Macfarlane, Robert - Chanctonbury Ring
Type of Spiritual Experience
'The Ring is a circle of beech trees, planted on a hilltop that had been the site of Bronze and Iron Age fortifications and a Roman temple'.
They would not have been fortifications. These sites were sacred to the people before the Romans who practised a very sophisticated religion. The take-over of Britain's sacred sites by force was done viciously and with considerable violence and sacrilege. The conquerors built their temples as a final act of disdain on top of where once were sacred altars and henges.
The chances are that the people who died there, or were displaced issued a curse, and so violent was the curse on their conquerors, that it remains.
We have other observations on the site where acts of horrendous evil have created places so black they make men ill or simply result in their death. The Georgia slave stone is one.
J R Buchanan – The Manual of Psychometry
[Joseph Rodes Buchanan – Dean of Medicine Covington, Kentucky 1842] Man in every act, leaves the impression of his mental being upon the scenes of his life and subjects of his action. The past is entombed in the present
Lyall Watson – The Nature of things
Strength and depth of feeling can produce phenomena with sufficient reality to leave traces on a sonar, wakes on the water, footprints in the snow or tears on the cheeks of a plaster statue
A description of the experience
The Old Ways – A Journey on Foot – Robert MacFarlane
At dusk I followed a hollowed path that wound up the wooded scarp slope of the Downs east of Storrington. The path's depth spoke of continual foot-passage over centuries, and I liked its design:
it moved in round-cornered zigzags, an uphill meander through the trees. There in the forest, night was further advanced. I turned a corner and a badger bustled out of a bank of dog's mercury) stopped, stared at me) its eyes giving a quick green jewel-flash in the dark before it barrelled on downhill along its path, and I followed mine uphill, out of the woods and onto the summit plateau of the Downs, to a place called Chanctonbury Ring, where Lee had slept and where I now wish I hadn't spent the night.
The Ring is a circle of beech trees, planted on a hilltop that had been the site of Bronze and Iron Age fortifications and a Roman temple. ln 1760 a young aristocrat from the scarp-foot village of Wiston named Charles Goring decided to add his own layer of history to the Chanctonbury earthworks. He planted beech saplings in a well-spaced circle and, according to one story, then daily carried bottles of water up the slope to irrigate his saplings on that arid downland summit (according to the other story, he got his servants to do this job for him).
Either way, the saplings took and flourished and eventually grew into a cathedral grove. For two centuries, Chanctonbury was the best-known landmark of the South Downs. On one July evening in 1932, 16,000 people boarded specially scheduled Southern Railway trains in London to follow a moonlit walk over a stretch of the Downs, gathering to watch sunrise from the Ring. But then in 1987 the Great Storm blew in and wrecked Chanctonbury. It's now missing most of its main trees, and its interior has reverted to a sprout scrub of ash and bramble.
Nevertheless, up there that evening it still felt surprisingly remote.
Brighton glittered away to the south, like something far-fetched on fire. The Weald to the north was almost lightless. The sky was a tarnishing silver. I rolled my sleeping mat out between two of the remaining beech trees just as dark fell, and took my shoes and socks off. The rabbit-cropped turf soothed my feet, and I wriggled my toes in it, then walked the circumference of the Ring. Nearly back at my starting point, I stepped on some sheep dung and had to spend a few minutes flossing the consequences out from between my toes with bunches of grass. After I'd eaten, I lay down to sleep, placed an ear to the turf and imagined the depths of history the soil held - Neolithic, Iron Age, Bronze Age, Roman, Augustan, down through all of which the beech roots quested. I held that giddying thought for at least half a minute, and then sank into senseless sleep.
I heard the first scream at around two o'clock in the morning. A high-pitched and human cry, protracted but falling away in its closing phase. It came from the opposite side of the tree ring to where I was sleeping. My thoughts were sleep-muddled: A child in distress?
A rabbit being taken by a weasel or fox? Impossible, though: the sound was coming at least from treetop height. A bird, then; an owl surely.
But this was like no owl I had ever heard before: not the furry hoot of a tawny or the screech of a barn owl. I felt a faint rasp of fear, dismissed it as ridiculous. Then another cry joined the first, different in tone: slightly deeper and more grainy, rising at its end; the shriek of a blade laid hard to a lathe. Also more human than avian, also unrecognizable to me, also coming from treetop height. I lay there for two or three minutes, listening to the screams. Then I realized, with a prickling in my shoulders and fingers, that the voices had split and were now coming towards me: still at treetop height, but circling round the tree ring, one clockwise and one anticlockwise, converging roughly on where I was lying. I felt like standing up, shouting, flashing a torch, but instead I lay still and hoped it would all end. The cries met each other almost directly above me, twenty or thirty feet up in the dark. After fifteen minutes they stopped and eventually, uneasily, I fell back to sleep.
It was only once I'd got home that I researched the folklore of Chanctonbury Ring. I now know it to be one of the most haunted places of the Downs. Sussex folklore, mostly from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is rife with examples of it as a portal to the otherworld. Arthur Beckett in his 1909 The spirit of the Downs had reported that 'if on a moonless night you walk seven times round Chanctonbury Ring without stopping, the Devil will come out of the wood and hand you a basin of soup', in payment for your soul, which sounds like a poor exchange.
More energetic variants of the summoning story stipulated that practitioners should circumambulate the Ring seventeen times on a full-moon night while naked, or run backwards seven times around the Ring at midnight on Mid-summer Eve. The ghosts that had been summoned in this manner, apart from the Devil, included a Druid, a lady on a white horse, a white-bearded treasure seeker, a girl child, and Julius Caesar and his army. It clearly got crowded up there on busy nights.
I also discovered that many people who had tried to sleep out at Chanctonbury had been forced to abandon the hilltop due to an invisible presence or presences. In the1930s, Dr Philip Gosse of Steyning declared in his book Go to the country that “even on bright summer days there is an uncanny sense of some unseen presence which seems to follow you about. If you enter the dark wood you are conscious of something behind you. When you stop, it stops; when you go on it follows.”
Most worryingly close to my own experience was a testimony from 1966, when a group of bikers had spent the night at the Ring. Things were quiet until after midnight, when a crackling sound started, followed by the wailing voice of a woman that appeared to move around the circumference of the Ring. The motorcyclists fled, and subsequently complained of physical ailments, headaches and lassitude in the limbs. Reading that, I felt first a shock of recognition and then mild pride that I'd tolerated what had put a gang of hairy bikers to flight.
The source of the experienceMacfarlane, Robert
Concepts, symbols and science items
Perceptions - accessing perceptions
Perceptions - what happens to perceptions
Perceptions - what has perceptions
Science ItemsSacred geography
Sacred geography - ancient trees
Sacred geography - guardians
Sacred geography - henges
Sacred geography - hollow roads
Sacred geography - ley lines
Sacred geography - natural hills
Sacred geography - sacred grove