Finding Magic in Winter

Winter is here. In previous years, I have let winter consume me and frustrate me. However, I am trying to enjoy it this time. To embrace the wet, cold weather, to cherish the time spent huddled around the fire in pubs, and wrapping up in woolly jumpers.

To do this, I have been looking back into the past, at a time when we had greater reverence for the changing seasons. Storehouse vegetables and meats were eaten. The evenings were be long and dark, more time was spent at home with family and friends, telling stories and celebrating the festive period. I like to think that, like me, people’s eyes were drawn to the stars and their stories filled with magic and fairies. After the busy harvest, the winter was a time to rest and to reflect, before growth started again in the spring.

So, we took a little trip to some really interesting places we’ve been wanting to visit for a while! For many years ‘pre-historic’ monuments, old gnarled trees and ‘magical’ sites in the UK, especially stone circles, have fascinated me. I think it’s the pull of the unknown: who used them? How? Why? It allows the imagination to run wild! But also the idea that these monuments have stood there for thousands of years, generations of people have looked upon them, touched them, asked wishes from them. It makes for a magic energy, right?

So, one drizzly weekend we packed up the car with woolly jumpers, wellies and (with laugher from my sister) a basket full of books about English magic, ancient sites and folklore. Me, my sister and Joe set off for Avebury.


Avebury is home to the largest stone circle in Britain. Made up of a large henge (earthen bank and ditch), enclosing a large stone circle – originally made up of around 100 stones, which in turn encloses two smaller stone circles. It was built and altered between 2800BC and 2200BC. However, like Stonehenge, this impressive construction sits within a larger scarred landscape, which includes stone barrows, man-made hills and the beautiful West Kennet Avenue. The West Kennet Avenue is made up of two parallel rows of stones, which seem to form a ceremonial pathway between sites. In Hidden Histories, they say this:

“Human remains were discovered in the holes beneath some of the stones and like the stones in the Avebury circles, it’s been suggested that their relative shapes could represent male (tall, narrow), and female (short, fat).”

Firstly, fuck you, archaeologists! Short and fat! Very rude! But aside from that, the stones in Avebury are impressive. More impressive than I thought they would be. Some of them are really large and imposing. I like to think that the stones do represent people; at wonky angles, with wide shoulders, and round bellied, all with different quirks and personalities.

One of the strangest things about Avebury is that the village is built right through the middle of the site. It feels unnatural and out of place, despite being a beautiful old village. Some of the best photos of the stone circle are from the air, as even when standing on the bank of the henge, your view of the circle is interrupted and obscured by roads and houses.

Avebury was a mix of old and young, pre-Christian and Christian, but it tells a story of the ever-evolving British landscape.


Next, we drove to Stonehenge. I had never been, I had never even driven past it! This is the ultimate symbol of prehistoric Britain, of paganism and magic. With so much idolisation, I had prepared myself to be a little disappointed. I listened jealously to my mother and grandmother’s stories of being able to visit the henge for free, sitting on the stones and having picnics in the landscape. All of which you can no longer do (except the picnicking of course). However, Stonehenge is an incredible popular tourist site (which the size of the car park can attest to). Therefore, I understand why the public is no longer allowed into the circle, except on solstice days. Of course, I want to touch the stones, to feel their energy and hear their stories, but seeing the monument without throngs of people cambering all over it is a blessing and adds to the scared feel of the place. It’s important we find a middle ground between appreciation and conservation.

Something I didn’t know about Stonehenge, is that the stones were rearranged maybe a thousand years after the original construction of the monument, in around 3000BC. This is when the bluestones where added, famously bought all the way from Wales. This probably signalled a change in the religious practices of these people, perhaps a change in power or beliefs.

It is so hard to grasp the length of time these monuments have been a part of our landscape. When the romans arrived in Britain, Stonehenge was already a couple of thousand years old. These monuments were continuously used for a couple of thousand years, meaning that the same, or similar, cultural groups continued living in relatively the same way throughout that long span. Comparatively, Notre-Dame was completed in 1345, a mere 600 years ago; the Sistine chapel was built just over 500 years ago. The Book of English Magic puts it really nicely:

“…imagine you are in a forest clearing somewhere in England at the time Caeser was writing – about 50 BC – perhaps on Salisbury Plain with the great stones of Stonehenge standing on the horizon, just visible through the trees. Even at this time Stonehenge was already over two thousand years old, built in another age by a people long gone.”


On the last day, like many throughout the centuries, we made our own little pilgrimage Glastonbury. A town full of legend, myths and magic. We arrived at the Abbey early Sunday morning and where the grounds were empty and quiet, with a slight mist still clinging to the ground. Ruined arches and elegant architecture blend into the peaceful surroundings, the only colour is the green grass. Supposedly, Joseph of Arimathia came to Wearyall Hill and thrust his staff into the ground and it grew into a Holy Thorn tree, which only blossomed at Christmas. Where the remains of the Abbey now stand, he built a church of wattle and daub. In the 5th century, a monastic community was formed and thrived until the Dissolution of the Churches in 1539.

Glastonbury is of course also drenched with Arthurian legend, which me and Joe both had a passion for as children… like all British children, right? In 1184 a fire destroyed most of the Abbey and their source of revenue. Conveniently (and probably not coincidentally), six years later the tomb of King Arthur and Guinevere was found in the grounds, once again making it a profitable place of pilgrimage. However, the most beautiful part of the story is that Arthur and Guinevere where supposedly found in the hollowed out trunk of an oak tree, buried underground. How romantic is that?!

Next we visited the Chalice Well; to the side of the tor sits an enchanting meditation garden, from which flows the red waters of this magical spring. The water supposedly has healing properties and, on tasting, it is rich in iron and cold from the earth. Rather poetically, another spring flows from the hill also, called the White Spring, with fresh clear waters. Symbolising for many the joining of masculine and feminine.

Whether Glastonbury really is the resting place of King Arthur and the Holy Grail or not, Glastonbury Tor is a naturally distinctive feature of this landscape. The hill can be seen from miles around and has probably had a natural pull on people for thousands of years.

From there we set off through the rain back to the city and our everyday lives. From this short road trip, I was able to connect with an ancient landscape, perhaps reflect on and tap into the lives of those that walked these field and paths long ago. Not only was I able to experience these beautiful places and learn about their histories, but also to be able to explore and appreciate the British countryside from a new perspective.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing I highly recommend a these books:

The Book of English Magic, by Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate

This book is a delightful romp through the history of English Magic – a vein that seems to run though British culture, from the druids of ancient times to Harry Potter today. It provides ideas of places to go and things to try, a great book to dip in and out of.

Hidden Histories, by Mary-Ann Ochota

A beautifully written and presented field guide to the British landscape. How to spot long barrows, date houses and churches, see the patterns in the fields from medieval farming, and to learn about stone circles. I could not live without this book and return to it continuously. It is so packed with knowledge, it will take me many happy years to absorb it all.

The most amazing places of folklore and legend in Britain, from Readers Digest

Used less that the other two books, but gives a nice overview of things to see in different regions, including local festivals and folklore.