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Chapter 13
Beyond the Crooked Stile

It is said that Mother Goose is derived from Frau Holt, or Herodias, the goddess of the witches of northern Europe, who flies at night astride a goose, naked and (even in my childhood imagination) voluptuous in spite of the cold. She flies at the head of the Furious Horde, the Wild Hunt, her raven hair streaming out behind her, her red slitted pupils glowing on Samhain night. To be sure, she flies above the Ridgeway, where the feet of the living and of the dead have passed for millennia; a spirit path if ever there was one. At Bishopstone in Wiltshire, it draws nigh the Icknield Way, the Iron Age road to Norfolk, and between the high road and the low road lie a series of colossal gouges in the chalk which even the tourist guidebooks describe as “another world”. Five miles to the east, the chalk escarpment is rippled by glaciation to form “the Devil’s Step Ladder”, and beyond it the Uffington White Horse, smattered in spring with an interpunction of twayblades and spotted orchids, seems set to leap across the downs. Beneath that is a hill with a flattened top, where St. George purportedly slew the dragon, its blood scouring the grass to the chalk beneath it. There are few landscapes which contain so awe-inspiring an arrangement of sacred objects. The best way for the witch to approach them is from the Ridgeway itself, down one of the many paths that branch from it, and to do so, one must invariably negotiate a stile. Perhaps one day you may meet me at one of them.

In times of old, you might have left a crooked sixpence there. Weyland the Smith, whose megalithic forge lies just off the Ridgeway on the route between Uffington and Bishopstone, would certainly have accepted it, provided you did not attempt to fob him off with a lesser coin of copper. The Neolithic long barrow, sentried by four gaunt, pitted sarsen stones, is surrounded by towering beech trees, whose nuts crack underfoot as one approaches, and barn owls screech in the darkness. Come here at the winter solstice, with the rising of the sun, and the shadows shift like ghosts around you. Legend insists that Weyland will shoe your horse; I have a suspicion that he prefers to beat swords and axe-heads upon his forge, for he is not so far removed from the Green Knight, the Holly King who reigns throughout the winter, armed to the teeth in readiness to meet his rival, the Oak, on the occasion of his beheading. His namesake, the Icelandic Vőlundr, once decapitated a king’s sons by slamming the lid of a treasure chest down upon their necks; later he raped a princess who asked him to mend her ring. The stone at nearby Snivelling Corner was supposedly thrown by Weyland at an incompetent assistant. It is best not to bother him with trifles. But this does not stop wayfarers from leaving behind an assortment of charms, from elaborately woven corn dollies to the Rastafarian wicker man currently on display at the Uffington museum – a practice which dates back at least as far as 1939, when a “Witch’s moon dial”, made from human bone, was deposited there. Mary Chalmers, a woman skilled at curing cows and sheep, who lived at Little Moreton, east of Didcot, was the proud owner of a skull named “Wayland Smithy”, which was sold in a curiosity shop after she died in 1810. Satanic rites at Weyland’s Smithy have even been blamed for a robbery at the thirteenth century church at Compton Beauchamp in 1998, in the course of which the tabernacle was smashed, and the chalice and sacrament stolen – if the churchwarden is to be believed – for nefarious uses at the long barrow.

On a morning in early spring, the Smithy is a different place; cowslips sprout from the burial mound, and the beech buds burst with pale, translucent leaves. The resident toad, who lives beneath the beech tree to your right, emerges glass-eyed from his torpor. Everything is waking, except for Weyland himself, who sinks into the earth as the sap rises in the trees. From here, one may turn east, dodging the cagouled walkers, and return to the White Horse and the hill fort that rears above it, listening for the cronks of ravens on the way. Alternatively, one may descend towards the Vale, seeking Hardwell Camp, another fort which lies forgotten, brooding in a hazel coppice. Or one may turn up one’s collar and head westwards down the Ridgeway, towards Russley Downs and Bishopstone. If you would come with me now, you will take this route.

No, do not look up yet to admire the scenery, and if you tarry until the autumn, do not be distracted by the berries of sloe, spindle, bryony and woody nightshade. Look down at the Ridgeway itself. You are walking on prehistory, for surely the Roman road must have been pre-dated in these parts by a pathway joining the White Horse to the Smithy. More than that; you are walking on the palaeontological past, for the chalk of the Ridgeway is composed of the microscopic remains of Palaeozoic sea creatures. The rounded, flattened stone which just crunched beneath your walking boots is an echinoid, a sea urchin, millions of years old, revered by the old witches and Doreen Valiente alike as “thunder stones” or “shepherds’ crowns”. More than a hundred miles from the coast, you are now beachcombing on the Ridgeway. Pick up the test, and your witch’s intuition will feel the pulse of life still within it. On the underside is the beaked mouth, crusted with chalk. On the dorsal side there is a five-pointed star. Treasure it in your pocket, and use it for sortilege, along with the petrified bivalve and the knob of coral you found beside it. Keep searching, and you will discover that these are not uncommon; the challenge is to find a brachiopod, a little clam with a muppet-like mouth. The exultation of this discovery should carry you in a reverie all the way to Russley Downs.

As you draw near to your destination, a hare darts and jinks in front of you. It has shot from out of hiding in the undergrowth at the side of the Ridgeway, like a bolt from a crazed crossbow, fired by a drunkard through a maze of mirrors. It is not by accident that the verb “to jink”, used to describe the hare’s habit of rapidly changing direction in flight from a pursuer, has affinities with the word “jinx”. The crooked path of the hare has helped to establish its reputation as a magical creature from time immemorial. The ancient dramatist Aeschylus records that Artemis, who had always opposed the expedition against Troy, was enraged when two eagles devoured a pregnant hare, which the diviner Calchas interpreted, to her further indignation, as an omen of the victory of Agamemnon and Menelaus. Boudica, the Briton warrior queen, driven into a fury by the rape of British women by Roman soldiers, released a hare in the course of a rite in honour of the war goddess Andraste, before a retaliatory raid in which captured Roman women were skewered on spears, their breasts severed and stuffed in their mouths. It is possible that the hare represented the Romans Boudica intended to hunt down, but it is equally likely that the release of the hare was the unleashing of a curse. Even the Christian tradition is unable to obscure the magical significance of hares. A late medieval saint’s life which very likely reflects the influence of an earlier pagan tale, the Historia Divae Monacellae, records that a hare pursued by Brychwel Ysithrog, Prince of Powys, took refuge under the skirt of the kneeling Saint Melangell, and his dogs cringed in terror at the sight of her. At her trial in 1662, the Nairnshire witch Isobel Gowdie confessed that she had the power to change into a hare at will by reciting the charm: “I shall go into a hare/ With sorrow, and sighing, and mickle care,/ And I shall go in the Devil’s name/ Till I come home again.” Indeed, there are innumerable folk tales from across the country which attest to the ability of witches to transform themselves into hares, a fact which is taken as proven when a woman is found with an injury corresponding to that inflicted on a hare by its pursuers. John Monro, an eighteenth century doctor who ran the Bethlehem hospital for the mentally ill, better known as “Bedlam”, recorded the case of a Mr. Walker, who had been in the company of the devil for seven years, and had seen a vision of “the fall of all mankind”. Mr. Walker attributed his affliction to a hare he had killed some twenty-seven years earlier, “which he did not think to be a common hare but… something he knew not of what infinite power.” It is not surprising, therefore, that you feel an affinity with this creature, as it scarpers bulge-eyed down the gorge to your right. It beckons you on its crooked way.

Here, therefore, you must depart from the Ridgeway, for your path lies through that gorge in the chalk. At present, there is only a metal gate, but you will feel that you have climbed a stile. Half way down, it is marked on either side by two thorn trees. The gouged hill rears on either side of you. Linnets twitter. Black-faced sheep stare at you. You feel as though you are on a processional way to the underworld; you left your sixpence in case you need to cross the Styx. It is fitting that it is littered with innumerable carcasses. They are partridges, their flayed sternums, wishbones and coracoids gleaming white, picked clean of red flesh. Their wings lie as though dropped by accident, like forgotten handkerchiefs. A mournful whistle overhead; a buzzard takes wing. Crows wheel and craw. You descend to the depths of the gorge, your progress halted by a stile beside a spring. The silence here is uncanny, and you acknowledge another ancient presence. Strip lynchets rear to your right, traversed by the trails of bullocks. Strange optical illusions cause the landscape to writhe as you walk through it. You may climb the stile and pass through a wooded tunnel, lined with hart’s-tongue ferns, to the twittering world of Bishopstone and its duck-pond, or you may turn aside and walk back uphill another way, for the gorge down which you walked has been joined by another. Look up the second gorge. It is surmounted by a colossal field system. Scramble up the hill towards it; a stairway for giants. When you reach the top, sit and stare. The mundane world stretches out beneath you: Swindon with its monstrous, magic roundabouts barely besmirches the landscape. The Vale seems interminable, stretching into mist, and something within you has taken flight, with the buzzards and the crows. Above you and behind you: a stile, and the Ridgeway, awaiting your return.

As I sit here beside you, I can still remember the voice of my father; he was younger than I am now, and I was only four. I was ready for sleep, and he was reading from Mother Goose:

There was a crooked man
And he walked a crooked mile
He found a crooked sixpence
Upon a crooked stile…

I knew then that this was not a nursery rhyme, but a canticle of the Craft uttered by Fraw Holt herself, and I have sought the crooked mile ever since. It is crooked because it is the way of the hare, of the shape-changed witch, and because it must negotiate a course between sacred objects. It is a mile in the more liberal sense of the world: negotiating it may take a minute, or it may take a lifetime. The sixpence is the price of my soul. The stile is a real one, leading down into the gorge above Bishopstone, but it is also a metaphorical one. It is a gateway to the otherworld, the world of the sabbat. Against it, the crooked man leans his staff; beneath it lies the pot of ointment which gives him, his crooked mouse – and their crooked cat – the gift of flight.