My story begins in the centre of Suffolk, where traces of human life have been found dating back 12,000 years, in a land once home to Druids worshipping at great Oak trees, to which Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Danes brought their Gods, and where Christianity was adopted enthusiastically in the Middle Ages, the county then home to dozens of monastic centres and to major sites of pilgrimage. Suffolk has also been a county that kept the ancient pagan spirit of Britain alive, if hidden away: my home town Stowmarket was one of the places visited by the Witchfinder General in the 1640s, and several of its citizens were executed; Suffolk wise women ‘witches’ were occasionally still getting a mention in the local press in the early 20th century. Stowmarket was long known as a place for sightings of nature’s faerie spirits – in 1844 several of the local faerie tales were recorded by Reverend AGH Hollingsworth in his history of the town.
The wide expanse of Thorney Green in the Suffolk village of Stowupland was my enchanted childhood playground until I was five years old. I have shadowy memories of how alive the place was for me, the trees especially were vivid triggers to my imagination. According to Rev Hollingsworth the name Thorney came from Anglo-Saxon times when mid Suffolk was a sacrificial spot dedicated to the god Thor. Stowe is a Saxon word for meeting place, and the town of Stowmarket was listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Stow Thornea. The Reverend says that the hill to the north of the town, stretching between the hamlets of Haughley, Old Newton and Stow-Upland was known as Thor’s Hill.
Thorney Green has had a reputation over the years as a good spot to find magic mushrooms in the autumn, which might be a clue as to why this area was long ago considered an ideal place to commune with the spirit world. According to Rev Hollingsworth Druids had operated in oak groves here long before the Anglo-Saxons, who arrived in the 6th century, following the Romans who invaded in the 1st and left early in the 5th. The Romans wiped out the powerful Druids and, the Reverend believed, established an army camp of 3000 men on the heights at Haughley. A Roman well and and Roman tiles have been found in the area. Stowmarket has long been a midway stop off point on the way up to Norfolk, and remnants remain of the Roman Road built here. This area was also the border between the two Iron Age tribes that were living in the region when the Romans arrived, the Iceni tribe based in Norfolk and the Trinovantes to the south in Essex.
In fact it seems that Stowmarket, sleepy mid county town that it is now known as, was until the rise of Bury and Ipswich about 1000 years ago, one of the major power spots of the east. There was once a great Saxon palace at the foot of the hill here that goes to the Upland village. Many of the other power spots of the ancient past, such as the royal seat at Rendlesham or the rich port Dunwich, are lost in the mists of time, or under the sea. A very famous Saxon find in the county is at Sutton Hoo.
In 1970 my parents moved us down the hill into Crown Street in the area of town built in the mid 19th century after the arrival of the railway, part of a warren of back streets attached onto the oldest part of the town, where the 16th century pub The Pickerel still stands adjacent to the River Gipping. From my childhood bedroom I looked to the north facing towards Thor’s Hill. I always loved cycling along the country lane known locally as Stonebridge Way, where, the Reverend records that in his time many relics of a battle between Angles and Danish Vikings that took place in the 9th century were being found as men worked there to extract gravel. He mentions “Bones of horses and men broken and entire … intermingled with spurs without rowels; bits of sword blades two or three inches broad; pieces of the heads of spears; scraps of armour; horses’ shoes of great breadth… Some of the human jaw bones are of vast size.”
Hollingsworth also tells of finding Saxon offerings to Thor in the church graveyard, and also much larger bones of more ancient ancestors. It used to be commonly believed that Britain was once the land of giants, who were responsible for the amazing feats of construction at Stonehenge, Avebury and across the land up to Orkney, where it seems likely this amazing Neolithic culture began. (Both Greek mythology and the Book of Genesis also speak of the time of giants – the Titans to the Greeks, the Nephilim to the Hebrew). Baker and historian of Haughley Village Kieron Palmer tells of Neolithic remains found in this area, suggesting people have lived here for 6000 years. Not that far to the north of us, Grimes Graves in Thetford Forest was a major flint mine of the late Stone Age. Kieron Palmer records that evidence of Druidic worship has been found at the western side of the village and that the west wall of the Church was discovered to be “underpinned by gruesome alleged Druidical sacrificial burials when restored in the 1950s”. (Haughley Castle & Notes on ‘the Ancient Town of Hawley’, Kieron WRV Palmer)
The River Gipping flows through Stowmarket, once a much larger and navigable stream that was said to be frequented by mermaids. . In fact Stowmarket was well known until modern times as a spot for faerie sightings. Reverend Hollingsworth records several in his 1844 History “the whole of [Stow] Hundred is remarkable for fairy stories, ghost adventures, and other marvellous legends.” His book records some tales told to him by the locals of the time.
Growing up in mid Suffolk I had little clue to this fascinating pagan history of my town and its vicinity, but now I appreciate that there is an ancient spirit in the land here, that holds memories which it can reveal to us if we recall how to communicate with it. The peoples of ancient Britain were studying the stars and building stone monuments in which to observe the skies and commune spiritually with the spirits of the land even before the pyramids were being built in Egypt. From Stonehenge to Orkney this island was home to one of the earliest human cultures of which we have any remains. Those people disappeared, DNA studies suggesting that the European settlers who migrated here from the 5th millennium BCE replaced them entirely. These people became the Celtic tribes who succeeded in resisting the advance of the Roman Empire longer than other Celts on the continental mainland, and who retained their independent culture only in Ireland and Scotland, though of course it became changed by the unstoppable advance of Christianity. Within a century of the Roman withdrawal from the south of Britain the Angles and Saxons were moving in (joining many who were already here, people who had served in the Roman army), with Danes following in the 9th century.
Christianity arrived early in Britain, but was wiped out by the 6th century pagan Germanic takeover, the cultural impact of which was so great we continued in English to name most of the days of the week after their Gods. Yet they too surrendered, not without a few struggles, to the expanding Christian hegemony. The Vikings brought pagan gods back again, but by the second millennium Suffolk and Norfolk were becoming well established destinations for Christian pilgrimage. Christian Saxon King Edmund was killed by the Danes in a battle at Hoxne in 869 CE, and the shrine established for him at Bury St Edmunds became one of the largest pilgrim sites of the era. The Benedictine monastery there was the richest in England at the time of Henry VIII’s dissolution in 1536. Suffolk was home to 76 monastic centres, which were deeply integrated into the community life, and earned the nickname ‘Selie Suffolk’, meaning Holy Suffolk, and not the ‘silly Suffolk’ the phrase later became. Stowmarket was under the patronage of the Abbey of Osyth, which was in Essex and named after a daughter of Saxon King Frithwalk and wife of King Sighere of the East Saxons, while also head of a religious house Osyth, another martyr, killed during an early Danish raid because of her refusal to honour their gods. The town’s heraldry features three red Crowns, derived from the arms of Osyth, the red refers to the bloody losses inflicted by the Vikings.
The lands of Suffolk received the blood of dozens Protestant martyrs in the 16th century (mainly during the short reign of Mary I, Bloody Mary) and of over 100 female, and some male, witches in the 17th, largely due to the efforts of the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, in the 1640s. Witches didn’t all disappear though, and were sometimes being mentioned in newspaper reports, inquests and of course local tales in the 19th century, and to this day Suffolk has its local pagans and hotspots of activity.
Suffolk has always been a centre of spiritual energies, once channelled through the Druids communing with their blessed oak trees (and today when I drive around the county in the winter I am struck by the amount of the Druid’s magical mistletoe growing in the high branches), for a time the home of Thor, powerful god of thunder, and then a haven for devotional Christianity in the heyday of Roman Catholicism. And despite 1000 years of Christian domination, Suffolk has always retained some memory and link to its past as a land of faerie folk and pagan magic.
The attempt by the secular minded educational system to make me question religion and trust science had the effect of removing the sense of magic from my life by the age of 12. Eighteen years later the magic came back, dramatically. This is the story of that return to the roots of our human nature, rooted in nature, a reclaiming of natural magic. Without the magic in my life, I nearly died.
Much maligned as invaders and conquerors ourselves, the peoples of England were themselves invaded and conquered, our indigenous culture and religion suppressed, but in every human on the planet there sits an indigenous soul, who remembers where and how it all began, who can wake up and bring those ancient memories back into the unravelling mystery of our existence on planet Earth.
Here is the story of how I remembered and what I’ve done since AIDS brought me to an Accelerated Individual Discovery of Self.