Earlier this year, Little Toller published Alex Woodcock’s memoir King of Dust, a craftsman’s journey through the landscapes and ancient sculpture that inspired him to first pick up tools, eventually becoming a stonemason working at Exeter Cathedral. For this series, Alex asked writers, artists and those who work with stone to respond to the idea of ‘Artefact’. This essay recalls Eleanor Anstruther’s time creating a stone circle, and a commune, in the Surrey hills.
In the summer of 1995 I came to live on a farm which nestled in the arms of a hill, on the crest of which was an Iron Age fort; once a village, now a protected site identifiable only by its earthworks. Somewhere buried at the site are the artefacts of people whose ancestors danced to the full moon in stone circles built with bare hands, who worshipped multiple gods, whose lives were tracked by seasons and hours by the travel of the sun. They were my ancestors, too and arriving at that farm, on that hill, the fort above me, the land stretched out before me, it was as if an idea passed through the ages and was planted in my head.
I had come from the west country, a life in Glastonbury cut short by the end of a love affair and buffeted by a brief stay with a friend in a forest in Wiltshire . That friend was Ivan Macbeth, a man gargantuan, an Obelix made real, a spirit huge with a belly to match. Trucker turned druid, he wore a green velvet top hat and very little else and built stone circles for a living including the Swan Circle at Worthy Farm, home of the Glastonbury Festival. He’d set up camp in that forest on the behest of the English lord on whose estate it sat – the lord was keen to have his own circle of stones and had invited Ivan to come, and Ivan in turn took me and my broken heart in, there to find some peace in those woods whose every dawn echoed with the roar of lions.
A year later with heart somewhat healed by way of a squat in Ealing and an iron key in an envelope, I arrived at the farm with friends in tow, plans for a commune and a memory, as I looked across the fields, of Ivan. I got him on the phone.
“What do you think about building a stone circle by hand?” I knew he’d never done it. I knew he’d always wanted to. I didn’t know English Heritage had refused to grant the English lord permission and Ivan was without a home or a plan for what to do next. He came within the week.
And so did the commune. With the arrival of Ivan came a throwing open of the doors to anyone with a willingness to share their skills and work for the greater good. Boy, did we have high ideals. But like Ivan and the chance to build a circle by hand, we had the chance to do what everyone else only talked about. If living in a commune is so great, why don’t we do it?
Word spread. The fringes of society are peopled with inhabitants there by both choice and lack of, from travellers cutting their own groove to fractured souls lost; a crisis of mental health gone uncaught. Along with a flood of pagans; members of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), came other free spirits, wild children and dogs, and we turned no one away. If you could build yourself a home, a patch of land was yours. That year we planted trees, refurbished the old farmhouse, converted barns, built compost toilets, threw parties, steamed in hot tubs, sweated in sweat lodges, became vegan and sat through hours and hours of meetings, a talking stick travelling between us while through it all, as the seasons turned, Ivan plotted the moon as it rose and fell over a lush green rise of field that jutted like a ship on a cliff, its bows to the Weald, its stern to the belly of the wood.
Beltane, May 1st 1998, the beginning of summer and the arrival by truck – the only mechanical help we had – of eighteen stones from a quarry in Portland, Dorset. That was the year we hosted all eight festivals of the Pagan calendar; the land filled and emptied eight times over. No sooner had one ended, a camp been dismantled, fires kicked out and hot tubs emptied, than the next would come rolling around, and another camp would rise from the ground, and Beltane was the festival Ivan had chosen in which to begin the build.
Like us, the stones he’d found were the off-cuts, the unwanted, the discarded from view and each bore the scars of the fork lift truck which had thrown them out of the way. As he’d chosen, he’d marked each with a spiral of blue paint, a symbol of belonging, and chosen eighteen because The Moon is the eighteenth card in the tarot’s Major Arcana, but as the truck bed tipped and they slid out, landing in a pile in the field, one of them broke in half. Now we had nineteen. Ivan announced that the Metonic Cycle depicted nineteen phases of the moon; and so it was agreed that even before a stone had been placed, the circle had spoken.
But first, Beltane. A May pole was erected, a fire was lit, the women dressed up and the men stripped bare. A May Queen was elected and the men who wished to be King climbed to the Iron Age fort. When the horn blew, down they thundered straight through the undergrowth – footpaths be damned – in a race to claim her and be crowned.
God knows what the neighbours thought. They came to gawp, a few said to hell with it, and joined in, others went away laughing. It would be a while before a Jesuit priest was called to exorcise the local children from our evil heathen devilry, and it was unfortunate that on the day he came, bearing an enormous wooden cross on his shoulder, that a couple of rabbits had been gutted and skinned on the flat rock at the base of the central stone that morning. He arrived convinced that we performed blood sacrifices, and left with the conviction he’d been right. No amount of explanation buttered his parsnips. You see what you want to see.
But that was some years in the future and on that May Day we carried on our revelry completely undisturbed by 1998 (or 2AD). Into the field came the naked men, roaring as they cleared the barbed wire fence (we winced), racing to where the May Queen awaited the winner. The man who claimed her that day went on to love her for longer than a year – that was the summer the May King and Queen fell in love for real. As he thundered toward her and fell at her feet, as she danced the May Pole, winding the ribbons round and round, as together they jumped the fire, securing their marriage, neither could imagine that one day he would carry her collapsed body to a hospital bed, that a tree would be planted for her beside the circle we’d not yet built, that her death would mark the end of our ideals. But not yet, not then. The men thundered, the May Queen laughed and the stones still lay in a pile. We had not begun.
That Beltane we put in the first five stones, the centre, north, south, east and west. Five hundred druids living on the hill, enveloping a commune, enveloped by a woodland, crested by a fort whose ancestors had done what we did. Except no one there had tried to move a nine ton stone before, nor to drop it in a hole, nor get it to stand upright.
Advice was plentiful. Levitation was suggested, a ritual of prayer and meditation. Uri Geller got in touch to claim he could do it in an afternoon, but strangely never turned up. Endless meetings bore nothing more practical than how to move a talking stick out of someone’s hands without upsetting them. But then – hallelujah – the engineers turned up, and things got moving. It was amazing how news got round. Guardians and experts of ancient megalith sites the length and breadth of Britain came to lend a hand. We worked out a system, keeping the spiritually bent happy while getting on with the job. Each day began with Ivan leading The Dance Of Life and ended with all of us exhausted, bruised, and one step closer.
This is how we did it. Sticks for leverage, railway sleepers, telegraph poles, ropes and a windless for moving them across the ground, spades for digging; each hole at least half the depth of the stone it would hold, elbow grease, tamping sticks for securing the earth around them, and sweat; sweat to move, sweat to dig and double sweat as they tipped; if they don’t fall clean they will over balance, and of all things we learnt were possible, righting a nine ton stone in a hole seven foot deep wasn’t one of them. But we achieved what seemed impossible – every single one landed straight, and in each hole we buried something to amuse or confuse the future.
We said prayers, we joined hands, we sang songs and almost no one got hurt. One broken arm, one whipping by the windless. That was it. As the camp dismantled, we announced that a stone would go in on the last weekend of every month and everyone was welcome. Sometimes, hundreds turned up, on others, especially over winter, very few, but we learnt that it is organised hands that make light work, not many; with hundreds there is too much talking. Over that year, as they fell into place in that emerging circle, there were births, marriages and deaths, and as we built, the commune grew.
I look at those stones now, aged, weathered, still standing, and remember the community we once were – a collection of the ragged, the passionate, idealistic and dispossessed who’d found common ground in that hill top farm in Surrey where the neighbours left us alone and the council turned a blind eye, where land I’d been given became a shared home for those who’d had everything taken away. We were a family of sorts. We did our best. We learnt how to build a stone circle by hand. We tried to live together. But inevitably, eventually, that other question was answered. If living in a commune is so great, why don’t we do it?
It began with petty disagreements, became regular squabbles and hardened into clear opposing factions, separated by where on the land you lived. The Barn Dwellers resented the House Dwellers. The Forest Dwellers considered themselves in superior tune with nature, while the Truck Dwellers were a law unto themselves. Pretty soon angels were crossing swords with spirit guides and messengers from other dimensions were warning of dark forces at play; possessions, curses, and walk-ins. The Wiccans got involved. Past-lives took centre stage. Rebirthing had a boom and kinesiology went wild. Everyone had a yeast infection, candida ran riot.
It was this last that spelled the end, an obsessive cutting out of wheat, dairy, sugar (no one had heard of gluten or lactose back then), a diet reduced that lead to a death which was our end. She who had been our May Queen got thinner and thinner. No one stopped her. We all thought she knew what she was doing. For all the tarot and runes, Goddess cards and crystals, nobody saw it coming. She died and the commune died with her.
I closed the circle after that. I shut the doors and turned out the lights. Ivan left. He went to America. The benders and teepees were packed up leaving flattened circles in the woodlands where every spring daffodils still appear, planted by the families who lived there. The trucks pulled away, the barn was stripped, the hot tub removed and sweat lodge dismantled. Everyone departed and I was left alone.
Well, not quite alone. A shaman came – sweeping into the void like a scavenger in friendly clothing – but that story will have to wait….
Eleanor Anstruther was born in London, educated at Westminster and studied History of Art at Manchester University where she was distracted from finishing her degree by a trip to India. She began her debut novel, A Perfect Explanation, (Salt Books) under the mentorship of Dr. Sally Cline at Anglia Ruskin, publishing it a decade later, and now lives on a farm in Surrey with her twin boys.
Photographs by the author.