This post is long, but I make no apologies for that. Some things are too important, and too epic, to contain in a pithy article. Indeed, this is a very different blog post to my normal offering. But there is story here, and beauty, and so I suggest that you settle in, with a long drink by your side. There are photos along the way, and thanks to Phil, even a short film at the end. This is the only time that I am likely to tell this tale in full. May all our guides be with us on the way. For no-one is truly dead while the stories about them are still being told…
In 2003 Tira Brandon-Evans sent me an email, asking if she could use an image I’d put online for the cover of her e-zine – Earthsongs. In looking her up, I discovered she ran a year-long ‘Faery Shaman’s apprenticeship’, and asked immediately how I could sign up. I think she was a little taken aback. In the end, she made me join the Hazel Grove – an online group of monthly lessons exploring pagan themes, promising that I could sign up in 3 months if I still wanted to.
I did. In fact, even before that, she contacted me again, saying that her guides had a journey for me already, if I was prepared to take it. This first journey, at Autumn Equinox 2003, to the Great Mare Mother, set the pattern for all the work we did together: it was highly unusual, charmed, and negotiated in the space between her guides and mine, and between intuition and pragmatism. As Tira like to say “Trust in spirit, but don’t be an ass”.
That journey was quite the trip. I took it on Dragon Hill, under the Uffington White Horse, and the hazelnut I was supposed to find flickered between hazel and beech in my mind. When I told Tira, she revealed that it had done the same when she dreamed it for me. This was the first of many such moments where we had to choose to trust each other, and accept that we would never quite explain this synchronicity between us.
There’s much more to this story: half-remembered, unclear, and unsure. Our relationship of teacher and student was tested many times over the years, and some of those stories are not meant to be told here. There were dark moments too, for both of us, as well as joy. I was her student formally for about three years, and then packed up my home in the place she called the Shining Realm, left her hidden garden, and travelled my own path for a while. There were other teachers, but none like her.
We had become friends by then, too, meeting a handful of times over the years. That first fateful trip to the Appalachian mountains where I grew up in the craft. The trip of a lifetime that Phil and I made to British Columbia where she lived, where we discovered how fond of each other we had become, and how delightful our respective partners were. She and Will came here twice, the first time for a conference at which she spoke on her magical work with the soul of the bees. She asked my help sourcing some local honey, and mead and such. I found a local pagan beekeeper to bring her only the best. We took her to Uffington, and to Glastonbury, and generally took her around the sacred sites of our heart and hers like an adored aunt. There was a special delight in watching her and Uma meet, briefly, two medicine women steeped in the Irish landscape and culture, graciously greeting each other.
There were more journeys too. My work with the fae was a constant if irregular heartbeat to my life. I worked on myself, and on the land, and with my people, quietly, even secretly, in a hundred different ways. I joke that I am part-pixie on my mother’s side, but in truth, there is much about the way I walk through all worlds that would have had me branded a changeling once upon a time. From time to time I would email Tira and say: “I think your guides have something held in trust for me”. And she would sit and check in with GFM, and come back and say: “Yes, I have a journey for you” once again. She never quite stopped being my teacher.
The greatest of these journeys was a series of pilgrimages that I took travelling in both worlds simultaneously, to the four directions and home again. It was the kind of test that proves you ready to walk alone. It was the kind of pilgrimage that comes in layers, and has much secret and profound significance to it. She and I found much excitement in the planning. She wrote: “It was quite amusing getting the information from Their side because a lot of the place names had to be illustrated to me as puns and it was rather like playing charades. I had never heard of most of the sites. I did know of two but of those two one is a Welsh name and the phonetics were hard to figure out. All quite hilarious.”
Of the first journey I wrote to her: “I feel that for the first time I must learn how to stand with both feet on the ground, rather than one always about to lift, like Mercury in his sandals. I sit, then, and know this is the start, and the circle; the reconciliation of fire in the blood; the first settlings of the folk from the South.” Of the second I wrote: “Finally, at the low tree straddling the lower brook, boots deep in the mud, I sit on a branch/trunk and break out in giggles, happy. I felt warmed, wrapped, as if a soft blanket came between me and the world, and my soul felt a little less…raw, perhaps?” Of the third: “Our pasts and our tribes, our origins and our tendencies – there is duty here, a path chosen for us, but also choice, the path we take ourselves.” Of the fourth: “This is how we make sense of our lives, our deaths. This is the constant songline of the tribe, like the sheep’s constant calls around me; like whale song in the depths.” And at Summer Solstice 2011, it was time for the fifth and final pilgrimage in my own back garden.
A year or more ago, I emailed another such request, for what I did not know was the last time: to help me untangle the threads around a blade I was in the process of earning. Her response was as gracious, as patient, as generous as ever. But this time was different. It was clear by the end that she was there to witness and not to guide. She wrote: “You are off to to a great start and I look forward to hearing how the sword play changes over the years. Thank you for sharing this with me.”
I guess I thought we’d have many such occasions together, sharing in our work and adventures together, as well as sharing the little triumphs and tragedies of our everyday lives, as we did from time to time. Her cancer, last year, was a scare to me, but occasional emails saying: “I’ve been thinking of you, how are you?” were the punctuation to a friendship that was erratic in contact, but strangely constant in affection. I loved her, truly. She was chosen family to me.
In February this year, she wrote: “I’m in the throes of making arrangements and getting ready for the heart procedure in early March. Feel like that is the last hurdle for me to jump over and after that it should be smooth sailing.” But just over a month later, Phil came to me and let me know she was gone. Her partner, Will, had posted on her Facebook in an attempt to reach just some of the many, many students and friends she had around the world. He wrote: “Tira passed over to the shining country peacefully in her sleep on March 25, 2018. Her death was the result of taking a high doses of blood thinners following a heart procedure.” Hers was a life that touched people deeply, but quietly, softly. She is not famous. But she was one of the best teachers I will ever know. I learnt more from her than I am comfortable sharing here: hers was the whispered wisdom of a world few know how to walk in.
There are a number of ways that I will honour her memory. I am carefully considering how to step onto the path she forged more thoroughly. This will be quiet work too. But when Phil and I talked, there was one way above all that we wanted to mark her passing into the Shining Realms. She died around the Spring Equinox, and her ashes were buried on the Summer Solstice, 2018. We couldn’t sensibly get to British Columbia to be with Will for that. But we did have time to brew mead, with help from another dear friend. And we started planning an epic road trip: to each of the sites on that life-changing series of pilgrimages in a single, spiralling track, over two days. We aimed to be at the northernmost point just as Will was gathering over her grave with a handful of her friends. This is the story of that trip.
We set off at 3.30am on 21st June, 2018. Through Durrington, past Woodhenge and the turn to the A303. Into the clear summer night we drive, as pagans are gathering. We’ve travelled already away from two of the most prominent pagan sites to see the solstice but that’s nothing new for us. So far it’s a familiar feeling, this predawn run. Birds are beginning to wake as we drive on through the chalklands.
To the layby at Clearbury Rings we come, peach and pink light rising to the dawn all around. And in sacred trespass, over barbed wire and on to the right of way, toiling up the edge of the wheat, over chalk and flint. A rough way, pushing through thistle and spider silk, past daisy and dog rose, and a single poppy on the brow of the hill, over and onto the rise through grass as high as my head. Through the hawthorn faery gate and sore now, already, thighs and knees aching, turning to see the sun has risen sudden with us, framed against the distant hills and closer trees. Gold and green on the land. Into the woodland maze that is the Rings now, deep into Faery we follow the shaft of sunlight deeper than we thought possible, to a splash of gold on a tree trunk, a pixie stick for Phil and a mossy stump. We pop the mead open, light for a short time and leave a walnut candle, and return through the woodland edge, each bramble and ivy, burr and nettle trying to hold us tight. Back to the car with care, the walk up and down took us nearly 90 minutes and also forever. The sun is high. It is 6am.
Breakfast at Fleet services, acclimatising to the commuter rush before hitting the M25. To the East as clouds bank and mass. Poppies fill the verges and we hit that endless Eastern wind. We may be on an epic memorial road trip with a car full of pixies, but that doesn’t mean Phil is going to miss his daily fix of Popmaster on Radio 2.
To Venta Icenorum, sharing space with dog walkers. We find the cracked boulder of aggregate, light candle; offer libation discretely. A jolly woman stops and asks us: “Are you doing a ritual?” right in the middle. She invites us to tea and cake at the church. The invitation is heartfelt, and better that than dunking us in a pond but still, we smile and promise nothing. Christianity knew how to accommodate mystics once. We wander round the outside of the church, checking out the extension finished since we were last here. It is well enough done, but walking in both worlds with humans around always leaves me a little jagged at the edges. So we set off again, with a second stop east that feels almost like a stutter, from the edginess of a warrior queen to the divine surrender of Dame Julian. In pragmatic urban streets in the outskirts of Norwich, the church and cell of Julian is an oasis of restless stillness. We light a votive each and sit a moment here, listening to the endless sound of wind and wood pigeons outside. The sun breaks through the dusty glass for just a moment and all is, indeed, well. It’s just coming up to midday. We pour a little mead out outside, then spend a glorious moment of enthusiastic chaos with the volunteers at the Julian Centre. We buy a candle, making sure the lovely lady puts the money in the till. She’s ever so worried about how far we have to drive today.
And now we’re dashing slightly, for lunch and more miles beneath our feet. We’re far enough east and north that we’re shadowing the heartlands of my mother’s family, parallel now to Matlock and Ashover away to the west. Fat white clouds float in a hot blue sky and we’re tired now, scanning the road ahead for somewhere cute to pause and keeping each other entertained with puzzles and power ballads on the stereo. I have promised not to close my eyes before he can. Instead, I follow waves of emotion: tears through the traffic. We refuel over a shared toastie and lemon tart and a cold brew coffee each, still more than two hours from grabbing dinner for later in Hexham. We’re into familiar country again: up and down and green and stone lined, stone built. On the outskirts of Newcastle we see our first sight of Hadrian’s Wall, carefully preserved in the middle of the road with a small English Heritage sign. Will should be well on his way to the graveside in British Columbia by now.
Yes, this trip is magical. Yes, it’s a little extreme, even a little indulgent. But it’s also important. Because some teachers can be flawed and human and still transform your life. Because sometimes it takes a guide half a world away to help you walk the land you were born on right. Because sometimes you can meet someone less than a handful of times in a decade and still call them sister. Because chosen families matter most. Because if there’s one thing pagans know how to do well, it’s honouring our loved ones when they pass.
To the open moorland of Brocolitia’s Mithraic Temple, and we split up to cover ground, called by two larks ascending, two ducks rising out of the grass, two twin lambs suckling, and two jackdaws, sitting on the rubble and sheep trough that I remember, turning to find the fae tree curving over Coventina’s Well-spring. Stillness and beauty and life’s web shine for us again, rays of sunlight through clouds like the fingers of gods behind us. We tuck a candle into the roots, pour and toast the mead, and Phil reads the last part of Little Gidding for us at 8pm, as Will and friends gather to do the same half a world away at midday. Sweet grief, and growing up, and a gathering and stepping into power on the horizon. If I could have just had one more visit with her. But there’s always one more precious moment you want to share, isn’t there? And as we wander back to the car, the steer come down to drink and the clouds begin to clear. Tomorrow, the journey back. Always the journey back. Tira will be in the Shining Lands, I know, but we, we know, will choose always instead to return, to dissolve, to become one with land and sea and sky, to practice the permaculture of spirit that commits over and over, for better or worse, to this jewel-green-gold and lark-song-blue ball of dancing rock.
To Hartside Top for the night, overlooking the Eden River next to a sadly burnt out café. Nestled on top of the world in a fleecy nest we settle into the gathering dark on a futon stretched out in the back of the car, which happens to have a glass roof. We wake to more sunlight and a misty descent. Breakfast is at the famous Tebay services, up in the high country still. It feels like home but we’re a long way off still, slipping fast and easy now on the home run through familiar land: the Lakes and urban sprawl passing swiftly by before we know it.
We’re realising that one of the things we share, he and I, brought up a decade and a town or two apart, both in the working-aspiring-to-educated classes, is being born and raised into a walking culture. From Manchester and Oldham, Bolton and Blackburn, we walked the Yorkshire and Derbyshire Dales, the hills and valleys of North Wales, local moorland and, above all, the Lakes. I brought my lovers camping here. He navigated on walks with his parents here. We both learnt to read OS maps in these hills. And while that might sound sweet and gentle, we all tell tales of sudden fogs and bitter winds, of snow and hail. The volunteer mountain rescue are heroes of these communities same as volunteer coastguards elsewhere in the country. And for me, this was an escape, and a promise of escape, from a life I never dreamed of being rescued from. I looked to the hills every day, but it was South I eventually went. And now, it’s heads down past town after town of my troubled youth, lest my demons spot me passing.
Never forget the militancy behind that regular impulse to walk the land. This is the home of rebel ramblers facing gamekeepers with shotguns, and the radical beginnings of the National Trust, when socialist lawyers and a misanthropic, philanthropic children’s author of twee tales somehow crowdfunded the working folk in hundreds of factories to buy these hills and declare them inalienable. It’s a spirit that endures. I grew up learning to read the rights of way on maps and trace them out through the barbed wire and dangerous bull signs of landowners. My grandparents went courting mostly walking the Derbyshire dales. Walk the land. Keep the way open for them as come after you.
We are blended people: the descendents of Roman and Pict, Saxon and Celt. We are also of course descendents of pirate and smuggler, explorer and coloniser. We all travelled the land but only some of us took the risks and did the nasty work, and others planted the flags, and still more stayed home and painted the maps pink with foreign blood. Still, when your people don’t own the land, you’re always a bad law and bad luck away from being a refugee. My ancestors were poor enough to be moved on by the Poor Law in the country they were born into, shuffled from county to county. It’s something I remember when faced with stories of Calais and Lesbos and now Texas. If the climate scientists are right, we could all be on the move in a generation.
We’re turning right now: waving to the signs to Birmingham as we go. Birmingham is a city we both once called home: in my idyllic, chocolate flavoured early years, and his boozy, speedy, loud, misspent 20s. Welcome to Wales, then. In my lifetime Wales is where successive generations of English dropouts have ended up, if they didn’t make it as far as the West coast of Ireland. We raise a travel mug to Tipi Valley and CAT, to Lammas and all the other places where sheep farmers look on sceptically as another bunch of hippies shiver in yurts and struggle to grow shiitake mushrooms and turn wood in the optimistic hope of selling to the tourist market. Time for elevenses on Colwyn Bay. Then driving the A55 along the North Wales coast, which exists only through the judicious application of tunnelling machinery, stitching its way in and out of the headlands. Over the Menai Strait into Anglesey you pass over another site of ancient grief and Roman bloodshed that still echoes in the land and the people. And us English have to be on our best and most polite behaviour round here.
A wild pixie slips into the land of the druids, waving in spirit to all my friends in the Anglesey Order. Just a few miles into Anglesey and we are pulling over for Bryn Celli Ddu. As in Wessex, every bump on the land is suspect here. Bryn Celli Ddu is so tiny to be such a friendly place. We had forgotten the high hedge-maze-like hawthorn of the path, the hidden stream and landscape beyond. There is a new excavation neatly gridding the next field and a handful of people, all of like mind, around. No-one here asks if you’re doing a ritual. It’s solstice at a Neolithic burial mound. Everything you’re doing is ritual. Spiralling in we go, around and over, pausing at the simulacrum stone to do the deed with mead and candle, then in for a quiet and friendly moment with an unexpected geomancer. This is a small place to accommodate such diversity of intent and practice, but it holds it well, in its cracked singing bowl of concrete and earth, stone and petrified wood. A friendly place. A sense of ease. And an expanding sense of being called home, in so many different ways. It’s long past midday again.
The long and winding road home is another endurance test now, slipping through the miles. We pause in Snowdonia, and wave at Chris Dixon’s place in passing. We’re still looking for that niche and it’s been too long since we saw you. But no time to stop now. We’re getting tired again. Apparently today is ‘take your interesting farm machinery for a drive’ day in Radnorshire. In the end, it’s the heat that defeats us, pulling into a layby for a nap, side by side. Then on to the familiar lines of the Brecons and the borders. Crossing the Severn, we feel sorry for all the people still queuing into Wales in the heat. But we’re back now in the West Country, 45 minutes from home. Nearly there.
We have processed around and spiralled in, in this island grown in ancient history. Underneath the twisted hazel, in our tiny fairy garden, the last stage of the journey: to South and East and North and West and finally to Centre. Home. We make it around 7pm, 40 hours to honour a life, just as an email from Will arrives. The last offering, the simplest, the sharing of mead and lighting of the last walnut candle in our own tiny faery glen. Too tired now, washed out, strung out, spread thin. But we are home, and we did her proud.
The passage of T.S. Eliot that Will read in Canada, and Phil at the well, is the last of Little Gidding:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.”