Pagans of Lands End
By Martin Stott 10/25/2002
Think of wild wind-swept hills, battered coastlines, and a county as far south as you can go, here -- literally, Lands End. If England were a sock, Cornwall would be the toe. For centuries, it seems all sorts of mysterious and supernatural rituals have been practiced here, far from the gaze of the authorities in London. Still, today, the pixies are said to exert their healing influence on those who call up their power…
All over this county, you'll find ancient religious sites, and this is one of the best. I'm on a remote blustery hilltop. In front of me is an unusual stone: waist-high, like a donut with a hole in the middle. It's called "Men An Tol," and my guide, a pagan, Andy Norfolk, says those who live here think it has strange healing powers; perhaps, it will help my backache. I ask Andy what I have to do to invoke the magic.
Andy: Probably the first thing you need to do is regress to a baby because it was normally babies who were passed through. Then, you need to take all your clothes off -- you have to be passed through nine times, normally from male to female, and then, you have to be dragged around the stone three times, or nine times against the sun -- in other words anti-clockwise.
That's just a little too spooky for my tastes. It's time to head downhill into some pretty woodland to somewhere else rather special, which also turns out to be a bit sinister.
Martin: Well, we've just squelched our way through a really muddy path. Around us is the most amazing sight: Hanging from the branches of the trees are strips of colored cloth -- ribbons, red, gold, yellow, blue pink -- and we've got plastic bags. We've even got somebody's tights hanging up there. Andy, perhaps you could explain what the point of this is.
So, the woman who took off her non-biodegradable tights is going to have to wait some time if she wants her varicose veins to heal! This is Madron Well. It's a natural spring hidden just beyond the trees covered in clouties, which is what the locals call these cloth strips. Apparently, in years gone by, mothers would bring their children here in the first three Sundays of May and plunge them naked into the chilly water -- they really did have a primitive kill-or-cure approach to medicine down here!
(sounds of the harbor)
It's time to learn more about the occult. In the pretty little harbor at Boscastle is the Museum of Witchcraft, which claims to house the world's biggest collection of witchcraft-related artifacts: crystal balls, dark mirrors, cauldrons and spells
Most of it is harmless, but there's also the dark side, says the owner, Graham King, as we come to a display on curses.
Graham: These are obviously puppets, dolls with pins in. We've got one up here which I think is particularly nasty. It's from the last world war; a female army sergeant and somebody's obviously really not liked her. They've knitted a doll in full army uniform and there's pins stuck in her knees. Somebody obviously wanted to stop her walking, hurt her.
Graham explains that most modern witches avoid such curses, believing what they wish on others returns to them threefold. This museum has its flesh-creeping corners, but it's actually educational: it tells the story of the persecution of witches, the good and bad aspects of witchcraft and paganism. And, it's here I first learn about Halloween.
Graham: Halloween's one of the major festivals. It's a time when it's particularly easy to contact the other world, or the spirit world, and that's why ghosts are seen at that time of the year. It's a time to think about death and the dead, which I suppose some people might consider sinister. I don't think that's sinister at all -- we all die, everybody has got ancestors, and what a lovely thing to do…just chat to your ancestors, or even just remember them.
If there's anyone that can call up the spirits, I'm told, it's Eddie Prynn, the self-styled arch druid of Cornwall. There's a saying round here -- "The nuts all fall to the bottom of the Christmas stocking" -- and it's the Cornish explanation for the abnormally large number of eccentrics who live here. And, Eddie claims to be the nuttiest of the lot.
Eddie: Halloween is special because that's just one time of the year if anybody -- your Granny or 'Mams -- is ever going to come back, that will be the night.
We're having this conversation in the garden outside his little one-story cottage. He's the only person in the world whose rockery is bigger than his house. The retired, half-blind quarryman has built his own full-size Stonehenge here; he's got a 10-ton rocking stone -- if you've got pure thoughts you're supposed to be able to make it move. I'm not telling you how I fared, so please don't ask. But it turns out, he's also dug himself a huge cave underground.
Eddie: Come down. I'll put the lights on for you because you're going to find it too spooky and frightening. Duck your head as you come in.
It's here that Eddie Prynn intends to spend his Halloween. There'll be some special dances -- in fact, some very special dances.
Eddie: In the business, we call it sky-cladding. You don't know what that is do you? That's dancing with your clothes off.
Whoa…steady. That's too much detail. If anything has scarred me from this visit, it's that image of the jovial Eddie Prynn prancing around on a wooden hobbyhorse with his septuagenarian friends all completely starkers. There really is something weird about people down here and their obsession with taking their clothes off. Let me out!
From Eddie Prynn's cave in Cornwall, I'm a fully clothed Martin Stott for The Savvy Traveler!
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