Monday 20 November 2023

Somerset Spirituality in the late 20th century

Although born in Devon; I spent all my school years living in a village in north Somerset. But, because I was (mostly) a rationalistic atheist, I was almost unaware that during this time, as well as for some time afterwards, Somerset was a centre for some of the best exponents of spiritual (including Christian) thinking - several of whom lay within a bicycle ride of my own house. 

Somerset was indeed the residence of several people who since become some of my most important spiritual mentors.  

Mostly, this Christian spirituality was a subset of the fact that (outside of London) the main place for New Age thinking was (as described by historian of paganism Ronald Hutton - who has himself been at Bristol University since 1981) an isosceles triangle with its base cornered by Bristol and Bath, and its point at Glastonbury. 

My lack of interest in this kind of thing - at the time - is evidenced by the fact that I did not visit Glastonbury until after I had left school, and the family was was just about to move to Scotland!

Nonetheless; I believe that spiritual influences of place do have an effect; sometimes all the more powerful for being latent and unacknowledged; and in later life these influences began to pile-in upon me. 

Terry Pratchett (among other things) wrote superbly on aspects of Southern English folklore; and he was living not far away in in tiny Mendip village of Rowberrow, practicing "self-sufficiency", beginning his publishing career, and absorbing the same Electric Folk influences (especially Steeleye Span with their interest in supernatural ballads) that so much dominated my teenage years. 

John Michell - Christian Platonist and Geomancer - was another inhabitant of this region; living in Bath; which city also housed (for a while) our-very-own William Wildblood

Then there was Geoffrey Ashe. He was the only one of these people of whom I was aware at the time; because he was well known as an advocate of South Cadbury Hill Fort as the location of King Arthur's "Camelot". I even visited this impressive earthwork one gloomy Sunday afternoon with my Dad, and felt some of the site's presence. 

William Arkle actually lived in Backwell, the same village as myself ; albeit up on top of Backwell Hill. I knew nothing about him until a few months before I left school, when there was a local BBC TV documentary programme about him. I was intrigued, and tried (without success) to find out more; but was put off making contact by my reflective anti-Christianity (in the programme he talked about God in a manner that I found off-putting). I could very easily have visited and met him - especially since my sister knew the family to talk to, via an interest in ponies - but I didn't...

Another Glastonbury resident in his later life (and a frequent visiter to nearby Winscombe as a child) was Stanley Messenger, an unusually thoughtful and independent-minded Anthroposophist. 

[See note added]

All of the above people have, in different ways and to various degrees, been important to me in my spiritual life and development. All have significant Somerset connections, and all (except Stanley M, I think) overlapped with my residence of the county, and were indeed situated nearby. 

This now strikes me as quite remarkable - because the above names constitute a large proportion of the authors, thinkers, lecturers - learning from whom has led me to where I am now. 

Clearly, Somerset set its mark upon me; and that influence has continued to grow in the 45-plus years since I moved away.  

Note added 5th December 2023: I have just discovered that the folk musician Bob Stewart (expert Psaltery player) and scholar of folk mythology (Where is St George? - recommended!) was living in Bristol and Bath from the late 1960s and into the 1980s. He later went on - renamed RJ Stewart - to become associated with Gareth Knight, a prolific and influential author of books on ritual magic, and workshop leader. 

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