The two witches from California weren’t all that impressed. ‘It’s not as good as Stonehenge,’ said one of the two women frowning at the cell phone picture she had just taken of the ancient Neolithic stone circle at Avebury, England.
‘No, it isn’t, is it” said the other leaning in for a look. ‘I hope Glastonbury is better. Visually, I mean.’
‘Me too. I don’t really feel the energy here,’ she said, and reached out to touch one of the large stones while I noticed that the rock, in turn, remained stone cold and probably took her for granite.
‘Not like Stonehenge.’
‘Definitely not,’ said the other. ‘I wonder if there’s anyplace around here where we can get a tall decaf caramel macchiato”
A tour bus operator shrugged but pointed out a nearby pub. ‘I don’t think they have that but perhaps you might find some hot tea,’ he said. ‘We’ll be going there in a bit.’
‘I could use a vente breve double mocha.’
Witches brew apparently involves a 20-ounce chocolate flavored mix with crushed, filtered, and solvent rinsed beans with thick cream in a concoction that Starbuck, the wizard devised for such covens. The two women were among an interesting show of visitors I found touring several of the ancient monolithic sites in England. I would learn that among the hundreds of thousands of visitors who call on the sites each year you can usually find a number of modern day Pagans, Neo-pagans, Witches, Wiccans, Druids, Neo-druids, New Agers, and several happy hippies.
‘We see all kinds,’ explained the tour bus driver nodding to another nearby group who were dressed in long flowing Starwars Yoda-like robes.
‘Druids” I asked while he shook his head.
‘Witches,’ he replied. ‘At least one of the many off-shoot groups anyway.’
‘Ah!’ I said ah-ing not really understanding the difference. Black pointy hats and brooms would have helped but apparently that’s old school perception. These days you’re likely to find a wide array of dress from tie-dyed shirts with jeans to elaborate robes complete with crystal necklaces, capes, and wooden staves.
This has come about since the ban against practicing witchcraft was lifted in England in 1951. Then a British civil servant named Gerald Gardner quickly reorganized and popularized the practice and becoming the nation’s Chief Witch. From Gardner and his Gardnerian style Wicca came the Alexandrian, Dianic Feminist, Eclectic or Solitary, and other off-shoots that quickly took shape and form. The difficulty, at least to the casual observer, comes in telling them or other groups apart which is where tour guides or bus drivers come into play.
Glancing at a mixed troupe I realized that there was something oddly familiar about one visitor; a short, fleshy, dour faced man with glasses and a lopsided smile. His head was tilted off at an odd angle and holding a staff as though he were a cynical bird hunter watching for quail but willing to shoot anything that got in his way.
‘Doesn’t that warlock kinda look like Dick Cheney” I said.
‘The American Vice President,’ I said as the tour bus driver took another look at the man and grinned.
‘I suppose you could say there might be a resemblance, yes. By the way, he’s a male witch, not a warlock”
‘Who, Dick Cheney?” I asked while the tour bus driver just chuckled.
‘No, the visitor in the robe.’
‘Male witch’ I thought they were called ‘Warlocks”’
‘No, the word ‘warlock’ is a Scottish term for an oath breaker.’
‘So are you sure Dick Cheney isn’t a witch or a warlock. I mean, that could go a long way in explaining a few things,’ I said while the tour bus driver avoided the obvious and went on to tell me more about who visits the sites and why.
Some like the witches, he said, come to the sites in large groups or numbers looking for the magical, other visitors come in search of the interesting, the spiritual or the historic and each perhaps finds something they hadn’t necessarily planned on.
‘The mid-Summer Solstice draws the biggest crowds. Lots of vendor booths, events and goings on,’ he said. ‘But only a few of the recognized practicing Druids actually get to conduct their ceremonies within the circle. It’s an irritant to some visitors.’
Most tourists, like us, are prohibited from entering the stone circle and had to view the site from a cordoned-off distance. Private tours can be had inside Stonehenge but at selected times and at a select price. Avebury, though, was different. Here you could walk amongst the monoliths to get a more physical connection with history.
However, the Californian witches obvious disappointment with Avebury appeared to be aimed at the pedestrian nature of the staid English country farm village’s proximity to the ancient circle. But then having just come from Stonehenge at its impressive Salisbury Plains surroundings maybe there was something to their comments.
At Stonehenge in Wiltshire the massive forty-ton Sarsen stones and the smaller four-ton Preseli blue stones set against the open green countryside and open English sky just off of the motorway did seem to evoke a sense of mystical importance and serious substance. Even from a viewing distance the temple-like Stonehenge allows one mentally to travel back through the ages, if only to try to figure out how it came into being and ponder for what purpose.
‘Druid’s still worship here, you know,’ said one visitor.
‘Modern Druids, actually,’ added another reading from a travel guide. ‘Says here there’s little correlation between them and the original Celtic Druids.’
‘It is other worldly,’ said another visitor, a small serious man who was shaking his head.
‘UFO’s,’ he said.
‘Ah, UFO’s!’ I said while the small, serious man nodded.
‘Alien crop circles,’ he said letting me in on the secret. ‘They visit frequently, you know”
‘Could be,’ I said pointing to the monolithic in the golden glow of sunlight. ‘I mean, doesn’t it look like a fast food chain’s drive-up window to you’ A quick shake, chips, and a burger to go.’ That comment, of course, drew several surprised looks from some visitors but a chuckle from the tour bus driver.
‘You know, some people consider this to be a sacred place,’ said one of the visitors scolding me. ‘Would you make jokes at the Vatican”
I smiled and nodded. ‘Spent half a day there trying to find the patron saint of Bingo,’ I said. ‘B-5’ B-5, anyone”
The witch stared at me dumbfounded.
‘Sorry,’ I said and offered something she could better understand. ‘It’s a curse.’ When that drew a groan or two I asked another question. ‘So how did they build it, Stonehenge, I mean”
‘The great stones came from the Salisbury Plains and the Preseli stones came from the Preseli Hills in Wales, both with the help of Merlin,’ said a visiting witch.
‘Merlin, the wizard”
‘Uh-huh, he willed them here.’
‘King Arthur’s Merlin” I asked while another women nodded and the bus driver remained suspiciously quiet content with the knowledge that myth often trumps reality and that tips to a tour bus driver were often based on not battling against someone else’s opinions or beliefs.
‘Arthur is buried at the Glastonbury Abbey, you know,’ said a heavy set woman who was chewing on a candy bar. She reminded me of an older and much larger Stevie Nicks. A button on her expensive peasant blouse read: goddess. A label on her designer purse read: Guess.
I decided not to.
Besides, I didn’t know that the legendary figure King Arthur was buried at Glastonbury Abbey. Mainly because there is still considerable debate about whether Arthur and Merlin ever even existed so I said as much.
‘I thought the Arthurian legend is based on a bunch of stories about a bunch of guys named Arthur or something close to it”
‘Yes,’ replied the man with the travel guide book. ‘There was a local leader named Arthnou in the 6th Century who gets a convincing nod. Says here he’s buried at Tintigal in Cornwall”
‘My book says King Arthur’s grave is on Cadbury Hill,’ said another visitor reading from another travel guide book.
‘No, that was the site of Camelot,’ chimed in the faux Fleetwood Mac crooner in between bites from the candy bar. ‘After the battle against Mordred on the Salisbury Plains his wounded body was whisked away to the Vale of Avalon where it rests until King Arthur is once again needed.’
‘No,’ disagreed the small, serious man. ‘UFO’s snatched him back up. He was one of them, you know”
‘Actually he was a Roman soldier named Ambrosius Aurelianus,’ added another voice with a certain degree of authority.
As the witches and other tourists debated the legend in Avebury I realized that witchcraft has made a strong comeback since the days of Matthew Hopkins- England’s 17th Century Witchfinder General.
Hopkins made his living routing out witches and having them executed, if not for fun then certainly for profit. Hopkins opted for the tried and true methods of selection. He picked Crones, women with hairy upper lips and the sure indicator of a woman who possessed ‘an evil eye.’ To give Hopkins his due he did conduct exhaustive testing procedures. For example, those he accused of witchcraft were bound and tossed in a lake or pond to see if they would float, which he surmised witches did.
Less buoyant candidates who sank and unfortunately drowned were ruled innocent. I could find no account or record to suggest that those who drowned were happily vindicated. Justice was not only blind but apparently lacked basic resuscitation skills as well.
On other occasions Hopkins used a long needle-like device that he stuck into an accused witch’s moles or birth marks. If the suspect didn’t cry out in pain then he or she was indeed a witch. Of course, Hopkins didn’t let on that the needle was spring-loaded and when pressed against the skin it would retract into its handle. With no pain to the suspect witch it was a sure sign of evil. The real question, of course, was evil on whose part’
As I glanced back over at the male ‘witch’ who shared an uncanny resemblance to Dick Cheney I realized that witch hunting or some variation was still very much in play.
However, even with the banter the Witches at Stonehenge and Avebury that I saw were less wild eyed, angry or crazy sounding as some of the people I met a political caucuses over the years and more upfront about their curses.
Did you know that any evil a witch does returns to him or her three-fold’ A pity this doesn’t work with politicians.