by Damh the Bard and Cursuswalker ~
It was Samhain 2001 when I drove past the Long Man of Wilmington and saw that he was looking very grey. So as I drove, I began to think….which is always a bad move because when I start to think things tend to start happening…
The November meeting of the Anderida Grove is where we sit down, discuss how we have experienced the past year, and to plan what we are going to do during the next. It was here that I voiced my thoughts about the Long Man. We had been using the site for our Anderida Open Gorseddau since March 2000. I said that I’d noticed the dimming outline, so how about the Grove approaching the Sussex Archaeological Society (who own the figure) and asking if they would like us to do the painting? Well, needless to say the idea was received with great enthusiasm. Janel already had a contact at the society so she said she would contact him the next day.
Over the next 6 months various circumstances made it obvious that the painting would not take place in 2001. Janel did contact the society, but there were ‘political’ considerations about who should paint it. The Long Man Morris had painted the figure 4 years earlier, and the situation had to be handled very delicately. So the Grove waited, having set a date in September to do the painting, the date got closer and closer, but the total commitment we needed wasn’t yet forthcoming from the society. As time passed, people arranged things for the weekend we had set aside, and finally the date passed. However, in the meantime the most extraordinary thing happened. A group of people had actually painted the Long Man whilst our contact at the society was away on holiday! But they had used regular paint, and we all knew that it would be washed away by the Summer of 2003. So our plan continued.
At the planning meeting of November 2002…..things were progressing, and we set three dates for the painting, one for 1st June and the others in July. The project slipped into the background, but continued to progress nicely. OBOD agreed to donate funds for the project, buying the paint and brushes, the South Downs rangers went to the site and strimmed the grass two weeks before the 1st June date, momentum for the day shifted into top gear as we began to take the names of those who would be there to help (we were allowed not more than 15 people on the Long Man at any one time). Then, the 1st June arrived, and as I looked out at the grey clouds on that morning, I wondered what the day would bring……… .and for this I hand over to Cursuswalker, one of the Anderida Grove, to tell of the day itself…..
Well today was different. A while ago my Grove was granted permission to paint the Long Man of Wilmington, here in Sussex. We had three dates reserved for this, in case of inclement weather, and today was the first.
As I arrived at the car-park in Wilmington it was raining. In a circle stood a group of despondent Druids in raincoats looking at the sky. Opinions were swapped and we were all asked to ‘speak our truth’ as to whether or not we would be insane to attempt to paint the Long Man in such weather. One good point made was ‘Would you paint your house in this kind of weather?’ I suspect we all knew the answer was no. We walked up to the Long Man for a recce, the rain steadily drizzling down upon us. We all went onto the figure for the first time, unable to resist the opportunity given to us.
While on the figure a brief ritual took place that I will not detail here. Suffice to say that I thank all those who took part from the bottom of my heart. I will always remember those moments as long as I live.
Eventually, myself and another Druid (Chris who appeared on ‘Living in the Iron Age’ a couple of years ago as it happens) painted a test slab. At this point I should explain that the Long Man is not a normal chalk hill-figure. When the original figure faded in Victorian times, the shape was outlined on bricks, which were replaced in the sixties by concrete slabs. None of what you see is chalk, though it all overlays a genuine, and very mysterious, figure. Allegedly the Victorians turned his left foot so that it faced East, due to not being able to trace it accurately close up. Other than that it is thought to be accurate.
Having painted the test slab we all did the druidic thing and went down the pub, the very lovely Giant’s Rest in Wilmington, in order to drown our sorrows, as we all knew it wasn’t going to happen now. The test slab was clearly brighter than the rest of the figure, even from a mile away, which was even more frustrating.A few people left, understandably, and we settled down to good chatter and a warm pub.
Suddenly it was pointed out that the skies were brightening and a frissant of hope swept through the company. People could be heard saying such things as ‘Shall we…?’ and ‘..bloody insane..’. A thunderstorm was still forecast for later on in the afternoon. If we were to do this we would have to lug 40 litres of white paint up to the base of the figure, then paint it, allegedly a four hour job, then allow AT LEAST an hour for it to dry. Again we all spoke our truth. Many thought we would actually now be certifiable to try and get it done with the forecast as it was, yet one could sense that this was actually now on the cards.
Suddenly we were off. All the careful planning went out of the window. We dashed back up to the car-park in our cars. Paint, buckets and brushes were unloaded and we marched off once again to the base of the figure. All thoughts of a leisurely afternoon quaffing mead, picnicking and then sauntering onto the figure to do another bit from time to time were now abandoned. Before we knew it we were puffing up the figure with paint filled buckets, nervously eying the sky and noting ominously that the test slab was now completely washed clean by the rain of an hour before. The nightmare image of the newly painted Long Man washed clean in the rain was ever present.
By the time I reached the top of the left stave I was doing that kind of exhausted breathing where you actually have to moan in order to get the air out fast enough. I also felt sick. I flopped down next to the top slab and set to work.‘Paint it on thin, so it dries quicker!’ came the cry from below from Damh the Bard, a paint brush in his hand and a manic look in his eye.‘If we get away with this it will be wonderful, if we don’t….embarrassing.’ I commented, half to myself. But then again, isn’t that the essence of all true endeavour?And so it began. The Sun came out, we felt hope. It went back in. We painted like furies.A serious rain storm skirted west a few miles north of us. We painted even faster.Dark, dark clouds suddenly appeared overhead from the south. Yet still there was no rain.The Sun came back out. We chilled a little.It went back in. We sped up again.Two other members of the Grove turned up, arriving breathless to tell us that the figure looked great from the road, and that they could see the progress we were making as they drove to Wilmington.
Slowly the jokes started to come about who should paint his groin and where we should put the Big Brother logo (I have a few ideas on that one and they don’t include the Long Man). Slowly, slowly we realised that shouts of ‘Which bit needs doing now?’ were being met with no reply.We had done it.Ten of us.Joined later by two more.In an hour.
We slowly congregated in the Long Man’s head (where else?), in time to see another member of the grove arrive, amazed at the sight of our completed work. The reluctance to leave the enclosure of this hill-figure was palpable.
Eventually myself and Chris went to the top of the hill to see the amazing barrows above the Long Man. Then it was back down the hill onto the Gorsedd Mound formed from the spoil of the chalk pit next to the figure, and time to picnic and hope for no rain for at least an hour.
We got our hour’s drying time.
If we had left it any longer it would not have been enough. The Gods granted us two and a half hours, half an hour to get up to the figure again, an hour to paint it, and an hour for it to dry.
So now we will all have to carry out the libations we promised to if we were granted such a miracle, in my case THREE bottles of Dorset Ginger. But I will do this with joy and (slightly whimpering) gladness.
The heavens opened and we set off back to the car park. The thunder started as we noticed two idiots at the top of the figure, testing the paint. We screamed at them to get the **** off it at a distance at which they could not have heard us.They got the **** off.
I realised I had left my blowing horn in the grass at the foot of the Long Man and had to return to the figure for a third time, probably worrying the idiots that I was going there to have a go (Moi?).
We got to the pub.We chilled.We looked at each other and laughed from time to time.It was wonderful.Later we saw that the paint had stayed right where we put it through torrential rain.
This evening we all met up, freshly scrubbed, at a restaurant, and ate together as only those who have shared a common challenge can.For the next four years, with any luck, every bit of the Long Man that you can actually see is courtesy of the Anderida Grove and the Avronelle Seedgroup of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.
I can’t help ending with this. My bits are (From the long Man’s point of view, assuming he is facing north): His left stave, from the top to his left hand;the bottom of his left hand to his elbow; the top few stones of his left inner thigh; the base of his left foot and his crotch!
One Sunday in June we woke up early, jumped out of bed
The painting of the Longman that`s all that was in our heads
Met in the car park the usual place with hugs and joy around
And the rain fell silently and gently to the ground
Never the less, Anderida they went to do this task
Up on the hill they waited and to the God`s they asked
All hope faded as the clouds were still so dark and grey
‘ Okay’, they said ‘A trial run, we`ll make another day’
So silently we descended down and all felt sad and distant
But Damh he was determined on the hill he was persistent
In the Giant`s Rest we sat and drank and laughed and spoke
And then the skies above us the clouds the God`s had broke
And Damh was pacing out the door with a faraway look in his eye
Like a caged animal he moved and he looked up to the sky
Later that day the ten plus two set about the chore
And the Long Man of Wilmington is bright and white once more
I’m sorry that we missed the job and returned early home that day
For it would have been so magical to have spent our time that way
I later heard of all the sweat, toil and effort you all gave
You need congratulating for being persistent, mighty and brave
Poem by Fiona Tamplin