It's the summer solstice on Monday, a day when Druid priestess Emma Restall Orr greets the dawn at Stonehenge. Harvey McGavin sees the light with the 'normal boarding-school-educated English girl'
Just before five o'clock on Monday morning, while most of us are still in bed, Emma Restall Orr will be at Stonehenge, getting ready to celebrate the solstice.
And when the sun comes up, Emma, joint chief of the British Druid Order, will call to the spirits of the place, summoning up the "awen" or life force, honouring the powers of the sun and giving thanks at the time of the highest light. Recently, however, the spirits of the place have been at a bit of a low ebb.
Battles between free festivalgoers and police in the late Eighties led to a ban on midsummer gatherings at Stonehenge, which was lifted only last year. The Druids' return was an inauspicious affair, a cloudy morning when the glare of publicity outshone the the rising sun. Exclusion zones and police roadblocks didn't help the vibes, either.
"It was a nightmare," says Emma. "There were 150 people, half of them press. You couldn't move without a camera clicking in your face or a reporter coming up and asking you questions. It wasn't really a sacred occasion."
Celebrating the solstice has become synonymous with Druidry. But it is only one of eight important dates in the Druid calendar and Stonehenge, although a sacred place, "is no more sacred than a glade in a forest," says Emma. The white robes are also optional ("there isn't a uniform").
Druidry has no Bible, no gurus and no single God. It is a spiritual philosophy rather than a religion, a kind of elemental nature worship that takes its inspiration from Celtic mythology and classical texts.
And while sun worship can seem like a secular obsession - as we give thanks when the weather's good, or make mass pilgrimages to the Mediterranean each summer - it is only part of Druidry.
"When Druidry underwent a revival in the 18th century, the sun was seen as the main god," Emma explains. "But these people were non-conformist Christians - they had the idea that the old Druids honoured the sun as the forerunner of God. I'm a great sun worshipper myself, but there's more to it than loving the sun."
As a child, Emma travelled the world with her parents, an ornithologist and botanist, living in Denmark, Spain, Venezuela, the Far East and the United States. On their travels, her brother read Tintin but she was fascinated by Getafix, the "invincible" Druid in Goscinny's Asterix books. "Had I ever been asked what my archetype of power was, I would have pointed to my cartoon book," she says.
Her childhood gave her a love of nature but left her rootless, so she set about finding something to "give me a sense of connection to the world", reading up on Eastern religions and alternative beliefs, and gradually becoming more and more drawn to Druidry.
The journey from picture book to priesthood is described in her book Spirits of the Sacred Grove; the World of a Druid Priestess. It's an extraordinary stream-of-consciousness, meandering between away-with-the-fairies encounters in the spirit world and endearingly down-to-earth observations.
Through a kind of meditation, Emma - who is convincingly feline - says she can "shape-shift" into her alterego, Bobcat. Afterwards her muscles and joints click back into place and she stretches her arms in demonstration.
But she says: "I'm a normal middle-class, boarding-school-educated English girl. I even drive a Volvo. But I had the sort of parents who, if I saw a fairy, wouldn't tell me to stop being silly, they would ask 'what does the fairy say?' That adult world never pushed into my reality."
Reality doesn't get much nicer than the 18th-century cottage in the pretty Cotswold village where she lives. The primary school in the village is one of the best in the United Kingdom, but Emma educates her nine-year-old son, Joshua, at home. "It's ironic that we should have moved to a village with such a good school," she says. "It's a protest way beyond what I was intending - I just wanted to give him a few more years of freedom."
In contrast to her rustic surroundings, communing with the spiritual side of nature can be a problem if you live in Brixton, say. She doesn't like cities, it's difficult to find beauty there, she says. But the back-to-the-land paganism of Druidry is attracting more and more people, from a variety of faiths and walks of life. The last meeting of her "grove", the local group, contained Christians, Buddhists and a Muslim. She knows at least two teachers - one of them a primary head - who are actively involved in Druidry.
"When I joined the British Druid Order four years ago, we had 30 members, now there are close to 1,000. Ten years ago there were about 60 people in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, now there are more like 6,000. I think, especially with the millennium coming up, there is a feeling of need."
The end-of-year celebrations won't figure in the Druid calendar, but August's total eclipse will. "It is a tremendously significant event. The new moon of every month is sacred. So to have a dark moon that obscures the sun is like an extreme version of a dark moon. It's the age-old play between light and dark. In Druidry there is no sense of evil, there is no satanic force. There is just the play of nature - winter and summer, growth and decay, light and dark - always the tussle between the two. That is perfectly expressed in the solar eclipse."
In between writing another two books, and her duties as a priestess, officiating at weddings and other Druid ceremonies, Emma is increasingly in demand as a teacher. She takes on "apprentices", four or five at a time, who stay under her tutelage for several years to learn the ways and wisdom of Druidry. They pay nothing. "It's part of the tradition, dividing commerce from spirituality. They phone me and ask what I need. They might bring me some food or candles," she says.
Druids move in mysterious ways. There is no fixed syllabus or set text to their esoteric training. It ends, not with an initiation ceremony, but when Emma believes her apprentice has reached an appropriate level of spirituality.
Her role as a teacher is the fulfilment of a vocation she has felt since childhood, she says. "Teaching is fairly central to my life. I would give up most things in my life to find a bit more calm and quiet but teaching is not one of them. We make vows to our ancestors that we will share what we have been given and to keep the flow and inspiration going. It's almost a spiritual obligation to teach."
For further information about Druidry contact the British Druid Order, PO Box 29, St Leonards, East Sussex TN37 7YP
THE SOURCE OF ENLIGHTENMENT
The midsummer solstice, meaning "the standing still of the sun", traditionally occurs on June 21 but can happen on the 22nd, as it did most recently in 1979, or on the 20th, which it will do in 2012.
It takes 365 days, five hours and 50 minutes for the Earth to go round the sun. Our calendar compensates by having leap years - an extra day every four years. Before they were introduced in 1752, the calendar had slipped 11 days, so the solstice took place on June 10.
Stonehenge is just one of hundreds of similar stone megaliths in Britain. And our forebears were not alone - Egyptian, Greek, Mayan and South Pacific civilisations also built "archaeo-astronomical" structures.
The first rays of light on midsummer morning will have taken eight-and-a-half minutes to travel the 93 million miles from the sun.
Midsummer is traditionally a favourite time of the year for fairies to appear. According to folklore, if you want to see them you must rub fern seeds on your eyelids at the stroke of midnight.