Beltane at the ‘Stonehenge of the North’

The protective fire of Beltane.
The protective fire of Beltane.

Not much further than a mile from us as the crow flies, lies Thornborough Henge. It’s a prehistoric monument consisting of three giant circular earthworks. Constructed 5000 years ago by the first neolithic (new stone age) farmers, it was probably an enclosure for their ritual gatherings. The Henge became an important centre in Britain for pilgrimage and trade, although its exact purpose still remains a mystery.

It sends shivers down my spine to think that this ancient piece of our history lies just a short walk from our home.

An ariel view of Thornborough Henges (photo courtesy of Historic England)
An ariel view of Thornborough Henges (photo courtesy of Historic England)

We can visit it any time we choose, simply to tramp round and try to imagine it in its heyday, and we’ll have the place to ourselves.  Not on May-day though.  Today is the Gaelic feast of Beltane, half way between the spring and summer solstices.  It’s a day to mark the beginning of summer. Sadly, today is very cold, rather windy and a bit wet.

Back in pre-historic times, rituals were held on this day to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth.  Bonfires, deemed to have protective powers, were lit.  For many centuries these practices died out.  But nowadays, at sites like Thornborough, pagans, Wiccans, New-Agers and lovers of history and tradition gather once more to celebrate the renewal of life and growth.

Today I was there too.  For an hour at least, for the opening ceremony. Brrr!  It was cold.

The Green Man and his horn.
The Green Man and his horn.

I was strangely moved.  The Green Man, representing rebirth and the cycle of growth was our Master of Ceremonies.  He invited us all to join hands, whether friends or strangers, in fellowship, and shout out three times the invocation to new life. We hailed Brigantia, Celtic goddess of Northern England.  Then at his bidding and as he sounded his horn, we turned to the east and welcomed the summer rains.  We turned south to welcome the sun (who was coyly absent today), to the west to welcome summer winds, and to the north where the wolves apparently are.

Welcoming the West Wind.
Welcoming the West Wind.

Then a man, naked from the waist upwards save for his covering of woad-coloured paint, leapt among us bearing the flaming torches which would offer us all protection over the coming months.

Protective flames.
Protective flames.

And that was the ceremony over.  Dancers entertained us.  They seemed to me to owe much to flamenco and to middle-eastern belly dancing traditions, but we all cheered them on with enthusiasm.Beltane&BanquetingHouseMay2016 052

I shan’t be there this year for the closing ceremony.  I’m still thawing out.  But weather permitting, I’ll certainly go along next year.  Will you come along too?Beltane&BanquetingHouseMay2016 047

26 thoughts on “Beltane at the ‘Stonehenge of the North’”

  1. What’s lovely day – I hope it warms for you. I need to get out and breath, too. We have a chill, too. Temperatures in the mid 40s (5-10C) and dampness – rain, drizzle, and low clouds. We had a fire last night – April 30th. Next year. Enjoy your week.

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  2. I’m sure Pete only wanted to buy our cottage because we can see one of the henges out of the upstairs window! This all sounds fantastic – I really don’t know why we’ve never been along. Date for my diary next year. x

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  3. How interesting, I didn’t know about it, I bet it was perishing! We still have our woodburner on too. Endless rotation of icy wind, heavy rain, sleet and snow. HB reckons it will be 20C by the end of the week! Get yer sunnies out girls 😎

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  4. Oh, how neat! I think it’s very wonderful that this is so close to your house–I expect I’d like it best when the henges were deserted. I can see, though, that visiting the ceremony would have its own kind of appeal and send chills down one’s spine.

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  5. Always fun and interesting to see celebrations of May Day – somehow it seems the only day left in the year where strange and local interpretations of our varied past get a full outing. Shame about the biting cold though – hope you had gloves on.

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      1. About 10 years ago one of the schools my daughter attended put up a Maypole – can’t remember whether it was here in Norfolk or when we were in Devon. I don’t remember being invited in to see the results though. 😐

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  6. Thornborough Henge is fascinating, and the celebration looks like a lot of fun. It’s too bad that the weather wasn’t more cooperative this year.

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  7. I’d love to be there! And you were right about the dancing being akin to flamenco and belly dancing. Early medieval music and thus dancing was much influenced by Arabic traditions – via Spain and the crusades. Some of it is hauntingly beautiful.

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