Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Summer Landscapes: Spirits of the City, Spirits of the Hills

1. London

Plaque in commeration of Iolo Morgannwg's first Gorsedd of the Bards of Britain on Primrose Hill

I've been a Londoner since I was four years old. I lived in this city for fourteen years, then heading off first to America and then to Cardiff, before returning to London for another ten years. That's twenty-four years I spent in this city. And when I go home - and it is home - I can feel it. I can feel a relationship I developed with land spirits that I wasn't even consciously aware of for most of that time, starting to become dimly aware of them only as I was leaving. But it doesn't matter that I was oblivious. We know each other.

My spirituality of the land is a spirituality of the whole of it - cities included. We give our own symbolic meaning to our landscapes*, and mine includes trying not to separate out the 'countryside' from the rest of the world we live in. I love being out in the wild, but cities have a spirit that I find incredibly exciting. I couldn't live at London-pace forever, but I love the sheer life that's there.

So it's probably a bit ironic that the first thing I did, when I got a moment to connect properly with the spirit of the city, was to go and find a tree to meditate under. (I was there to research at the British Library, and spent most of my week there sitting at a desk in a big building.) But I did. And it was awesome.

Tree. Primrose Hill. (I think it might have been a sycamore. Don't quote me on that.)

Primrose Hill is a place with history and myth attached to it. It was once known as 'Barrow Hill', perhaps suggesting there was an ancient burial ground here. It has been claimed that Boudica made her battle plans here and was maybe even buried here (or a few roads over, on Parliament Hill - folklore is fickle). More historically, the London Parks authority has recently installed a plaque at the top of the hill that commemorates Iolo Morgannwg and his first Gorsedd of the Bards of Britain in 1792. The group was primarily about Welsh language and culture, and still holds an annual Eisteddfod today. I think there are some Pagan-type Druids who still hang out on Primrose Hill, too. Unsurprisingly, putting up this plaque this was a controversial decision locally - not least because of the Morgannwg's opium addiction! I've noticed that modern Druids can be very rude about him, and I can sort of see why - clearly, he made stuff up. On the other hand, I find some of what he wrote quite inspiring (I really like his thoughts on death), and there's influence there from ancient texts - although the modern interpretations and ideas are just as interesting. Morgannwg even invented the 'three rays' Awen symbol and the Druid prayer that are used in OBOD and a number of other Druid orders, I have learned recently. I'm not sure why we Pagan types are always so keen to find truly ancient wisdom behind our beliefs (and I entirely include myself in that). Is the eighteenth century too late for people to have spiritual insight that we can learn from? He should have been more upfront about where the work came from (i.e. mainly his head), of course, but claiming you've discovered an ancient manuscript is a bit of an old British tradition - at least, Geoffrey of Monmouth did it about his version of the King Arthur stories. That probably wasn't Morgannwg's reasoning, but you never know. Anyway, I was pleased to be able to stand in the spot where the first Gorsedd of the Bards of Britain was held. That tradition would eventually influence modern Druidry, and I rather like modern Druidry. (It was a little ironic that they've also paved over the top of the hill, but that's the London Parks people for you.)

The view from Primrose Hill, looking out from the top of the hill itself, across London

And you can't deny the power of Primrose Hill. William Blake had his vision of the "spiritual sun" here, and looking out over London from the summit of this little peak, I can see what he meant.

Next up in my record of my summer travels: Somerset and Uffington. (On different days. They're not close.)

*There's some fascinating work in sociology and geography about the way that we socially construct the meanings of the landscapes around us, i.e. give meanings to 'nature.'. Aspects of this are debated, but it's really interesting as a concept. Try Greider and Garkovitch's 'Landscapes: The social construction of nature and the environment' as a good starting-point for reading about this.

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