On a cold and crisp morning back in January I headed west to Somerset, a mystical English county of rolling green hills and watery levels, often enshrouded in rolling mists.
If you've ever witnessed the sight of these mists hanging just above the fields in the warm red light of a summer sunrise you'll get a good feeling for where the magical tales of our ancestors may have come from. Even the most hardened occupant of our modern rational world could perhaps, just for a moment, be tempted into entertaining the thought that a dragon could be waking from its nights slumber behind that oak covered hill and exhaling its fiery breath, visible for all to see, on the crisp morning air.
Somerset is of course home to the town of Glastonbury, a frequent destination for me, but this time I was not heading for Glastonbury but rather for a stay in a little thatched cottage in the tiny village of South Cadbury which lies in the shadow of Cadbury Castle.
For those of you who say 'Cadbury Castle - where???' the first reply would be to say that you are not alone in this response, many have yet to hear of this very special place. The second answer is that you may have heard it referred to by another name, a name that simply oozes with myth and magic.....CAMELOT! But I shall return to speak of King Arthur later in this article.
We know that Cadbury Castle was occupied in Neolithic times, bones found at the site have been dated to around 3500BC. It's early life was as a peaceful hilltop farming community as demonstrated by evidence of early ploughing of the site, later in the first century BC it was heavily fortified and evidence points to the fact it was taken by military force in AD 43.
Occupied throughout the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age herein lies its main fascination for me. For this is the period that the mysterious people known generically as 'The Celts' called this land their home. The Celts alone hold an endless fascination for me but also for part of that period, into Celtic society emerged a mysterious priestly class, the Druids! As a student of a modern spirituality that takes both name and inspiration from these mysterious people, I take any opportunity to learn all I can about them. This is a challenge as they wrote nothing down, rather committing their wisdom to memory and delighting in the skill of recounting their wisdom orally via their poets and storytellers, the Bards! Their story fell quiet at Anglesey in North Wales when the Romans killed all remaining Druids, but is there a place where, or a way we can still hear that story told? A site like this can offer precious gifts for one who wishes to understand these ancient, intriguing and yet most mysterious of ancestors. The first gift being archaeology, the second something a little less tangible.
I shall start with archaeology. Cadbury Castle has been excavated on a number of occasions. By a local clergyman James Bennett in 1890, again in 1913 by Harold St George Gray and then a major project led by Leslie Alcock between 1966 and 1970. It was during this more recent work that a number of important finds were discovered, the most impressive of these being the South Cadbury Shield.
The Shield is now displayed in the Museum of Somerset in Taunton along with a large range of fascinating artefacts from the time. It really is well worth a visit.
I was also fascinated, if a little surprised, to find within the Taunton Museum the largest collection of English Cauldrons and Skillets in existence. Apparently Somerset and especially the town of South Petherton, was a major centre for production in the 17th Century. They were designed for cooking over an open hearth, the heart of any English home since pre history. It is little wonder that this great mixing pot at the very centre of hearth and home came to have deep spiritual meaning for many.
But let me return to the gifts of sites such as Cadbury Castle. I have mentioned the archeology, but what of this second less tangible gift. Well for me to understand the second gift we must first examine the limitations of the first. The archeology is fascinating and can tell us much. The Shield can reveal materials of the age and the skills and artistic ideas of the people of that age. It can also suggest strong theories of the spirituality of the people, as items very often appeared to be carefully placed rather than lost, indicating offerings or rituals. But what it can't do is really enter the minds of these ancestors and tell us why they did what they did and what their relationship was to this land and to this place.
For me therefore the second gift is that of relationship to place. To visit these sites with intent and to walk feeling this ancient ground beneath my feet where I know the ancestors walked before me. To stand and watch for a while, admiring the view, little changed in the thousands of years that have passed since they lived here. To feel the wind bluster against my skin almost carrying with it the words of those who have gone before. To stand under the vast sky and feel the warmth of the same sun that they watched rise each morning in the east and set each night in the west. To do this is where I can quietly connect and to get a sense of what they maybe felt. This for me is the closest I can come to knowing their minds and knowing what this place meant to them in a spiritual sense.
And what then of Camelot? Although King Arthur has been transformed into a late Medieval King of gleaming silver armour by countless films and television productions, if there was an Arthur who defended the Britons against the Anglo Saxons he would most likely have been an important tribal leader with a loyal war band at the beginning of the time known as the Dark Ages. After the Romans left. Due to the known timing of enhanced fortification at the site, the presence of a 'Great Hall', finds of Mediterranean pottery showing trade links with Europe and the location of Cadbury Castle at the gateway to the West, there is a general acceptance that an important tribal leader did reside or operate from here and it would have been an ideal location from which to defend an eastern frontier. Therefore Cadbury Castle has been put forward as a good contender for King Arthurs legendary home base, Camelot. Further credence was given to Cadbury being Camelot by the presence of the town of Queen Camel a few miles to the east with the river Cam flowing close by. The theory Cadbury Castle was actually Camelot was first proposed by early English historian John Leland in 1542 and was given a boost by renowned Arthurian historian and writer Geoffrey Ashe, many disagree but as with all things King Arthur the magic is in the mystery and the mystery is in the magic. Perhaps visit one day and see what secrets you may hear whispered on the winds of Cadbury Castle.
As a footnote to this article I also have a personal connection with the area. My family on my paternal grandmothers side originate from the Queen Camel area and I have traced them as living there until the earliest records available. My great grandmother worked in service to the Bennett family in the 1800's, the very same family of James Bennett who excavated the site in 1890. We know that when Cadbury Castle was finally deserted after thousands of years of inhabitation, the local people settled in the land around the Castle. This was the origin of villages such as South Cadbury and Queen Camel where my family lived. Is it possible that they once lived or worked at Cadbury Castle itself? Did they drink mead in the Great Hall? I will of course never know, but it just maybe offers an explanation of my affinity with the place today.
Yours in the mystery!
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