Pilgrimage Project: England
Four years ago I got a very strong message— the next step of your life will come in when you visit the places your people are from. It took me three years of figuring out how the heck to make it happen with time and finances, and then last year I began with Ireland. This year was England (and Wales/Scotland) and next year will be the culmination of the journey with a trip to Eastern Europe and the lines that descend from Germany, Poland and Lithuania. At first I thought I’d do the whole journey at once but I realize now that traveling bit by bit is giving me the time I need to process the profundity of each experience.
It took me about a year to prepare for this journey, from researching and reading to saving up and settling things back home so I could be gone for so long. To be able to take a pilgrimage to the places of your bloodline is a privilege, and I feel blessed to share this post to whisk anyone who needed it along with me for the ride. Keep reading for tips on walking the pilgrimage path, reflections on each place I visited, along with accompanying songs to help you step into the mood and medicine of each sacred place. (Also, the order of the posts with “::” markings makes a sample itinerary if you are interested in planning your own journey to this land).
Arrival & Being Greeted by the Plants
Whenever I land in a new place, the first thing I do is go out to greet the plants. Even if it’s just a tiny backyard, or weedy wayside. Somehow I never feel fully grounded until I get outside to say hi. Sometimes I get fancy about it with offerings and prayers, and words spoken to the spirits that keep everything alive. And sometimes it’s simple, like letting the feathers of yarrow touch my hand or eating a couple blackberries in a jet-lagged haze.
Everyone feels like a stranger in a strange land when they first touch down in a new place. But, like arriving to a party alone, everything gets easier once you see a familiar face or two. I see the red clover and it is like a friend with warm smile, walking over to give me a glass of wine. I notice the mugwort, in the same silver dress I recognize from back home, and it’s like my backbone can finally relax. The nettle waves to me from over in the corner and the hawthorn smiles wisely — I may be in the dark, but she knows exactly what is waiting for me on this journey to come.
How wonderful, we have this greeting party to meet us wherever we go.
Here is my English greeting party. I arrived to the the island a few days ago, after 36 sleepless hours and a good stretch of a morning driving in circles around traffic circles. I’m here for the next month, on a pilgrimage to the place that my mother’s mother’s people come from. It feels good to land here, in this circle made by red clover, yarrow, mugwort and nettle. It feels like an auspicious start to this journey of returning to this place my ancestors called home.
:: Stonehenge ::
All you need to know is what you feel.
Before I embarked on this trip to Great Britain I read everything I could get my hands on about the ancient history of the island. Theories about the great megaliths, Celtic mythology, natural history. As a perennial book nerd I dived head first into the material, searching, like every one does, for whatever bells of truth wanted to ring inside me.
Then I got here and realized I had to let go of it all because I had forgotten the cardinal truth. The only real way to experience something sacred, something true, is to *feel* it.
I’d still sit down to tea to discuss all the various theories surrounding megaliths with anyone who wanted to (Spoiler alert: I think all theories are true in their own way) but I also think that would be missing the point.
The ancestors created something as close to eternal as they could, not so we could over intellectualize the past, but so that we could feel the power that is available to us now. I’ve heard these great stones referred to as living libraries. But, like all things of great spiritual depth, what we read there can’t be known through the mind.
In the end, perhaps it’s doesn’t actually matter, why they were originally built. After all, over the thousands of years since they were erected, they have been many things. What matters is how they work on us now. How they can embolden us to tie ourselves like lichen back to the earth and remember, through our hearts, what kind of world is possible.
As per usual, I think a poet said it best. “What is Stonehenge? It is the roofless past.” – Siegfried Sassoon.
I, for one, am glad to put down my book and just gaze at the stars for a spell.
So next time you feel you don’t “know” enough in order to connected, included, or spiritual try throwing that whole concept in the waste bin and just ask yourself… what do I feel? That feeling is where the real truth starts.
:: Avebury ::
I began these pilgrimage trips to the places my family are from because I am looking for something. Something just beneath the surface. Something like a standing stone, unspeaking yet leading me home. I’m looking for my indigeneity, the places that formed my hair, my voice, my bones. I’m interested in what the earth tenders of my lineage knew, still know.
Where do the old ways go when they retreat like the fae into the earth? How can we bring them back home?
This is a picture of Avebury, the largest stone circle in the world. Part of a whole landscape of earthworks, including a gigantic henge, and nearby Silbury hill and West Kennet Longbarrow, the circle emanates a feeling of deep peace, cozy mysticalness and a welcoming home. Looking at the circle now you’d think it has always stood just so, but most of what you see is the work of John Aubrey, a 17th century antiquarian, who dedicated his life to the preservation of the circle and the resurrection of the stones. In his time, only a handful still stood. Some had been purposely broken or removed during the previous centuries, but many had simply fallen, laying unseen until they were covered by earth. They were all but disappeared, until he found them. What he resurrected is beautiful, and even though there are still gaps, it somehow feels whole. Rather than being diminished by its abandonment and subsequent restoration it is, somehow, even more deeply special.
Some people say that the old ways were destroyed in places like England, conquered by the Romans and flattened like a coin. Others say they are now buried far too deep to retrieve. But I think they are like the Avebury standing stones. Gigantic, eternal, continuing on just beneath the surface, if we only know where to look. They aren’t going anywhere. They are simply waiting for us to find them.
:: Glastonbury ::
The sacredness of Glastonbury stretches back as far as the imagination— to the Celts and beyond to the stone-circle builders that came before them. A landscape of pilgrimage for thousands of years—Christian, Druidic and even older. Part of its sacredness has to do with its unique topography. In the past, with sea levels higher, this area of Somerset (known as the Summer isles) was a place of literal islands, floating like leaves upon an inland sea. Among other names, Glastonbury is also called Avalon. The name, which translates literally as the Isle of Apples, has taken on mythic proportions throughout the ages, becoming a synonym for a kind of earthly paradise of ease. Glastonbury a holy place, one where myth seems to hold more weight than history. Where the mists come in with the rains and you understand why it has been so sacred, for so long. The following posts are reflections from my time in three of this “island’s” most sacred places: The Oaks of Avalon, The Chalice Well and The Tor.
The Oaks of Avalon
Visiting a two thousand year old tree
To be in the presence of a old tree that has seen millennia pass, is to be like a child in a vast and benevolent library. You will never read all the books, but it doesn’t matter, because you can sit on the warm oak floors and breath in the light. You can lie with your belly against grain and lose yourself in the grand cathedral of imagination. You are allowed to be there, and that is the only blessing you could ever ask for.
On the outskirts of Avalon, isle of Apples, sits Gog and Magog, two trees that were born just on the tip of the common era. Gog is a white tower, badly burnt and hallowed by death, yet still strong as muscle itself. Magog, on the other hand is still alive, though it is old as stone.
Both trees were part of an ancient Druidic processional way to the sacred hill outside Glastonbury now known as The Tor. In the early 1900s the rest of the oak trees of the ancient path were cut down to make way for farmland. When their rings were counted they were shown to be over 2,000 years old.
After 2,000 years Magog has become its own kind of mountain. Gnarled and asymmetrical as raw stone, its life force twists upwards in rivers of bark. I sat for a long while against this elder tree, knowing in the smallness of my mere 32 rings that I was like an infant to this great old one. I imagined what it must have been like, when my ancestors lived among the primordial forests of Britain. A place marked with trees just like this. Everywhere must have been a fairy tale. Everywhere, stories too old to be heard in a single lifetime. Everywhere, elders who saw you— erring and eager— for the beloved forever-child that you are.
The memory of this still lives. All you need to do is reach into that place of darkening green within, where never cased to be fairy tales true, and it’ll be waiting for you.
Healing at the Chalice Well
I was walking in the apple orchard when I stepped into a hidden animal burrow and went down hard. Immediately, I knew I had twisted my ankle. It was tender, and quickly swelling, as I made my humble way back down the road.
A foot injury is frustrating at any time, but it takes on a whole new level of worrisome when you’re traveling. I was making my way down the hedge lined lane, fretting about what this would mean for the days ahead, when suddenly I spotted a wild comfrey mixed in with the nettle and bramble. After a week in England it was the first time I had seen a comfrey escapee and its timing could not have been any more impeccable. Comfrey is my go-to poultice for ankle sprains.
I took a few sprigs and made my way to the chalice well. A healing place of pilgrimage for thousands of years, and just a blessedly short hobble down the road, it seemed the perfect place to nurse myself. I remembered a particularly secluded bench that I had glimpsed when I was there a few days ago and decided to find it.
It’s always a balm to me, to take my hurts to wild water and the sheltering arms of the green world. There, you are never judged for being too clumsy or tender, you are simply held. I limped my way through the garden until I found the almost hidden path. Pushing my way through the rain heavy flowers I saw that this bench was sitting directly in front of a low rock wall covered in— what else?— comfrey.
So there I healed for the rest of the day, practicing my own form of R.I.C.E. I rested in the shade of the yews, I went to lay my ankle in the ice-cold flow of the spring’s wading pool, I applied my comfrey poultices and I let my spirit be elevated by the sound of running water and happily chatting birds.
But the time the sun went down, so had both my swelling and my pain. I walked home in high spirits.
I imagine this kind of mischievous, miraculous earth healing is something that was commonplace for all our earth-connected ancestors. But it moved me to my core. To be given exactly what we need from the benevolence of the world. What a grace. Who says heaven is not yet on earth?
If you look closely you can still see the ancient terraces, a labyrinth cut to take you around in contemplative circles before you reach the top of the world (or at least, this world). So much legend surrounds the Tor of Glastonbury. Entrance to the Otherworld, a place where lines of power cross and dimensions bend around the corners. I had expected it to feel dramatic. Energetically overwhelming or full of gravity. Instead, I felt lifted when I was there, held and energized all at once.
I went on a particularly gusty day and the children at the top were playing with the wind as if it were their friend, letting it lift them backwards, laughing with it as it took to their jackets and gave them wings.
We’ve been programmed to think that all entryways into Otherworlds will be dark and full of gravitas. But perhaps our transformation is not as ponderous as we think. Maybe, in the end, the most profound gateway will be nothing but a hilltop of sunshine, a welcoming into that place of great blowing light.
The way the light bends in sacred places shows us how, like worked copper, the human imagination can be a small hammer in the beauty-making of the world.
:: Tintagel ::
I heard a shamanic practitioner say once that not all humans came from the same place. Some of us are star-seeds, others are earth-born, and others still, come not from either the earth or the stars, but from the sea. As much as I love living in the mountains, something peculiar happens to me every time I’m by the sea. It is as if I come home to the great bulk of myself, with a sigh as big as an ocean wave.
It reminds of the Joanna Newsom song “Colleen”, a retelling of the Selkie myth. A story, and a song, that has always brought bright ocean brine tears of remembrance to my eyes. Like the woman in the song, a part of me feels deliriously free when I’m with the sea. Emboldened, brave in a way that you can only be when you at home. It makes me want to snub my nose at all the corsets I’m still asked to wear in this world and say “I ain’t forgotten everything…”
Footpaths and coastlines
I am enamored with the public pathways in England. Nearly every place you go there are public footpaths leading in every direction you could want to range towards. The village shop, the green, the hilltop, the sea. For an American, this is nearly as novel as driving on the left-hand side of the road.
I grew up in the middle of a development of duplexes. Each house was tightly packed together, but behind all our homes was a common green area that stretched like a meadow, and sometimes filled in with water during a storm. The particular house I grew up in was closest to the neighborhood behind us, so kids cut through often. My parents never minded, but other’s did. Sometimes when I walked though my neighbors yard they’d come out yelling and waving dish towels. It was always slightly scary, getting back to the common via these small alleys of green, an adventure that I prayed went unnoticed by whoever’s house we were jogging past.
The green, however, was a safe zone. A fantasy realm in tones freedom. Whenever I had dreams of flying as a child, it was always there. When my family moved, the neighborhood was freshly built and almost no one had a fence. All of us kids were like a stable of horses set out to full pasture. Going back as an adult, it saddens me to see that most people have fences, turning the common into a narrow strip.
What is difference between a country that allows the natural footfall of people between places and one that is slowly removing all of its common areas? What happens when we prioritize our ability to use our feet freely? How does this change the very way we relate to the land, to our neighbors, to our freedom and our belonging?
Transforming what needs to change in the American psyche to make our country a place where the actual livability of life is prioritized is a big task. But I wonder if it could just begin with telling our neighbors they are welcome to walk past our house? Opening the fence so feet can pass through. Loosening our intense focus on individual ownership for a moment, in favor of a freedom of movement. Joining together to praise the common joy of walking our commons, together.
:: Dartmoor ::
Walking is a great physical love affair between my body and the earth. When I’m on the moors, I feel this. I feel it in my rain-soaked skirts and happy tired legs. The endless expansive of blooming heather. The mists, the level ground dropping off into the Otherworld, the tors. How could I, ever, be lost here? In this land where the word piskies was born, a Celtic word to be sure. Small, twinkling, benevolent beings, the highlands here are their home. On Wikipedia piskies are described as “benign, mischievous and fond of dancing.” If you want to make sure you aren’t pixie-led it’s said you should turn your coat inside out. But. I think I would like very much to see where the piskies lead me. So I leave my coat on right, sloughing off the rain and welcoming in the unseen. They are said to be great explorers, rewarding humans who tread lightly, and love the land with a fierce curiosity. I am walking in happy lostness on the moors.
“Megalithic monuments are much more like verbs than nouns” – Robin Heath
Matriarchal DNA and the Motherland
It is potent to trace back any of the long web trails of your family line, but there is a particular power in following your matrilineal line. If you are someone born with two XX chromosomes then you carry within you the silken strands of matrilineal mitochondrial DNA, a line that can be followed all the way back in time to the first mother…. and straight into the heart of your ancestral landscape.
In Brian Sykes, author of The Seven Daughters of Eve, groundbreaking genetic work, he found something interesting about the maternal DNA in particular. While paternal DNA, in his sampling range, tends to be less historically rooted in a landscape, matrilineal DNA is deeply placed based. If your mothers line is from a particular place, it is more likely to have been in that place for a long, long time. For most of the mtDNA Sykes tested in The Isles, the mothers and grandmothers of that family could be traced all the way back to the Neolithic burial mounds.
My mothers mothers line is entirely from this Isle. I am only the third woman to be born outside Great Britain. Interestingly, my mothers mothers line is also the one I can trace furthest back in genealogical research. Being here in this land, bringing my body to the place where so many generations of mothers birthed and sang, loved and bleed, I have felt something so deep within me pulling. Like that rope that ties the babe to the womb. The bond feels as deep and strong as an old yew.
Sitting among the stones circles, climbing into the burial cairns, it never fails to rock me that the people that built these, that tended them and knew their secrets, were my ancestors. My grans, my greats, my mothers. And that I am their child, come home to the place that is, in every sense of the word, my motherland.
What you need always survives
Sometimes I can’t help but look at the world and mourn what has been lost. The Druidic library of oral histories that reached back a thousand years. The ceremonies that were once performed in stone circles. All the different names for rain.
Sometimes I look at my own life and mourn, too, the things the things I think I’ve lost at the turnstiles of trauma. Childlike wildness, the innocence of complete self belief, the trust of loving completely.
But the truth is, the things we truly need, always survive. That’s just how it works. We may mourn what’s gone, but what remains is everything we needed to begin again. Like a basket dropped into a river, what is left in that weave is exactly what we need to recreate the future.
As I travel throughout the British Isles, tracking the lines of my ancestry, the footpaths of what is still here and the burial cairns of what has been lost this phrase has become a kind of mantra for me.
We may not have all the songs, the stories, the wisdom keepers or the histories anymore. But we have our dreams, our eagerness, our ability to speak directly with plants, stars and stones. What we need has survived, and the gifts we can still bring this world, survive right alongside it.
Merging with the rain
Rain has been a hallmark of my visit to Great Britain, and I can’t imagine it being any different (given I told the ancestors to give me the full-on Island experience). The same rain that stops me from venturing out back home, here just becomes the piano background to my walks. It loses its prohibitive feelings and becomes just another sensation of the landscape. Like the world coming in to touch me— my feet, my face, my hair— with benediction and care.
I’ll admit though, sometimes, when the wind slants so I can’t see a yard ahead of me or the sneaky downpour finds its way straight into the soles of my boots, I grow weary for a spell. But whenever that moment comes, I stop, take a deep breathe, and allow myself to merge with the rain.
I first learned of the concept of shamanically merging with the elements from Sandra Ingerman, though I think it’s something we all unconsciously do. We soak into sunshine, we become electrified by lightening, we grow soft in the rain. But a particular kind of magic happens when you do it consciously.
Next time you get caught out in a downpour (particularly if you have no jacket or wellies) instead of trying to shrink away from your own skin, close your eyes and imagining that you *are * the rain. Feel yourself falling to the earth, touching everything at once. Feel yourself touch your brow with the same tenderness, and presence, as you touch the hawthorn bough. Imagine yourself, seeping down in the aquifers at a slow tilt, or meeting up with every other single part of yourself as you make your unimpeded way to the coast.
Try merging with the rain, or any other elements that feels like a challenge in the moment, and I promise you’ll feel differently. You won’t be outside of comfort, or care, anymore, but inside of it all.
:: Long Meg and her Daughters, Cumbria ::
For a few amazing minutes, I was the only one here. Amazing because just a few minutes afterwards, five cars rolled up one after another. I didn’t know what to expect from this circle nestled nearby the Lake District, but not this. This grandeur, the sweetness and the intactness. The large stones are peaceful and the people walk among them like the circle was a beloved park. I was there on a day when the sun was out, the breeze light and the birds signing. There is a distinct pleasantness to the entire scene, a happy day and a happy circle. Perhaps that’s why, I wonder, this circle was named for a mother and her daughters. It felt very much like the gladness of the many generations of women, sitting in a circle together. All of us were drawn to the sit down on the stones and sun ourselves in this gentle place of birth and return. Each of us in our peaceful picnic, happy as cows in the sunwarmed grass. A child laughed across the filed and a lab ran around in innocent joy of the day. Perhaps this is part of why these circles were created, so we continue to feel like the earth’s daughter’s, children in the field. We climb onto the stones like climbing into her lap and find the love that we thought we were missing, until this moment.
A five thousand-year-old labyrinth, still projecting its light
The book that wants to be written
When this dictate to begin these travels came in, it also arrived with a task… these travels don’t just want to be a personal experience, they want to become a book that will be shared with others to help them on their own journeys. (!) It has felt like a big leap to even approach this, but in sharing these posts I feel so heartened to begin. It’ll take a few years yet, but a guide to help others on their pilgrimages is on its way, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for being on this trip with me.
Want more? Check out the next leg of my trip in Wales & Scotland