When we teach shamanic journeying, one of the things we ask people to do is think of a special place in nature.
The place they mention becomes their axis mundi, the point from which they start a journey into the Otherworld and then return at the end.
When we ask this question, there is always an immediate reply. It seems that everyone has a special place in nature.
I have one here in Anglezarke. It’s a woodland that hugs the edge of the West Pennine Moors. I also had one when I was a child. It was an oak tree on the edge of a small woodland about half a mile from my home. When I first learnt how to go on a shamanic journey, my teacher asked me this same question. I immediately described this oak tree.
‘My’ oak tree and the fields that surround it were, and still are, very special to me. I spent a lot of time here as a child and teenager. I would disappear for hours, wandering the footpaths and climbing over fences into places I wasn’t supposed to be. One day, when I was sixteen years old, I was sitting in one of these fields when a question popped into my mind. This question has formed the thread of my spiritual enquiry ever since. The question was: ‘what did our ancestors know living so close to the Earth that we have lost?’
Around the same time, I bought my first spiritual book. It was called ‘The Power of Place: Sacred Ground in Natural and Human Environments’. It is an anthology by James A. Swan, who collected essays on sacred places and their effect on human beings. The blurb on the back cover says: ‘in an age when you may feel you have lost your connection to the planet, this book will help you discover your own relationship to the life around you’.
Published in 1991, the book was well ahead of its time. Thirty years on, there is currently a resurgence happening around reconnecting with the land and nature. Here in The Way of the Buzzard, more and more people are being drawn to our work as they seek to regain that connection with the Earth: the connection that our distant ancestors had and indigenous peoples today still have. I have heard many people speak of the feeling of a homecoming when they find it.
Connection with the Earth and with the spirit of place is an intrinsic part of being human. Although we have lost it here in the Western world, it is possible to reclaim it. Swan says in the opening chapter of this book:
‘Looking to the psychologies of traditional societies, one finds a wealth of information about the relationship between people and the environment. All around the world among the indigenous peoples right relationship between place and people is seen as the core of mental health…
We must learn to listen and be more aware of the voices of the earth and nature; rediscovering an art of survival which was known very well before the advent of modern science and technology.
Unconsciously we still know that the spirit of place is important to us. Now we must understand why and what it can help us as we rediscover how to perceive it.’ (p5, p6)
When people talk of their special place, I see them light up. They have a passion for it, and they make it come alive in my imagination as they speak about it. Their place is special to them as they have a relationship with it. In some way it has touched them, spoke to them, perhaps held them. Places are powerful, and I believe that these special places are intrinsic to us re-establishing our connection with the Earth. I also believe that there is great wisdom held in these places. To hear it, we need to still ourselves for long enough to bend our ear and pay attention to the quiet voices.
Last week Jason and I took a trip down to Kent to visit my parents. I was hankering to go for a walk in ‘my’ back fields’, and so Jason and I spent an afternoon exploring them. Later that evening I had a profound revelation. It turns out that my childhood playground and retreat space has played a major part in the story of Christianity in Britain. I will explain more in a moment. It has led me to spending this past week delving into the history of the onset of Christianity here in Britain, towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period and through into the Middle Ages.
There have been many things that have led to us being so disconnected from the land. One is religion, which banned our medieval ancestors from practising the old ways through a series of laws. For example, in the 11th Century, King Cnut banned ‘the worship of idols… the sun or the moon, fire or water, springs or stones or any kind of forest trees’.
For a king to feel the need to write this in law shows how important this kind of connection was to our ancestors and how important it was for the Christian Church to stop people from doing it. Considerably closer to home and my lifetime, Jason talks of when he was a boy and became a Jehovah's Witness. Upon converting to the Christian faith, he was told to stop talking to the trees and animals. He was told it was the devil’s work.
Here in the 21st Century there are all manner of things causing our disconnect that go beyond religion. You probably don’t need me to list them. It seems the spiritual ‘work;’ for many if not most people, including myself, is to learn enough self-mastery to resist the pull of all the modern-day trappings and actually go and do the things we love to do with the people we love. This, for me, includes spending time in nature, and I know I am not alone in this. I receive emails every week from people who tell me their biggest challenge to deepening their spiritual connection is time: devoting or setting aside a time where there are no interruptions or distractions.
Jason and I set up The Mystery School for this very reason, to help people deepen their spiritual connection and learn the old ways of our ancestors. If you don’t know what our Mystery School is, here is a brief synopsis. It is an online School full of video recorded courses and regular live gatherings to help people rediscover the old spiritual ways of our land before religion took hold. We give equal measure to shamanism and nature connection as the two ways to deepen our spiritual connection, ultimately leading to a life of greater freedom and creativity.
That question that I heard in my head all those decades ago, whilst sitting in one of these back fields behind my childhood home, has led me to this place. Looking back, I believe the land spoke to me that day when I heard the words: ‘what did our ancestors know living so close to the Earth that we have lost?’. This belief has been amplified by the discovery I made after that walk last week.
Discovering sacred land
As Jason and I set off for our afternoon adventure, we first walked past the field where I had my revelation. I pointed out the place where I was sitting when that question came to my mind. We made our way up to the track that leads West to East across the horizon from the village of Herne to Hoath. It is called the Ridgeway, because it follows the ridge between the two villages.
Parts of the path are holloways, which feel very ancient. Holloways are paths and roads that appear to have sunk into the ground, with the track much lower than the surrounding land. They look different because they have, in fact sunk through thousands upon thousands of feet walking on them over the centuries. The Ridgeway has three areas where there are holloways. Close to the second holloway is my axis mundi, that oak tree I use as my starting and finishing point when I go on a shamanic journey.
At the end of the track, there is a holloway that climbs up through woodland and meets the road at the top. This is an old Roman road running from the city of Canterbury to the Roman fort at Reculver on the north Kent coast. The hamlet here at the end of the holloway is called Maypole, which led Jason and I to muse about where the maypole might have been located. That evening I hopped online to do a quick search to see if I could find any information about its whereabouts. I didn’t find the maypole, but I did make a discovery that consumed me for the rest of our week-long visit.
It turns out that here in this spot, just a quarter of a mile from my axis mundi, there was a palace. It has been entirely demolished now, but it was standing throughout the Middle Ages, and most likely dated back to the Anglo-Saxon period. It was very stately, with a great hall, five-story tower providing ample accommodation for guests, a wine cellar and three beer cellars, its own chapel, two courtyards, an extensive stable block and an adjoining 166-acre estate kept for the hunting of deer. It has been entirely demolished now, although there were parts of the great hall still standing in the middle of the last Century.
However, it wasn’t the fact that there was once a huge palace here that caught my interest so much. It was who lived here. What is particularly significant about this palace is that it was the home to a succession of Archbishops spanning a three-hundred-year period from the twelfth to the fifteenth Century.
Back in the Middle Ages, the Archbishop was the most powerful person in England, and he lived here at Ford Palace. Here in ‘my special fields’, and just a few hundred meters away from my axis mundi, there lived a succession of Archbishops spanning over three centuries.
Now I know from my interest in sacred places, and the choice of locations of religious buildings and homes of the aristocracy, that the places they choose to position their buildings doesn’t happen by accident. People in power locate themselves in places of power.
In the past week I have read every paper I can lay my hands on about the history of this place. It is not obvious to historians why the Church chose to locate such an important place here. I have to admit, on first glance it seems the most unassuming place. Ford Palace was positioned at the bottom of a steep-sided valley, tucked away hidden from view from the surrounding villages.
My childhood home is located less than 1 mile away as the crow flies, and we just know this place as Ford Hill. There is nothing of note here other than a few farms and a water pumping station. On the face of it this doesn’t seem like the kind of place one of the most powerful people in the country would choose to live. From my research, it looks like this has also baffled historians as to why the Archbishops would have chosen this location as their home.
However, dig a little deeper, and it seems obvious to me now. There are two natural springs here. This tells me that this ground has been sacred for a lot longer than the Middle Ages. This is a sacred place spanning back to the Anglo-Saxons, and almost certainly much further back still.
Holy wells and springs have been honoured by humans for a very long time. Freddie Silva speaks of these in his book Legacy of the Gods: The Origin of Sacred Sites and the Rebirth of Ancient Wisdom. He says:
‘Like sacred mountains or landscape temples, holy wells and sacred springs are the epitome of the temple in its natural state, and their hypnotic power has been honoured since pre-historic times’. (p170)
Silva writes of how water at sacred sites has a very different frequency to ordinary water. Tests have shown that it absorbs light at different frequencies. Holy well water is free from bacteria and has known healing benefits, creating sites of pilgrimage for thousands of years. This very pure water also creates vortexes that give an electrical charge, which generates an electromagnetic field. Sacred springs are special. It makes sense why a king might position his palace between two of them.
Paul Broadhurst in his book Secret Shrines writes about how these places were seen by ancient people:
‘As gateways of the Otherworld, where the vital flow of life-force could be used to penetrate the veil of matter to experience a more formative reality. And so, they were used to contact unseen realms where communication would take place with the gods and spirits’ (p.3)
Earlier I mentioned the legislation King Cnut passed banning ‘the worship of idols’, which included ‘water and springs’. This steep-sided valley is very different to the flat, gently undulating topography of the surrounding area. Approaching the valley and dropping down into the dark wood that nestles at the bottom of the steep slopes inspires a different feeling in me, just as it would have done thousands of years ago. Coming to not just one spring, but two, and seeing the water emerging up from the ground would have been very special to our distant ancestors who honoured and ‘worshipped’ water.
This site has been sacred for a very long time.
I know from my interest in earth energies over the years that where there is water underground, there is heightened energy and convergence of ley lines. Our ancient ancestors would locate their sacred sites at these places of convergence. This is because something shifts in our minds when we visit them. Our consciousness changes ever so slightly, and we move that little bit closer to the spirit realm. It is why the Christians built their churches over these powerful points, and it is why the aristocracy located their buildings over them too.
This is why the Church located the home of their Archbishop here at Ford. And it is thought that the origins of a palace could date back further than the Middle Ages, to the Anglo-Saxon period. Although there is no archaeological evidence, as there hasn’t been an excavation, it is believed that this site could have been the site of the palace of the Anglo-Saxon King of Kent in the 6th Century, King Æthelberht. Why is this significant for me? Because he was the first King to convert to Christianity.
‘My’ special place has an intrinsic place in the story of Christianity spanning across the ages.
One of the springs here lies equidistant between the location of Ford Palace and my axis mundi. It is believed that it was named after King Æthelberht’s daughter, who was sainted, as the spring in Victorian times was called St Ethelburga’s Well. Perhaps St Ethelburga’s Well was the name overlay from the old deity here, the spirit of the place, the keeper of the spring waters.
A place for Christianity reformation
So, it turns out that this land isn’t just sacred to me. It was a special place for people in positions of power for hundreds and quite possibly thousands of years. And over the past week, I have been gripped in my research, uncovering how this place has played an important role in the history of Christianity in Britain.
It wasn’t easy for the Christians to bring their faith to our lands in the first instance. Brian Bates speaks of this in his classic book The Way of the Wyrd: Teachings for today from our ancient past, which Jason and I draw from in our teachings within our School. Brian Bates is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Sussex and is interested in the mind of our ancestors as a way of bettering humanity today. He had a theory that in all countries across the world, the native people had an earth-based spirituality prior to religion.
To find what that ancient belief system here in Britain was, Bates initially looked to the spiritual practices of Wicca and Druidry, but found they didn’t date back far enough. After much searching, he came across an Anglo-Saxon spell book hidden in the archives of the British Library. It was written in the 9th Century by the earliest monk settlers, who collected and documented information as a pre-curser to converting the natives.
The native people of England were a tough nation to conquer because of their deep-rooted, earth-based spiritual beliefs. To help in their endeavours to conquer England, the Christian Church sent over monks in order to understand the spirituality of the natives. If the Church could understand the spiritual beliefs of the natives, they could work out ways to convert people to Christianity. Once people had converted to Christianity, the Church had control over them. Bates has written an excellent fictionalised account of this story in his book The Way of the Wyrd: Tales of an Anglo-Saxon Sorcerer if you would like to read more about this.
In Anglo-Saxon times there wasn’t an ‘England’ as such. The land that makes up England was ruled by a number of kings. It was a period of instability, with intertribal warfare that was settled temporarily by King Edwin of Northumberland becoming head of a confederation of English kings. Every part of England was represented apart from the southeast corner of England, which was known then as it is now, Kent.
I have already mentioned that the King of Kent, King Æthelberht was a Christian. He was the first king to convert to Christianity. He had a daughter who I have also already mentioned, Æthelburga, who was also a Christian.
The power-hungry King Edwin wanted to marry Æthelburga so that he would have control over the whole of England. However, the leaders of Kent deemed it unfit that their Christian princess should marry a pagan. And so, one of the conditions of the marriage was that King Edwin converted to Christianity.
So, Edwin converted to Christianity but the renunciation of his indigenous faith proved to be his downfall. Edwin removed his shaman advisors and appointed in their place a Christian bishop. He requested that the people of Northumbria should all become Christian, and mass baptisms took place in the rivers, although it is unlikely that anyone took the ritual seriously. It came to a sticky end for King Edwin, for reasons that we explain in the Animal Spirit Guide course in our Mystery School.
One can only imagine the conversations that took place in Ford Palace at this time. After the death of King Edwin, Queen Æthelburga returned to Kent, and it is thought she may have taken up residency at Ford Palace, in part because of the well that is named after her here.
Here in Ford, this was the first land to hold people who converted across to Christianity. This land also had a major place in the growth of Christianity.
I have mentioned that Ford Palace was the favourite home of many of the Archbishops of Canterbury. One of these Archbishops was Cranmer, who was the Archbishop to Henry VIII. Amongst many things he was known for, he was the man who made it possible for Henry VIII to marry more than once. He was a powerful man, and it was his work that led to the creation of the Church of England and the breaking away from the Catholic Church governed in Rome.
Cranmer had several palaces, including Lambeth Palace in London, which is still the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury nowadays. However, he used Ford Palace as his retreat home, and it was here that several significant events in religious history happened that are still in play today.
It was here at Ford Palace that Cranmer completed the articles that were to form the basis of the Church of England. It was also here that one of the first translations of the Bible from Latin to English was presented, which forms the basis of the King James Bible which is the one used today by the Church of England.
It blows my mind to think that one of the first bibles written in English was presented here, and that the articles that form the basis of the Church of England were worked on here.
All of this happened on my doorstep, in my special place, and I never knew!
The land speaks
Of course, this could all be just synchronicity: the message I heard, the powerhouse of this land, the place of my axis mundi, this all leading to the Mystery School. However, as Einstein said: ‘synchronicity is God’s way of staying anonymous.’
I believe the land spoke to me that day when I was sixteen. I believe it continues to speak to me as I journey from this place regularly as a core part of my spiritual practice.
There is something very powerful about ‘place’, something that is here for us to relearn.
It is important to Jason and I that we draw on the old ways of our land, our traditions. Shamanism is often seen as learning another cultures’ spiritual tradition, such as Native American Shamanism, or Peruvian Shamanism. Our view is that these traditions belong to those people. They have the plants and animals woven into their practices that are native to their land.
Here in the UK, prior to Christianity, there was an indigenous spiritual practice here, in our country. This is what we teach through our Mystery School. The Mystery School is the place to come to when you want to learn the shamanism of our land, and we give equal weight to seeking our spiritual guidance from nature, and from the spirit realms.
The old ways were forbidden and the lineage broken, however, there are many clues as to how our distant ancestors connected and worked with the spiritual realms and with nature. This includes folklore, the old legends and myths and the laws used to ban earth-based spiritual practices. There are also many old Celtic traditions that are still practised in Ireland and Scotland today that we can draw from. We go into detail within each of our Foundation courses as to the evidence we have for the practices that we teach here in the School.
And there is of course shamanic journeying. We can journey to our spirit guides and ask them anything we need to know. The linage of our ancient spirituality here in the Western world might have been shattered, but it is still there to reclaim back. When I work on creating materials for The Mystery School, I journey from my axis mundi located here in this sacred land. It feels kind of powerful that I too, am drawing on the energy of this special and powerful place to claim back what was taken from us all those centuries ago.
Temporarily closing our doors
Why have I chosen to share this story today? Well, firstly, writing all of this down has helped me solidify it all in my mind. And this revelation has been deeply profound for me, and I just had to share it.
But more than that, it is because I stand by why I think it is so important that we learn the old ways of our ancestors before Christianity took hold. This was the first land to hold people who converted across to Christianity. This land had a major place in the growth of Christianity. It was the home to the most powerful Christian people in our country, spanning hundreds of years.
It kind of feels a bit like a revolution that I am here now, connecting in with this land, guided by the voice of this land and reclaiming what was taken from us, and teaching this through The Mystery School.
I was guided to this point by spending time in nature, and listening to the quiet force rise up from within. Can the earth spirituality path be as simple as making the space to be still enough, long enough to hear the quiet voices? I believe it can. In the introductory paragraphs to his book The Power of Place, James Swan agrees with this, saying:
‘Have we as a species lost our need to be environmentally aware as we have become ‘civilised’? It seems for a while that we no longer needed to listen to the gentle, soft voices of nature which come to us at special places.’ (p5)
Our world is a busy one. Life is busy. But just a little time in nature, a little time set aside to connect in with the spirit realm gives a huge payback.
The Mystery School is set up so our members can dip in and out. There isn’t the need to put aside days of committed time to attend physical workshops. If someone has time to scroll through their facebook feed or watch Netflix, then I believe they have time to create a nature-based spiritual practice.
Next week we are closing our Mystery School doors for a while. Why? Because we are revamping. It’s been a long time coming and we've done a lot of behind-the-scenes work, but we are now ready to move over to a new platform. We have over one hundred hours of live recordings and seven pre-recorded courses, all about teaching the old ways: the spirituality of our indigenous ancestors, prior to religion taking hold.
So, at midnight on Wednesday 2nd June, we will close our doors for a while. This will give us time to get organised ready for opening the doors to our new School later this summer.
If you are thinking of joining us, then now might be a good time. And you'll jump in before the price increases. Once we close the doors, there will be a bit of a wait before you can enrol again.
So, come and join us if you are drawn to. We would love to welcome you in on the other side of our doors.
Also, do leave a comment at the bottom of the blog. We would love to hear your thoughts.
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Bates, B., 1996, The Wisdom of the Wyrd: Teachings for today from our ancient past, Ebury Press, London
Bates, B., 2004, The Way of the Wyrd: Tales of an Anglo-Saxon Sorcerer, Hay House Publishing, UK
Bennett, B.J., 2017, Ford Manor, Kent Archaeological Society
Broadhurst, P, 1988, Secret Shrines, Mythos Press, Launcesto,
Gough, H., 2017, The Archbishop’s Manor at Ford, Hoath, Kent Archaeological Society
Silva, F., 2011, Legacy of the Gods: The Origin of Sacred Sites and the Rebirth of Ancient Wisdom, Hampton Roads Publishing Company Inc., Charlottesville
Swan, J.A., 1993, The Power of Place: Sacred Ground in Natural and Human Environments, Gateway Books, Bath