silver to gold, a kind of natural alchemy that they called “sunshine fire”. Looking at these ones, I can completely relate to that!

Willows have been used in pagan festivals for centuries, gaining a place of honour both at Imbolc (Lady Day, sacred to Brigid) and Samhain. Because of its medicinal qualities, the tree was/is beloved by witches across the world – the wise women who are naturopaths and healers, rather than broomstick-riding “hags” – and in time it became sacred to Hecate herself.

Hecate’s tale is an interesting one to those who believe that the old myths hold hidden truths. One of the Titans (half breeds between the gods and men), she was the only one who was allowed to live. She became the Goddess most associated with both Moon and Willow. It’s said that you can tell when she approaches because dogs howl at the moon (Hecate’s totem was a dog). Haunting cross-roads and graveyards, this Willow Goddess became a figure of the Underworld, sending spirits to visit us in our nightmares…

“Who Watches the Watchers?”

Another Willow Goddess was Anat (or Anatha) who had her seat in Jerusalem, before she was ousted in favour of the male deity worshipped there today. But old resonances die hard. Even today the Fire and Water ceremony in Jerusalem is called “The Day of Willows”

Willow is mentioned in the bible as a symbol both of joy and of death. Until recently churchgoers in England and Ireland carried the leaves of the Goat Willow to church on Palm Sunday, which is why the tree is also called “Palm Willow”. Palm Sunday always falls within the Willow Month.

Goat Willows were sacred to the Goddess Helice and it was to them that people went looking for inspiration. I can recommend this, especially when a gentle breeze ruffles the leaves; but be careful at this time of year…I sat under one recently and when I stood up I was covered in a fine dusting of gold pollen!

The healing qualities of the willow are well-documented. A concoction made with the sap of white willow can be used to treat rheumatism, aches and pains and spots. Drunk as a bitter “tea” it is known to help with headaches and as a cure for diaorrhea! The bark of the White Willow contains salycillic acid, known as witch’s aspirin.

The Weeping Willow is a beautiful tree, her branches often bending to the water whilst her roots trail below its surface. She has lessons for those of us who choose to listen. Spend an hour so sitting beneath a willow (preferably with a river or stream to one side) and let the sounds of the running water and the rustling leaves soothe both body and mind. It’s a perfect way to reconnect with the intuitive part of you, so often neglected by our teachers.

Basket-weavers still use willow branches to ply their trade (the word willow comes from the Anglo-Saxon “welig” which means “soft and pliant”). In myth and legend it was from the branches of the Osier (the purple willow) that the baskets in which the “miraculous children” (from Moses to Taliesin) that feature in so many tales were washed ashore (purple being the colour of royalty). You’ll find out more about this in the Tilly stories…

Were magic cauldrons woven from willow fronds?

As a tree of divination (I’m told it makes excellent divining rods), willow is connected to dreams and prophecies.

For those of you who find sleep hard to come by, take a piece of willow (preferably one that has already fallen) and place it under your pillow. As you fall asleep the day’s tensions will ebb from your body, your inner brow will be soothed and – if you are lucky – you may just be transported, like a flash of moonlight on one of the willow’s silvery leaves, to the “Land Beyond the Summer Stars…”

Sweet Dreams!

PS – If you enjoyed this post, I think you’ll enjoy the first book in my Tilly Greenway and the Secrets of the Ancient Keys series, which has a 5-star rating on amazon. Please see the links below. Thank you!

Paperback amazon.co.uk      Paperback amazon.com

Kindle: amazon.co.uk         Kindle: amazon.com

Spring is in the Air!

Busy at work today, I managed to head out just as the sun was dipping towards the hills. I was only out for an hour, but there was plenty of evidence that the Goddess of Spring was waving her wand over the countryside.

Edging round the corner of the first hedge, I spotted this little chap sunning himself.

As I stood watching, one of his fellows snuck out from the side of the hedge close by.

He was upwind and so didn’t smell me. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a wild rabbit that close before. He was so relaxed he even found time to do a bit of scratching!

Then he saw me and was off.

I strolled on and found myself under a mixed hedgerow of alder, beech, oak and sally willow (sallow). It was clear which was bursting with life the most. The alder and beech buds were almost as closed today…

…as they had been a fortnight ago.

The oak buds were still tight and brown…

..but the sally willow was festooned with a wonderful froth of pale lime-and-silver green catkins!

When only half-open, they look like miniature shuttle-cocks…

Fully open and they turn from silver-green to lemon-gold…

Some of them look like funky caterpillars wrapped around the branches…

Leaving the trees behind, I headed on over the fields. This old oak leaf caught my eye, its skeleton clear to see: a reminder that winter’s coat tails are still flapping in the wind.

In the pool where the frogspawn had sat in bloated lumps last week…

…blobs of dark, wriggling tadpoles now gather in the middle of translucent half-eaten spawn-sacks.

And the reflection of trees overhead are still bare…

Spring may not have reached its peak as yet, but the ivy berries are fat and full and show the promise of what’s to come.

Today is the Vernal Equinox, the day of “equal night” and with it comes that warm glow of knowing. Soon the migratory birds will return, bringing their exotic songs from afar. Wild flowers will nudge their way along the banks and ditches and the air will dance to the hum of bees and insects.

As if to prove that magic was in the air (not that I needed it), this fairy-cup caught my eye as I climbed over the final fence. Or is it a fairy-pipe?!

It’s nearly midnight now and I’m sleepy after a long and busy day, but I’m glad I took an hour away from the computer to enjoy the simple beauties of our world. For those of you who couldn’t or won’t be able to do the same, I hope this little glimpse of some of them may bring a smile of pleasure to your face 🙂

Happy Springtime, everyone!

Why I Love Books!

I’m just back from a week-end away, including a book-signing at the Cribbs Causeway Waterstone’s (that’s me having just got set up at the table). It was very busy, with lots of people stopping to chat and many to buy (always good!).

One of the things I love about the Tilly series is that, because it ranges so widely over different topics, folks of all ages and descriptions are interested in it.

One minute I’m chatting to a middle-aged man who is a John Grisham fan about conspiracy theories; the next an eleven-year-old girl comes to my table, clutching Tilly to her chest with a dreamy look in her eyes. She’s seen the picture of Tia and Kama, two of the dragons in the tale and already feels the magic. I tell her she would make a perfect Tilly if the film is ever made and her eyes light up even more!

Sitting in Waterstone’s for a few hours is a joy on many levels, not least because it proves how many people still love (and buy) books. As a booklover myself, I’m happy to see it. With kindle sales sky-rocketing, there’s been a lot of doom and gloom in the media about “the end is nigh” for books. Seeing the steady stream of people pouring into the store on Sunday, all of them with that air of anticipation that accompanies a trip to buy a book, you wouldn’t think so.

I think books will survive and even thrive in the long run. There will always be that extra-special “something” about holding a physical book.

There’s the texture to begin with. I love the feel of a book in the fingers, especially those old leather tomes you find in libraries. One day I hope Tilly will be successful enough for someone to print a special edition, with leather covers and gold-edged pages – and perhaps a few ancient engravings/symbols on the front!

Tilly - her cover is already much-loved!

Then there’s the smell. All books smell slightly different, depending on the type of ink, paper and binding material that has been used. I still remember the smells of books that were my favourites when I was a child. It was part of the pleasure, sitting down and opening up the covers to be greeted by the scent of that particular story or picture-book.

Then of course there’s the big difference in turning a physical page to simply scrolling on down a screen. Separate neural networks are engaged and more feel-good reward chemicals are released into the brain as a result. Most of us have nodded off in bed with a good book still in our hands, comforted in some way by the physical object itself.

We seem to develop a personal relationship with books that screens simply don’t offer.

Not that I’m a Luddite on this. Kindle is fantastic in many ways, especially for those who can’t get out and about so easily, or for whom holding a book isn’t easy. And I’m sure Kindle will increase the amount of books being read all over the world, which has got to be a good thing.

It’s just that, being of a certain age I was brought up enjoying the book-in-the-hand and listening to the sounds of the words as my parents read to us at night. I loved to thumb through those old copies, especially the ones with faded pictures of their heroes and heroines. Who knew which way the story would twist and turn? Was the baddie really a baddie? Were any of the goodies baddies?! How would the main characters get out of the latest scrape they found themselves in? All these questions flooded through my mind as I sat with a book on my lap.

What that’s left me with is an excitement about books that I don’t (yet) get from Kindle. Walk into a bookstore and there they all are, lined up along the shelves like a vast treasure-trove that no matter how quickly you read, you know you could never get through in several lifetimes!

And that’s part of the fun. I have heaps of books in my bedroom. Some of them are being re-read for the umpteenth time, some of them I just dip into for bits of information and others are yet to be started. But I know that for all the reading I may do between now and the day when I shuffle off the mortal coil, there will still be millions, billions of books that I never see, touch or even hear about!

Books are more than a little like people. We fall in love with some, others make us laugh, some leave us cold, whilst others intrigue and fascinate us. All are made up of essentially the same “stuff” and yet each is unique. And no matter how many we bring into our lives, whether face to face or via the Internet, there are billions more whom we will not meet in quite the same way.

Of course, if we are like books, it begs the question: “Who is reading us?”

Perhaps we are more like characters in a story. Each of us walks through a new chapter every day, not knowing quite what is going to happen. We spend our time meeting other characters, who then become parts of our story just as we become parts of theirs. We make good choices and bad ones. We please some people and infuriate others!

As the pages of our particular story grow in number, so does the wealth and richness of our experience, until one day the final punctuation mark arrives and our character retires. But the story doesn’t end there.

At that point the writer who has penned our tale (along with those of all the others in the library of human history) takes a brief pause before picking up the quill, dipping it into the ink of life, and breathing inspiration into another character.

This new character will walk through the story of his or her life in much the same way as we have (whether on page or screen) and for all their uniqueness, they will be forever connected to each one of us, not just by the ink-marks on the page that tell their tale, but by the simple fact that he or she will be born from the same infinite imagination from which all life springs, just as you and I once were.

Whether we are like books or the characters inside them, perhaps the trick of enjoying life is to turn its pages with the same anticipation of pleasure as we do when we’re immersed in our favourite books, never knowing quite where the tale will lead us, but trusting that the process will be full of wonder and, of course, have a happy ending!

Til next time – best wishes,

Essi.

With Simon Monfredi - Events Manager at Waterstones Cribbs Causeway

Death Moon, Birth Moon

On the evening of the last Full Moon, which many cultures call the Death Moon, I was stuck in a traffic jam on the highway to London. I only saw the moon later that night (by which time I was too tired to write a post). It was huge and lemon-coloured and I wished I was in my much-loved woods watching it through the branches of trees overhead.

As it was, I was left musing on this and that as I waited for the traffic to clear. It was a salutary time. Somewhere up ahead there had been a major crash. The Full Moon had lived up to its name.

Every so often things happen to make us even more grateful to be alive. This was one of those times for me. The crash happened just a couple of miles ahead. A couple of miles probably meant a couple of minutes’ driving time.

I thought of the folks who would soon be receiving a call to say that one of their loved ones had died and what a complete and utter shock that must be. I ran over times when I have come close to death (of which there have been several) and thought about those that I love and how grateful I am for their presence in my life.

The next day I met a group of school girls to chat with them about Watchers. They were all in the same age-group as my own daughters and we had fun talking about dragons, writing and imagination. The day after that I attended a book-signing at a Waterstones store. Most of the people I met were young parents with their children, one was a druid and several were Facebook friends who popped in to meet me.

I enjoyed both days, but as I drove westward out of the hustle and bustle of the suburbs I felt myself relaxing again; not just because I was heading to the countryside, but because I was acutely aware of the preciousness of each moment. Life goes on for those of us who are lucky. For others, its slender thread is snapped in an instant.

I try each day to show my gratitude for being alive, but for me this Death Moon brought a stark reminder to be even more thankful for each hour, each moment that my spirit continues to inhabit this particular body.

The last time I was out with the camera was two days before the Full Moon when it was still waxing. I took the picture above of it as it was rising. In the pic below you can see two ravens: symbols both of death and birth as well as magic (see my post from the New Year on messages brought to us by Ravens).

Earlier on that same walk I had seen the first young rabbits of 2012 sunning themselves by the hedgerows.

In the hedges, last year’s old beech leaves…

…sat beside this year’s new buds.

And in the ditches and pools that are so common in Devon, dead oak leaves floated…

…alongside this year’s frogspawn.

All of these brought to mind that every death is a birth, that nothing truly ends. The wheel keeps turning. Death and life walk hand in hand.

Today, after three nights away, I woke to pre-dawn mists and owls calling in the woods. Later the sun broke through, warming the dew on the grass. It is good to be alive! As this thought ran through my mind a line from Philip Larkin (who I haven’t read for thirty years) popped up through the mists:

“What will survive of us is love.”

I think he’s right – and I’m grateful for that…

With best wishes,

Essi.