Home to many different types of ancient housing, Butser farm hosts a multitude of traditional events over the year, including the Celtic festivals of Beltain, Lammas and Samhain. In 2019, I visited their biggest festival of Beltain to welcome the arrival of Summer, with the spectacular finale of a giant Wicker Man being burnt.
Butser Ancient Farm, on the Hampshire/Sussex border, was set up by experimental archaeologists to test their theories of life and construction in ancient Britain. With an assortment of Iron Age, Stone Age, Roman and Saxon houses, the farm hosts many events connected with the past. Each year they celebrate the Celtic festivals of Lammas, Imbolc and Samhain, but by far the biggest is its Beltain Festival, held at the start of May each year and which acts as a fundraiser for this non-profit educational farm.
THE ANCIENT FESTIVAL OF BELTAIN
Beltain festival is the Celtic May Day festival, usually held around the 1st of the month. The earliest written records show it practised in Ireland in 908AD, with several references over subsequent years up until the 19th century.
The Gaelic year was divided into two significant parts, summer (from around the 1st May) and winter (1st November), with the Eve before each being a crossover time when the boundaries between human and supernatural were removed, witches and faeries roamed freely and rituals were required to remove their enchantments as well as augur growth for the coming season.
At Beltain, cattle were often driven between two fires as they were led out, to protect them from disease, with the fires built by druids and deemed to have protective properties. People would rekindle their home fires with embers from the Beltain bonfires and a huge feast would be held.
The practice died out by the end of the 19th century, but was revived in the mid-20th century by Neopagans and Wiccans who have adapted the festival and merged it with other May Day celebrations.
Butser Farm is one of these smaller and more traditional events, although with so much mythology and variety surrounding the festival, it is impossible for any of them to be considered as entirely accurate.
BELTAIN AT BUTSER
We arrived at the festival not really knowing quite where to go or what to expect. Fortunately it had been really easy to find as it was well signposted from the main road, and there were stewards to guide us to a parking spot. We joined the throng of people all heading down to the farm on stony paths through fields of brilliant yellow oilseed and joined the good natured queue at the bottom.
After having our tickets checked, we were in the farm. The first thing that struck me was a just how beautiful the location is – at the bottom of a valley with a steep hill on one side that shelters the buildings, opening up to fields and woodland as far as the eye can see on the other.
Dotted around are assorted roundhouses with their thatched roofs glowing in the sunshine, the smell of wood smoke in the air and the sound of birds chirping above the chatter of the crowd. We watched as a pheasant peacefully pecked around in a nearby field.
Our first port of call was to see the Wicker Man before it was reduced to ashes. The farm makes a different style each year, having had a Roman and a Saxon warrior amongst others, but this year was intended to be a mysterious hooded figure to represent a traveller on a journey which also intentionally resembled a Star Wars character, with their Beltain festival falling on the 4th May (May the 4th be with you…).
The Wicker Man having wishes tied to his legs
It was started three months earlier when two 50ft cedar trees were felled to make the main structure. Dragged by hand and bound with sisal rope, these were winched upright, placed into 3ft deep holes and then with a combination of scaffolding and a lot of courage, the 35 foot Wicker Man was assembled, taking over 600 hours to build in total.
It was very impressive, my children couldn’t believe how tall and imposing it was, I think they had been expecting something life size. Over the next few hours, people would arrive with their wishes written on little scraps of paper, bound with red or blue string, and tie them to the legs of the Wicker Man.
The festival started at 4pm, and the Wicker Man didn’t get lit until about 9pm, so we had a few hours in which to visit the rest of the site. There was a lot on offer with live music and demonstrations and activities, but we spent quite a while just people watching.
There was a fascinating and eclectic mix of festival goers. Many were in period dress, with a lot of Saxon capes, Celtic dresses, pagans, Steampunk outfits, Morris dancers, and Romans, all mixed with people in their sensible walking boots and waterproof hats (we went through every type of weather that night from bright sunshine, heavy rain and even hail on our way there).
There were many faces painted blue, in homage to the Celtic tradition of warriors painting their faces with blue woad before going into battle, and even though there are academic doubts about the veracity of this, it is still a popularly held belief and lent an air of festivity to the event.
We explored each and every roundhouse and I was amazed at how good they were. Each one is a different type, from a different era and location, and many were kitted out as accurately as archaeologists can know.
We watched a Celtic harp demonstration taking place here, people sitting in large circles around the open fire in the semi darkness, with the only light coming in from the door and the fire. It was really interesting and a very peaceful experience to sit there listening to ancient music in front of the fire of such an impressive archaeological reconstruction.
Outside, there was a small stage set up and several different types of music over the evening for people sitting on the grass enjoying food and drink. There was an excellent folk band playing ‘Olde’ English songs but my particular favourite was the drumming group, the Pentacle Drummers.
The fantastic Pentacle Drummers keeping the crowds entertained
Earlier in the festival I had popped in to look at their drumming workshop coming from one of the Iron Age houses, and had walked into that small mud bricked room to be amazed by the sheer volume and intensity as drummers and visitors all crammed together and pounded out a beat that echoed through the rafters.
Now in their performance in front of the stage, I could see them more clearly, all dressed in a livery of red and green tatter coats with painted faces, hats adorned with antlers, feathers, flowers and more; they kept the audience spellbound for some time as they beat out rhythms in perfect time. It was loud, mesmerising and kept me utterly captivated.
Just chilling in the Saxon Longhouse
There is an Anglo-Saxon longhouse at the farm, an immaculate recreation based on excavations from the nearby village of Charlton. Made from oak, chestnut and hazel from local woodlands, the roof panelled with wattle hurdles and thatched and with everything hewn by hand rather than machine, it was a very beautiful building.
We visited the house, walking through Saxon warriors milling around outside and with several sitting around the open fire inside chatting. The hut was lit by a huge shaft of sunlight coming in from a gap at the top of the roof, and the smoke drifted lazily through it. It was quite a surreal experience, sitting unobtrusively in a Saxon longhouse surrounded by Saxons just going about their day.
We later watched the Saxons fighting in one of the fields. As their leader said at the start, they knew that Beltain was a Celtic festival, and the Saxons came along much later, but they thought they’d come along for a fight anyway. It was highly entertaining; with the Saxons taking it in turns to have a jolly good battle as the crowds lined the edges and cheered them on.
There were demonstrations of flint napping done by an archaeologist in Neolithic clothing (well, except for the walking boots), stalls selling jewellery, pottery and more all made by traditional methods, enough to entice anyone archaeologically minded. There was axe throwing, which we didn’t try, and learning to fight like warriors for kids, there was even Star Wars battles for kids once dusk started creeping in, their glowing lightsabers luminous in the dark.
We watched authentic cookery over an outdoor fire with strips of meat drying in the smoke. There were demonstrations of metalwork, leather-work, weaving and spinning, with stalls where you could make May Day garlands which soon many people were wearing around their heads.
The blue sky was interrupted by a huge rain shower and so we took shelter in the Great Roundhouse with crowds of us around the open fire just chatting and drinking mead and ale (or fizzy drinks in the case of my kids). The wood smoke writhed through the crowd leaving trails as more wet people came in to join the throng. It was rather lovely to join this crowd of cloak clad strangers chatting around the fire of a Neolithic gathering house while we all waited out the rain.
The sun eventually reappeared and after grabbing a hot chocolate and something to eat from one of the food stalls, we joined the people slowly started making their way towards the Wickerman enclosure. Dark was rapidly approaching and people were choosing the best spots to watch the showpiece. A path was cleared through the crowd for the assorted warriors and Pentacle Drummers to make their way into the enclosure, drums beating in time as they lined the small hill either side of the Wickerman.
There had been a raffle earlier in the evening to win the chance to light the fire, and the lucky winner approached with a flaming staff to light it up.
It took him two goes but eventually the Wicker Man was alight and went up with astonishing speed as the crowd cheered, the drums beat louder and louder and we all stood engrossed watching the flames leap higher and higher up the giant burning spectacle in front of us.
It was pitch black by now and very cold, but we were all suffused in the light and heat from the Wicker Man, listening to the rhythm, watching the silhouettes of the drummers and Saxons against the bright light of the fire.
It was a wonderful spectacle and one I will never forget, a truly intense and primal experience.
As the flames slowly died down, the crowds gently drifted away back through the quiet fields, listening to the hooting of owls and scuttling of nocturnal animals, to find their cars and join the usual slow exit from the car park.
There were cries in the air of ‘See you next Beltain,’ as people packed away their cloaks and swords into car boots and drove off into the dark night, the wood smoke lingering for hours on our clothes long after the Wicker Man was gone.
Useful Tips for going to Beltain
The festival is very child friendly, with plenty of activiti