Winter Solstice

The solstice marks mid-winter, the time when the sun’s path is lowest in the sky, nights are at their longest, and the days shortest. The sun has reached its weakest point, and light and heat are in short supply. It is a time to acknowledge the dark and the cold, but to carry the light and warmth through to the new year.

In the dark a new spark of light grows. This is a moment when change can take place.

The lead-up to the solstice has been unusually cold this year in Britain, and my attention has been focussed onto the temperature – by having my heating break down. How precious warmth and light is, but how easily we take it for granted. The one night of mid-winter is a good time to remember this, and to hold vigil for the light.

It’s not surprising that traditions for marking this time involve light or fire, for example lighting a candle in the dark, or burning a Yule log on the fire. For me, it’s fire embers glowing in the dark, or a candle lit in the room. I like to sit in silence with only the quiet sound of the fire. Of course, watching the sun set and then rise again is also an important part of marking the occasion. I try to keep an awareness of the sun travelling underneath the world from its setting to its rising.

Winter Solstice Sunset

Our ancestors clearly thought the winter solstice was important, and some particularly marked the mid-winter sunset. The Maeshowe chambered cairn on Orkney for example was designed so that the rays of the setting mid-winter sun would shine down the entrance passage to the centre of the tomb. The main alignment at Stonehenge is the mid-summer sunrise, and the mid-winter sunset.

In Carmina Geadelica, Alexander Carmicheal describes a ceremonial way of covering a peat fire for the night:

“The ceremony of smooring the fire is artistic and symbolic, and is performed with loving care. The embers are evenly spread on the hearth–which is generally in the middle of the floor–and formed into a circle. This circle is then divided into three equal sections, a small boss being left in the middle. A peat is laid between each section, each peat touching the boss, which forms a common centre. The first peat is laid down in name of the God of Life, the second in name of the God of Peace, the third in name of the God of Grace. The circle is then covered over with ashes sufficient to subdue but not to extinguish the fire, in name of the Three of Light. The heap slightly raised in the centre is called ‘Tula nan Tri,’ the Hearth of the Three.”

The following protective prayer might be said whilst covering the fire:

THE sacred Three
To save,
To shield,
To surround
The hearth,
The house,
The household,
This eve,
This night,
Oh! this eve,
This night,
And every night,
Each single night.

After the long night, the sun rises again, now getting stronger, with the dark giving way to the light. It is a time for celebration and new beginnings. Some ancient places mark the sunrise instead of the sunset at mid-winter. For example Newgrange in Ireland has a specially designed roof-box which allows light from the mid-winter sunrise to shine into the central chamber.

Winter Solstice Sunrise

Blessings for the solstice!

The Bull Tor triangle

There’s a part of us that likes patterns, and this can be played out in the landscape through alignments marked by ley lines or more complex arrangements like the Glastonbury zodiac. Significant places are linked together in a pattern, which amplifies their significance.

In the Peak District of Derbyshire, there is a triangle formed by three ancient sites: in the northwest, the Neolithic henge circle called The Bull Ring, in the northeast, the Eyam Moor stone circle called Wet Withens, and in the south the Arbor Low stone circle.

The triangle is not quite equal-sided. The distance between The Bull Ring and Wet Withens is about nine miles, compared to more than ten miles for the other two sides. 

This triangle is a central theme in a recently published book called The Dancing Circles, by Andy Leaver Davies. I really enjoyed the book, which describes a tradition of journeying between the circles, and performing particular exercises at each of them. So here’s a bit about the circles and how they are described in the book.

The Bull Ring

The Bull ring, photo credit Dave Dunford, via Wikimedia

The Bull Ring is located on the edge of the village of Dove Holes, by the Cricket Club and Football field. It may have been a stone circle once, but now all that is left is a round circular earthwork with a mound in the middle. In the book, The Bull Ring is used as a place to bring the body into balance, using a simple circle dance.

Arbor Low

Arbor Low, photo credit Wikimedia

The 50+ stones which make up Arbor Low are all on their sides now, on a raised mound surrounded by a ditch and earthen bank. It’s located on high moorland, with long sight-lines to the horizon. In the book, Arbor Low is a place to learn how to open up and apply the mind.

Wet Withens

Wet Withens Chair Stone

For me, Wet Withens is the most elusive of the three circles – it took me three trips before I found it! Located on a gentle slope overlooking the River Derwent, the stones are mostly hidden in the heather, but there are a few large ones. The photo shows the largest stone, called the ‘Chair Stone’ (because of the ledge cut out of its face). Notice the similarity in shape of the top of the stone with the outline of Higger Tor on the horizon behind it. In the book, Wet Withens is linked to the development of feelings.

Bull Tor

Roughly at the centre of the triangle is a hilltop by the river Wye called Bull Tor, and in The Dancing Circles, this is the central place of the triangle, where the journey leads after building strength in the body, opening the mind, and developing the feelings. In the book, Andy’s teacher Tom talks about the people who started the journey and built the stone circles:

“For them, life was hard, dealing with pain, death and suffering. They had to look to their bodies to stop them getting ill. They had to learn about time and how to use it, because life was short. They had to learn to see through pain and suffering to the meaning behind it all. So they learned to join themselves to the land, to what came before and to what was to come. They learned to make themselves part of something, to see their short lives as a part of something bigger so that no matter how short, each life was part of the big plan. And they had to pass this down to the next generations so that each knew of their part in that bigger world. Their feelings of anger, hate, and love meant nothing by themselves. They just come and go like life comes and goes. If it’s not joined to something bigger, it means nothing at all. But if those feelings can be joined to something bigger, it can make them grow so someone can have feelings bigger than themselves. When that happens, all the pain and suffering can be put up against the bigger feelings and can have a meaning. The meaning in everything becomes clearer. There is still and always will be pain, but like life, it will come and go. The world can be faced.”

The Dancing Circles, p.148

Notes and Links:

The Dancing Circles: An extraordinary journey to a different way of living, Andy Leaver Davies, ISBN Dancing Circles Publishing (6 April 2021), 978-1838487515. Available on Amazon:

The Bull Ring on

Arbor Low at English Heritage

Wet Withens at

Standing Stone

This is Mayburgh Henge.

It survives as a single standing stone within a circular depression, around which is an impressive bank made of river pebbles culled from the nearby river. When you see the scale of the embankment, you realise just how much effort has gone into dragging that tonnage of river pebbles to the site. The site dates to the end of the Neolithic period or the beginning of the Bronze Age, which makes it about 4,500 years old.

Aerial view via English Heritage

No one knows exactly what this site was for. We can only look and imagine. But from historical records we know there were more standing stones here, and that the site was built near a spring and the confluence of the rivers Eamont and Lowther.

Map of 1769

The single remaining stone is like a spindle at the centre – and the large depression forms a navel in the landscape, which curves in towards the site on all sides. The stone is taller than a man, and is exactly at the centre of the circular boundary.

It is single, embedded in the earth, yet pointing up to the sky.

The stars have turned around this axis over millennia.

It occurs to me that this is like the thoughts that are always circling around us, ready to take root.

The thoughts don’t belong to us, though sometimes we mistake them for ours. But we can let them pass, just the way this standing stone lets the turning of the stars pass. Lifespan after lifespan, it has been a witness to the ever-changing sky.

One of the attractions of this standing stone is its aloneness, its stillness and its silence.

The stone cannot speak.

Yet it stands for something.

Valley of the Ancients

Valley of the Ancients was a name I first came across on a South Wales Druid website. Described as the most holy pagan site in Wales, it has a stone circle complex and many other special places. It took a bit of exploring to find it, but it was worthwhile, and I have been back there a number of times over the years.

The valley is the upper reach of the River Tawe, which flows down to the sea at Abertawe (Swansea).

River Tawe in the Valley of the Ancients (some megaliths in the distance).

A small road runs through the valley from the A4067 in the Brecon Beacons just north of Glyntawe. On the approach from the south, you can see the Sleeping giant of Cribarth, a recumbent giant figure which guards the southern entrance to the valley.

There is a megalithic complex in the valley called Cerrig Duon (the black stones), with a stone circle, some stone rows, and some large single stones, including this one, called Maen Mawr (Big Stone). To get to the stones you need to cross the river, which is always a challenge, and I suspect dangerous after rain!

Maen Mawr

The valley runs north to Glasfynydd Forest, and to the West lay the two ‘lakes of the peak’: Lyn y Fan Fawr and Lyn y Fan Fach, respectively the source of the Tawe, and source of the legend of the Lady of the Lake.

I’m sure I’ll be back again to explore more of this special place.