A couple of hour's drive from where I live is a place called Mam Tor, or Mother Mountain. Once home to a Pre-Christian goddess cult called the Brigantes, the Tor and surrounding area are littered with remnants of a time when Nature was God and God was considered both male and female. Back in the 1970s, a 3000 year old stone carving presumed to be the head of the goddess Brigid was found by the well in the local village of Castleton. A few miles further along at Baslow lies a stone covered in ancient cup and ring carvings, well known symbols of the Feminine. And on the moors at Eyam is a stone circle, still intact after thousands of years of disuse.
Eager to learn a thing or two from our ancestors, and to try and understand what it might have been like to live in a community that saw the environment in which they lived as sacred, I decided to make a modest pilgrimage to these evocative sites. Armed with sat nav, internet references and mobile data (the modern diviner's tools), I set off on my journey with a sense of excitement, hoping that some of the mystery of the past might seep into my mundane present with each new step.
The Tor herself was magnificent. Remarkable in its resemblance to the female form, the view from the top was awe inspiring. Sensuous curves and clefts abounded in the surrounding landscape and it wasn't hard to understand how the ancients saw the wonderous body of the Great Mother at every turn. Looking across to Peak Cavern in the distance was particularly delightful, as its similarity to a vast, life-giving vagina was unequivocal. To people for whom the birth-death-birth cycle would have been a very tangible reality, the discovery of a natural 'cathedral' in the form of a birth canal (complete with gushing stream issuing forth from the base of the gorge) must have felt like a most blessed omen.
Energised from my walk and enthused by what I had observed in the topography, I made my way to Castleton, where Brigid's head apparently resided in the Visitor Centre. But no head was to be found. The woman selling postcards in the shop said the museum was closed for renovation, but didn't seem to know what exactly I was looking for. I tried to find Rose Cottage, the house in whose garden the head was found. Again, I drew a blank. There was a thriving cafe on the main road that went by that name, but it didn't have a well in the garden and the owners seemed confused as to where the well (once the sacred centre point of the settlement) could actually be.
A little dismayed, I changed tack and decided to visit Peak Cavern, much advertised as a local tourist attraction. The walk towards it was impressive: the walls of the gorge a stippled, flesh-like red, the shape of the rock formation bearing a striking likeness to the details of female genitalia and the abundant greenery to the sides, a lively crown of pubic hair. But when I reached the entrance of the cave, I was taken aback to find that this homage to birth and a woman's body had been renamed … The Devil's Arse.
I chose not to pay the entrance fee and go inside.
Instead, I thought I would seek solace at the stone circle on the moors. For as long as I can remember, I have found stone circles an intriguing phenomenon. Although there is no definitive proof as to their purpose, it seems most likely that they were temple structures used for seasonal celebrations which honoured nature and the elements. The circular formation, together with the fact that they were ancient burial grounds, suggest they were created by a culture who revered the cyclical essence of things, from weather patterns to crop rotation to the intricate round-dance of life itself.
Off I went with map reference in hand, hoping to find the circle within a certain range of my parked car. I trod the path. And trod the path. And trod the path. And eventually asked directions from a group of spritely older walkers, who told me that the stones were notoriously hard to find, that they didn't have a track or even a sign post near them and that perhaps I ought to turn back.
So I took their advice and headed for Baslow and the cup and rings. Again to be foiled. No one in the village knew what I was talking about. No one could point the way.
Feeling both downcast and a little confused (why was evidence of such rich and potent history so difficult to find?) I came across information about the local tradition of 'well dressing' and hoped that this might be my salvation. Recorded as being practiced in the Peak District area for 750 years (and probably long, long before that), well dressings originate from the pagan ritual of honouring water sources as the fountain of life, bedecking them with complex garlands of flowers and other natural materials as a sign of gratitude and supplication. From May to September, ceremonies, processions and displays are held across Derbyshire and much fuss is made of them.
But once again, I was disappointed. Not because the well dressings didn't occur or couldn't be found, but because they had been hijacked. Back in the early days of Christianity when the church was fighting for supremacy over the shamanic nature worship of rural people, the word 'pagan' became synonymous with devilishness. The goddess, with all her earthy, embodied mystery was outlawed as impure and her ceremonies usurped. Thus a well dressing in 2017 takes place nowhere near a well, but in the grounds of the village church. Gone are the elaborate, 3-dimensional womb-like structures that adorned the water source. In their place, flat, stained glass style panels depicting images from the bible at the best, or Disneyland at worse. Yes, they are made from natural materials and are a feat of considerable skill, but there is no celebration in them. They have become intellectualised, in keeping with the dominant religious and societal thinking of our times.
Dejected, I considered my pilgrimage a failure. Reverence for nature and the sacred sensuousness of the body had been well and truly lost in the passage of time, it seemed, with materialism and a life of the mind taking its place.
Following the route home back through Castleton I stopped off in one of the many jewellery shops selling expensive trinkets made of the local Blue John stone. “If you can't beat 'em, join 'em”, I thought, getting my purse out. Blue John (which shares properties with Fluorite) is unique to Mam Tor. Nowhere else in the world can it be mined. So I bought a piece, smooth and flat, to hang in my kitchen window and admire.
A day or two later, it struck me that such a unique stone must have unique energetic qualities, so I looked them up: Blue John is said to be a catalyst for personal growth, encouraging experimentation, exploration and understanding. It also creates a link between the crown, third eye and solar plexus chakras, thus drawing together the life of the mind and the life of the body, transmuting them into the spiritual...
And so perhaps my petition to the goddess of Mam Tor was not in vain. I went there in search of balance, hoping that the ancient spirits of the land would teach me how to live a more nature-centred, reverent, receptive life. I may not have been able to pay my respects in the way they did, with their icons and temples and particular images, and I may have been disconcerted by the wisdom that seems to have been waylaid across the ages. But the process of seeking has helped me understand that we can find our own way, see the sacred where we chose and discover magic in the wild mystery of the very fact that we exist at all.
First published 2017