Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Stone Seeker Tour of Avebury

The Stone Seeker Tour is a tour given by author and guide Peter Knight, who is based close to Avebury. He offers a range of activities and tailors his tours to the group or individual. I did not come to this tour with an especial interest in pagan religions and ancient sites, though I should also add, I am not against them either. I would count myself as one of the curious who has visited a few stone circles, mostly in Scotland, and once by chance ended up at a Beltane festival in Wales where I found myself in a sweat lodge with the great unwashed whilst shamanic drummers deep in psychedelic revelries circled the flimsy structure connecting with the ancient ones. At least, that is what they said they were doing afterwards, while sitting around a fire, smoking up a storm. Today's tour was to be a good deal more proper; I was, basically, getting an Earth Mysteries 101 tour of Avebury and the West Kennet Long Barrow. 

The tour started inauspiciously enough at Chippenham train station. It was a short, 12-minute ride out of Bath but it felt like a significant step in terms of atmosphere. Whereas Bath is very cosmopolitan and urban, albeit according to an 18th Century design, Chippenham felt like it belonged far more to the countryside.  

My guide, Peter, picked me up in his car and we drove to Avebury. The stones are accessible free of charge to visitors and not fenced off at all, unlike Stonehenge. This meant we could walk amongst them, touch them, sing at them, perform magic with them, check their auras, ley lines and everything else that was on this afternoon's esoteric agenda. He told me that while he was not such as fan of the restrictions at Stonehenge, they were probably necessary to deal with the sheer volume of visitors. For the type of interactive tour that we had lined up, Avebury was clearly the better location.

We began by looking at the stones with Peter explaining his theory of the stones being gendered with alternate masculine and feminine stones. He knew from which angles to best observe them from, having taken many pictures of them himself.

We noticed these impressively large mushrooms and this provided the cue to discuss the role mushrooms might have played in the rituals that took place here. He said there were no less than 12 varieties of psychoactive mushrooms growing in the area, back in the day. While it is tempting to say that such speculation and ritualistic use of drugs is more a product of the present, such as the Beltane I witnessed, some things in people, like the desire to get out of your head now and then, are, I suspect, fairly constant. What's more, we were not talking about a Friday night down the pub sort of scenario, we were talking about  the use of hallucinogens within sacred rituals.

The next thing we did was to look for faces in the stones, such as this stern face looking out to the side. It is a human capacity to find faces in abstract shapes and the idea here was that the people who constructed the stone circle chose the stones and positioned them such that there would be faces everywhere. I had the feeling the way he had developed his theories had been to read the literature, as it existed, and then spend a lot of time around the stones coming up with ideas of his own and connecting his observations to alternative beliefs from related fields. As such, it all hangs together because it comes from a consistent position but it would be difficult to say with absolute certainty that much of it is definitely true. That is one of the beauties of the stones, that their past usage has been lost in the depths of prehistory and then rediscovered through a mixture of scientific study and contemporary sacred practice. 

I then had a go at dowsing. Avebury, he told me, was on the Michael and Mary ley line which crosses Southern England. He said that it was possible to detect this line using dowsing. I had a go myself and something certainly happened, namely, at a certain point the metal rods pointed together and then, taking a few steps further, returned to a parallel position. This they did without me directing them at all. When he was telling me about the ley line from Cornwall to Norfolk I immediately thought to myself, "that would make a great tour!" I have since noticed that The Avebury Experience already offer an 8-day tour of the line line. Alternative tourism is a definite niche business. Peter did say that he sometimes shows dowsing groups around Avebury and they can spend a full hour on just one small part of it, so much is this a central point on their map. 

This brought us to the so called 'Devil's Seat.' Spending some time with Peter I had the impression that he was quite well suited to being a guide. He knew his stuff, which is a first pre-requisite, and then he also quite liked answering questions. I was a bit afraid I'd say something very dumb but he was easy going and made a few jokes here and there which made things relaxed. 

At this point a group of Americans on some sort of pagan package tour appeared out of the ether. They were mostly women of a certain age with one or two men in robes tagging along. They were clearly here on a mission: three of the women were carrying metal swords. They seemed to be circling the stones but then took a wrong turn and were backtracking looking for a way to cross the road that annoyingly bisects the circle. Peter put them on the right path and then told me that he gets significant interest in his work from the USA and from time to time flies over to give talks or workshops. California, it seems, is where the greatest amount of interest in this sort of stuff is to be found. It was interesting to note how the US has ancient religious sites of its own but that these belong to the people the settlers have largely displaced. Peter, to his credit, said he recognised this and tried to incorporate these into his talks and work when over there as he viewed these cultures as being essentially alike. I am usually rather sceptical of essentialist beliefs, in the sense of we are all one, as they usually conceive of this oneness in very particular terms. Still, I understand the impulse in this case and I wouldn't be surprised if there is something to it. 

At this point we had a go at testing the acoustics of the stones. Many of them had cavities and Peter would speak and make sounds into them. Of all the parts of the tour this is the one which, to the outsider, must have looked the most puzzling.  

There were quite a few other groups visiting the stones for different reasons. There was a school group having their lunch there and I spotted another 'alternative' looking group pounding the ley line. Peter told me that at mid-summer it can get very lively indeed and look a bit like a fancy dress party. I want to go!

Stepping away from the stones we went to the National Trust cafe for lunch. It was strangely normal. We did see some of their guides who were showing the sort of people sitting at the tables here around Avebury. I suspect their tour was very different to mine.

We then drove a short distance outside of the circle to look at a double row of standing stones that branch out from it. Again they all had faces and I was put on the spot by being asked, what do you think this one is? I was quietly happy when I guessed correctly that it was known as the shark stone.

We then drove a little further and stopped close to Silbury Hill. This, I was informed, was a man-made structure and another one of the sacred sites in the area. A huge truncated cone, it is, apparently, a special place for dreaming. Sadly, I didn't have the time for an overnight stay to put that to the test.  

We walked up a gradual hill to the top where the West Kennet Barrow is located. A barrow is a burial chamber and I had seen many small round ones but this one was something else as it was long and narrow one which, happily, is open to the public. 

Again checking the acoustics of the stones, Peter built up a rhythm with his drum and then invited me to stand in front of the stone. He played the drum in front of and around me, I could feel the vibrations moving through my body. This built up over a few minutes and where I was at first rather self-conscious I relaxed into it. This is a tour which itself blends into action, I was no longer just the observer but also the observed and it was all the better for it.   

An elderly couple then entered and asked us to be quiet. Peter told me that this was the first time in the fifteen years that he had been coming here that he had been asked to stop drumming. It's a pity I didn't get a decent picture of how the couple looked, they had the countenance of those who like order. In fact I think they probably prefer order to the barrow: they sniffed around for a couple of minutes and then left. When we were leaving a little later we did some informal cleaning; there were a good few tea lights and the remains of rituals past. Seeing how popular Stonehenge is and also how flat the experience can be, I'm surprised that more people don't try this sort of tour. I daresay there is some marketing and communication issues which conspire to make things how they are, but with just a little effort there is a great deal more you can experience at these ancient sacred sites and the Stone Seeker Tour is a great way to do this which does not demand you be an initiate or anything, you simply have to turn up with an open mind, ready to see faces in stones.

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