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With The Druids At Midsummer

June 21, 2016
by the gentle author

In the grove of sacred hawthorn

At Midsummer, Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I joined the celebrants of the Loose Association of Druids on Primrose Hill for the solstice festival hosted by Jay the Tailor, Druid of Wormwood Scrubs. As the most prominent geological feature in the Lower Thames Valley, it seems likely that this elevated site has been a location for rituals since before history began.

Yet this particular event owes its origin to Edward Williams, a monumental mason and poet better known by his bardic name Iolo Morganwg, who founded the Gorsedd community of Welsh bards here on Primrose Hill in June 1792. He claimed he was reviving an ancient rite, citing John Tollund who in 1716 summoned the surviving druids by trumpet to come together and form a Universal Bond.

Consequently, the Druids begin their observance by gathering to honour their predecessor at Morganwg’s memorial plaque on the viewing platform at the top of the hill, where they corral bewildered tourists and passing dog walkers into a circle to recite his Gorsedd prayer in an English translation. From here, Colin & I joined the Druids as they processed to the deep shade of the nearby sacred grove of hawthorn where biscuits and soft drinks were laid upon a tablecloth with a bunch of wild flowers and some curious wooden utensils.

Following at Jay the Tailor’s shoulder as we strode across the long grass, I could not resist asking about the origin of his staff of hawthorn intertwined with ivy. “It was before I became a Druid, when I was losing my Christian faith,” he confessed to me, “I was attending a County Fair and a stick maker who had Second Sight offered to make it for me for fifteen pounds.” Before I could ask more, we arrived in the grove and it was time to get the ritual organised. Everyone was as polite and good humoured as at a Sunday school picnic.

A photocopied order of service was distributed, we formed a circle, and it was necessary to select a Modron to stand in the west, a Mabon to stand in the north, a Thurifer to stand in the east and a Celebrant to stand in the South. Once we all had practised chanting our Greek vowels while processing clockwise, Jay the Tailor rapped his staff firmly on the ground and we were off. A narrow wooden branch – known as the knife that cannot cut – was passed around and we each introduced ourselves.

In spite of the apparent exoticism of the event and the groups of passersby stopping in their tracks to gaze in disbelief, there was a certain innocent familiarity about the proceedings – which celebrated nature, the changing season and the spirit of the place. In the era of the French and the American Revolutions, Iolo Morganwr declared Freedom of Thought, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Association. Notions that retain strong resonance to this day.

Once the ritual wound up, we had exchanged kisses of peace Druid-style and everyone ate a biscuit with a gulp of apple juice, I was able to ask Jay the Tailor more questions.“I lost my Christian faith because I studied Theology and I found it difficult to believe Jesus was anything other than a human being, even though I do feel he was a very important guide and I had a personal experience of Jesus when I met Him on the steps of Oxford Town Hall,” he admitted, leaving me searching for a response.

“When I was fourteen, I went up Cader Idris at Midsummer and spent all night and the next day there, and the next night I had a vision of Our Lady of Mists & Sheep,” he continued helpfully,“but that just added to my confusion.” I nodded sagely in response.“I came to Druids through geometry, through studying the heavens and recognising there is an order of things,” he explained to me, “mainly because I am a tailor and a pattern cutter, so I understand sacred geometry.” By now, the other Druids were packing up, disposing of the litter from the picnic in the park bins and heading eagerly towards the pub. It had been a intriguing day upon Primrose Hill.

“Do not tell the priest of our plight for he would call it a sin, but we have been out in the woods all night, a-conjuring the Summer in!” – Rudyard Kipling

Sun worshippers on Primrose Hill

Memorial to Iolo Morganwg who initiated the ritual on Primrose Hill in 1792

Peter Barker, Thurifer – “I felt I was a pagan for many years. I always liked gods and goddesses, and the annual festivals are part of my life and you meet a lot of good people.”

Maureen – “I’m a Druid, a member of O.B.O.D. (the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids), and I’ve done all three grades”

Sarah Louise Smith – “I’m training to be a druid with O.B.O.D. at present”

Simeon Posner, Astrologer – “It helps my soul to mature, seeing the life cycle and participating in it”

John Leopold – “I have pagan inclinations”

Jay the Tailor, Druid of Wormwood Scrubs

Iolo Morgamwg (Edward Williams) Poet & Monumental Mason, 1747-1826

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. annette fry permalink
    June 21, 2016

    Some years ago, I took part in a druidic celebration of midsummer at Tower Hill, we all walked through the city costumed and garlanded with flowers, and workers were hanging out of open windows waving and cheering. On reaching Tower Hill, we held a ceremony on the ancient mound, and then retired to share poems, food and good will, at a local hostelry. A joyful affair.

  2. Naomi Peck permalink
    June 21, 2016

    I am intrigued by the line “As the most prominent geological feature in the Lower Thames Valley, it seems likely that this elevated site has been a location for rituals since before history began.”

    I had always been under the impression that Primrose Hill was a creation (or at least an enhancement) of the Great Plague, being the site of one of London’s mass burial grounds. Did it then in fact exist beforehand?

  3. June 21, 2016

    A well described ritual or service by GA amongst the hawthorns . Lots of young people attending on the hill for this happy event. The four seasons are important to Druids and ‘us’ starting with Spring its renewal time the earth is warming up the seeds are in.The Chief Druid within the circle will offer up a blessing for all good things around us. In the Christian world we celebrate, thanking God for a harvest bounty in the Autumn called a harvest festival service . Today its summer solstice time at Stonehenge, there was lots happy bards, druids many visitors and TV crews. The reason for this great happiness the huge orthostats and blue stones were bathed in sunlight, on cue just as the dawn was breaking. John

  4. June 21, 2016

    To all a very happy Summer 2016!

    Love & Peace

  5. Stephen Foster permalink
    June 21, 2016

    Lost me at Oxford Town Hall, but he does carry a lovely stick

  6. June 21, 2016

    Always been fascinated by the ancient Druids. Great story and photographs.

  7. Shawdian permalink
    June 21, 2016

    If it keeps the peace, the more the merrier. We should all look after our planet and try to lead happy healthy lives and be good to each other.

  8. John Rowe permalink
    June 22, 2016

    I am a fan of the Druids, but not wishing to be pedantic it appears unlikely that John Toland held a Gorsedd there in 1716. The first one held there was in 1792 by Iolo Motganwg. Toland was more into Freemasonry and held a meeting in 1717 in a London pub
    inaugurating a lodge and the two events became conflated. Or else Iolo, a notorious forger, decided to add some spurious antiquity

    Toland was a fascinating character, someone said that if he had been born 200 years earlier he would have been burnt at the stake and if he had been born 200 years later he would have been a professor of comparative religion at a Californian University.

    Interestingly in 1783 an early Druidic lodge was founded at the Rose Tavern in Ratcliffe Highway, Wapping. I wonder if Madge Darby knows more about it?

    See ‘Blood and Mistletoe’ by prof. Ronald Hutton for details.

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